Mean Magazine, July '01

Mark Lanegan
by Gregg Lagambina
photo by Randi Berez

It's the voice you'll notice first. It's a raspy baritone treasure that should convince the federal government to tax lozenges and celebrate the cigarette. As the singer for the late, great, Pacific Northwest quartet, Screaming Trees, Mark Lanegan carved out harrowing melodies armed with a voice that crackled like pesticide raining on wheat stalks. As a solo artist, he's been making quiet records, quietly. What was once a blazing and welcome intruder, has now been crafted into a haunt. This is spooky music-the kind of rocking chair, heavy-boot-shuffling, creaky-saloon-door whisper music that sends apparitions swirling through lonely bedrooms. Field Songs (SubPop) sounds like a link on Jacob Marley's chain, rattling and sweeping you into its own past. If history was new, this is what it would sound like.


What is a field song?
I don't know. That's a good question. I just liked the ring of it. I'm not a very clever guy.

Are you a folk singer or a rock singer?
A rock singer. I mean, I consider these rock records. Somebody asked me about contemporary folk music the other day and I know next to nothing about it. But I listen to a lot of older stuff and maybe that's where it comes from.

Your music comes across as extremely personal. Do you find that some people make too many assumptions about the kind of person you are, based on your songs?
Well, I mean, a song is not real life, for starters. That's fine with me, what somebody else thinks is none of my concern. You know, that's the way it is. I never have, personally, liked somebody's music and thought, "God, I wonder what kind of guy that person is." Usually, you just find out they're a contrary prick like me and it ruins it for you. (laughs)

"Kimiko's Dream House", from Field Songs, has a bit of an Eastern influence to it, right down to the title. It was borne out of a collaboration between yourself and the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce (Gun Club). What's the song about?
Talking about the meaning of songs is not my thing. Again, it's like titles...what it means, I wouldn't want to say. That's the beauty of it. Hopefully it means something to whoever hears it, or enjoys it. He and I had been talking about doing stuff together for many years, and finally we were in the same place at the same time. The shame of it is, it was just sort of the beginning of what we were doing. He had the title and was the one who was "eastern influenced," I should say. He died shortly after we just began doing stuff. I thought I had lost the song and the stuff we had done together, but I found it later and thought it was a good song so...

Your solo work is a lot more subdued than your work with Screaming Trees. Do you miss the sheer volume of playing with a full rock band?
My hearing is so bad, honestly, and I'm so old, that I don't miss the hoopla of a big rock show. In fact, there were many times during the course of that band that I wasn't fully excited about doing it. But that's the way it went. So, now I get all the volume that a guy needs, really.

A lot has been written about your physical altercations with the Conners from your old band. In your present situation, do you ever find yourself throwing down with Mike Johnson (Dinosaur Jr.) or Ben Shepherd (Soundgarden)?
(laughs) No. For one thing, Ben would kick my ass if I threw down with him. The altercations in my old band were mainly due to the family influence of two brothers who never became adults, but were as big as three adults.

I've read that you don't particularly enjoy performing as a solo artist, yet you're embarking on a tour.
I never really did enjoy it, with the band, or by myself. But I've changed a little bit. There's moments where it's alright. I always liked to travel. it always seemed like the hour out of the day when you're playing was kind of the drag of it. But now it's alright.

According to legend, Leadbelly would get into heated arguments about his prowess as a blues musician, a lover, and a drinker, and that these altercations often landed him in jail. Have you ever been imprisoned for boasting?
Let me think about that. I've never actually made it all the way to prison, but I've been to jail several times and I don't think it was for boasting. But many of those times, I don't really remember what got me there. So, it could very well have been for that.

You walk into a room containing a cigarette, a shot of bourbon, a naked woman, and an acoustic guitar. Which do you reach for first?
The woman and the cigarette. Actually, it depends. Maybe the former me depends on my mood, I guess. Probably not the bourbon, because then I'd just have a broken guitar and an angry woman. (laughs)

You just referred to a "former me", which would imply that you've perhaps turned a corner in the, well, "self-medication" department. What inspired the change?
I'm older. Some things you just outgrow.

Did you feel run-down physically, mentally, or both?
Well, I didn't have much of a mind left at the end of my thing. I think I still have a little bit of one left.

Has it made you more prolific?
Oh yeah. Music was just a means to an end for a long, long time. In fact, I thought it was a big pain in the ass. but now, I actually enjoy it.

What else would you have done, if not music?
I don't know. Nothing, really. I don't think I had much ambition. But now, it doesn't seem like such a bad job when it pays you. And also, I just enjoy it. I enjoy making records now. I've been doing it since I was a kid, so I don't know what else I would do.

Arguably, the centerpiece of your record is your voice. Can you play anything?
No. I've played guitar on records, if you want to call it that. I know enough chords to write a song, basically, but not really. I think that takes some sort of diligence that I lack. I'm not that interested in the instrument itself. I like it when other people play it.

Elliot Smith once said he likes to write songs on guitar while watching television with the sound off. He said his fingers end up surprising him.
That's how I come up with some of my best lyrics...I have the sound down and a movie on with subtitles.

You subconsciouly lift phrases from foreign films?
No, I'm lifting them on purpose. (laughs)

Have you seen anything good lately?
Lately? God, I haven't really. The last thing I enjoyed was a documentary on [Klaus} Kinski. That was good. I haven't had any money to go to the movies, to be honest.

No one will go to the movies with you?
Yeah, I have plenty of people to go with, but once they've fed you and put you kind of wear out your welcome if you ask them to take you to the movies too. (laughs)