Mojo Magazine
October 2004


Over the past 20 years Mark Lanegan has survived addiction, incarceration and bizarre tractor accidents to bring you his ghostly baroque blues. "Things got a little trippy" he tells Keith Cameron.

MARK LANEGAN HAS JUST PUT THE unfiltered Camel to his lips when there's a knock at the door. It's his UK record company's PR. "I got them!" she says. Lanegan gratefully takes the package, pushes out two tablets from their foil wrap and into his mouth. "Pepcid," he nods. "Best antacids in the world. He lights his cigarette, studying the book of matches as he does so. The custom here in California maintains that the outer flap is a miniature advertising space, sold to an organisation mindful of reaching ist optimum demographic. It reads: HOLLYWOOD BAIL BONDS. Lanegan gives a phlegmy chuckle. "Hope I won't be needing these guys today. Still," he says, slipping the book into his coat pocket with a wink, "you never know."

Life has taught Mark Lanegan to expect the unexpected. His new album opens with a song titled When Your Number Isn't Up - "because," says Mark, "there have been plenty times when I thought it was. Probably plenty people out there who'll tell you it should've been, too." In 1984, while working as a mechanic's assistant on a pea farm in eastern Washington, he was run over by a tractor. His own tractor. As we shall see, when you're Mark Lanegan such random quirks of fate invariably dictate entire chapters of one's life. You'll join a band as a drummer, then because your drumming is so bad you're ordered to switch to lead vocals. The band is called the Screaming Trees: it's the baby of two brothers who proceed to brawl their way through 15 years and seven albums of big-bottomed, mystical hard rock, with you throwing the occasional low blow for good measure. Come the early '90s, in the wake of the commercial tsunami wrought by your friends Nirvana, the Trees seem permanently poised on the verge of a breakthrough that never happens. Meantime, you're making solo records that receive far greater acclaim than your band's. They're calling you a genius, the "grunge Leonard Cohen" and such-like. Then things get really twisted. Your friends are dying seemingly at a rate of one every other week. In 1997 you get arrested on tour for possession of crack - quite literally rock bottom. But you find salvation and a kind of redemption in the Californian desert. You join your friend Josh's band, Queens Of The Stone Age, finding yourself in the unaccustomed role of sobering influence. All the while, you keep making your own records, cutting deals here, pulling favours there, looking no further forward than the next bend in the road, just hoping to see this through to another day.

Until his close encounter with Massey Ferguson's finest, the 20-year-old Mark Lanegan's life read like an archetype of smalltown indolence: dysfunctional family, in and out of jail for petty thieving and drug-dealing, at 18 receiving a prison sentence for drug possession, which was deferred by undergoing a year's drug treatment programme. It was this, he reflects, that sounded the final death knell for what had been a promising high school sports career. "Baseball was my thing. I was also a football player, which I didn't enjoy. I think I threw the most interceptions in the shortest period of time in the history of our school."

Compared to the relative metropolis of Seattle, 130 miles to the north-west, Ellensburg is Hicksville, population 20,000, situated on the 'dry' side of the Cascade Mountains in the Yakima river valley. The main local industries are farming and logging. Median household income is significantly below the Washington state average, while unemployment is significantly above. As a student at Ellensburg High, Mark Lanegan befriended Van Conner, a quietly spoken boy-man-mountain who played in a covers band with his brother Gary Lee and, almost uniquely amid Ellensburg's conservative denizens, shared Mark's enthusiasm for punk rock. Following his deferred prosecution, the Conners' parents gave Mark a job repossessing rented electrical goods. "Washingmachines, TV sets, VCRs," he says. "If people didn't make the payments I was to go get the item back. From people who a lot of times didn't want to give it back. I was bigger physically then, and kind of scary, and relied on that a lot more than skill."

Enthralled by a picture of The Stooges in an old copy of Creem, the 12-year-old Mark Lanegan had celebrated entering junior high school by trading his collection of comic books for a slew of imported punk singles that somehow made it to Ellensburg. These records - by the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Stranglers, and Mark's personal favourite, Where Have All The Bootboys Gone by Slaughter And The Dogs - told this troubled teen he was not alone. "When I heard Anarchy In The UK it suddenly all made sense. I knew who I was." Eight years later, as he worked on the combine harvesters and tractors, Mark Lanegan knew 'no future' when he saw it. Resolved to quit his life in the Northwest, he arrived for his last day in the fields. His bag was packed, ready for a motorcycle ride to Las Vegas, where he would work for his cousin and make a new start. Then destiny, in the shape of that bizarre farming accident, intervened.

Busy filling the water tank at the back of the tractor, Mark was hidden from the view of his boss, who climbed into the cab and turned the ignition, blissfully unaware of Mark's presence. Knocked to the ground, Lanegan looked up to see the tractor bearing towards one of the more vital and vulnerable areas of a man's anatomy.

"It was coming right for my balls," he says. "The thing about the wheels is they're so big, by the time one foot would get loose and I would roll over trying to get away, the other one would already be caught under the tyre. Man, to this day it seems like it took a million years to get all the way over me, but it really must have just took a couple of seconds. It crushed my legs, fucked them up pretty good.

"After that, I couldn't ride my motorcycle. So I lent it to Van Conner. My girlfriend left me around that time too (laughs), so he would come by and bring me food,'cos I couldn't walk, and I let him use my motorcycle. One day he came back without it. He totalled my bike. So now I didn't have any wheels. That's how come I ended up being in the Screaming Trees. Two months later we made our first record." He sighs. "God's got some funny plans..."

SCREAMING TREES PLAYED THEIR final gig on June 25, 2000, at the inauguration of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. That they'd stuck around long enough to contribute to the fanfare for this ultramodern Frank Gehry-designed interactive music museum was one of the unlikelier postscripts to the '90s Seattle rock revolution. The Trees were the Seattle scene's perennial nearly-men, undone by the group's fractious and contradictory internal dynamics, prominent among which the fact that not until their sixth album - 1992's Sweet Oblivion - did the singer, Lanegan, write all the lyrics. More notorious factors were the pugilistic tendencies of the Conner brothers, and Lanegan's relationship with drugs, each of which conspired to hobble a great band with the chalice of underachievement.

"The Trees was four complete nuts," says Mark. "We didn't have a damn thing in common except insanity. So we fought a lot. And we had two brothers, who fought like brothers. Only they were huge. Oh God, I can remember so many things. We made a rule that no girlfriends or wives could ride with us. But none of us had a girlfriend and only one of us had a wife. So he Van Conner felt a little discriminated against. And maybe he was. So he quit for a year and a half. And when he came back, the very first show back, I was walking off while the show was still going, like I usually did, and I heard a commotion that sounded not like your usual applause. I came back out and there he was beating the shit out of Lee Conner, on-stage. (Sighs) It was like prison. Without the sex."

Parallel to the Trees, Lanegan embarked upon a series of acoustic records. Liberated from having to find a space amid the Conners' grandiloquent psychedelic tapestries, he found his true voice - deep, brooding, sorrowful, like Johnny Cash's wayward younger cousin, stained by nicotine and evidently other, rather more illicit, substances. His second solo album, 1993's masterful Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, was intended by Lanegan and his co-writer Mike Johnson to be made in three days. Instead it took four years, a tortuous exercise dictated both by the Trees' touring commitments and Lanegan's heroin addiction. "I lost my mind on it," he says. "Then I proceeded to not get anything done for several years after that." In the wake of Whiskey... Mark lost many friends to drug-related deaths, most infamously Kurt Cobain (the pair's shared love of Leadbelly prompted the cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night on Lanegan's solo debut, The Winding Sheet, subsequently covered, defini- tively, by Cobain himself). In 1996, the Screaming Trees released what would be their last album, Dust. Its songs were populated by deathly visions, religious imagery and intima- tions of mortality. "All these dying days, I walk the ghost town, used to be my city," sang Lanegan. His lyrics revealed a man on the brink: "Gotta get away/Get away/Before the Lord gonna make me stay."

The third Mark Lanegan album, Scraps At Midnight, appeared in 1998, written and recorded while its author was on a three-day pass from a Californian halfway house, six weeks into an eight month process of rehab. "Something has badly gone wrong with me," he Sang on Stay. "Living's not hard, it's just not easy." It proved a decisive, life-changing event. "I didn't know how to sing any more. 'Cos I hadn't done it in long time. A lot of friends and family members came out to Joshua Tree and stayed with me while I was making it. A really, really special record. That started beating me to actually make records again."

The Mark Lanegan MOJO meets in Los Angeles upon completion of his new album, Bubblegum, and then six months later in London, is unrecognisable from the translucent-skinned spectre of yore. Brighteyed and chatty, he laughs a lot, wears his red hair short, is full of self-deprecating bonhomie, and comes over all mushy at mention of his new love: a Boston terrier called Archie ("She's the light of my life"). His friendship with Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme, forged when Homme joined Screaming Trees as a touring member during the Dust era, inducted Lanegan to the loose collective of musicians centred around the Rancho De La Luna studio in Joshua Tree, and prompted his ongoing status as a part-time QOTSA member. His perspective on the acrimonious dismissal of that band's resident berserker, Nick Oliveri, earlier this year is redolent of a reformed character, who'd been there, done that (plus a whole lot else), and fortunately lived to see another day. "It was overdue. Nick's a lovely cat but it was impossible to live with him on the road. We're all too old and work too hard to have the unpredictable nature of somebody's personality bring something we've worked so hard for to its knees. I understand what he's going through. It's not easy to be suddenly under scrutiny when you're a certain type of guy. But I was the guy who ended up being my brother's keeper, every day I had to keep some insanity from happening - when I had just signed up to sing a few songs with these guys!"

But lest we forget, this is still Mark Lanegan talking: the same Mark Lanegan who while recording Whiskey For The Holy Ghost stood on New York's Times Square dressed only in a girlfriend's kimono, with waist-length hair and a huge beard, vainly trying to hail a taxi ("Things had got a little trippy"); the same Mark Lanegan who'll still knock out a bunch of songs and sell them to publishers in order to pay a tax bill ("I'm not a guy who ever sold a shitload of records so I gotta hustle"); and the same Mark Lanegan who on returning to LA from a European interview tour prior to Bubblegum's release got himself into "a bit of trouble" and spoke to MOJO via his mobile phone from, "a - umm, how can I put this? - 'structured institutional' setting. Heheheh! But it's all good. I get to use my phone to do interviews, it can't be that bad!" Indeed.

"My ex-wife said I have several different personalities, and none of them good." This is the same ex-wife, Wendy Rae Fowler, who duets with Mark on the Bubblegum song Wedding Dress, a hilariously mordant plea for faith from an unreliable soul to his paramour ("Will you visit me where my body rests? Will you put on that long white dress? "). Presumably she appreciates and understands her ex-husband's perverse sense of humour.

"She understands it too well, that's why she's my ex! Hahaha!" Mark Lanegan laughs long, the laugh of man who's been through bleak times and then some worse. He knows to expect the unexpected. And just in case, he's got a book of matches handy in his pocket.

How to BUY... The best of Mark Lanegan, by Mark Lanegan.

Whiskey For The Holy Ghost ***** 1993.SUBPOP
We say: Devastating baroque blues arrangements burnish tales of consumption and regret from a young man old before his time. Mark says: "In some ways it added to my psychosis, that people liked it. Mike Johnson quit halfway through. I mixed it probably five times, six times, kept writing more and more songs. And the original idea, believe it or not, was to make it in three days. 'Cos me and Johnson had heard that was how long it took to make Astral Weeks. (Laughs) Three days turned into four years."
Field Songs **** 2001,BEGGARS BANQUET
We say: Magnificently rendered Americana from the badlands ofthe soul. Mark says: "I tried to make my second record again. Not a sequel to it, but the same record, from a different perspective. From the flipside. From the other side of the fence. My life in the field. One of'em I made when I was out of my mind, and this one I made when I was not. I think Field Songs is my best record."
Bubblegum **** 2004, BEGGARS BANQUET
We say: Jukebox-compatible collection of death's head hand-jives and narcotic crooning, with stellar supporting cast - Polly Harvey, Chris Goss, QOTSA. Mark says: "Everybody threw themselves at it with an enthusiasm that has been lacking on previous records. It was fun. The first record I've made where I can say I really like it."