|New Musical Express July 18, 1998
Seattle Coffin Company
Your starter for ten: Rain. Heroin. Coffee. Grunge. Dishevelled junkie bloke. A bit weird. Yup, it's Mark Lanegan. So this must be Seattle, right? Right.
He walks like a cowboy, long and lean. He's dressed like night and his eyes are mean. Mark lanegan is prowling downtown Seattle, chain-smoking cigarettes from between vivid orange fingers when he stops in front of a multistory car park. Yes indeed, this is the one. Time for a spot of local information.
"Saw a guy on top of that one time," he begins, darkly. Smoke.
"Threatening to jump off." Smoke.
"People down here," he gestures at the road with a smoky black sweep, "urging him on to do it."
He shrugs. What can you do?
"And over here," he says, turning on his heels and pointing back up the street, "I saw a guy going nuts in front of that store with a samurai sword." Smoke.
"They had to turn the water cannons on him to get him to drop the thing."
You quickly get the feeling that most walks with Mark Lanegan can be like this. Nothing out of the ordinary and then a descent into the macabre. This time, it's just a walk through the streets of Seattle with the Screaming Trees singer while he looks for a cup of coffee and some more cigarettes. Then there you have it. From beneath the facade of clean air and sunny day emerges The Dark Side, the perpetual night of gloom.
This is what he does best. Oh he's fine, he's fine now, but Mark has a long relationship with the dark side that he's put down on three largely acoustic albums of which he says the latest is "probably the happiest". It's called Scraps At Midnight and is not noticably more mirthful.
But what can you do? What you do is ignore the dark side and just keep on going.
"Was down at the beach one day," he begins.
We're at lunch by the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Nice day, great food, and then there it is again.
"A real cold day and me and my friend are down there. Drunk as shit. The guy goes swimming and he's crying it's so cold." There's laughter, as Mark continues his tale.
"Then this girl falls off the cliffs and lands dead on the rocks, right there on the beach." Smoke.
What can you do?
Today, Mark is deaf. Fifteen years in front of the Screaming Trees - heavy like Nirvana, eerie like Led Zeppelin - have done their bit for his infirmity. But there was also the earlier damage wrought by a certain Judas Priest.
"Priest was one of the greatsest shows I ever saw," Mark sighs. "In the 70's."
The 70's and early 80's were where, for Mark Lanegan, it all started to simultaneously go both wrong and right. Over the mountains from Seattle, there's Central Washington, where he went to school, periodically saw his disfunctional family and began a formal relationship with both drugs and the forces of law and order. And it was there, "on the fringe of a real fringe community", that he met future Screaming Trees guitarist Van Conner after a high school class and began talking about music.
Together they were wierdos in cattle ranching country. Van had a band with his brother Gary Lee that would play the sort of communtiy dances Mark would not attend, while Mark's quest for recreation took him both physically and metaphorically to another place. A couple of years after leaving school they ran into each other again, and Van and his family began to help Mark break free from the dark side's clutches.
"I was sort of down on my luck," Mark says, sucking down a cup of coffee. "I'd been round the block a few times already. Been to jail and all that shit, been in trouble. Got sentenced to a year in prison when I was 18, but I got deferred prosecution and I ended up doing a whole year of drug treatment instead. So instead of doing my sentence, I made it through the system in another way.
"I had just quit drinking for the first time when I met up with those guys. Their parents gave me a place to live, and food, and a job because I didn't really have anything at that point. I'd burned it all through a series of...events."
The Conner family owned an electrical goods store and they gave Mark a job repossesing television sets and microwaves from the local trailer parks. Out he went, reclaiming their toasters.
"I'd go out there, get guns pulled on me, and take their shit away.," Mark nods.
He puts down his coffee. Getting guns pulled on you by defaulting customers might have been bad. But getting guns pulled on you by policemen was infintely worse.
He shrugs. This he does frequently because he's not one to overanalyse a situation; doesn't like to over-burden the facts with too much pondering. When he was young, he got into trouble because that's what kids do. He had problems but so did everyone else. You can't regret it because you wouldn't be who you are.
What can you do?
"When I was a kid," he says, "I had a propensity for things...I shouldn't have. Some people are just that way."
By day, he gets bitten by dogs. By night, Gary Lee Conner is teaching him to sing, a line at a time.
"My life really changed around then," says mark. "Those guys are my family. That's how it went down."
The story of Mark's life is one involving a lot of change, and a lot of changing back. He's changed a lot right now: the hair shorter; the ability to stay awake more acute; the ever-present and watchful eye of John, his tour manager, there to keep him entertained.
This time it seems he'll stay changed. He's moved out of Seattle ( Northwest capitol of coffee, rain, and heroin) for the sunnier and more fragrent climes of Pasadena, and has embarked on the kind of productivity second nature to the newly straight musician. He has another solo album of material nearly completed; an EP of cover versions finished; a project with Peter Buck's Tuatara in the works. For someone who's band allegedy made him a Christmas present of a television set, a padlock, and a bucket (raw materials for self-supervised heroin withdrawal), Mark is currently sanguine about drugs, and the possibility of relapse.
"I went through drug treatment in September," he says. "But when I have relapsed in the past..."
"It's pretty much in my nature to throw myself wholeheratedly into everything I do. I don't do things lightly. I've relapsed with purpose. When I do go back on, I stay there for years. In the past I've made small attempts, but usually it's for quite a long time. There was a period in my twenties...but for the last several years there's been a lot of it."
What's a drug treatment program like?
"I've been through that a number of times," says Mark. "It just never took for a very long time. It's a..." He chuckles, slightly. "It's a unique experience, somewhat akin to chemotherapy. I'd recommend it to anyone. I'm not drinking either. I've been loaded so long that this is surreal in itself."
Mark grimaces suddenly. "Let's talk about something else."
Yes, it's a dark place, Mark Lanegan's world, and Scraps At Midnight - sounds like a name for burned-out scavengings of songs; in fact the name of a cat and a dog belonging to a friend of his - is a dark old record. But now it appears that into the gloom, he'll admit a ray of light. Later on, he even thinks about going bowling.
"There's been times when it's been a struggle to find something to keep going for," he says. "i've seen a lot of people that I cared about die young, and you just know that if they'd been around for another day or week or year, they'd have been glad they were. You're gonna die anyway. Why hurry it up?"
He steps out of the bar. Immediately, he lights another cigarette.