Mark Lanegan: Musical Chameleon
Seattle rocker Mark Lanegan has lived a hard life
- and he's got the voice to prove it, writes Scott Kara.
While more than 25 years of late nights, cigarettes, and in his early days at least, a good helping of liquor and drugs, has helped nurture its gravelly and sensual quality, he says it's just the way it naturally turned out.
"It is what it is. I've never had problems with it. I never warm up or anything like other guys do. I think it's this way because my old man had a voice that sounded similar. He also smoked for 40 years, and I smoked for quite a few myself, so that's got something to do with it. But I haven't smoked in a couple of years."
In his first band Screaming Trees, a staple on the Seattle grunge scene in the early 90s along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, he started out as a drummer. "Well," he laughs down the phone from his home in Los Angeles, "that's an exaggeration. I was the guy they dragged in to play drums and I wasn't really that good at it."
In fact, he was so bad they made him sing instead - and it was a good call. These days, his voice - which sounds like Tom Waits-meets-Leonard Cohen with a more rough and ready rock 'n' roll edge - is one of the most distinctive in music.
And Lanegan is also one of the most diverse singers around, working with a vast range of musicians and bands from electronic-gospel act Soulsavers, to Queens of the Stone Age, through to his collaboration with best mate Greg Dulli as duo the Gutter Twins.
The pair's Gutter Twins album, Saturnalia from 2008, was one of the best, although mostly unheralded, albums of the year, and Lanegan also contributed to Dulli's excellent Twilight Singers' albums throughout the 2000s.
This week Lanegan is in New Zealand for two solo shows ("Basically for the fun of it"), including one on Saturday night at the Kings Arms.
He's got his long-time guitarist Dave Rosser with him and they'll be playing songs from his six solo albums, as well as a few from his other projects, including - if you're lucky - QOTSA's Hangin' Tree from classic 2002 album Songs For the Deaf.
"The show is really stripped back, and we'll be playing something off every one of the solo records," he says in his relaxed, almost reticent, way.
Which means songs like Wildflowers off his 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet, which was a stark contrast to the punky psychedelic rawness of Screaming Trees, are more than 20 years old now. So how are they holding up these days? With this he lets out a husky chuckle: "The oldest ones are songs I've never played [live] before, so to me they're new in a way, which is cool after 20 years."
For Lanegan, songs don't have a specific meaning - they're more about a mood.
"I think they start from a real place but they're not something that has meaning, it's more like a feeling. That's for me anyway and it's probably different for people who listen to the songs. I hope it is anyway," he laughs again.
He's lived a hard life, as dark, visceral and sometimes sombre songs like The River Rise (from 1994's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost) and the Gutter Twins All Misery/Flowers, are testament to. But these days he says he's happy with his lot.
"I love life. I'm very happy. It's nice to wake up on a sunny day, or a rainy one, and it's nice to be able to walk my dog in the morning."
And as well as making a living out of doing what he loves, he also enjoys being one of music's ultimate chameleons.
"It wasn't something I planned," he says of his various projects. "I've just been blessed with the opportunity to do a lot of stuff - and smart enough to take advantage of it. When I was younger I didn't because I had a harder time seeing my place in music. When I was younger I had a lot of f***** up ideas about a lot of stuff, and music was one of them," he says.
"But as I've gotten older I've been more open to stuff."
His wide musical palette comes from the fact he loves gospel and soul music as much as he enjoys noisy and volatile bands like Scratch Acid and Big Black.
"I like to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. For me, music I listen to generally ends up finding its way back out in what I do. But there are other types of music I listen to [like 60s and 70s reggae] that hasn't worked its way into what I do yet," he laughs.
He's also hoping to get a new solo album out sometime next year .- but don't expect to hear any new songs this weekend.
"New stuff from me?" he chuckles "No. I don't like to play stuff until I've recorded it."
Who: Mark Lanegan, former Screaming Trees' singer and musical collaborator.
Where & when:Bar Bodega, Wellington, July 2; Kings Arms, Auckland, July 3.
Essential Lanegan albums: The Screaming Trees - Sweet Oblivion (1992); Mark Lanegan - Whiskey For the Holy Ghost (1994), Bubblegum (2004); Queens of the Stone Age - Songs For the Deaf (2002); Twilight Singers - Blackberry Belle (2003); Soulsavers - It's Not How Far You Fall, It's How You Land (2007) Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell - Sunday At Devil Dirt (2008); The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia (2008)