|first appeared in Raygun Magazine, February 1994
by Tatyana Mishel
Contrary to popular suspicion, Mark Lanegan is not a suicidal, supremely depressed, pained and woeful soul.
Instead, the lead singer of the Screaming Trees, who has just released his second solo album, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost is kind-spoken, relaxed, polite and seemingly well-adjusted. Normal, even. Meeting over a Mexican meal in Seattle with festive south-of-the-border tunes blaring, he apologizes for eating during the interview, courteously addresses the waitress as "ma'am" and speaks in a soft but husky voice--his Aberdeen, Washington, accent moving from "little darlin'" diction to thoughtful, poetic eloquence.
Since the Winding Sheet, his first solo release three years ago, Lanegan has been a busy man. His band has gone on to international fame and toured the world, which in turn put off the release of this new solo work. A sublime departure from Trees' fare, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost is a densely beautiful album, rich with acoustic guitar and undercut with dreamy, psychedelic drifts. Incorporating stand-up bass, violins, sax and a couple of gorgeous duets, this is Lanegan's country and blues album.
So despite any preconceived notions of meeting up with a super-sad-rocker cryin' in his beer, I sat down to talk pleasantly and laugh about the school band, religion, mental health and (yes) suicide over a lunch of burritos and beans.
RayGun: Tell me about the religious references in your songs. Are you a Catholic school victim or what?
Mark Lanegan: Not at all. Actually, my folks were damaged by religion so they were anti-religion. And they let me pretty much explore whatever I wanted as a kid. I had friends in all different religions, so I ended up just coming and going though a lot of them. I became real interested for a period of time in Southern Baptist; I ended up going to that church for three years, just on my own-not really buying into it all, but I was into the whole show of it, you know, the fire and brimstone and that.
You were more into the theatrics?
Exactly. I'm interested in the theatrics surrounding all organized religion. Catholic religion is amazing for that kind of stuff--just the procession, the order of everything. As far as imagery and music, I guess I draw more from people around me, their experiences and my own. My grandmother, for instance, was involved in a religious cult. They don't even have a name--it's a strange Quakeresque type thing, and they all dress the same. When I went to her funeral, there were probably 500 people there, and there's less than 500 in the town where she lived. They just came from everywhere. One of my songs ["Kingdoms of Rain"] is my response to her death and my relationship with her.
Is the song "Borracho" about regret, getting payback?
Part of it, a bit of it is...
I won't even pretend to do a literary analysis of our songs...
I think it's impossible to do that. I kind of write them in a way where I couldn't even tell you what it means--it's all too vague for me [laughs].
Is it strange reading what the critical press may write about your songs, what they're supposed to be about and rip them apart and so forth?
Yeah, I just feel like telling them to get a life. Maybe here or there, there's something I want to get across, but to tear stuff apart like that is just ridiculous.
I first heard about this album almost three years ago. What took you so long to finish it?
I started working on it a day here, a day there, over the past couple years. Some songs, between the first verse and second verse, two years passed, so it's kind of wacky in that way.
Is it odd to go back to songs you started three years ago?
No, because it doesn't seem like three years has passed to me. I was busy the whole time--it's not like I've been sitting around thinking about them. By the time I got back to them, it was like, oh, okay, and I picked up where I left off.
Is it anything like going back through old journal entries?
No, because they were always evolving. The original idea I may have had three years ago didn't turn out the same way. The singing, for the most part, was all done recently.
Was it a fun album to make?
It was fun to finish; it was kind of a pain in the butt. I've been so busy, trying to make time for it. I was on a three-month tour this summer and only had two five day breaks, and I had to use those to work on the record. I was glad to get it done.
What's the best part about doing a solo album versus recording with a band?
It's not what I can't do with my band, it's just what I don't want to do with my band. I got a hard rock band, and that's what I like doing with them, you know? If we want to do a quiet song, we will, but I'm not really limited to the band. What's really fun about this is being able to play with other people beside my band, with other friends of mine. Also, in the band, I'm just one out of four. It's a democracy. Here I can do exactly what I want; I don't have to ask anybody if it's ok with them.
You are the dictator...
Pretty much for better or worse.
Is it hard to manage being in a band and having a solo career?
I don't really think of it as a career, the solo thing; it's like a hobby.
How do you describe the music of your solo album?
I understand you have to put up with people saying: why are you so depressed, man?
It's kind of the music I like to listen to, all that weepy stuff, country music and whatnot. It kind of comes out sounding like I'm at death's doorstep but [laughs] I'm not really.
Who wants to listen to happy music...
I like to listen to that scary kind of country blues from the Twenties and Thirties. I find that kind of music uplifting if I'm felling shitty about something. People that know me know that I'm not depressed.
You seem fine to me.
Thank you [laughs]. I'm glad.
This album is lighter on its feet than the Winding Sheet, would you say?
[Laughs] I hope so. It's hard for me to tell. The original idea was--the saddest part of it--was to do it all in a day [laughs]. I wanted to do it how I heard Astral Weeks was done. It came time to sing, and I had some sort of mental block. I couldn't sing for a fucking year. It was insane. I couldn't even get a headphone mix. So that kind of squashed the whole original plan. But what I ended up with, I'm okay with. It changed, it mutated, songs were added and ditched along the way.
What's different about this album and your first solo one?
I wanted it to be less one-sided than the first one, which was kind of dark, I guess. It still ended up being that way, but a little bit less. The songs are a little more uptempo and have auxiliary instrumentation.
Do you go back and listen to your old recordings much? I mean, will you ever put on an old Screaming Trees album or The Winding Sheet?
We do it to laugh our asses off. Those early records are really funny; they're horrible. I sound like a little kid.
When did you first get into music--as a kid?
Hey, I was in band for a year. I was last chair drums, then they moved me to last chair tuba...
You mean a school band?
Junior high school band. I got drummed out. [Then with the tuba} I'd just move my cheeks. I'd have to play a couple of big recitals in front of the school with the band, and I completely faked it. Didn't even play, not a note. I didn't even know how to read music. Later I played drums and guitar--taught myself [laughs], but I'm not very good at it. I'm horrible. I play on some of this record, and I played on some of the first one which was even--oh, my God--the worst. But I know enough to write a song.
Do you play any of the acoustic guitar on the album?
Well, the good stuff is Mike Johnson--he plays bass with Dinosaur Jr. I play like on half of it, rhythm guitar. It's buried in the mix, hopefully.
As far as being in a rather popular rock 'n' roll band, do you look at yourself as a star or celebrity?
[Chuckles] You know it. [Big Laugh] Nah! It'd be kind of tough.
What's the best and worst part of being a rock 'n' roller?
The best part is not having to work a regular job and to be able to this for a living, to be creative and get the bills paid. The worst part is you lose a lot along the way. You give up a lot--relationships come and go much quicker than they do for other people. When you're gone for a year, life goes on for other people while you're stuck in a chamber where time doesn't move. And while you might have been all over the world during that year, played a million shows and met a million people, other people are living--and I miss that. You come back, and people have changed, and you don't fit into their world anymore. That's the worst part.
Is it true you get stage fright?
I wouldn't call it stage fright. I just don't enjoy it too much sometimes. As time goes on, I'm more comfortable with it. When we first started, I had stage fright. We used to get real nervous before we played.
Do you ever wake up and think: I can't believe what I'm doing?
[Laughs] I think that all the time. Now I'm happy this is what I do, and I can't see doing anything else.
Who are the songwriters and musicians who've influenced you?
There are too many to mention: 13th Floor Elevators, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath, Black Flag. It's hard to say...
What are you listening to these days?
The same stuff--and newer bands, as well.
Do you think about the future, what you'll be doing at 50?
I try not to. It's a little ways off.
If you were to commit suicide, how would you do it?
Oh Lord...as painlessly as possible. I'd probably do it the old-fashioned rock 'n' roll way: Slip quietly to sleep, if you know what I mean. I wouldn't do it in any messy, dramatic way. I wouldn't hang myself. I'd just take something, get a nice bottle of wine, and go to bed.
Would that be a red or white wine?
I think that probably it would be a blood red.