|IN THE PINES, IN THE PINES, WHERE THE SUN NEVER
by Grant Alden The Rocket Jan.26-Feb.23 1994
Mark Lanegan really does know how to smile. His is the same sly grin, twisted to the right by shyness, that Hank Williams used to reveal, and there is the same twinkle deep within. The smile reveals well-used wrinkles beside each eye; still, it vanishes as quickly as a maiden in thick forest.
It does no good pretending Lanegan can easily be known. Not from his work with the Screaming Trees, six LP's, three EP's, countless tours, at last the beginnings of fame. Not from his two solo LP's, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost finally emerging this month. He is an intensely private collection of contradictions, the gentle, troubled caress of his music guarded by a brusque exterior.
He is a reminder not to confuse the art with the artist.
Lanegan takes his meals at one of the few diners left in Seattle ("the food's not very good, but it's cheap"), where he picks at the first solid food he's seen following a five-day bout with the flu. He smokes Old Gold cigarettes, dousing one when the salad arrives, relighting between courses, puts a pinch between his cheek and gum when he runs out of smokes.
The flu has left him contemplative. He speaks carefully, choosing his words thoughtfully, I think because who he is matters a great deal to Mark Lanegan these days. He has a habit of squinting (probably where those wrinkles around his eyes came from), as if staring into some bright light, when he speaks of things that matter to him.
And clearly, Whiskey For the Holy Ghost matters a good deal. "I started it in '92, and planned to get it done in a week," he begins. "I finally finished up this August, but that was for a lot of different reasons. At one time when I was prepared to finish it, I couldn't go into the studio because of financial difficulties with SubPop. Another time I couldn't sing. Then I was on the road for over a year [with the Trees], I used my breaks from that tour to fly to New York and attempt to finish it again.
Over the course of three years the original idea can change, and you're writing songs in the meantime, so you record them, too. It also wasn't something, after a while, that I even cared to think about, or work on, or finish. And I just let it go. At one point I almost threw the tapes in the river. Literally. I was trying to mix it out in Woodinville [at Bear Creek]. Jack [Endino] stopped me."
"I knew what I wanted the record to sound like over all. I didn't even come close, and that changed. It changed radically about a year and a half into it, and I recorded a bunch of rock songs, thinking I wanted to change it, and ended up, actually, after the whole thing was said and done, using more songs from the very first session than from anything else. I think it sounds amazingly cohesive for how it was made."
Whiskey does have a finished quality it's predecessor, The Winding Sheet (recorded in just three days, he says) didn't intend. The songs aren't carried simply by the raw strength of Lanegan's voice, but by spare and elegant (if still casual) arrangements. The new songs are sweet, sad and beautiful, David Krueger's violin darting through two songs, Mike Stinette's round saxaphone tones adding grace to "Sunrise," Lanegan's voice harmonizing against Krisha Augerot ("Riding the Nightingale") and Sally Barry ("Sunrise"). Drums are supplied by Dan Peters (Mudhoney), Tad Doyle (Tad), Mark Pickerel (Ex-Trees) and J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), production is courtesty Ed Brooks, John Agnello, Jack Endino, and Terry date. Add to that complexity the schedule of his collaborator and guitarist, Eugene-bred Mike Johnson, who at present plays bass for Dinsaur Jr., the escalating responsibilties of Screaming Trees' success, and Lanegan's self-professed indolence. "I don't like to have to work, you know, it really just boils down to that," he says.
How long did it take you to figure that out?
"Oh, about half an hour into my first job, weeding the garden or splitting wood as a kid. I used to sabotage the lawn mower, pour oil in the gas tank, so I didn't have to mow the lawn. I always tried to take the easy way out when it comes to work."
Your songs don't take the easy way out.
"What do you mean?"
They sound like they were hard to write, and they're hard to play. And I don't mean technically hard.
He pauses for a moment, dodges the question. "Technically, that's the hardest part for me, so it's hard to write songs, in that way." Later he adds, "I feel blessed that I can get by writing these songs, because that's so easy."
"to you who never need, fuck yourselves, I need some more room to breathe..."
No it's not so easy. "Borracho" (Spanish for "drunk") opens with a wailing guitar. Four low, long escalating moans begin Lanegan's centerpiece, only the second track in (though it opens the second side on vinyl), a line from which gives Whiskey for the Holy Ghost it's name. There is an abrupt honesty to these sounds, these songs, that can only have come from long and agonised self-appraisal. It is dangerous to assume that Lanegan's songs are confessional, and almost impossible not to.
"I don't reall see the records as being dark," he says, acknowledging the question with a short laugh. " I'm aware that other people do, but I don't really see them that way. I see them as being funny, I see them as being uplifting, I don't see them as being serious or dark. I get a totally different thing out of it. But that's the beauty of making records. It doesn't really matter what the hell I get out of it. I do it to please myself, and what anybody else gets out of it is their own business."
What Mark gets out of it seems unanswerable. For a lazy man he went to an awful lot of effort to make these two solo records ( though "there are no plans at this point" for a third outing). "I picked up the guitar the same month that I wrote the songs for The Winding Sheet," he says with charictaristic self-deprication. "That's when I learned my four chords"
We fall into a discussion of singers we both admire. "Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson. I'm familiar with all that stuff, that's pretty much all I listen to, anymore. I kinda started with it and ended with it. I don't ever hear anything else that affects me the same way. Nothing is as real or as deeply, just fuckin'...nothing even comes close to moving me like that stuff. Nothing else exists when [Blind Willie's] singing for me, and that's the way it is with certain other singers as well."
"Yeah, his voice, Tom Hardin'll make you cry. And some people that I know have really amazing voices that will touch you. One of the coolest things I ever heard was sitting in Cobain's garage years ago and listening to him play accoustic guitar and sing. It was really like listening to one of those blues records. And it wasn't a blues song he was singing, it was one of his own, but his voice had that same quality and felt the same way. Bryan Elliot [fron Gravel] his voice affects me like that, even though his music is pretty straight-ahead rock."
Mark Lanegan has one of those voices.
Still, if it were so easy, Whiskey For The Holy Ghost would have been done years ago. As it was, Lanegan admits to having thrown out enough songs "to make a record. Or two. We've talked about making an EP out of some of it, but you know, I don't have time to do that stuff."
The Mark Lanegan box set?
He laughs. "It would be hideous. There's a reason they don't come out, because they're not finished. The Trees could have a hundred records-instead of the hundred that we already have-but there's a reason. You know, because they suck."
Whiskey's long delay has bestowed the aura of artiste on Lanegan. The image persists of an eccentric genius agonizing until dawn in a studio, sweating every damn detail.
"I am a prick," Lanegan says, "but not when it comes to that stuff. I mean, listen to it. It's full of fuck-ups. I hear amazing huge fuck-ups in that recording. On the first single there's a glaring glitch of a punch-in on a vocal. It stops half-way through a word. But I don't fucking feel like doing it again. The guitar parts, there's fuck-ups all over the place, total lurches and stuff like that. I don't think I'm real precise, real anal about it."
Still, if these songs were so easy, he'd break down and play them live. I suspect (but do not find a way to ask) that they come from a private place he prefers not to reveal in public. Lanegan offers a simpler explanation: "Playing live is not the thing I enjoy most in the world. Some people say they live for that kind of thing, and it's really not like me to get up in front of a bunch of people and do something." But you've been doing it for years.
"It's still not natural for me."
What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
"I have no idea. Probably not the same things I was doing before I did this. I don't know. I've never had to think about it. I would rather do as little as possible in the way of work, you know? I'll probably keep making records as long as somebody wants me to, because it's pretty easy. It's OK work if you can get it." Do you enjoy the studio?
That's more comfortable, less public.
"I have no problem with being in public. I'm in public every day. The reason I don't enjoy playing live is not because I have a problem being in public. It's just...hard on ya, ya know? I think even for people who are real successful, and make loads of money doing it, it's still hard work. Even if there is glamour involved, certain aspects of it don't get any different, really, any easier. I enjoy certain parts [of touring]. I like to travel. I just don't like to be told when I have to be somewhere. I don't like to have to work. Really, it just boils down to that."
Later, he returns to this point. "I definitely don't want to give you the impression that I hate what I do, because I don't. I feel extremely lucky, because I've done plenty of bad jobs. That can be hell, and a lot of people live that way. They're 65 years old, and they're still doing something they hate. Whether I make a living at this or not, I'm going to keep doing it, because it's the only thing I've ever done that I've enjoyed doing this much."
Sunrise: should have covered up my eyes, beauty wasted on me...
Like the rest of their class, Screaming Trees are still riding the freakish wave of popularity that broke over Seattle two years ago. Their sixth release, Sweet Oblivion, aided by inclusion of "Nearly Lost You" on the Singles soundtrack, brought them to the verge of commercial respectability. "They tell me when the next one comes out Sweet Oblivion will go gold shortly," Lanegan says. "But I've got this platinum thing that sits in the closet [from Singles], so I don't put much truck in those things. I don't feel we were responsible for that happening. I had mixed feelings about being involved. Ultimately it was a real lucky thing for us. We never would have sold nearly as many records, might not even have the chance to make this one that I'm about to, had it not been for that record. So, you take it as it comes."
There were too many singles for Sweet Oblivion not to sell.
"None of the singles did well but the one that was on the soundtrack [Nearly Lost You]. The other one came close to being a "AOR hit". All the rest of 'em bombed, big time. So there's just no telling. Take it where you can get it, that's where we got it. So, it was really just another stepping stone. We hope the next one does better. Every record we ever made sold more than twice as many as the last one, so, if that trend continues, it's only going to take me a couple more records before I'm sittin' pretty."
Does actually having sold some records change anything?
"Of course. It's like getting a raise, finally, and you want to be like everybody else and be able to support your family, if you've got one. They all got one. They got kids and wives and car payments and all that. Stuff I don't have, but I enjoy having money as much as the next person. It's just a job, so if we don't keep going, we don't eat."
The Trees got off the road and began almost immediately writing and rehearsing songs for their next record. They're already in the studio, recording. "It's sort of vague work, but we're working all the time. This is our work, we figure, why not do it all the time? It's not the type of work most people do forever, so, while you're doing it you might as well do it as much as you can, I guess. No sense in waiting." Did you expect any of this?
"Never. Never in a million years would have even guessed this is what I'd be doing for almost ten years now. I really don't see myself doing anything else at this point, but I never dreamt of being a rock'n'roll star or being in a band. It just sorta came my way."
Do you get recognised walking around?
"Not very much. No, hardly ever. It happens more in other towns on the day of a show, but hardly ever. I mean, that I'm aware of. I think in Seattle most people don't come up to you and say something. They're used to seeing people that they recognise on the street. I don't get approached very often, so I assume that I don't get recognised very much, which is OK with me. The guys in my band get recognised a lot, and they get approached a lot, too, so I think I'm not recognised."
You don't have the aura of being approachable.
You do something which I'm also pretty good at: I'm able to sit in a crowded movie theater and have no one sit next to me.
"Yeah, if you ride the bus long enough, you learn that. I think I picked it up from [soundman] Rod Doak, because he can keep people away from him at any time, if he wants to. I certainly don't want to scare anybody, but it's a valuable skill."
"It's not conscious. I would really love to be the kind of person that people did approach, you know, that would be great. I know people like that, I love those kind of people. Van Conner is one of those kind of people, no matter where you're at, no matter how shitty the situation is, if you're with him, it doesn't matter, because he just makes it OK. And most of my friends are that way, my closest of friends are the kind of people who everybody loves. And I'm the kind of guy that [he gives a short laugh here] very few people would say that about. Except for that circle of friends, who are the kind of people that everybody loves, and they seem to think I'm all right, so I can deal with that."