Lucky Strikes - Mike Johnson and Mark Lanegan Go on a Tear

by Charles R Cross

(First appeared in the Rocket magazine, 7/8/98)


You don't need to be a detective to look at the table in this downtown Seattle coffee shop and figure out which seat is Mark Lanegan's and which is Mike Johnson's: Lanegan is the pack of Pall Malls, while Johnson is the Old Golds. Lanegan is the tall glass of black coffee; Johnson is the saucer and cup of double espresso. If those differences seem like splitting hairs, well, that too explains a lot about why these musicians are such close pals.

Over the past decade Lanegan and Johnson have established--over unfiltered cigarettes, strong coffee and Lou Reed's Berlin--one of the longest-running and most productive collaborations in the Northwest music scene. Both are still best known for work with their individual bands--Lanegan remains the lead singer of the Screaming Trees; Johnson played bass for Dinosaur Jr. until they recently broke up. But between the two of them, they have produced six masterful solo albums. Lanegan's output includes 1990's The Winding Sheet, 1994's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, and the forthcoming Scraps at Midnight (out July 28), all on Sub Pop. For his part Johnson has hatched Where Am I? (1994, Up Records), Year of Mondays (1996, TAG/Atlantic) and the soon-to-be-released I Feel Alright (due out in August) on Up. Though their respective albums have a sound and style all their own, it is no exaggeration to call them collaborations between Mark and Mike. They've co-produced, co-written, and helped each other assemble the cast of other musicians on their albums.

1998 stands as a watershed year in the Mark and Mike show. So far it has produced both their new albums, and, at the point of this interview, has resulted in at least two other albums of material sitting in the can: a new Lanegan album of covers; and yet another album of new songs the duo wrote together. They will most likely be released as Lanegan solo albums four and five, respectively. Lanegan, who has recently cleaned up and looks like an entirely new man, has also been recording with Tuatara and is slated to work with Disinformation, the band formerly known as Mad Season. At this rate, between the two of them, Lanegan and Johnson are recording a record a month.

When they are not recording, they spend their free time bowling. The day I met up with them, Johnson was complaining about a sore wrist from a late night at a local lane, while Lanegan was talking about how he needs more practice to get back into his game. The conversation begins....

First let's talk about the recording streak you guys are on. For brooding rock musicians, you've recorded an awful lot of stuff recently.

Mike Johnson: The brooding comes from Mark. We've got nothing better to do.

Mark Lanegan: It was really hard for me to work for a long, long time; to find the patience for it. Now, it's like, what else is there to do?

But you've done more stuff in the past two months...

Mike: than in the last five years!

Mark: The first one [Scraps at Midnight] we did in two weeks. The first day seemed like three days. That didn't even seem real. Mike's album took awhile.

Mike: That was seeing if we were insane or not. We were afraid people would think we were freaks, Mark in particular, because he was the one putting his name out there.

On the last Screaming Trees record, Mark, you did sweat over the album and it took almost three albums-worth of recording to create the one record. Was this new album more cathartic?

Mark: The first time I sang these new songs were on the mic. I never had even rehearsed them or anything. We didn't even know what would happen. I was writing lyrics right then, which is what I used to do 15 years ago with the Trees. It's kind of spooky in that way. I don't know about cathartic. At the time we just had to get that done.

Was it always clear whose record you were working on, Mike's or Mark's?

Mike: It's clear. When I write my songs, it's obvious that they are mine. But when I write with Mark, I just write the music, or I have it already. On one of the songs on the new album, I couldn't conceive of what I was going to put on it but I gave it to Mark and he finished it. It was completely different than what I'd imagined. That was really the first time we'd ever completely collaborated.

Mark [to Mike]: That's not true, is it?

Mike: Well, we did on [The Winding Sheet] but I was more writing the bridges and stuff. They were already completed songs.

Mark: I like it this way a lot better.

Mike: It's been easy for me. I can write song forms all day that I can't put stuff to but Mark can add to. My things have to be completely in my head or else I can't finish the song.

Mark: For a long time I was like that, too. I had to have a guitar in my hand. The stuff we are working on right now, we are writing the music and recording it the same day. Now I know what BTO was talking about when they said, "It's just as easy as fishing." Whiskey wasn't like that--it took years. A lot of that had to do with touring and me being insane.

Mike: With Whiskey, we kept re-conceptualizing. Originally, it was going to be all acoustic with no electric instruments at all. And then all sorts of changes started to happen. Mark started recording different songs.

Mark: It's embarrassing how much thinking I've done about making records. Early on, with the Trees, we used to make records in a day. And shortly thereafter, I was like "No, how can I do that." I started second guessing myself. Nowadays, it's, "Do everything."

After you finished Mark's record, what happened?

Mark: We were doing B-sides for English singles, covers, and I liked it so I decided to do an EP. First I decided to do a box set. Then I got paired down to an EP. But how did we get around to doing originals?

Mike: I don't honestly know. I think we must have been sitting around saying, "What's that?"

What kind of covers did you end up recording?

Mark: Some soul songs. And then every woman I played it for ended up going ape-shit over it so I'm going back to do some more. I'm going to call it [laughing] "Mr. Sophistication." Then we ended up recording like 15 originals. Some old ones, mostly new ones, mostly sung and written on the spot.

Mike, how would you sum up the concept of your record?

Mike: My whole concept was break-up songs. There was not much love interest on my first two albums. They were more about alienation. I wanted these to have something to do with romance.

I heard you were divorced after I'd already listened to the record, but I'd already gotten the break-up theme.

Mike: I hope it didn't have too much of that. My original concept was to make a Berlin-esque album but I didn't. Then again, I wish I had, at least the brilliance of that record.

Mark, is there a concept you can sum up Scraps at Midnight with?

Mark: Sometimes a record is just a period of time.

Mike: During Mark's last album it was a lot of insanity on both our parts, it was beating our heads against the wall. While this record was more, "Let's just do it."

Mark: It was more like an exercise. It was like therapy.

There does seem to be, if not a concept to Scraps at Midnight, at least a consistent aesthetic quality.

Mike: That's exactly what we intended.

Mark: It's a mood that we wanted. It's like Berlin.

You two first met at a Trees show in 1988. Were you comparing white trash towns, Mike you from Oregon and Mark from Ellensburg?

Mike: We definitely had a common background, me being from Grant's Pass. We'd argue over which one was the more redneck town. It was obviously a common link.

And Mark, you were the one who invited Mike to play on your first record which was the start of your musical relationship?

Mark: At first I didn't think Mike would be interested in playing on my record.

Mike: Mark asked me if I wanted to and I told him I'd be honored. He was the only person I knew who was into folk and acoustic-type music, and ballads. Everybody else was into full-on rock. That was the mindset that everyone had in the Northwest at the time.

Mark: I was like that, too. I remember now that you guys really had to convince me every step of the way. I didn't believe that I should be doing it. Mike and Mark Pickerel [former Screaming Trees drummer] started me doing that. The whole thing was Pickerel's idea. I had been messing around doing some stuff with Kurt [Cobain] and then Pickerel got us into the idea of doing a covers EP kind of thing. And then he got me into using these other songs. I thought it would be nothing but a huge embarrassment. Pickerel was always gung-ho, but I didn't even want to go in.

Looking back on The Winding Sheet, it was revolutionary at the time. When the Northwest was getting all this attention for its new rock sound, you guys put together a dark, slow record of ballads and folk songs. I'm sure there was fear on your part in trying this artistically?

Mark: That was a big part of it. The very nature of it was vulnerability. I'm not usually hanging my balls out there. But these guys convinced me.

Mike: There was this sense though of wondering whether we were insane doing this thing that no one else was doing.

Mark: Sometimes I had you talked into thinking we were out of our minds. But Jack [Endino] kept us going. I'd ask him, "Jesus Christ, is this just wacked?" At the time, it seemed like not a lot of noise behind us.

What took so long between The Winding Sheet and Whiskey for the Holy Ghost?

Mark: It was the ongoing I-couldn't-sing problem. Depending on what else I'm doing in my life, sometimes I couldn't sing. Dust [Screaming Trees' 1996 LP] was that way. That happened for about a year. And we came back, and by that time I'd written more songs. We were both on tour. Finally towards the end of it, we were in New York and we were finishing up and Mike kept sending his friends down to play on it.

Mike: I was opting out because it was just such on-going insanity. I had been going on for two or three years. I thought we were in New York to mix and then Mark started re-singing things and redoing songs. I said, "You're insane Lanegan."

Mark: That's when I knew it was time to finish it up. When Mike refuses to talk to me, I know it's time to change. It got finished. I'm still alive.

So when are we going to get the Lanegan/Johnson 10-disc box set?

Mike: It's coming out on the Bear Family label [laughs]. First we have to make the next 10.

There are people who argue that your music is depressing and too dark. Yet it's funny that no one ever says that about a blues album.

Mike: I like sad songs and ballads and find them uplifting. It's always made me feel good to hear a sad song. It gives me solace, which is one reason I do the music that I do. Luckily, I've talked to people who feel the same way. After making rock records that have been on the radio from our respective bands, I think a lot of critics don't get that. I can't believe they think I'm trying to bum anybody out, because I'm not.

Mark: It's just the opposite. There are certain kinds of people who are going to hear it and not feel so alone.

Mike: The only song that has genuinely depressed me is "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" by the Beach Boys.

Mark: And Sam Cooke's "What a Wonderful World." Damn. Sometimes the really sad songs are the ones where you're trying to talk yourself into something good. You just know that things aren't always that way for real.

Are there different fears involved with playing live?

Mark: Yeah. We were supposed to do some shows this week and we decided we aren't doing them. It got rearranged. We used to have a road manager in the Trees, who would come and say [uses an English accent here]: "Five minutes, buddy." For me it was five minutes 'til the gallows. Playing live is not that much fun.

Mike, what it is it in Mark's catalog that you like the best?

Mike: I like "Riding the Nightingale" [from Whiskey for the Holy Ghost]. I think that's just amazing.

Mark: I like all of Mike's records, but I especially like I Feel Alright. It seems like a big giant leap. That song "Turn Around" is my favorite.

Mike, can you tell us a secret about Mark?

Mike: That he's capable of doing a version of Brook Benton's "Kiddio"--that's great.

And about Mike, Mark?

Mark: Everyone thinks he's so serious but when I see him karaoke, the women go crazy. He's like on his knees, he's got the moves. That's how I know Mike. If we didn't laugh all the time...

Mike: There's huge in-jokes on all the songs.

Mark: We have to erase the laughing off the vocal tracks.

So we can one day look forward to the Mark Lanegan/Mike Johnson bloopers album?

Mike: Maybe that will be in the Bear Family box set.

Why haven't you guys formed a band together before?

Mark: One word: Rockpile [the 1980 collaboration between Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds]. We've always been talking about that.

Mike: We've been talking about it for a while but every time we bring it up, Mark says it will be just as satisfying as Rockpile.

Mark: I remember how disappointed I was when Rockpile put a record out. It's bad enough when you get two maniacs together. I've already got one band with five. But we will, I'm sure.

Who is the better bowler?

Mike: Right now, Mark is.

Mark: I'm in a transitional phase.

Mike: I went from being pretty consistent to being inconsistent. I threw a 90 last night. I threw a 213 last year on my birthday. But he's thrown a 250.

Mark: Once. But only because I was blacked-out drunk. It's the mental aspects that kill you. You have to be obsessed and completely focused to excel in bowling. It's a shame, too--otherwise we'd bowl for a living.

© 1998 Charles R. Cross