Lucky Strikes - Mike Johnson and Mark Lanegan Go on a Tear
by Charles R Cross
(First appeared in the Rocket magazine, 7/8/98)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON, 6/12/98, CRYBABY CAFE, 2:15 PM
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What took so long between The Winding Sheet and Whiskey for the Holy
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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