August 2004

Mark Lanegan Too tough to die
Words: J Bennett

Mark Lanegan, possibly the busiest man in rock, needs to eat. Hence the work ethic. 'rock sound' determinedly pins him down for a quick chat about 'Bubblegum', before he rushes off to his next set of projects.

We all gotta eat. That includes Mark Lanegan, he of the finest pipes in rock, ex-vocalist for both the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, current frontman of the Mark Lanegan Band, and collaborator with the likes of Greg Dulli, PJ Harvey, Chris Goss, Dean Ween, Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin. And it's the need to stay fed that keeps our man so busy these days – or so he jokes. He's got little time, for instance, to ponder what's already been done, which includes the forthcoming Mark Lanegan Band album, 'Bubblegum'. "I'm usually working on something else, so I don't have a lot of time in the day to go back and listen to it", Lanegan offers. "I'm usually focused on what's right in front of me, and right now that's a couple other things. If I'm gonna listen to any music, it'll probably be other people's music".

But that's not to say 'Bubblegum' isn't worth pondering. Like all of Lanegan's brilliant solo albums – particularly 98's 'Scraps At Midnight' and 01's 'Field Songs' – 'Bubblegum' plays out like the bleary confession of a man in a perpetual state of penance; a half-remembered litany of mistakes not yet atoned for and letters of apology not yet posted. Leadoff track 'When Your Number Isn't Up' is Lanegan at his sparse, acoustic best – the song's protagonist is waiting for death in a hotel room; he knows it's coming, but it never actually shows its face. It's the suspense that kills him, probably.

Yet 'Bubblegum' avoids the kind of Sunday-morning suicide dirges that make you wanna pull the proverbial plug. Songs like 'Sideways In Reverse' and 'Driving Death Valley Blues' move along a little too quickly for denouement's sake.

Even 'Methamphetamine Blues', (which also appeared on Lanegan's 'Here Comes That Weird Chill' EP late last year) has an intentionally deceiving title, opening with what sounds like ex-QOTSA bassist Nick Oliveri's wicked laugh (thought it could easily be Lanegan's) [it is Lanegan] and featuring the unmistakable lead guitar of Josh Homme. Elsewhere, Lanegan duets with PJ Harvey (the infectious 'Hit The City'); Masters of Reality mainman Chris Goss ('One Hundred Days') and gets instrumental and/or vocal cameos from Eleven's Natasha Schneider and Alain Johannes, Dean Ween, Oliveri, and Axl refugees Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin (backups on 'Strange Religion').

Like Tom Waits and Nick Cave before him ("but with worse teeth," our man laughs), Lanegan shows you the sleepless nights, the overflowing ashtray, the blackened spoon, the nagging misgivings about what could have been, and the river of whiskey that carried them all away – only without making you feel like you're in the front row at a Narc-Anon meeting. Bindles and needles are old news for Lanegan, who still has the dubious distinction of being one of Seattle's most notorious drug addicts. "I'm up there," he agrees. "I'd probably say I'm number one. I'm the longest surviving one – and that's probably due to the fact that I don't do a lot of drugs anymore." These days, Lanegan insists his extracurricular intake consists entirely of coffee and cigarettes.

As if 'Bubblegum' weren't enough, Lanegan is finishing up the first Gutter Twins album with former Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli. Lanegan had previously toured with Dulli as part of the revolving Twilight Singers collective and says Gutter Twins is "Just a bunch of songs with Greg and I singing on them. It's kind of hard to describe. It's cool though. I like it a lot – which is a rarity." He's also recording a collection of duets with former Belle & Sebastian songstress Isobel Campbell. ("Busy, busy" he says, "Gotta eat.") But it would appear that Lanegan isn't so much a workaholic as a musical speculator: "I'm blessed with a lot of opportunities, so when a cool thing comes along, I wanna work on it." When asked if there's anyone left he'd like to join forces with, Lanegan answers much as one might expect him to: "I've actually collaborated with a lot of the people I would've wanted to. But there's a few out there – Neil Young, Leonard Cohen – it'd be cool to do something with folks like that."

And then there's Queens of the Stone Age, a band that may or may not be in a state of total disrepair, depending which grapevine you happen to have your ear to. QOTSA ringleader Josh Homme recently kicked longtime friend and bassist Nick Oliveri to the kerb mere days before Lanegan's own departure – which made for an extensive (if predictable) shitstorm in the British music press. But Lanegan calls Queens "the world's greatest rock band," and says the terms of his exit had been laid out long before he joined the QOTSA family. "They always knew I was gonna work this record when the time came," he explains. "Everybody was cool with it; it just happened to coincide with someone else's dismissal. I actually just went to Josh's surprise party."

Can't see the forest

Despite the Screaming Trees' often uneasy relationships with one another – especially brothers Van (bass) and Gary Lee Conner (guitar), who, by most accounts, drank heavily and fought constantly – they managed to keep it together, fitfully, for eleven years (85 to 96), though the band didn't officially go tits-up until 2000. Regardless of what there may be under the bridge – and you can safely bet it's a lot more than water – Lanegan remains fond of his former Trees mates.

"I really do love those guys, and I'm proud of the music we made together," he says. "It was a learning experience, for sure. They were the only guys in our little town (Ellensburg, Washington) who listened to the same music as me, and we did it for a really long time – and kind of against all odds."

Long-time Trees fans will be chuffed to learn there's a considerable backlog of unreleased material slowly emerging. Says Lanegan, "Next year, I'm gonna probably be putting out an album of unreleased Trees stuff. (The album that would've come out after 'Dust', the Trees' final release.) And Sony Legacy is finally working on a collection of the Trees' Sony stuff, which is long overdue as far as I'm concerned."

"There's one unreleased Trees album from SST times, and one from Sony time," Lanegan continues. "Well, three, actually – counting the other, post-Sony one. But the bulk of the Sony one is actually gonna come out on the retrospective – which is cool 'cos I liked a lot of it. The SST one disappeared, though – which is a shame, 'cos it was a double album."

So it seems our man won't be running out of groceries any time soon – which is exactly why he'd probably tell you his proverbial glass is half-full. "In the past few years, I've played a lot of great shows with the Queens, a lot of shows I've really enjoyed with the solo band, some Twilight Singers shows that were really cool… As far as bad shows go – I tend to forget them right away, so I can survive to fight another day."