Shades of Screaming Trees'
singer Mark Lanegan
by Joe Heim
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mark Lanegan pulls a cigarette from his pocket.
The one in his mouth is little more than a glowing nub, but Lanegan
draws a final labored puff anyway. The dying remains of the first
are quickly used to kindle its replacement.
On a cloudy midsummer day, the singer-musician is sitting outside
the Still Life Coffeehouse in Fremont. He is dressed entirely in black:
black jeans, black T-shirt, black jacket, a black-knit hat pulled
down hard on his forehead. He drinks his coffee black. Even his eyes
look black, though they're hard to see through his permanent squint.
Lanegan has a way of keeping his brow furrowed as if he'd spent a
lifetime staring into the sun.
Those who follow music know Lanegan best for his role as the lead
singer for the Screaming Trees. The band, formed in Ellensburg in
1984, came to be associated with the thriving Seattle music scene
of the early 1990s. Though never reaching the astonishing record sales
of Seattle bands Nirvana or Pearl Jam, the Trees' success has always
been respectable: the band recorded 11 albums and EPs and scored its
biggest hit with 1992's "Nearly Lost You," which was included
on the soundtrack of the movie "Singles."
When the band plays at Bumbershoot Sept. 7, it will mark one of the
Trees' few performances together in the past 18 months. It is a rare
appearance eagerly awaited by hometown fans who are never sure what
to expect from a group legendary as much for hard-rocking, occasionally
brilliant performances as onstage drunkenness, brawling and accompanying
Much of the band's fortunes have been tied to Lanegan's well-chronicled
ups and downs, including several drug-related setbacks. He has been
known to walk off the stage 30 minutes into a set. On other occasions
he had to be goaded into performing at all. The band crested on his
soulful voice and emotive lyrics, then crashed when he lost focus
or simply turned his attention elsewhere. It was hard to know which
Lanegan would show up.
But now, at age 33, the singer has changed his outlook, some would
say matured. The drugs are a part of his past. These days, it is his
music that consumes his passion and demands his energy.
While accolades for several of the Trees' recorded works are deserved,
many fans and critics argue that it is Lanegan's three individual
efforts, including the rather remarkable "Scraps at Midnight,"
released in July on SubPop, that mark his best work. Where the Trees
provide raucous psychedelic thrills, Lanegan on his own, particularly
on this most recent album, prefers gloomy, almost surreal quietude.
There are still hints of rock 'n' roll, but country, folk and blues,
at their most despairing and forlorn, are the most discernable influences.
While not necessarily autobiographical - Lanegan says writing about
real-life events is boring - the new album provides glimpses into
a soul that those squinting eyes won't allow. Songs such as "Last
One in the World" come across as a whispered confidence. Others
like "Hospital Roll Call" and "Day and Night"
share that same personal intensity. As an entire work, "Scraps"
is a harrowing account that is both sorrowful
and redemptive, letting the listener drop endlessly while throwing
only an occasional rope to cling to.
When, on "Stay," Lanegan sings "Living ain't hard,
it just ain't easy," the unadorned sentiment seems inexplicably
profound. It's a life reduced to a line and for Lanegan it fits better
than any other.
Growing up, it was the sad songs that Lanegan liked most. He remembers
listening to his parents' records: songs by Johnny Cash and Willie
Nelson and the Kingston Trio.
"I remember there was a song about Anne Boleyn getting beheaded
and walking through the castle," he says. "That made an
If his songs sound spooked, like lost spirits floating through space,
there are reasons for that, too.
"My favorite record growing up was `Songs of the Haunted House,'
a Disney record that was just wackiness," he says with a wry
smile. "It's still one of my favorites actually."
The music world is full of singers trying to sound injured or anguished,
but no one is as convincingly bummed out as Lanegan. His voice is
a deep bottomed reservoir of hurt. It can be gritty one moment, gloriously
serene the next, but it almost always prefers the sorrow-filled shadows
to the light.
"Everyone can relate to darkness, if you want to call it that,"
he says, taking another long drag on his cigarette. "Everybody
Sad songs. Haunted songs. Songs that ache without being self-pitying,
that pull you in without contriving. Lanegan writes and sings with
a passion that is convincing, and a emotion that scorns pretense.
Perhaps the darkness of his music sounds so true because he understands
it so well.
The singer's battles with his own demons have been well-publicized
throughout his career's haphazard path. Last year he was arrested
in San Francisco before a concert for allegedly trying to buy crack.
The charges were later dropped, but the incident wasn't his first
encounter with the police or with drugs.
"I was in trouble with the law from when I was real young. I
was arrested a lot for all manner of stuff, mostly drug and alcohol
related," he says.
Problems with drugs interfered with his career and put his creativity
on hold. He laughs at the idea that he used drugs or alcohol for inspiration.
"I think it's ridiculous," he says matter-of-factly. "The
guys in my band would laugh if it weren't so serious. The only time
that I could work, and it got increasingly hard over the years, was
when I would stop for a while. I mean I could tour . . . but as far
as making records or writing songs it was completely hopeless. That's
why in 10 years I only made three records. It wasn't something I was
Last fall Lanegan hit bottom.
"I was very ill at the end," he says. "Heroin, crack,
just about everything. I was a hard-core heroin addict for several
years, that was the main thing, but I did just about everything."
Lanegan had already lost many close friends - including Nirvana lead
singer Kurt Cobain - to failed battles with drugs and depression.
Now he found himself wondering if he would make it. With so many rock-'n'-roll
drug casualties, Lanegan knows that he is lucky. It was not so much
becoming a statistic that bothered him as becoming a cliche.
"Well, yeah I almost did (die) many times," he says. "And
tons of my friends did. But, when you're in the midst of what is ultimately
just a horrible nightmarish existence, the last thing you want to
believe is that you might not get through it."
There's a cautiousness to Lanegan as he answers questions. He can
be open and revealing, and yet at the same time demand anonymity:
A singer who wants his voice heard without the attendant scrutiny
Some questions are off limits, and he quickly tires of telling about
a part of his life he now feels he has put behind him.
"I'm not a human interest story, man," he announces testily
at one point. "I'm just a musician trying to make some small
records and be happy, be peaceful."
For years, peace had eluded him, but with the help of friends and
the Musicians Assistance Program - a record industry-sponsored program
that provides funds and guidance for musicians seeking attention for
drug and alcohol dependency - Lanegan was able to get into a drug
rehabilitation center in California late last fall. After spending
a month there and another six months in recovery homes, Lanegan says
he has finally put drugs behind him.
Now living in Southern California, he is busy writing songs and recording
new material with longtime collaborator Mike Johnson, formerly of
Dinosaur Jr. These days the songs are pouring out of him. He already
has an album of new material ready to go, and the creative faucet
can't be shut off.
Though his songs still explore the darkness, his sense of humor is
intact. Of the many critics who compare his voice to Jim Morrison's,
"It's probably what they say about all guys with deep voices
And he smiles when asked about the Trees' legendary reputation for
"That's all behind us," he says, laughing. "I'm all
about hugs these days."
Lanegan wouldn't recommend the path he has taken to anyone, but he
also doesn't worry about what he can't change now.
"Would I have done it differently? I don't know. I'm really happy
right now and I think that everything happens for a reason, as corny
as that sounds," he says.
"I'm much happier person now than at any other time in my life."