In one of our best Baker's Dozens yet, Mark Lanegan talks Julian Marszalek through the most played discs in his collection
“I’ve never tried to escape my influences,” growls Mark Lanegan in that lived-in, nicotine-stained baritone voice of his. “Ever since I started making records I’ve always used the opportunity to give out the things that I’ve enjoyed to other people. I remember early on I was always really pleased if I found a way to put something in [of my influences] whereas now it’s a lot more sub-conscious.”
He allows himself the first of many chuckles that punctuate the next hour or so. Contrary to his public image, the former Screaming Trees vocalist proves to be a genial host. Warm and funny, his eyes – which frequently peer over the rims of his black spectacles – sparkle with a light that was rarely in evidence during his more inebriated years though the large tattooed hands and fingers that pour our several cups of coffee still possess the power to unnerve and terrify.
Having spent the last seven years collaborating with a number of artists including former Afghan Whig Greg Dulli under the Gutter Twins banner, Soulsavers, UNKLE and three successful albums with erstwhile Belle and Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell, Lanegan is back with Blues Funeral, his first solo release since Bubblegum. While the elements that made his previous albums so seductive remain firmly in place – the spectral Americana, the ability to create a sense of space and a mood of melancholy delivered in a voice that oozes experience, authority and heartache – Blues Funeral incorporates beats marshalled by sequencers with grand cinematic sweeps and a rock & roll sensibility that reveals an artist refusing to paint himself into a corner.
Mark Lanegan is meeting with The Quietus in a Pimlico hotel on a sunny December morning to discuss his thirteen favourite albums and as the conversation unfolds it becomes apparent how much these records have informed his new work. Unsurprisingly it’s Lanegan’s most far-reaching collection and certainly his most satisfying.
“With this new record, because I use a lot of the elements of my influences that I haven’t on previous record, I’ve made a record that’s something more like I would personally listen to than some of the records that I’ve made before,” he says. Judging by his choices, it’s hard to disagree.
The Gun Club
I’d never heard anything like it. I love it but it’s also very scary; I’ve described it before as ‘serial killer music’. It’s their second album and the songs are a lot more personal and more accessible at the same time. In some cases, that would make me go, ‘Ah, that sucks now’ but I love it even more after the third record and then Mother Juno came out with that crazy Robin Guthrie production. I loved that also; I loved all their records, actually. Miami, though, somehow internalised things more than their first record [The Fire Of Love]. It’s certainly a more spooky affair. [Gun Club lynchpin] Jeffrey Lee Pierce loved the third record [The Las Vegas Story], which is another incredible record, but what can you say about this? I suppose I could have chosen any Gun Club record but this record in particular resonates.
I was about 17 or 18-years-old when The Fire of Love first came out. It certainly wasn’t easy to access music in my hometown. There was a comic book store where the owner had a bunch of original punk rock singles and that’s where I became exposed to the music that became important to me. But after that I didn’t really have anything so that first Gun Club record I actually got by taking a bus 120 miles to Seattle where there were three or four record stores in the downtown area where I would walk around. I saw the record cover and liked the name of the name of the band and I thought, ‘This looks interesting…’ Of course when I heard the record I was really captivated because Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s singing voice was really intense. To this day, he’s still probably my favourite singer of all time.
I got to know Jeffrey Lee. I was at a show at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles and I’d gone along to see Mike Watt with fIREHOSE. Their soundman and I were friendly and I said, ‘Oh hey, what you been doin’?’ and he said, ‘I’ve been out with The Gun Club’ and I said, ‘What?!’ because I’d never heard of them playing anywhere in the United States at that point.
And I said to him, ‘Man, I love those guys. They’re my favourite band’ and he said, ‘Oh really? Well, Jeffrey’s going to be here tonight, he’s staying at his mom’s just down the street.’ I said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to introduce me.’
While the band was playing that night I noticed that Steve the soundman was looking at me and next to him was Jeffrey and at some point I went up to him – and this was one of the first and last times that I approached someone cold as a fan but I was so into their music – and I introduced myself and said, ‘You know, I’m one of your biggest fans and I can’t tell you how much your music means to me’ and he said, ‘Do you ever come to London?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah… I might be there next month’ and he said, ‘Here’s my phone number there. Give me a call when you get there and we’ll get something to eat’ and I was like [makes wild-eyed gesture], ‘Uh… OK!’ and that’s how we became friends.
You know, I can’t remember how I came across Joy Division but shortly after that record came out I had a cassette copy of it and it was stuck in my car stereo and I couldn’t play anything else. At the time it was wintertime and I was working about 45 – 50 miles from where I lived and the place was covered with snow and the skies were overcast and grey for months. I was working in an orchard cutting trees that grow off the roots of apple trees and you have to cut them off beneath ground level which is frozen. You have to dig the shears in and cut these things off.
So I was driving all this way and listening to nothing but Closer and all day long those songs would be in my head and it became the soundtrack for all my waking hours. It just somehow made sense. It also wasn’t the greatest period of time in my life but that record made me feel better. Sometimes when you hear something that’s mirroring something that’s happening in your life – so much so that it hurts – it makes you feel better.
How did this affect me as lyricist and songwriter? All these records are, for the most part, personal and they may come from an individual or a wide range of people and emotions but they’re all coming from young people and that’s naturally what I was drawn to as a listener and I guess I did my own version of that. I don’t know if I’m trying to articulate some universal truth. I haven’t thought about it in that much depth. I’m just trying to articulate something that suits a particular piece of music.
I once saw this described as a “greatest hits record without any hits on it” which is right! It’s one of the best things [Screaming Trees guitarist] Gary Lee Connor did for me – he turned me on to this record. I still love listening to it; nobody sings like Bryan Ferry. If there was someone in my collection that I could have sounded like, he’d be one of them.
There have been four or five-hour periods of my time where I’ve had ‘The Thrill of It All’ on repeat as I did stuff around my house. The whole record is fantastic. Again, so many of their records are great but this one in particular is my favourite.
You might imagine him to be the last person to be a Roxy Music fan but Gary Lee Connor actually had really diverse tastes in music. Is being turned on to new music like learning a new language? Absolutely! There’s nothing better than coming across something that doesn’t sound like anything like you’ve heard before and is unique unto itself which I think can be said for most of these records [that are under discussion today].
Most of the records that I love have things in common with each other but on the whole they all stand alone. Roxy Music have that and not just because of the way Bryan Ferry sings but because of the music as well. I guess that could be said of any great band.
The Bee Gees
This was one of their first albums where their brilliance hit me. There are a lot of their records that could be here; like Odessa. I’ve said this before but to me they’re like what The Beatles are to other people. I’m really in awe of them; they’re really, really great. Their harmonies are obviously intensely great and not like anybody else and the songs are… look, I’m saying stuff that anybody could say about the things they love but with this record in particular, every single song here I love. Like most of the stuff that I’m drawn to there’s also a certain kind of melancholy that somehow gets inside me and makes me feel as though I’m living in their songs.
I never really liked The Bee Gees because I was never exposed to them outside of their big hits. When that was happening I was listening to a different kind of music but in the 90s I started listening to them. I think [collaborator and one-time Dinosaur Jr bassist] Mike Johnson turned me on to them and by that time I didn’t care who knew what I liked. I have no problem saying that I love The Bee Gees and I wasn’t really aware of their records before the disco era until Mike introduced me to it.
They’re one of the bands that you can get into because of the amount of cover versions out there. They have such a wealth of great songs that can be done in different genres. I heard Al Green do ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ long before I heard their version and I when I finally heard theirs I was like, ‘Man! I’ve to be on the ball with this shit!’ They’re fantastic songwriters.
The Flesh Eaters
I came across them because [frontman Chris D] had produced the first Gun Club record. I somehow found out that he made records also and this is probably my favourite record of all time. It’s a perfect record, in my opinion, from start to finish. It doesn’t sound like anything else because of Chris D’s unhinged way of singing as well as the massive amount of lyrics that he fits into a small space. But also that combination of marimba and sax with powerful guitar riffs. That also appears on their other records but it’s wonderfully distilled on this record. It’s also a very short record, maybe just over a half hour long but it’s fantastic. Chris D is one of the all-time greats.
The Flesh Eaters had this great noir feel about them and that’s also true about the way Chris D writes; he writes outside of music and it’s almost like pieces from a Jim Thompson novel.
Fabrizio de Andre
A few years ago I was in Italy with my friends from the Italian band Afterhours in a restaurant and heard something on the stereo that was totally captivating and so great and so sad sounding and I said, ‘What is this?’ And they said, ‘Oh, this is Fabrizio de Andre’ and I said, ‘This is so great!’
As I was leaving they gave me a CD of this record. I have no idea what he’s singing except vaguely on the Leonard Cohen covers but there’s one song on there which I think is translated as ‘The Song of Lost Love’ (‘Canzone Dell'Amore Perduto’) that’s so great that it makes me very emotional. I love hearing it.
My girlfriend has horses and I was listening to it on my phone at the stables and all the horses came in and she was like, ‘Oh my God! They really love that!’ They do! They were all like, ears up, completely attentive. I’ve played music round there before but nothing like this! It definitely has its charms. I don’t know if certain sounds affect animals but we were sure on the same page.
I love all of Kraftwerk’s records but this one, for some reason, is the one I always go back to. There was a period of time when I would listen to it every night with the lights off and looking out of the window – usually of a hotel – at the lights of a city and that’s still the best way to hear it. It takes me to another place and I can’t really explain why I love that record.
It’s a record from a different world – that’s the way it sounds to me. My dad gave me a used copy of Autobahn – he was a schoolteacher and came across a box of used records that he found in the attic of his school – and that was my first exposure that kind of music. It’s really different.
I first heard John Renbourn singing on the Pentangle song ‘Lord Franklin’ which I was obsessed with until I then found his solo stuff. On this record in particular I think a lot of Pentangle purists aren’t so into because it has a lot of wah-wah guitar, sitar and groovier elements and that’s part of the reason why I love it. But mainly I love it because it’s quiet; it sounds like he’s singing really quietly but it’s been brought up in the mix. There’s something about the way his singing voice sounds that taunts me and makes me want to hear what he’s singing. And what’s he’s saying is really dark and off-kilter although there are a number of upbeat, happier songs on this record. I love this record.
When I met John Renbourn - and this is only the second time that I’ve done this to anybody; I don’t want to make out that I approach all my musical heroes! – at a Jools Holland show when Pentangle were on it that I wanted to have my photo taken with him, I told him that Faro Annie was one of my all-time favourite albums and he said, ‘Well, what are you doing looking in the oldies bin?’ [Laughs uproariously]. That was totally cool!
The Leather Nun
Their cover of Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ is fantastic! I don’t know how popular they were in the States – personally, I don’t know anyone who’s into them – but I know that everything I have done since I heard this record has a piece of this album in it. It’s a huge influence on me. I’m sort of a sucker for European persons singing in English – there’s something about it! They have this one song called ‘Prime Mover’ and I probably shouldn’t say this but I’ve managed to write four or five songs out of that song over the years.
Like all of these records, it’s one that I’ve heard a million times but one that I still listen to. It’s not like the Stones or Zeppelin – the kind of bands that I loved but have heard so many times that I never want to hear again – but have this just as much but I never get tired of listening to it.
Is that combination of the profound and the profane in their name something that appeals? I don’t know though I have been drawn into the seedier side of life at time. I never got to see these guys but I’ve seen a couple of clips on YouTube from their reunion tour and they sort of looked like they could be the guys from Saxon [laughs hard] so it might have turned out different if I’d seen them back in the day.
I got into John Cale via The Velvet Underground. I love Lou Reed; Berlin, Street Hassle and Transformer are three great, great records but over the years I’ve really gotten into the Cale records. Again, they’re records that I will always listen to and one of the reasons is his voice – he’s one of my all-time favourite singers, especially when he’s straining a little bit. No matter what he sings – and oftentimes his lyrics are like paragraphs or chapters from a novel – it hits me in a way that makes me emotional. And I love all of his records.
This one in particular is great and his has three of my all-time favourite songs on it. It has a great sense of melancholy. ‘Hanky Panky Nohow’ has a wonderful yearning which is bizarre because the opening lyrics of that song are, “If the sacheting of gentlemen/Gives you grievance now and then” and I’m thinking, ‘Why does that make me so sad?’ [laughs] and ‘Why are you singing about elephants and cows and why is that making me so sad?’ But it does because the melody is so incredible. It makes me feel sad but in the best possible way.
I wasn’t even aware that the Little Feat guys were playing on it until maybe a couple of years ago when John was playing the Paris 1919 album in LA a couple of years ago. I did a few songs with him in the second half of the set – ‘Ghost Story’ and a Nico song – but whilst reading a preview of that show that I found out that the Little Feat guys had played on it and I was like, ‘Wow! This is not like anything I’ve heard those guys play!’ And it was because of that preview that I sang with Cale. I called his manager to get on the guest list and she said, ‘Would you like to do a couple of songs?’ and I was like, ‘Even better!’ So at least this is one Little Feat record that I love [laughs]!
Crime And The City Solution
I could have picked Paradise Discotheque which is one of their last records and it’s really, really great but Shine is succinct and is great from start to finish. There’s a great sense of space on this record that’s fantastic but the thing that I’m most drawn to is the melancholy on some of those songs. But it also has a cinematic quality. ‘On Every Train (Grain Will Bear Grain)’ is a really sad song but it has a sort of imagery that has a dignity to it. It’s hard to put your finger on but it’s really compelling.
Also, the way Simon Bonney sings in relation to the music with his phrasing is unique and really compelling.
The last few years, there hasn’t been anything to derail me and I’ve pretty much set aside all the extra-curricular stuff that has taken my time and attention away from my music in the past. I enjoy making music now. I’ve always been a fan and enjoyed listening to it but I haven’t always enjoyed the process of making it, especially in a live setting, but now I really enjoy that as well. I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunity and in previous times maybe I haven’t been able to fulfill that opportunity. It seems crazy that I’m still making music and it seems just like yesterday that I was just a breakfast cook.
To be able to sit here and talk about my favourite records – if I think about that – as part of what I do for a living, well, what could be better?
The New Christs
Oh yeah! The New Christs… In 1989, I lived in a house with [Earth’s] Dylan Carlson. There were three of us living in this really bare house in the wintertime. The front room was like the waiting room in a morgue. We didn’t have a TV; we just had a stereo. Somebody had that record – I’m pretty sure it came from the early days of Sub Pop because they distributed other records as well – and we would just sit around and listen to that record. I knew The New Christs singer Rob Younger from Radio Birdman but his singing on this record and subsequent records by The New Christs is so much better than what he did before. It was so different.
It’s a bit like Simon Bonney; Younger’s phrasing is so great and also, this record is catchy in a really weird way and his singing is so out there and unique. He works around the music and he’s really aggressive. Lyrically, I wouldn’t say embittered but he’s really angry and somehow all three of us in this house could relate to that at the time. And I still can from time to time.
I don’t know what Joy Division fan couldn’t love a song like ‘Sunrise’. To me, it’s like the sister tune of ‘Twenty Four Hours’ and it’s one of those guys’ most rocking tunes but I can see how some of the dance stuff might turn off some of those people [who decried New Order’s move away from their origins].
When I first heard this record I was at a girlfriend’s house and when ‘Love Vigilantes’ came on I thought for a second that Augustus Pablo had come on and then I found it who it was. I still love that album and if you call my cellphone you’ll see that ‘Subculture’ is my ringtone [pulls out his phone and with a huge grin plays his ringtone to prove it]. I was so obsessed with ‘Subculture’ when it came out in 1985 and when Screaming Trees recorded their first album in 1986 [Clairvoyance] I quite cleverly lifted the “park” and “dark” bits from the song [bursts into uncontrollable laughter]… Oh, wow! I’m not so proud of that!
A few years after that, I loved ‘Sunrise’ so much that I wrote a song called ‘Sunrise’ as well. Was there any temptation for Screaming Trees to move in that direction? Absolutely not. I don’t think we were capable of doing anything outside of our little box!