3rd September 2001
by Sabian Wilde

Some people just seem to ooze rock'n'roll through every pore. No matter that Mark Lanegan, once the vocalist for Seattle's Screaming Trees, is now the creator of boozy blues songs, as found on his latest album, Field Songs, he is still a card carrying member of the 'fuck 'em all', 'give a fuck' and 'who cares, anyway' rock club from hell.

Throughout Lanegan's career, fast approaching two decades of rock, he has worked with some of the biggest names in the underground - first with the Trees, and Then with numerous side projects with his friends from Dinosaur Jr, Soundgarden, Ministry etc, and once the hullabaloo of Field Songs dies down, it's straight back into the studio with his pals from Queens Of The Stone Age.

More than most, Lanegan lived the rock lifestyle to the hilt, including a well publicised 'substance' addiction, band break-ups, highs lows and really highs. Although he's currently in a state of chemical minimalism, when listening to his voice thread down the line from 'fucking hot' L.A., you just know that Joey Ramone is holding his spot in Rock Valhalla. Down-tempo as his solo stuff may be, within Lanegan lies the heart of a rock monster.

Most people probably best remember you from your time with the Screaming Trees, but you've actually been recording solo works and other projects the whole time, haven't you?

Yeah, I have, but the Trees were the main focus of my musical life for a long time. Everything else was just for the hell of it, really.

During that time, you've worked with a lot of significant people, a tradition you've continued with Field Songs, with Ben Johnson and Mat Shepherd. The sound of this album is vastly different from the Trees (or Dinosaur Jr or Soundgarden). Did playing all the blues/roots songs in the covers album have an impact on your solo material?

Well, God, I don't know. The records that came before the covers record were pretty similar in approach, and sonically to the one that came after it. I really feel like the covers record, soundwise and setting-wise, was not a radical departure. To me, it's all the same organism.

So even through the Trees, have you always had a love of this style of music?

No, I can't say I really did. In fact, somebody suggested it to me - well, to be quite honest with you, somebody offered me some money to make a solo record, so I bought a little guitar chord book, because up until that time I'd just been writing words for Screaming Trees. I learnt three chords and I wrote these songs in a hurried couple of weeks. Then I had a guy who could actually play guitar come in and add parts to them, and we recorded it in about three days and I thought, 'God, this is just stupid [laugh], I can't believe it'. When it was all said and done - I mean, the other guys working on it took it pretty seriously - when it was done, certain people liked it and they wanted me to make more, so I put a little bit more thought into it - but not much.

It was always just sort of something that I was able to do. It came along, I had free time on my hands, away from the Trees during the last 12 years to do it. It was something I hadn't done, but more than anything, it gave me an opportunity to make records with some of my friends outside of the Trees.

Has launching your solo career been a stark contrast with your experience with the Trees?

Well, it's a different kind of thing. I was with the Trees for so long, through so many different labels and in so many different situations: everywhere from playing for $100 a night, playing every night for months on end, right through to playing in front of huge audiences and recording for majors. Anything that happens with my solo thing is nothing I haven't seen before. I've played in front of absolutely nobody or in front of bigger audiences, and it was always the same with the Trees, too. I've been performing and making records for 18 years now - there's very little I haven't seen.

Do you have many opportunities to play in projects with other people?

Yeah, that's pretty much the way it goes. Any time I've been involved in anything outside my own little world it's because somebody asked me to. If it seems like something interesting, or something I would enjoy, Then I do it. But usually, it's people I already know, friends of mine.

Considering that you basically just work with your friends, do you find it odd that people perceive these bands as supergroups?

Well, yeah - if somebody was to advertise us as ex-members of Soundgarden, Ministry, Dinosuar Jr (and the Screaming Trees) and people come to see what we're doing, they're going to be disappointed. Although we consider it rock, it's not like what these guys are known for.

But that's part of the beauty of it, surely?

Definitely, absolutely. I mean, I think so.

Once you've spent a long time becoming successful at something, it can sometimes be difficult for your fans to let go when you decide to do something new, but you've received quite a bit of critical acclaim for your solo work, haven't you?

What, me personally? Like, uh I don't even think about what anybody's perception might be, it's just not part of my make-up. I've never been one of those guys that gave a damn what everybody thought - I just follow my own twisted sense of what's correct for me, and I always have. What anybody else thinks about it, I really don't consider that any of my business. Who cares? [laughs]

But it seems that lots of your contemporaries found success to be a kind of trap.

Well, I don't know who you mean by my contemporaries, but when I came into making music it was because I fell into it, it beat what I was doing at the time, pretty much hands down.

What was that?

Ah when I first started I'd just got out of jail and I was repossessing TVs for somebody, and their kids had a band in the back room of their shop, and that's how I fell into it. I was pretty young myself, and the suggestion that it would ever be a "career", or a way to make money, or that we would be on the radio or television would have seemed ridiculous to us - and it did, even as that eventually happened. I guess I never came into it with the mindset that it was going to be something I was successful at. As it turns out, whatever it was that I was doing, there's always been a small amount of people who seem to enjoy it, which allows me to keep doing it. That's how I've always thought about it.

There aren't many people who can claim that rock'n'roll is a more wholesome career over what they've done before.

Well, it was true in my case. The job I described that I was doing before I did this was nothing compared to some of the jobs I had before that, on which I think the statute of limitations has run out. Still, I'd rather not talk about them.

During your career, you obviously had some difficult times, and a lot of your private life became public at inappropriate times.

(Laughing) Yeah.

Do you remember a time when you could see what kind of damage you were doing to yourself, especially publicly?

Well, I don't know. Yeah, a lot of my mistakes - my less than stellar moments - were public ones, but, you know - the beauty of it is that if all my worst behaviour was public, I'd probably be a little embarrassed. But usually, the stuff that rose to surface was just the tip of the iceberg [laughing].

I'd say that most of my private embarrassments have been worse than my public ones. A person shouldn't live like I have and (sigh) I've never been that discreet of a guy, let's put it that way. A lot of times I've thought, and I guess to some extent I still do, that I'm going to do whatever the fuck I please - if it's illegal, or I don't agree with it - so be it - I'll pay the consequences.

Well, it's kind of a blues tradition to live a life steeped in sorrow - do you channel your experiences into your songs?

if I do, it's not consciously. Again, I just do whatever feels appropriate as I'm making up one of these dumb little songs - I don't question it too much, and a lot of times it's not 'til much later that I get a handle on what it means - if at all. I just kind of let it go.

Well, what kind of themes do you think are developing in your recent work?

What kind of themes? (Laughing) That's your job to figure out. What can I tell you? Sex and Death, the same as all rock'n'roll.

I've always felt that when I put myself into some situation - whether it be a collaborative situation like the Trees, or any of the other projects I've been associated with, or my own thing - I really just kind of did the same thing. It's not like I've radically changed at all - I don't know if I'm capable of it, because of the way that I think about it and also the way that it found me, y'know? I'm not a brain surgeon - I'm more of a breakfast cook.

Despite the difference between your down-key solo work, you're still racking up a massive body of highly respected rock work, with important people. It's like you can't avoid the spotlight.

Well, maybe it's because I don't think of it in those terms. This is the way that I think about it: I'm blessed to have a lot of really good friends; I'm blessed to have the opportunity to make music for a long time, which I enjoy; I'll be blessed if I have continued opportunities that way, because it is what I enjoy. I'm also blessed to be able to make music with the guys that I like to hang out with. I don't think of it in a Freddie Mercury kind of way - it's a day to day kind of way. I'm also the kind of guy who if somebody says, "Hey, you want to do something with me?", I say, "What are you? Crazy? What do you need me around for?" [laugh]. But sure, I'll do it - it'll be fun.

Well, you've certainly had your share of big rock.

Yeah, but it was sort of unwillingly (laughing). That was the part of the job, the part of the travelling that I didn't enjoy as much. But I certainly appreciated it, the strangeness of those situations, you know what I mean? In that way, I whole-heartedly wrapped my arms around it. As fantasy land as that life is, I can embrace it in that way, but it's not real life. You know, I'm going to get done here and pull some weed in the back yard, you know what I'm saying?

if there's nothing you're experiencing in your solo career that you haven't experienced at some level with the Screaming Trees, are you at least able to enjoy it a bit more now?

I'm just a different kind of guy now. I'm not saddled with with (laughs) how should I put it?


Obligations like I used to be. Just about everything I did that made things difficult for me on a certain level in previous days aren't part of me anymore. I've simplified. So yeah, last month we opened for AC/DC in England in front of 60,000 people or whatever and I had a big smile on my face the whole time.

For an artist who's in some ways considered part of the establishment, what's it like to open for AC/DC?

I first saw AC/DC when I was 13 years old, and it was one of the highpoints of my life. In a musical sense, playing with them was another one of those things.

So, from seeing something that inspired you, Then on to the rock'n'roll lifestyle and all the fantasyland stuff, where it's all bigger than life - do you feel like you're a part of it?

Well, I feel like I'm a part of it because I'm physically experiencing being there, but if you mean in an historical sense, some bigger picture - naw, I don't think about it in that way. As I was taking a piss next to Angus Young and he told me, 'Have a good life, mate,' - it wasn't lost on me. I've had one, and a lot of it is to do with rock music so, there you have it.

There's nothing quite so honest as urinal conversation, is there?

Well, it was by mistake I didn't recognise him out of uniform [laugh]. The guys in the Queens were very jealous. I just asked him what time it was and he turned around, looked over his shoulder, raised his eyebrows, kinda smiled and said, 'I wouldn't have a clue'. Then after he finished his business and I was doing mine, he returned the favour and said, 'Have a good life, mate'.