from Your Flesh Magazine
Mark Lanegan's Emergency Room Confessions
Although Mark Lanegan first earned near-fame as lead singer in the grungedelic pop group, the Screaming Trees, his solo career has rapidly out-measured the quality and quantity of his former band’s output. Beginning with the Screaming Trees in the mid ’80s, Lanegan honed his ragged, plummeting deep vocals throughout that decade on the group’s series of outstanding albums on SST. After the Trees signed to Sony, Lanegan took some time out to record a collection of songs with the help of several well-known friends (including Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Steve Fisk, J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. bassist, Mike Johnson). The singer’s solo debut (The Winding Sheet, released on Sub Pop in 1989) bore little resemblance to the Screaming Trees’ standard fare of distorted wah-wah guitar and droning rock. Instead, the album proved the power and versatility to Lanegan’s voice—some might even argue, it revealed that the singer’s talent was being squandered on the buzzing blare of his regular band. And, what an incredible voice it is—his two-octave range allows for a variety of expression that can vacillate from soothing and gentle to ominous and menacing.
Of course, most of the general populace wouldn’t recognize Lanegan’s voice, much less his name. However, the success of the Screaming Trees’ lone hit song, “I Nearly Lost You” (thanks to the soundtrack from the vapid Gen-X romantic-comedy, Singles) bought more exposure for the band, and a rather well publicized drug addiction for Lanegan. Nonetheless, amid all the chaos of drug use, as well as constant touring and promotion for his band, the singer managed to piece together another fantastic solo album in 1993, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, which further underscored his talents. As things spiraled out of control for the band, and in Lanegan’s private life, the Screaming Trees ground to a halt following the release of its tepid final album, Dirt. The singer eventually wound up in rehab and scraped together the spotty but redeeming album, Scraps at Midnight in 1998. A couple years later, Lanegan lent his soulful rasp to a remarkable collection of cover songs, I’ll Take Care of You (Sub Pop)—featuring songs by the Gun Club, Tim Hardin, Eddie Floyd, Brook Benton, and the Leaving Trains—that far supersede their original versions. Then, in May 2001, the singer released his latest, and quite likely his best album to date, Field Songs (again on Sub Pop). With each new album, the depth and power of his voice and music prove that Mark Lanegan is a singer and songwriter of such rare caliber that he deserves inclusion in the coterie of such legends as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Nick Drake. While he hasn’t managed to hit the aforementioned artists’ level of popularity just yet, Lanegan’s unparalleled talent and body of work ought to stand the test of time. Lanegan spoke to me for Your Flesh via cell phone near a busy Los Angeles emergency center in May 2001.
When writing a song, what are you hoping that it will do? Are your lyrics intended to make sense of observations or tell stories, or something else?
I really don’t have any goals, man. Except just to finish songs. (laughs) No, I’m just looking to please myself. It’s always vague, the whole process of writing songs. If I like the sound of something, then I go with it. Just little things, you know? I get off on the strange things. If there’s something strange to me and I don’t quite understand it, then I enjoy it. I’m always surprised if anybody liked it at all. At the end of it all, I hope that it makes me see something. I’m not a visually-oriented guy. If I hear something and it makes it like a character in my own movie, then I like it. It sort of reveals itself to me.
If I do something just fucking around and it sounds good, I go with it. I don’t really know until the song is finished because just a little bit of something will tell me what comes next in a song. Hopefully, the less the better. I like it to have some mystery to me, personally. It can show itself in different ways later on, if I leave it alone for a while. Part of it is me and part of it is me as someone else. Man, I’m getting too philosophical about this, huh? I don’t really think about it too much, but I like it if I don’t really know what it means. Then, other people can say it’s about this or about that.
(An ambulance passes, with sirens blaring)
Hold on…It seems like everywhere I go, I find myself near some kind of trauma center. (laughs)
How do you consider your music? People often call it moody or dark, but it really just seems wary or doubtful…it’s observational introspection.
I don’t know. It’s kind of slow, so maybe that sounds gloomy. I prefer slower songs. But, it’s not gloomy to me. I kind of find [my songs] funny.
You’re not really a pensive or moody person?
No, I’m a pretty happy guy.
You seem to be just a music fan who writes songs, rather than the typical singer/songwriter type.
That’s how I fell into this whole thing. I liked listening to records and then I met some guys that liked the same kind of music as I do. Now, I’ve been doing it forever. I like to listen to music. I like to travel, and it allows for all that… and other things (laughs).
Are you still drawn to the loud rock ’n’ roll sound?
I like listening to it, and I don’t mind singing it if someone wants me to. I consider my records to be rock, but they’re definitely not the loud, in-your-face variety. I like that as well.
What other projects are you working on? You’re doing a band with Greg Dulli and singing for Queens of the Stone Age, what else?
Greg and I are gonna make records, but it’s not really a band. It’s sort of a project thing, just writing some songs together.
You seem generally interested in collaboration.
Well, I never really was, but then people ask me to do stuff, and if it’s interesting, or if it’s with people I like, I’ll do it. Of course, these records that I make are collaborative… who ever I can rope in to work on it.
Do you usually compose a song, then put some lyrics together and record that part and then bring people in to add to it?
Yeah. Pretty much. The way it goes is it’s usually me and Mike (Johnson, former Dinosaur Jr. bassist) or Ben (Shepard, ex-Soundgarden bassist). I’ll show ’em the songs, then we’ll lay that down and start piling shit on it. It’s sort of backwards.
So, a lot of songs are finalized in the studio?
Yeah, it’s usually pretty vague going in.
There seems to be a gradual reduction of writing with Mike Johnson.
I’ll tell ya, on the first record, I had a bunch of ideas, but I only knew about three chords. So, Mike came in and put beginnings and middles on them. Which is knowing a few more than me. On the next one (Whiskey for the Holy Ghost), I think I wrote them all. Then the next one (Scraps at Midnight), I was out on a week pass from a halfway house. So, we had to write songs pretty quick (laughs). Then the next one (the all-covers album, I’ll Take Care of You) I didn’t write any, of course. And, the newest one were songs we both had laying around, but we don’t really see each other too often. And, we never have really sat down and written together. On Scraps he had some music for a bunch of things and I just made some words on them. But, it’s usually out of some necessity. It’s not like we’re sitting around writing songs together, although I wouldn’t mind that.
You’re not too precious about being the auteur of all your records, right?
Hell no. In fact, it’s embarrassing that they have my name on ’em. I always felt uncomfortable about that, but Sub Pop insisted on it, so it’s stuck.
What are some of your favorite songs you’ve written and recorded so far?
I don’t know. I like the last three songs on the new record. They really interest me. I’m usually fond of the songs that are the most fucked up, somehow. The ones that seem like a real song, I don’t have much interest in for very long.
You like looking for those musical nooks and crannies with broken parts in them?
Yeah, if something’s unfinished or not right… that’s the stuff I’m drawn to.
Is that a general personality trait, or what?
I don’t know.
Well, you find yourself near trauma centers pretty often…
There you go. I like to see the maimed, the dead and dying. The imperfect.
Your lyrics seem to grapple with decisions in regard to other people. Do you tend to write songs as a means to explain your actions and thoughts to other people?
Somebody once described them as a ploy (laughs).
You return to the same lyrical themes pretty often, just like the way country and blues songs do. Is that conscious or just what comes out?
It’s just what comes out. If I thought about it, then I’d probably stop doing it. Because, that would be boring as hell. I just want to reflect the type of stuff I like to listen to.
Why do you think that drugs and substance abuse play such a big role in the things that people write about your music?
I think if people knew who I was at all, that’s been my identity. I’ve been known to do drugs (laughs). And, I’ve never been the most discreet guy in that department, so maybe that’s why.
But you wouldn’t describe your music as drug-related, or written from the perspective of an opiated mind?
Some of the parts of it that relate to me specifically, the seeds of it all are something personal. Whether it remains personal or not, I don’t know—and, I’m talking about the songs here. It’s not, like, “druggy” music (laughs)… You’re not gonna put it on and catch a nod to it. It’ll put you to sleep (laughs). But it’s just up to somebody’s idea of what you listen to on some type of drug. Like, what do you listen to if you’re a tweaker? Korn, maybe? …put on some nice harmonium music and shoot some dope… but, there are aspects of it in a different sort of way.
It’s interesting that Screaming Trees were considered a psychedelic band, and your solo work is often referred to as narcotic folk. There seems to be a lineage of comparisons connecting your music to some kind of drug use.
Well, Screaming Trees certainly ate their share of acid… But, I think it had more to do with one of the guys in the band being very heavily influenced by that ’60s era music. We all liked 13th Floor Elevators and shit like that. We definitely weren’t peace and love kind of guys. We were sort of the hippies’ evil twin.
You were the post-Altamont hippies.
Yeah (laughs). We were more like violent hillbillies, amongst ourselves.
In an interview with you from a while back, you’d mentioned an interest in the Bee Gees and the interviewer seemed incredulous about the thought of you liking something so perky. Obviously, he wasn’t thinking about their ’60s-era stuff, but even throughout their career (as well as other pop bands like the Turtles), most of their most popular songs mention death and other very dark themes.
Exactly, there’s tons of loss in the Bee Gees. Which I think anybody can relate to. That’s the influence of the Bee Gees on me…I mean, they had a huge hit song about a guy trapped in a mine! (laughs) It’s twisted—and catchy.
Catchy desperation. Do you see that as a bigger theme in some of what you’re going for?
Maybe. It definitely turns out that way. I’d rather not think about it, because I’d probably try to stop it.
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The above piece was originally published in Your Flesh #46.