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Former Screaming Trees Frontman on Musical Collaboration, Recording Solo and Structuring His Songwriting
When attempting to characterize the enigmatic man that is Mark Lanegan, it’s only fitting to describe him as an artist with an inimitable, sin-soaked growl. There is a timeless quality in his signature bluesy baritone that serves to penetrate through listeners of all generations.
As someone who elicits such a deep-set emotional response, it’s no surprise to hear statements being tossed around the pit of the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on the eve of his highly anticipated performance – many of them paired with adjectives worthy of noting: “terrifying,” “bone-chilling,” and “hellish.” Clad in black, Lanegan stands firmly rooted at the microphone. Gazing intently out into the devoted crowd with its collective jaw hanging slack, he exhibits an otherworldly presence as he bellows his first lyric of the night: “With piranha teeth, I’ve been dreaming of you, and the taste of your love so sweet. Honest, it’s true.” Fast-forward to midnight, where Lanegan greets me invitingly before settling down beside me on a tattered leather sofa for our interview. Is that a smile?!
Lanegan’s story begins in the small town of Ellensburg, Washington, and is relatable to anyone who has struggled to find their niche: “Where I grew up, I didn’t really know anybody who listened to the same kind of music as I did.” His voice is low and unassuming, warmth exuding from each spoken word. “In fact, from the time I was 13 until probably 18, I didn’t know anybody. The first guys I met who did listen to that kind of music ended up being the guys [Gary Lee Conner, Van Conner, Mark Pickerel] that I started the Screaming Trees with.” Known as the “Godfathers of Grunge” and one of the most successful underground acts of the 1990s, the Trees’ sound incorporated hard rock and psychedelic elements, and is still celebrated today. “Other than that, I sort of fell into it,” Lanegan adds. “Those guys had already had bands for many years and could play instruments. When I started, it was different singing into a microphone in front of people than it was in my bedroom, singing along with records. It took me a while to get comfortable with it, but only about ten years!” Lanegan laughs, a welcome departure from the stern-faced rocker that stood onstage a mere hour ago.
On lyrics: “I get to not only create something that whoever’s going to connect to it can make
their own, but I get to create my own reality, as well.”
“When I started, I was really trying to sound like a couple of guys whose singing I loved. One was Jeffrey Lee Pierce [The Gun Club]. Falling James [Moreland] from Leaving Trains was another big influence on me. Early on, we played a lot in Portland, Oregon, and there was a thriving underground scene there. One of the main bands, Napalm Beach, had a singer named Chris Newman. If I could have sounded like anybody, it would have been him. But I soon realized that I really couldn’t sound like anybody but myself.”
The blues now appears to be a guiding force for Lanegan’s work and resonates deeply within him. “From the first time I started hearing that kind of music, it just seemed to have an effect on me. My experience is nothing like any of those guys singing, but somehow, it was talking about places that I had also been.”
As Lanegan is the first to acknowledge music’s ability to transport us to different realms and to heighten our awareness, it makes sense that he would prefer listeners create their own interpretations of his songs rather than inquire as to what inspired something in particular, or its meaning. “Ever since I’ve been listening to music, the music that I enjoyed and connected with made me see my own movie. It never occurred to me to wonder what anybody who wrote a song meant by it. To me, it was mine to make my own, however I wanted to think about it. When I started making my own music, I just naturally wanted to do that same thing for whoever might connect to it. Of course, some songs are more personal than others. Some partially come from a place of reality and then take on a life of their own because, after all, they’re songs and not real life. That’s what I enjoy about writing them: I get to not only create something that whoever’s going to connect to it can make their own, but I get to create my own reality, as well.”
The songwriting process itself is largely organic. “I’m usually doing it with the guitar, but sometimes, it’s with the keyboard. I can also start with the drums, a drum machine, and then add stuff to that. But generally, it’s with the guitar and putting together chord progressions while making sound with my voice at the same time – just the process of making sound through words until I find something that sounds pleasing. One of those words that I sing might end up telling me what the next word is supposed to be, and so on and so forth. That’s how I build it, bare bones like that. Once I have a structure down, I then try to do the words, but the map of it comes at the same time.” Such a method has resulted in The Winding Sheet (1990), Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994), Scraps at Midnight (1998), I’ll Take Care of You (1999), Field Songs (2001), and Here Comes That Weird Chill (2003).
On songwriting for the new record: “I had started messing around with the keyboard, synthesizer, and drum machine that I had gotten and wrote some of the stuff starting with those elements, which sort of dictated what the songs would sound like.”
2004 proved to be a turning point of sorts, bringing about the romantic despair of Bubblegum. A record best described as intimidating, exhilarating, intimate, and sensual, it built upon the ambient soundscapes explored throughout his past releases. Threaded throughout Bubblegum is an intricate arrangement of electronic elements, each of which works cohesively as a backdrop to the urgency of Lanegan’s vocals. A classic in its own right, Bubblegum stunned listeners in its ability to so accurately capture a moment in time, and it seemed as if Lanegan was a ticking time bomb with a rifle in his lap, waiting.
Now, eight years later, Lanegan speaks of his new record, Blues Funeral, as something unplanned but welcomed. “I was really just focused on all the other stuff I was doing. I hadn’t thought much about making a solo record until I suddenly didn’t have anything else to do. I began without any songs, started writing, and really had the best time making this record out of any I’ve ever made. That was an unexpected bonus, after all this time, to really enjoy something new. It was a great, great surprise.” The record utilizes many of the electronic elements found in his catalogue, especially in the opener, “The Gravedigger’s Song,” “Ode to Sad Disco,” and “Quiver Syndrome”: “I had started messing around with the keyboard, synthesizer, and drum machine that I had gotten and wrote some of the stuff starting with those elements, which sort of dictated what the songs would sound like. Then, for other songs, I wanted something specific. Alain Johannes made the record with me and took it further in the direction where it was going, so it continued down that road and kept pulling me in. He and I had made about half of Bubblegum together, and I hoped to use some of those elements on Blues Funeral but in a different way – more of a noisier texture from the drum machine, synthesizer, and the other stuff we had used on the last record. For this one, we used the electronics as the meat and potatoes of a song and in a more melodious way.”
Aside from crafting his own material, Lanegan has been an incredibly prolific collaborator over the last few years, making music and touring with Queens of the Stone Age, Isobel Campbell, The Twilight Singers, Soulsavers, and he even became a Gutter Twin alongside compatriot Greg Dulli [The Afghan Whigs, The Twilight Singers]. For Lanegan, the music that he makes with Greg Dulli and Josh Homme is more of an “afterthought.” He cites it as a result of their friendship that has spanned nearly 20 years and the time they spend together. In other collaborative situations, he first considers the questions: “Is it something that I like without me involved?” and “Are there people in it that I will enjoy hanging out with?” A huge fan of Isobel Campbell’s music, namely her Gentle Waves records and her involvement with Belle and Sebastian, Lanegan was grateful for the opportunity to work alongside her: “When she got in touch with me, I was really happy to do something with her because I was already a big fan. Almost always when I’m asked to do something, the answer is ‘yes.’ When I don’t do stuff, it’s usually because, logistically, I can’t make it happen.”
Lanegan does acknowledge a difference between the collaborative and solo environments. “When I’m making my solo records, I look at it as an opportunity to do whatever strikes my fancy. I don’t have to answer to anybody. I’ll ask Alain, for instance, what he thinks of something that I’m doing. But if I really want to do something that he doesn’t think is a good idea, we’re going to do it anyway.” Lanegan stops for a moment to laugh before continuing. “But that never happens. When I’m working with Isobel, I’m really there to enhance her vision and to be a part of what she’s doing, and that’s great. When I’m working with The Twilight Singers, it’s the same thing. I’m just there to enhance Greg’s vision. When with The Gutter Twins, it’s a shared vision, 50/50. Every bit of it we’re doing, talking about, and writing together. It’s always different, depending on the project. The main thing I enjoy about doing other stuff is that it allows me to step outside what I would normally do when left to my own devices. I get to see things through somebody else’s eyes and I’m always learning something from it. That’s really the key.” It’s evident that collaboration provides Lanegan with opportunities to not only explore but to expand and therefore, keep evolving. He is quick to cite the English composer, record producer, vocalist, and visual artist, Brian Eno, as his dream collaboration. “I would definitely not say ‘no’ if he came calling. He’s just made so many different kinds of records, each one of them great and that I love. I’ve listened to them for years and years and will always listen to them.”
In considering Lanegan’s successes and his innate ability to command a crowd, one would imagine that making music feels different to him now that it has become a career, as opposed to the days of singing in his bedroom. Although he considers himself better at it, he humbly finishes the sentence with “hopefully.” “I’ve just been doing it for so long that it’s gone in cycles. At times, it seems more like a job than others, but it hasn’t felt like a job in a long, long time. I’ve grown to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve grown to love it more. Things that I didn’t like for a long time, I now really like. I didn’t enjoy playing live for a long time. For years and years, I felt uncomfortable doing it. Now it’s something that I really enjoy. I’ve just been blessed in that way.”