Mark Lanegan: "My natural inclination is to make as loud a noise as possible"
Returning this month with his first 'solo' album since 2004, Mark Lanegan assembles his band for a Blues Funeral and lays the past to rest
Lounging in the restaurant of a Westminster hotel on a rare sunny December morning, Mark Lanegan – flannel shirted, starter cap flipped backwards, tattooed fingers locked under his chin – peers over his glasses to summarise the eight year period since he last released a solo album.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities involving people who sounded interesting, people whose music I already liked and people whose company I enjoyed,” he starts. “I’ve taken advantage of that and always done the next indicated thing. Most of the stuff I’ve been asked to do hasn’t been crazily outside my ballpark. Usually if it is outside my ballpark it’s more attractive to me anyway.”
One can only imagine that the intervening years – spent on projects with fellow dark lord of 90s alt rock Greg Dulli, electronic producers Soulsavers and Glaswegian chanteuse Isobel Campbell – had proven creatively fortuitous, arming Lanegan with an arsenal of ideas for his seventh solo album. “Generally when I start a record I go back into my bag of cassette tapes where I’ve put down ideas and usually find one or two things to start a record with there,” he says. “I went back through those tapes this time around and they were all demagnetized – there was nothin’ on any of them.”
Save for a solitary track idea that didn’t pan out for an unnamed 'electronic' contractor’s record – only to later become the basis for lead single The Gravedigger’s Song – Lanegan took to the studio with a clean palette. Fans who have become accustomed to the Washingtonian’s brand of ‘dead slow rock and roll’ might be surprised to find our man down the disco, arms aloft, for Blues Funeral. Did he set out to make a more up-tempo record?
“I didn’t really know what kind of record I was going to make,” he shrugs. “I just started doing it. Didn’t have any songs when I started, just started writing and recording. The music dictated the setting and the instrumentation. For a long time I’ve been into electronic music, using drum machines and synthesizers on Bubblegum quite a bit, so it didn’t seem odd to me.”
Lanegan has come a long way since making his solo debut on the fledgling Sub Pop label with The Winding Sheet in 1990. Overseen by in-house producer Jack Endino and featuring performances by then upcoming friends Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, the sparse, largely acoustic offering was later referenced by Dave Grohl as a key influence on Nirvana’s approach to Unplugged in New York. But it was his partnership with guitarist Mike Johnson that would prove the most fruitful on record; the two struck upon a kind of modern blues – as indebted to the folk standards of Leadbelly as the punk sensibilities of The Gun Club. “You know what,” he grins. “I was just trying to find a way to get a hold of Mike a few days ago. I’d seen something funny I knew he’d enjoy too. I love Mike, and I love those records we made together, mainly for the experience of working with him. We both really enjoyed the same kind of obscure music, and had a shared vision.”
The two worked together until the completion of the tour behind Lanegan’s majestic 2001 album Field Songs, by which time he was already entrenched in Queens of the Stone Age. Having recorded Bubblegum and now Blues Funeral with a number of steady collaborators he’s regularly gravitated towards over the years – most of whom share Queens or The Twilight Singers as a common denominator – I ask whether it’s a comfortable arrangement. “In [Chris] Goss’s case, I loved his music since before I ever met him – loved the first Masters of Reality record. He’s a friend of mine. Is it comfortable? Not always, with him it’s sometimes challenging,” Lanegan concedes. “At some point I think we’re going to do a record together – just he and I, that’s another plan on the backburner. Mainly I’m just a huge fan of what he does, and when I’m doing something I can oftentimes hear his voice or his playing. On this one I asked him to do something on a particular song and when he heard it he said ‘I think that’s fine without me,” he chuckles. “I was like, y’know, ‘c’mon man!’ He did it, and that makes the song for me. It’s a resource.”
As Lanegan traces his prosperous friendship with Goss back to the recording of Screaming Trees’ gospel-tinged 1996 swansong Dust, we stray onto the topic of the recently released Last Words – a chronicle of the Trees’ final demo sessions, recorded while the band knew it was falling apart. 12 years after their final gig, is he glad the recordings finally surfaced?
“Those guys have been coming to me for a while,” he says hesitantly. “I liked those songs when we did ‘em. When I listened to the mixes – that was my involvement, saying this is OK, which they all were – there wasn’t anything I wasn’t cool with, they did a fine job of mixing it. That’s all I really cared about. But when I heard those songs back I was surprised at the emotion that it brought up. It was weird – I realised that they were still really good songs; so yeah, in that way I was glad that they came out.
“But I would have felt that the Trees was bookended if we had ended on any of our records,” he laughs. “I mean, that’s not to say I didn’t think there was a wealth of songs – there could have been three more records after that, because one thing Gary Lee Conner did was write a lot of really great songs in my opinion, but, five years is a long time for a band, ten years is a long time for a band, fifteen years is a really long time for a band – and that’s how long we were together. That’s a good eight years longer than my longest love relationship.”
With a number of Screaming Trees’ formerly defunct peers having overcome ego (Soundgarden) and even death (Alice in Chains) to once again function as formidable touring prospects in recent years (indeed, the news that Dulli is set to reconvene the Afghan Whigs for a series of gigs this summer breaks just a few days after we meet), does Lanegan see any allure in following suit?
“Well, after the very last show that the Trees did – which I’ll say we only did because we were offered a significant amount of money to do it – I said to whoever was managing us at the time ‘Don’t ever tell me again if someone wants me to do this,’” he shakes his head even now. “It didn’t make me feel good. It wasn’t easy collaborating with the Trees; for some reason we were like water and fire. Music should have a certain amount of joy to it, and it had stopped doing that for me. I won’t say how long before, but it had stopped. Regardless of me saying that, it still comes up. As a matter of fact there was an offer last summer, but I’m not interested in doing it. I don’t know if those guys are…”
Are the lines of communication open? “Sure, I just exchanged texts on Thanksgiving with Van and Barrett Martin, and there was a certain amount of contact as this demos record came about. When I’m in Seattle sometimes I see Barrett, Van lives quite a bit further north from there. Lee has lived in Texas for years and he and I were never close anyway, so… it’s like family,” he laughs.
Not that this has stopped Lanegan from embracing his old band’s catalogue – an acoustic UK tour with guitarist Dave Rosser in the summer of 2010 saw the dust blown from several songs long overdue an airing. “The fact I found some Trees songs that I could actually play in that setting and had never played with Dave – that was cool. I enjoyed that. Even some of my own songs that I’d never played before somehow lent themselves to that setting. Of course, more than that, it was the cover songs that I enjoyed the most, that’s what I get psyched the most about.
“Playing those Trees songs was actually like doing covers. It gave me an opportunity to do some stuff that I hadn’t done, but also it was challenging. Always with me, my natural inclination is to make as loud a noise as possible; I don’t know it that’s because I’ve always felt uncomfortable on stage in a setting like that. I’m probably not naturally inclined to be the guy standing in front of people doing stuff, but that forced me to, in a bare-naked way, and really that’s one of the things that keeps me interested in music, and doing something a little bit outside of my comfort zone.”
“The older I get, the more I enjoy it. I really enjoy travelling. Now I enjoy lots of things I didn’t appreciate when I was younger – I enjoy meeting people,” he chuckles, appreciating the irony of pointing at a journalist while he says it. Renowned as a personality who has treated the press with distrust in previous years, I ask if it’s getting easier. “It’s all easier now,” he confesses, sprawled on a sofa. “When I was younger there was nothing easy about it for me, somehow. Even playing and making new songs wasn’t easy for me. I was one of those people who tended to make life difficult for myself. I’ve learned through time, trial and a lot of error to embrace life,” he laughs heartily. “For lack of a better term.”
Lanegan leaves us with the news that he’ll be touring Blues Funeral extensively for most of the year, and that he’s just finished an album with English folk guitarist Duke Garwood, though “there’s no timetable for that release, or even a home for it yet.”
Is it possible that Mark Lanegan – having recorded with Cobain, passed up a tour fronting MC5 and co-written a song with his idol Jeffrey Lee Pierce – still has a dream collaborator out there that he’s waiting on a phone call from? “I’m sure there is; there’s a tonne of ‘em.” It’s anyone's guess where he'll turn up next; even he's in the dark. I remind him that we're overdue some new material from his virtuosic old partner Mike Johnson. “I never rule anything out,” he lingers over the prospect. "That would be fantastic."