An Interview with Mark Lanegan

He has been compared to Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave; after almost thirty years of music, it is time to let go of these comparisons. Mark Lanegan is his own man.

All of the clichés regarding Mark Lanegan are known, especially to the Israeli audience that has seen him several times in solo performances or collaborations with other artists and bands (The Twilight Singers, Isobel Campbell, and The Gutter Twins). He’s tall, dark and possesses a scorching voice; he will collaborate with anything that moves; he tends to intimidate certain people; but despite (and perhaps due to) a tangled and complex past, Lanegan still makes great and uncompromising music.

His biography and discography are known as well: The beginning in the mid-80s in Ellensburg, east WA with the Screaming Trees, who played heavy psychedelic garage-rock and disbanded in the late 90s after seven albums; Five solo albums of minimalist Americana-blues-folk, almost acoustic in nature, during the 90s; Another three albums in the past decade – this time louder, more experimental and industrial in spirit – recorded under the name Mark Lanegan Band, even though there was never actually asolid band; A long list of collaborations, including three albums with Isobel Campbell, a regular guest of Queens of the Stone Age, two albums with the electronic duo Soulsavers, and a collaboration with a great soul-saver in his own right – Greg Dulli, through Dulli’s Twilight Singers and Dulli and Lanegan’s band The Gutter Twins. All of this without mentioning any number of covers and guest appearances in countless albums with countless artists.

In his art and personality Lanegan evokes two powerful images: Western and Christian-religious. Lanegan named his second solo album from 1994 “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost,” and all of the images that would accompany his songs throughout his career were already there. Long before the celebrated TV show, he sang about the Carnival; about the country fairs (Shooting Gallery), the traveling circuses and the freak shows that exist on the margins of law and society. He sang about country bands, and all of that is strange and horrible and beautiful in these carnivals. He sang about the river rise and the sunrise, about the hyacinth blossom and the apple carts. He sang about the tattered hotel in Juarez, about a distant hotel in an unknown town next to the border (When Your Number Isn’t Up) and about railways and trains that cross those vast and sparse spaces (Deep Black Vanishing Train).

Along his way, Lanegan displays an uphill struggle between the sins of the flesh and the soul’s will of salvation. His music is rife with countless references to Jesus and to the Holy Mother, to the Holy Ghost and to the resurrection, Hell’s wandering dogs (The Winding Sheet) and crosses hanged everywhere (Kingdoms of Rain), and a bastard’s son falling for the preacher’s daughter. While his prodigal son persona is an age-old archetype of sin and salvation, to him it remains personal, private and intimate. You can believe him when he sings of how he had tried to break free, but of how difficult it is for one to escape the imprint of his birthplace.

He is no longer the young man who fronted a Grunge band in those not-so-cheery Seattle days over 20 years ago. He’s almost 50, and that is why he is in a position to offer the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a man who has been through so much: Those of someone who had his share of sorrow and loss, wanderings and ghosts, lack of recognition or success as well as bad loves and breakups and even worse breakups, failures and disappointments. At this point, it’s almost impossible to tell if his songs are original or cover versions because they sound a hundred years old – old as the blues and every bit as relevant. Lanegan’s groundwater reservoir is deep and dark, but it’s a blessed, comforting abyss, filled with inspiration.

Above all, there’s his voice: that baritone voice, imbued with soul to the extent of pain; that whiskey and cigarettes, cyanide and honey voice; that voice that at this stage in his career is clean and filtered, almost ageless, and is round and precise, filled with soul and comfort and compassion. Those who have seen him standing on a stage clinging to the microphone almost as if clinging to life itself can be pretty sure that on more than one evening, and on more than one occasion, music has indeed saved his life.

*****

Thanks for coming back here. It’s a pleasure to have you back.

I’m happy to come back. Have enjoyed it every time I’ve been there.

You come from a sort of religious upbringing and background. How did this affect you on your first visit to Israel, if it had any affect at all?

When I went up to Jerusalem it was quite striking. I called my sister, it was the middle of the night back in the States, and I called her to tell her where I was… [Bursts into laughter]. There’s no place like it on earth.

Religious, specifically Christian imagery pervades your songs, and I’ve read that you appreciate the aesthetics of these images while not identifying with that worldview; Can you tell me more about it, or about your interpretation to the aesthetics?

Well, [when] I grew up my extended family were very religious Christians. Not my direct family, but my extended family was pretty hardcore. So I was around it as a kid a lot, and I heard a lot of the music and sat through a lot of church sermons. Somehow, that combined with listening to a lot of the old gospel blues when I was young, I sort of picked up a lot of that language. And that’s just became a part of what I do. It sorts of where it comes from.

You have collaborated with a variety of musicians in the past few years. What have you taken out of these collaborations?

The reason why I enjoy collaborating so much is because I get to see things from somebody else’s point of view. I get to adapt, I get to maybe do something I wouldn’t normally do and that’s the fun of it. And hopefully I’m learning something from every situation. And I’ll say this: even if I’m making a record that has my name on it, I’m still collaborating with somebody to make it. So everything I do it basically a collaboration of sorts. Hopefully I’m learning something new from every situation and I think I just naturally take whatever it is into the next thing that comes out in some other way. Probably in a way I wouldn’t recognize and nobody else either, but I think this just happen naturally.

What can you tell about your collaboration with Mad Season upcoming release?

They’re re-releasing their record that they did in the 90’s, and I think a live record, and a DVD maybe, and then another disc of unreleased stuff. They had a lot of music they recorded that nobody sang on, and they asked me if I’ll sing on a couple of it and I did.

Now, about Blues Funeral: there are two unique disco tracks on it, not only because they are unusual in your musical landscape, but also because they seem to capture an existing melancholic undercurrent in this supposedly fun and easygoing genre. How these two songs – “Ode to Sad Disco” and “Tiny Grain of Truth” – were created?

“Ode to Sad Disco”, there was a Danish movie called Pusher II, and in one of the scenes there’s an instrumental piece of music called “Sad Disco”. I loved the movie and I loved the soundtrack and I particularity loved that piece of music. It was really sort of mysterious and enigmatic, and the movie itself, it had some of redemption in the end. I took the music and wrote my own song to it. It sort of meant as homage to the film and to that particular piece of music.
The other one, usually I’m writing on the guitar, but with this record, a lot of it was with the keyboard and the drum machine and the synthesizer, and that sort of how we built that one up. We started with the drum machine track and added stuff to it.
And that undertone, I think, that’s probably there in all of my music [laughs].

You mentioned in another interview that your recording methods changed with technology – from analogue to digital and from tape to computer programs. Did it affect your approach to creating music, or the way you prefer to work and create?

Well, when ProTools came along, for instance, I was really skeptical of it and basically afraid to try something new but as years have gone by I’ve fallen in step with it. I really like it for the convenience. When I started we used to make records on an 8-track, analogue machine, the 8-track desk, and we were making a mix there would be four of us with our arms all over the board making moves, and although that was kind of fun to look back on it – it wasn’t that much fun in reality. Nowadays, I find the digital as good as analogue. At most parts I still put vocals and drums sometimes to analogue tape. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I can’t tell the difference anymore.

-Maybe it affects the sound.

Could very well. From song writing to recording to mixing and in performance, I don’t really question it too much, I just sort of do what I feel is intuitively natural or what seems to be the most direct approach and let the chips fall wherever they may.

Are there any news about the next Gutter Twins album?

Greg and I have a plan, we’re both gonna do something else next. I don’t know what he’s gonna do, if it’s gonna be a solo record, a Twilight Singers record or Afghan Whigs record, but he’s gonna make another record without me and I’m gonna make another one without him and then supposedly get in together and make another Gutter Twins record together.

On the Soulsavers’ first album there are at least two literary references: a Bukowski quote and a mention of John Fante’s book, Ask the Dust. Do books carry any influence on you?

I guess that as probably as anything else. I’m trying to be open to inspiration, whenever it’s gonna come. Sometimes it might come while watching films, sometimes that might come having a conversation with somebody, sometimes that might come from reading the newspaper, sometimes that might come from something I’ve seen or remembered.

Dark Mark Does Christmas – tell me more about that. How did you end up doing it?

[Laughs] I have couple of acoustic shows right around Christmas, one in the Netherlands and one in Belgium. And my road manager said: “hey, wouldn’t it be great if we had a Christmas CD to sell at those shows?” [Laughs] And I thought, “[sighs], you know, I don’t know”. But then I looked and found some songs that I thought were really cool, and recorded them in one day. Did it really fast and had fun with it.

There are various reactions to music, especially when it’s being played live. What do you make of people that their reaction to personal, dark or sad songs is to grin widely and dance? I do it too, but I have to admit that’s embarrassing when I think of it.

What do I think when I see an audience grinning and enjoying themselves at my shows? That’s fantastic. That’s what you hope for, that people will enjoy your music. I know that for me personally, some music that people consider dark or depressing even, I find uplifting. It really is in the eye of the beholder. I make music because I’m driven to do it, but I also do it because of the idea that somebody’s gonna hear it. And out of those people that are gonna hear it some people are gonna connect to it and keep coming back to it and those are the people that I go out and play for. So if somebody enjoys it, then it makes it very gratifying. It’s part of the fulfillment that’s the blessing in being able to make music.

*****

Credits: Netta Koblenz and myself – writing; Michal Cohen and Elisheva Rotman – proofreading and translation editing. Guyha and SFR community, for everything.


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