Getting To Know Mark Lanegan
Mark Lanegan wears all 40 years of his life on his face. His skin, once puffed in that Tom Waits sort of way, is now ironed out into a smooth sheet. His thin amber eyes pierce his surroundings with a devastating gravity. Even his thick maroon mane, which spikes out beneath a nondescript black hat, seems to be spun by the hands of time, hammered by hard living.
So it’s a peculiar feeling to be taking a seat across from him at a nameless, sparkling Starbucks in Studio City, California surrounded by lattes, SUVs, aspiring actors and the Valley that gave birth to the mini-mall. Lanegan doesn’t seem to mind.
He exudes an ease he didn’t have for the first 12 years of his musical career as the figurehead for the Screaming Trees. He’s just left a birthday party thrown for a more recent ex-bandmate, Josh Homme, of the Queens of the Stone Age. He sits down across from me and smiles, his face alighting at the sight of a stranger, silhouetted against a backdrop of idle chatter and banana muffins.
Lanegan split with QOTSA to concentrate on his sixth full-length record, the cannily titled Bubblegum. Though his break with the band nearly coincided with Homme’s firing of longtime partner, bassist/singer Nick Oliveri, it’s clear that Lanegan’s departure has not caused the tears and heartache Oliveri’s has. The crooner continues to write with Homme and appears regularly at Oliveri’s solo performances.
“Whatever’s going on between those guys doesn’t have shit to do with me,” he says with that parched voice, chain-smoking and pumping bottled water. “I don’t concern myself with other people’s dramas. But it is a shame, because both those guys are my friends. I have a feeling though, that since they’ve known each other for a long time, they’ll patch it up.”
That he was able to salvage both friendships amidst such turmoil is an example of Lanegan’s social grace. He’s also preserved relationships with his ex-wife, Wendy Rae Fowler, two former members of Guns N’ Roses, and the temperamental Greg Dulli of Twilight Singers and Afghan Whigs. All of the above appear on Bubblegum, as does PJ Harvey. (Lanegan and Dulli have also conspired to form a new group, the Gutter Twins.)
Rarely does someone who’s reaching his autumn years sound so vibrant. This is supposed to be bottom-rung time, when the excesses of youth begin to show their influence. Let us not forget what got him to this place in his career: 12-plus years with the tumultuous Trees (“For a lot of years I didn’t enjoy music … probably however long I was in the Trees”), compiled with heavy drug use and a wanderlust streak that left him with more than 20 different addresses in the last three years alone.
Maybe it’s a nine-month-old Boston terrier named Archie that’s rekindled the embers in his heart. Or the languid feeling of having completed an unexpected marathon tour that lasted two-and-a-half years after the release of QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf, an album which placed QOTSA squarely into the vanguard of popular rock ‘n’ roll.
“I spent more time with the band than I originally intended to,” he says, “because the record did so well [commercially] and I said that I would stay with it until all the touring was done. It ended up being a full year longer than I anticipated.”
Whatever the change is, it’s been good for him. Because Bubblegum is, perhaps, the best album he’s ever made. He’s joined by more friends than ever, but more importantly, he rallies them with expertise and excitement. The once intense and at times morose Lanegan is actually laughing at the beginning of the first single, “Methamphetamine Blues.”
The most touching moment on the album is a duet he performs with his ex-wife called “Wedding Dress.” The song includes a fleeting, obscure reference to Johnny Cash in the final line: “We got buried in a fever” (Cash and his late wife, June Carter Cash, originally sang, “We got married in a fever” on his song “Jackson”). Sure, it’s a more sombre take (or perhaps more sly), but that’s just the sort of thing he’s always excelled at. And a guy could do a lot worse than emulate the Man in Black.
“I actually started doing shows because of Johnny Cash,” he says. “I had two solo records before I ever did one of my own gigs. I would get asked all the time to do them, but I didn’t want to; making solo records was something I did for fun. Then I got asked to open for Johnny Cash, and I thought ‘I just can’t say no to this one.’ I put a band together and was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1995 for his second American record.”
Lanegan was also able to harvest recordings with another pre-eminent star before his more untimely demise: fellow Seattle neighbour Kurt Cobain. The Nirvana guru surfaced on Lanegan’s 1990 effort, The Winding Sheet, which included the pair performing a noisy rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
Known for her collaborative spirit, the snaring of PJ Harvey for Bubblegum didn’t require any courting whatsoever. “She was a fan of QOTSA and she approached me at one of our shows,” he recalls. “She said she had Whiskey for the Holy Ghost and really liked it … I just jumped in, like I always do, and said, ‘Well, you have to do something for my new record, then.’ I mean, of course, who doesn’t want to record with her?”
Or more to the point, who doesn’t want to do a record with Mark Lanegan? The surprisingly humble sage smirks as we finish off our coffee, “As the years have gone on, I’ve recognised that I have a gift, that a lot of people would love to do what I do, and I’m really lucky.” Which is something they all say, but in his case it might actually be true. It’s a long winding road full of potholes and wrong turns for a person such as he to end up where he is (even if that’s just a Starbucks in the Valley on a Wednesday). He’s got some people to call and some errands to run and a tour to plan. Twenty pairs of eyes watch him as he stands to leave, “If someone had told me that I’d still be doing this when I was 40,” he says, shaking my hand with that now-easy smile, “I would have laughed.”
Originally published in Filter in summer 2004.