Interview with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age


Mark Lanegan – a weird old bastard

This interview was First published in Norway Rock Magazine # 1/2015

Last fall, Mark Lanegan released “Phantom Radio”, a release that was his ninth solo album. Or, it depends on how you define both the type of album and the type of artist Mark Lanegan is. He has collaborated with so many, published so much different music.

Text: Ørjan Wremer
Photo: Tom Arild Hamre

From the first album for Screaming Trees in 1985, via the one legendary album for Mad Season, via Gutter Twins with Greg Duli, via Queens Of The Stone Age, via the collaboration with Isobel Campbell from Belle & Sebastian. The amount of work and collaboration is enough to take the breath away from anyone who is going to write a discography about Mark Lanegan. He’s known as a weird bastard, the meanest nice guy you’ll ever meet in friend and collaborator Josh Hommes words. He has one of the most recognizable and distinctive voices in rock, in the same league as Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Maybe he’s already a living cult legend. Whatever he is, he is Mark Lanegan, a man and artist who sets his own terms and does not give a damn about what others think. In February, he played at Rockefeller in Oslo, and after weeks of hustle and bustle, we had a small half an hour with a living legend in a black leather sofa from Ikea in the back room of the old Torggata bath in Oslo. After a polite apology for having to finish texting, he gives a firm handshake and a hint of a polite smile. A bit like an unknown cat in a corner, you do not quite know if it will scratch your eyes out, or lie down on its back for cuddles.

– “Phantom Radio” has been out for a few months now, and it seems that most people have become hung up on an old rocker using modern technology to make new music. What do you think about this becoming an issue, instead of the music itself?
– Instead of connecting old drum machines and other things that take time, I used the phone and the Funk Box app. The app had everything I needed for rhythms and drum sounds, so I used it as a basis for recording song ideas. Some of the ideas were so good that we ended up using the recording from the phone for the album itself. I’m very happy with how the music turned out, the collaboration with Duke Garwood on “I Am The Wolf”, and I’m very proud of “Tom Red Heart” which I think was a brilliant song.
– What was the main inspiration behind the music on “Phantom Radio”?
– I like to take inspiration from many different places, but this time it is perhaps most obvious that I have listened to a lot of music from the 80’s. Bands like Joy Division, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Gun Club. A lot of British post punk really.
– On February 23, a remix of “Phantom Radio” and the EP “No Bells On Sunday”, which you have called “A Thousand Miles To Midnight”, will be released. What was behind the decision to remix the album?
– I like electronic music, and I am a big fan of the artists who did the remixes. I wanted to hear what other artists could do with the songs, and how they saw the songs I had recorded could be done differently. Many of the people who remixed the songs are friends or people I have worked with before, some others I am just a big fan of like UNKLE, Moby, Soulsavers and Mikey Young to name a few. The album is probably my favorite album from recent years. I did it for myself, not for everyone else.
– Did you have any influence on how the songs were remixed?
– I had no influence on what they did, it would be wrong to dictate how others should interpret my songs.
– Do you feel it is a risky move to release a remix, since the word remix may not sound so good to the ears of those who are your fans?
– I totally give a fuck about what others think about this, I release the album because I think it’s interesting, some will like it, some will hate it. I do not fucking care. I started with synths and drum machines in 2004, and fans of the record I made in 1989 hated the new songs. Who fucking cares? I make music for those who are struck by that particular song, not for the masses. If you like one disc, then you may not like the other, I do what I feel like. I make music because I love it, I’ve been making music for 30 years, that’s what turns me on. The first thing I think about in the morning is music. I challenge myself, but I do what I feel is interesting at the moment. I did “Imitations” because I wanted to challenge myself, some of those songs are not that easy to sing, which is exactly why I wanted to do them. I also liked that kind of music, and would hear myself do that kind of material. It was a vanity project for me, which I thought no one would listen to, but I was surprised when people actually bought the record. The same thing will probably happen with “A Thousand Miles”, we’ll see…. I’m just trying to satisfy myself in a musical way, I’m 50 years old and would like to continue my own development. I’m going to do what I want, to have fun.
– Is it personally satisfying to still get praise for what you do as an artist after 30 years?
– I love that people like what I do. It’s a little strange to me that more people care about what I do now, than what I did 20 years ago. It is not ment to be that way, that you become more vital when you are 50 than when you are in your 20s. That’s a good thing, I like it. Hopefully this will lead to me making more albums in the future. This is what I have always hoped for, that enough people will listen, so that I can continue to make music.
– Would 20-year-old Mark Lanegan think he would still make music in 30 years?
– I am still genuinely surprised that someone cares about what I make at all, or what I made 20 years ago. The small success we had with Screaming Trees was surprising, we sold records on the butt of other artists I felt. We could have released the same records in another era, and it had made no difference to where I am today. When Screaming Trees was disbanded, I could actually continue as I had with releasing solo albums without having any particular kind of baggage.
– Was the reason you started with solo records that you did not get enough space for your songs on the albums of Screaming Trees?
– I did not write many songs in Screaming Trees before the last two “successful” albums, if I may point out (Lanegan laughs at himself). I’m just kidding. I probably wanted to prove to myself and the rest of the band that I had the songs in me, and if they did not want them on the album, then I would release them myself.

– From the middle of the 80’s, a flourishing of bands began in and around Seattle. A lot of bands that actually went in the exact opposite direction of all other music that was commercial and salable at the time. What really happened in Seattle in the late ’80s?
– In Austin, Minneapolis and Athens, similar things happened. A couple of bands from these cities grew up, such as REM from Athens. I cabt think of another band from Austin right now, but True Believers were quite successful. In Seattle, 3-4 bands became very large all over the world on a completely different scale than all the others. Top 40 scale, it made things a little weird. The focus went from underground to mainstream with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, these are four bands from the same city that had top 5 albums in the same period. It did not happen in other cities. It has not happened that four bands from the same city have had such great success commercially at the same time, which also contributed to other bands that were still considered underground also selling quite a lot of records, such as Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Melvins etc.
– If you make a map of active musicians in Seattle in the 80s and 90s, it seems that most people have played in bands with each other at some point. What was the reason for this?
– It’s a small town, and a small state. Although Nirvana began in Aberdeen, Screaming Trees in Ellensburg, Seattle was the big city. The place we all went to play concerts and rehearse together. In a place like this, it’s just like in Oslo, all the bands know each other. The bands are friends, and that’s how it is in every city, I think. We played together, my closest friends played in bands, and we made music together because it was friendship, mostly from a friendship, not from a musical point of view, the main reason we helped each other when we lacked a band money or wanted to start something new.

– Do you think your life would be the same if Screaming Trees had sold 20 million albums in 1992?
– I think fewer people would care about what I do now if something like this had happened. Not sure I had been alive even. I feel that the fact that Screaming Trees never got big enough allowed me to do what I wanted, make the music I wanted with the people I liked.
– You have worked a lot with Alain Johannes in recent years, you seem like you have a good chemistry between you. How did you meet Alain?
We met in 2000, On a Desert Session recording at Rancho De La Luna. We were introduced through Josh Homme who I had then played with in Screamin Trees and known for a few years already. Alain Johannes is a beautiful guy, he has been important to Josh and to me. He is a super talent and multi-artist, he has many facets to play on. I hope we turn 80, and can still make records together like grumpy old men. The last 10 years of record recordings have become so much easier for me because of Alain, he pushes me to new places every time we do something together. I’m lucky to have him in my life and he’s a good friend. Friendship comes first, music comes second.
– Want to do more with Queens Of The Stone Age?
– No idea.
This is a fairly long tour of almost three months via Russia, among other places. Do you like touring?
– I love being on the road. Over the years, I have always enjoyed traveling. I’ve probably sat in this room 10 times over the years, I enjoy myself everywhere. It feels good to come back to Rockefeller, or anywhere else I’ve been before, it’s a security. At the same time that I get extra lit when there are new places I have never played before. I feel extra good when I’m back in places I know I’ve done well. There’s nothing about a touring I do not like.
It seems that many bands hate touring, that standing on a stage in front of fans who have paid money to hear their favorite band is a chore. What do you think is the reason why many bands view touring as a necessary evil?
– Thats because they’re pussies!
– I hear rumors that your bassist got sick at the beginning of the tour?
– Yes, after the fourth concert on this tour, he was admitted to the hospital with a ruptured appendix. It was quite serious, he thought it was a food poisoning. He survived, and he’s coming back. As of today, we have Zander Schloss on bass, who also plays warm-up on the first half of this tour. He is a steady guy, and learned the songs in one night. Zander is legendary from Circle Jerks, The Veirdos, Repo Man, Straight To Hell and he played in Joe Strummer’s band for several years. Should someone replace your regular bassist, Zander is the man. We are really looking forward to playing here at Rockefeller tonight, many good memories from here. Always good audience.
– I look forward to hearing the new songs live. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, you get to continue what you were doing before I sat down with you.
– I actually watched «Birdman». A film about a guy who is remembered most for a character he was in his youth, and who wants to show the world that he is more than this character. Quite appropriate really!

Lanegan laughs raw at himself, gives a firm handshake, and sinks into his own world in a worn black leather sofa behind the stage at Rockefeller.

First published in Norway Rock Magazine # 1/2015

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