Screaming blues messiah: the alt-rock godfather talks about his new album ‘Gargoyle’ and how Sub Pop kickstarted his solo career
Imagine if Tom Waits’ gruff howl was left to distil in a barrel of honey, then poured from a silver chalice. What you ended up with might sound something like the voice of one of today’s most highly esteemed singer-songwriters – the brilliant Mark Lanegan. A veteran of the febrile Seattle scene, Lanegan began his career in music over three decades ago, as co-founder of alt-rock/neo-psychedelia troupe Screaming Trees. With Lanegan on both drums and vocals, Screaming Trees had already released four albums before Lanegan was asked to record a solo album (1990’s The Winding Sheet) by the band’s then-record label Sub Pop.
Since Screaming Trees disbanded in 2000, Lanegan has enjoyed a hugely successful solo career, as well as being a full-time member of Queens Of The Stone Age for several years. With 10 solo albums to date and his most recent – the fantastic Gargoyle – on heavy rotation at Songwriting Towers, he is one of the most revered figures on the alt-rock scene.
However, as we discover, it could all have been quite different had Sub Pop not given him a push to record that first solo album…
You’ve been working in music for over 30 years. Where do you find the inspiration and enthusiasm to keep going after all this time?
“The same place I did when I started – I’m just a fan of music. I actually enjoy making music now more than I did when I was young: I still enjoy singing, I still enjoy creating, writing, making songs, touring, recording. All of it. So inspiration is easy.”
Why is it that you enjoy making music more now, do you think?
“I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started! Early on, it was a very slow learning process and it took me a number of years to be comfortable and to find my own voice. But, eventually, it did happen and that’s why I now enjoy it more.”
You’ve spoken before of your fondness for co-writing. Do you find it easier to write with others than your own or?
“Both things… and just the fact that I’ve been doing it for so long makes it easier, too. There are a lot of different ways to write music and a lot of different ways to perform it. I enjoy all the opportunities and think it’s just a natural result of having done this for so long, and growing older, that’s made me feel more comfortable.”
On Gargoyle you worked in collaboration with Rob Marshall, despite being on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Was that a difficult process?
“No, I’ve done a lot of things, and have done over the years, where people send me music and then I do my thing with it. So it’s sort of par for the course at this point. And, of course, it’s easy these days to communicate via email and text, so it’s not that difficult!”
Can you give us a little more detail on how the collaboration with Rob worked? Did he send you fully fleshed-out ideas or pieces for you to work on?
“He sent me pretty fully formed pieces of music, and then I added my singing and other stuff – other instrumentation – to make them more in-line with what we wanted to do.
“I think Rob thought – in fact, I know Rob thought – that they were just demos when he sent them to me. But I was like, ‘This is as good or better than anything that we do together, so let’s just use it as it is!’”
Is it easier or harder to put lyrics to music that someone else has written?
“Well, there are those occasions where somebody sends me a piece of music where I don’t hear anything for it – that happens occasionally. When I’m writing music myself, I’m usually making sounds with my voice, so I’m sort of mapping out the parts as I’m first playing the chords. But then it’s more or less the same when somebody gives me a piece of music. I listen to one part of it one time, and then I do it again and make a rough map, the same way I do if I’m doing it myself. So it’s essentially the same process.
“I guess there are those times when I’m trying to write a song myself and it doesn’t work out. But those times are rare.”
You started out on drums in Screaming Trees. Do you think you were always destined to find your own voice and be a singer-songwriter in your own right?
“Like I said, it took me quite a while before I was really comfortable doing it – perhaps rightly so, because I will just say frankly that the singing on those early Screaming Trees records was quite atrocious!
“But I probably never would have written a song except that the first company I made a solo record with, Sub Pop, suggested I do it. And to be honest, they offered me an amount of money that, at the time, was huge for me! So that was really the catalyst. That made me buy a guitar chord book and borrow somebody’s crappy acoustic guitar and learn the chords to write a song. Otherwise, I might never have done it!
“But after I made my first record, by the time I made my second record I was really into writing songs and making these records. Because at the time they were quite different records to what I was making with Screaming Trees. So there was a different kind of satisfaction with it that I hadn’t previously experienced, and that’s what really got me hooked on it.”
What was it like being part of that fertile Seattle scene of the late 80s/early 90s?
“That’s sort of like asking me what any sort of time period was like! It was a different scene, and it was exceptional at the time. I guess the thing that really stood out in my mind was having some friends of mine, who were also in bands, who became ultra-popular – and not just in an underground setting, but in the mainstream. So that was interesting… and kind of weird.
“But that didn’t happen to me. I was just an observer, doing my own thing, the way that I was before… and, basically, the same way that I am now! For me, nothing radically really changed.”
Do you feel that working with friends is something that drives you on?
“For sure. The most satisfying moments I’ve had have been those experiences with like-minded individuals – guys that I’m friends with and who I’ve been lucky enough to make music with and travel the world with. I’ve basically been able to stay in the mindset of a teenager who’s just having some laughs with his friends.”
Our reviewer said of Gargoyle that you seem to have a newfound positivity on this record. Is that fair?
“There are definitely some songs on it that are atypical to my normal thing. Some songs that have a slightly more playful feel, that are pretty much devoid of darkness. I can’t really say why that is. With any music, I just try and do what instinctively feels appropriate for the music. That’s what I tried to do with this record and if some of the songs have a… well, I don’t know if ‘light-hearted’ is the term, but I know what you’re talking about.
“So yeah, there are those songs on this record. I don’t know if that reflects a newfound positivity or not! But it’s definitely the case with some of the stuff.”
Given the current heightened US political climate, do you feel your platform as a songwriter gives you an obligation to speak out?
“I think everybody has an obligation, regardless of what they do, to say something when things are not right in their opinion. And I just feel like, if I see something that I don’t agree with, that I think is a terrible injustice, then if I don’t say something I’m part of that injustice.”
What’s been your most frustrating experience as a songwriter?
“When I first started with Screaming Trees, often I might try and change lyrics that already existed, to try and give them some sort of meaning to me personally, since I was the one that had to sing them. That process was easily the most difficult thing I had attempted, but I did attempt it, many times! It was frustrating to try and make something fit phonetically, and to change whole lines to make them have meaning.
“That was really difficult, and easily the most frustrating experience that I’ve had, though I wouldn’t even call what I was doing songwriting – because it wasn’t. But it was attempting to do something to the song that was… futile.”
And your most rewarding experience?
“Just getting up and realising that I have another day to create something. That’s really the biggest blessing.”