Mark Lanegan Is Not Taking The Easy Ride

Interview with Mark Lanegan: Mark Lanegan Is Not Taking The Easy Ride
Interview with Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan’s gravelly voice remains one of the lasting sounds of the grunge scene. Through his work with The Screaming Trees, Lanegan helped to define the 80’s/90’s Seattle scene, and is one of the last legends of the era who continues to write impactful music today. Although having Kurt Cobain play on your very first solo album is a high bar to match, Lanegan has enjoyed a layered and extensive solo career for nearly three decades. Seemingly at ease with genres as diverse as solo-acoustic and electrotonic music, Mark Lanegan is a prolific collaborator, having recorded with a wide-range of artists including Queens of the Stone Age, The Twilight Singers, Belle and Sebastien’s Isobel Campbell, Mike Watt, Eagles of Death Metal, Duke Garwood, The Breeders, and Melissa Auf der Maur, and many more.

Lanegan remains active as ever, having released the electronic collaborative album Downwelling under the name Dark Mark earlier this year with Not Waving, and is set to release his eleventh solo album, Somebody’s Knocking, on October 18th. Recorded in England, the Netherlands, and the USA, Somebody’s Knocking is Lanegan’s best album since Blues Funeral. Fans won’t have to wait too long for new Lanegan music thankfully, as he is set to release a new album in Spring 2020 to coincide with the release of his memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep. We reached Mark Lanegan in his studio, where he was working on music with his wife and collaborator Shelley Brien:

Northern Transmissions: You’ve written with a lot of collaborators over the last few solo albums, what was the writing process like for Somebody’s Knocking?

Mark Lanegan: A lot of this album was cowritten with my friend Rob Marshall, who has a band called Humanist, and who I’ve written some songs for before, and then the rest of Somebody’s Knocking I wrote with Alain Johannes, my longtime producer. There’s one song here, “Penthouse High”, that Alain and I had written for Gargoyle, but it turned out to not really fit for that record so we put it on this one. I also did one song with a guy named Martin Jenkins who goes by Pye Corner Audio. He’s an electronic artist in the U.K. and is pretty well known in those circles.

NT: Gargoyle was accompanied by a remix companion album, do you have anything similar planned for Somebody’s Knocking?

ML: Not really. My friend Toby Butler (The Duke Spirit) has been trying to remix the entire record, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. He says he has eight of the songs done already, which is more than half of the whole album. He just wanted to do it because of the challenge, regardless of not having a place to release it properly. I doubt Heavenly would be interested in releasing it, remix records aren’t really money makers… well, actually, no albums are money makers anymore, but especially not those kinds. The first remix album that I did was for Phantom Radio and the EP that came with it called No Bells On Sunday. I had wanted to do a remix record for a long time because I mainly listen to electronic music.

I was always interested in hearing what some of these top electronic guys would do with my songs. Actually, Martin Jenkins (Pye Corner Audio) did one for that record and also one for the EP that came with Gargoyle. He put me in touch with an Italian artist I like a lot called Not Waving, and he did a track on that Gargoyle remix album. About a year later Not Waving sent me an email asking to do a song on his new record, and he sent me six pieces of music. I wrote vocal parts and lyrics for all of them within an hour and sent them back hoping there would be at least one that he’d like. He wrote me back saying, “this is no longer my record, it’s our record”. So long story short, I just put out a record with him under the name “Not Waving and Dark Mark”, and the record’s called Downwelling. It’s been well received so far, and within two weeks of releasing it we ended up playing the main stage at Atonal in Berlin, which is one of the most prestigious underground electronic festivals in the world. I went from having Not Waving remix something for me, to suddenly I’m playing for an audience that I’d never imagined myself in front of before.

NT: Do you find your appreciation for electronic music has increased as you’ve grown older, or has that always been there for you since the 80’s and 90’s?

ML: It’s actually been a part of my life since the 1970’s. When I was twelve-years-old the school that my dad worked at closed down and someone gave him a box of records that had been left behind. One of the records was Autobahn by Kraftwerk. Also another one of the albums was a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, so I was introduced to electronic music and the blues for a first time together. Kraftwerk led me to Harmonia, Custard, and Can, which I was interested in all through my teenage years. Then when the 80’s came of course I was into the synth-pop of the time, like New Order, Depeche Mode, and Joy Division. So electronic music’s always been something I’ve been into. I spent the 80’s playing in a band that was basically playing a terrible version of 60’s psychedelia, while I was actually listening to the type of music I make now.

NT: When you first started shifting towards electronic music in your solo career were you anxious at all about how your “rock” audience would embrace it?

ML: I didn’t think about it for one second. I mean, if people don’t like the new stuff that you do, and that’s very common, they don’t have to listen to it. But if people expect me to make the same record over and over again then I would rather shoot myself than have to make it. I’m eleven records into my solo career, and if I was forced to make the same record eleven times over and over again I would rather work at McDonalds. I make records to please myself, and if anyone else enjoys them that’s icing on the cake. Actually, it’s when I started making these more electronic records that I started to really gain a much larger audience. Two records that I released on Beggars Banquet, Bubblegum and Blues Funeral, have actually outsold all the other records that I’ve ever made combined.

NT: With the massive discography that you have, how do you approach putting your setlists together? You have so much material to draw from that you could easily play a two and a half hour show and people would still be entertained.

ML: Well I never play anything off of my first six records. Every now and then I’ll play an old song off Whiskey For The Holy Ghost or my earlier Sub Pop records, but that stuff really doesn’t interest me as much as the records I make now. I pretty much exclusively play songs from the records I’ve released from 2004 to today, but I don’t usually play longer than an hour and a half. Honestly, I don’t care how much I like a band, but if they’re going to play for three hours there’s no way I’m going to stay. My setlists now are heavily focused on the new record and nobody seems to complain.

NT: Next year marks the 30th anniversary of your first solo album, The Winding Sheet. Do you have any plans at all to mark the anniversary?

ML: They reissued all my Sub Pop records a couple of years ago, so I’m assuming that’s not going to happen again, but I’m planning on doing a handful of shows next year where I’ll play some old songs that I haven’t done in ages. I have a memoir coming out next spring and I’m right now just finishing a record inspired by the book. The album will be a companion piece to my memoir, so there will be a bunch of acoustic songs on it that sound like the old way that I used to make records. It’s the first time that I’m actually writing songs about specific events because all the songs are linked to the book; usually I’m just trying to create a mood as opposed to telling a story. For the book’s release I’m going to be playing a handful of shows that will be like a retrospective of my career, so I’ll actually be playing songs off those early records, as well as this companion piece thing. During the set I’m thinking of doing a Q&A with the audience about the book, or about anything they want to ask me.

NT: Is your autobiography all set to be released?

ML: Yeah, it’s all edited and made legal now. I’ll tell you what though, writing it was not a fun process. I would never suggest it to anybody who wants to do something enjoyable.

NT: What was the most rewarding part and what was the most excruciating part?

ML: The excruciating part was just discovering that I had blocked all these terrible memories for thirty years. Then I had to go wading into these forgotten episodes of my life every single day… it wasn’t a pleasant experience at all. I have some friends who are best-selling authors who encouraged me to write this book, but I didn’t get any of the relief or cathartic experience that was promised me. The best thing that I got out of it was all of these new songs. I started writing these songs as soon as I was done with the book, and this collection of songs sort of have a depth to them that a lot of my music hasn’t had because that’s not the way I usually write. So the payoff was these songs, because I think the record that I’m finishing now is one of the better ones I’ve made.

NT: You and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs) have a long history of collaborating together, is he on the new record as well?

ML: He’s played on pretty much all of my records. On Somebody’s Knocking he sings back up and plays guitar on “Letter Never Sent”, and he also sings on the memoir record that I’m finishing right now.

NT: Will there be any other noteworthy collaborators on the autobiography record?

ML: So many. Greg is on that, Jack Irons, Martyn LeNoble, Ed Harcourt plays piano on a lot of it, Jack Bates (bass player of Smashing Pumpkins), Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds plays violin, Adrian Utley of Portishead, and even John Paul Jones plays mellotron on something. The record is called Straight Songs of Sorrow and it just has a ton of famous people.

Interview by Stewart Wiseman