- 22 Feb 23
To mark the first anniversary of the death of Mark Lanegan – the hugely influential former vocalist with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age – we're revisiting a classic interview, originally published in Hot Press in 2001...
Ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan on Field Songs, serial killer music and having a member of Guns & Roses as your landlord...
When ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan released his first solo album The Winding Sheet back in 1990 it signified the point where grunge mutated into a sort of indigenous American music, an amplified hybrid of Hank’s angst and Harry Smith’s country death songs. Screaming Trees’ swansong Dust may have been Seattle’s last gasp, but it was Lanegan who had helped map out the strange terrain of Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York – introducing Kurt Cobain to Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ on that solo debut. But then, the Trees, who hailed from Ellensburg, Washington, always sounded and looked like a band that had just crawled out of the backwoods.
“We really did,” Lanegan admits. “That’s the kind of place we come from, just this little valley of a farming, logging, cattle ranching community. Y’know, I’ve lived in cites for a long time, but I was up in the woods north of San Francisco workin’ last week and I got cabin fever real bad, had to get back to the city. I guess that isolation is sort of a state of mind.”
It’s a state of mind Lanegan has investigated over the last ten years on excellent albums like Whiskey For The Holy Ghost and Scraps At Midnight. His latest offering Field Songs maintains that standard, particularly on the slow blues of ‘Kimiko’s Dream House’, co-written with the late Gun Club singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce, an influence on Lanegan since he was a youngster.
“Oh yeah,” he recounts, “I don’t know when it was, probably in the ’80s, but I was literally living in a storage unit with a space heater, a couch and like, half of a drum set, and that’s when I first heard that stuff. It really weirded me out, some of the lyrical content made me really uncomfortable, but there was something about it that I had to keep listening to as well. It was like serial killer music… strange. You really knew that this guy was committed.”
Lanegan subsequently became friends with Pierce, to the point of sharing song ideas. He finished ‘Kimiko’s Dream House’ after Pierce’s demise, working from tapes he thought had been lost forever. Other collaborators on the new record include Ben Shepherd (ex-Soundgarden) and former Dinosaur Jr member Mike Johnson. If these names make sense, then the presence of original Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan seems a little more unlikely.
“He’s just as crazy as the rest of those guys,” Lanegan testifies, “and he’s also one of my very best friends. For a very long time he was my landlord! He’s just a very weird and creative guy, another freak. A lot of the bands I loved as a kid were also bands he loved, we have a lot in common musically as well. There’s an old-school punk rock thing to (Appetite For Destruction) that I know in a large part comes from him. He’s from Seattle and played in punk rock bands for years before he ever got into that. And that’s pretty much what he does now.”
Lanegan’s singing voice has the weight and roughness of an instrument subjected to a fair amount of abuse over the years, not all of it liquor and smoke related. How does he account for the grain, or rather, ridges, in his vocal cords?
“I dunno, I think it’s hereditary, my father has a real sandpaper voice,” he reckons. “It’s almost like he can’t get through a word without it being broken up three or four times, even a one syllable word. (And) I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day. It wasn’t on purpose – on the early stuff I sound just like the kid I was, and in time it changed into this different deal.”
Mark Lanegan died in Killarney on February 22, 2022. He was 57.