Mark Lanegan is a serious man. An unflinching man. With a low, tremored baritone, the Ellensburg native sings his seared, sorrowful songs. His voice, like a well-worn hearth, heats sketches of characters in barren but beautiful scenes. In 1985, Lanegan's band Screaming Trees put out an EP on Velvetone Records called Other Worlds (which would later be re-released on SST.) As reapers go, Lanegan is more grave than grim. He does what he does, with no pomp or fluff. He's a singer-songwriter, and he's one of the finest there's ever been. Besides Screaming Trees and nine solo albums, his work includes Queens of the Stone Age, collaborations with Belle and Sebastian's Isobel Campbell, Slash, Mad Season, the Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli, and more. On January 14, Seattle's own, very great Light in the Attic Records is releasing an impressive two-CD, three-LP collection of Lanegan material called Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 1989–2011. It's 32 tracks in all, 12 unreleased, featuring appearances by PJ Harvey, Josh Homme, and J Mascis. I interviewed Mark in the Neptune Theatre before his show there this past October. He shared his greenroom grapes and sipped Red Bull from a can. Tattoos on his fingers and hands are fading. Late-afternoon sun landed slanted on the wall behind him and in his eyes. He spoke in a near whisper.
The characters in your songs seem so familiar. Like "Mescalito." I feel like I know that person. Something about the aridness. The outskirts. How do your songs usually fall to you? I never wonder where a song comes from. I'm just happy that they do. I don't do too much thinking about what they mean—that's too much work. The seeds are usually from something in real life. Maybe somebody I know. In that case, it was somebody I know.
What affects you? What makes you write? Life in general. Things that I do, or see in the newspaper. I remember one song—Ben Shepherd and I were eating breakfast and reading the Seattle Times, and there was an article on Shackleton's Antarctic Endurance photographs. On the next page was a story about a guy who tried to drive a Metro bus off the Aurora Bridge, and what his apartment looked like inside. We were both like, "God damn, that sounds exactly like our apartment." It was profiling this guy who'd gone nuts. He shot the driver and tried to drive the bus off the bridge. It crashed with part of it hanging off. I ended up writing a song out of those two things that day. So it can come from anywhere. You'd never know it if you heard the song, that that's where it came from.
So did you and Ben change your apartment after that? [Laughs] No.
Is there a time or a place where songs usually hit you? I'm always open to inspiration. I do most of my work when I'm doing it on purpose. I'll get up in the morning and I'll go into a room. I'll approach it like that. Usually now, it's for a specific project, whereas in the past I might have been just indiscriminately writing songs with no place for them. Now, there's usually a place for them.
Do you find yourself writing much on the road? Yeah. It's definitely something that I do. I've written entire records in a Motel 6 bathroom.
What was your involvement on the Queens of the Stone Age record? I cowrote one song and sang on one.
I believe you're fan of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Doc Rivers was a huge off-season pickup as coach. It seems like they need that third superstar though. They need interior D. We need DeAndre Jordan to step up. He's the key. Their second team got considerably weaker. They're scrubs who shoot from the corner and don't play defense. So I'm not as excited about it as some people are.
What about J. J. Redick? He's going to be the starting two-guard.
Should Jamal Crawford start? You know he went to Rainier Beach High School? I don't think he should start. He's too good off the bench.
How did Black Pudding come about? What made you and Duke Garwood want to do an album? I was a fan of Duke's records. We met by chance. We had a mutual friend, and he was playing in that friend's band, opening for a band I was playing with. We started touring together. Did quite a few tours where he was the support act. We were talking and thought it might be fun to make a record. And it was. He sent me a lot of ideas. I went through them and found the ones I could make into songs. We also got together a few days before we actually started recording in Los Angeles and came up with a couple things.
Is there a phase of making an album that you like more than others? I enjoy all aspects of music. I like making records. I like playing live. There's not one phase that's more difficult than another. I'm too old for difficultness.
How did you decide what songs to cover for Imitations? In the '90s, I made a covers record, and I tried a couple songs that didn't work out that were loosely based on the same genre that I pulled from for this record. Those songs didn't fit for that record at the time, but I thought someday I'd make a whole record fully committed to that late-'60s, early-'70s pop music. Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Sinatra kind of stuff.
What drew you to cover Nancy Sinatra's James Bond song "You Only Live Twice"? Are you a James Bond fan? Is there a Lee Hazlewood version of that song? I think there might be, but I haven't heard it. He didn't write it. I first heard it in the '90s—it was on the B-side of a Scientists' single, a live version. Sounds quite different than the Bond theme. It's just a great song. I wanted to make it smaller. It was so big to start with. Her version is so great. With huge string arrangements and themes and all that. I just wanted to make it smaller.
So you're not a huge Bond guy? No. I just liked the song.
Did you feel pressure to do the cover songs justice, out of reverence for the originals? I didn't feel any pressure, other than the pressure or feeling I get when I'm making a record of songs I wrote myself. I just wanted it to be something that I'm happy with. Something that fits together in a way that seems like a record should. That's really the only yardstick I use to measure anything: my own taste.
Were there any songs that you chose that were harder to do once you actually got in the studio to record them? That happens all the time. Especially when you're doing covers. I found that out the first time around. There were fewer this time, but still a few that went by the wayside. Same thing happens with songs that I've written. Some I'll end up not liking for whatever reason. They won't make the final cut, as it were.
You've been touring in support of Nick Cave recently in Australia. How's Australia, and touring with Nick Cave? Australia's great. I've been there many times. Touring with Nick is cool—he's popular, so there are large audiences. And they're good guys, all friends of mine. I got up and sang with them every night, so it was fun.
Have you ever thought of doing an album with Nick Cave in the future? Don't have any plans to. Did a soundtrack with those guys earlier—they recorded the music, and I did a lot of the vocals. It was sort of a Depression-era bootlegger movie called Lawless. Nick wrote the screenplay. I've always been a Nick Cave fan.
How did you and Isobel Campbell first start working together? She got a hold of me through my record company at the time and asked me if I wanted to do something. For those albums, she wrote most of the music, and I came in and sang.
Will there be another album with her? I don't believe so.
Will there be more Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli? Yeah. Planning to.
Do you ever feel too spread thin with different projects? Not really. I just do the next indicated thing. Whatever's right in front of me, that's what I'm doing next.
How do you go about choosing songs for a set? Do your sets vary widely from night to night? When I find a set that I like, I usually stick with it. But when I'm playing with a bigger band, I have a tendency to switch out songs more often. When it's just a guitar player and myself, I'll stick with something that works because it's not as easy to find a set that works that way, you know? Your options are a little more limited.
What made you want to tour with just yourself and a guitar player for this Imitations release? As opposed to a full-band kind of thing? The record company wanted me to support my record in the States. And the US is a place where I don't do nearly as well as I do in the rest of the world. So to debut a new record, would I choose to just go out with one guitar player? No. But that's the way I can make money. And I don't do music to break even, or any of that kind of shit—I'm too old for it. That's why I'm doing it like this.
Where are your favorite places to tour? Anywhere in Europe. Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile. Anywhere besides Canada and the US, really.
I loved your cuts on the Mad Season rerelease. Any plans to do any Mad Season shows? No plans as of now.
What's the magical Mark Lanegan preshow ritual? Eating grapes, drinking Red Bull, and answering texts.
What's coming up for you? I'll be recording a new Mark Lanegan Band record in LA soon.
Are you a vintage gear person? Neumann mics only? I'll go 57 or 58 if the sound is something I'm going for. If you mean vintage like an old RadioShack tape recorder, I'd record into one of those if I thought it sounded good.
I hate to say it, but I don't think the Clippers have it this season. The Heat are too good anyway. You got Doc Rivers as your coach, though, and that's key. Guys are going to want to keep playing there. It's definitely better than it was a few years ago. We have some players that are fun to watch, and we'll win some games, but there's a flaw in the setup right now. They've got a guy in his fifth year, Jordan, who was supposed to be a star, but it hasn't really materialized.
I'm still depressed the Sonics are gone from Seattle. The Oklahoma City Thunder owner is a straight-up liar and thief. I can't believe he didn't go to jail for collusion. So fucked up. Yeah. I thought it was justice last year when OKC didn't make the finals and Westbrook lost. Not that I wish for any player to get hurt, of course. I just liked that OKC lost. Fuck the Thunder.