mxdwn Interview: Mark Lanegan On the Double-Edged Sword of Co-Writing, Psycho Las Vegas 2019 & Working with Donal Logue on the “Stitch It Up” Video
Mark Lanegan might be one of the coolest people in all of music. Not only is he a ’90s rock icon as the lead vocalist of Screaming Trees, he was front and center as a part-time vocalist for a handful of the more important Queens of the Stone Age records, he’s half of the Gutter Twins with The Afghan Whigs Greg Dulli and he served as a guest vocalist on the first and arguably the best Soulsavers record. On top of that, he’s released no less than 10 solo albums showcasing his deeper than deep, growl of a baritone. Lanegan is a musical chameleon and can fit perfectly in anything that he touches, from electronica to punk rock. Upon speaking with him, it’s clear he’s just a cool, down-to-earth guy that you immediately want to have a drink with in a dingy, sticky-floored bar and talk about life.
His newest offering with the Mark Lanegan Band, Somebody’s Knocking, will be released in October. The first single from the record is “Stitch It Up” and’s its video marked the return of the MTV character Jimmy the Cab Driver, played by the always-hilarious Donal Logue. mxdwn had a chance to talk to Lanegan for nearly an hour on topics that included his disdain for 12-bar blues, the many people who think he looks like Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory and his undying love for Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan.
mxdwn: The Psycho Las Vegas Festival is a killer lineup and you’re on the bill playing that weekend.
Mark Lanegan: Oh, yeah. Who’s playing?
mxdwn: YOB’s playing. Bad Religion’s playing. The original Misfits are playing. There is a ton of great music. I wanted to ask because it’s such an eclectic bill, is that something you choose yourself to play or was it just, “Hey, we have this festival coming up — You want to play it?”
ML: Man, I say yes to everything that comes along. This is something my booking agent, Robbie Fraser at William Morris, found for me. I was happy to do it. I don’t often get a chance to do a lot of cool stuff in the States because my profile’s never been very high here. I do a lot of stuff in Europe. I’m psyched whenever I get a chance to do something cool like this.
mxdwn: That’s interesting what you say that about your profile not being as big in America. Maybe it’s because I’m a huge fan, I’ve never seen it that way.
ML: I tour maybe two weeks a year in the States and I tour for months in Europe. It’s a huge difference. I’m happy that there’s some place where people want to hear me. I don’t care where it is.
mxdwn: I wanted to ask you about the “Stitch It Up” video. It’s a throwback to the ’90s, the Donal Logue “Jimmy the Cab Driver” sketch. The song is tremendous. How did the video with Jimmy the Cab Driver come together?
ML: That was also Joe Cardamone and Donal. Two friends of mine. Joe was a singer in Icarus Line, which was one of my favorite bands. I met him when he was a kid in the, shit, the early Aughts opening for my band. We’ve remained friends all these years. He does a wicked solo thing now that’s really incredible. He’s also a director. I didn’t have any dough and my records are technically on my own label, which I license through PIAS and Heavenly in Europe. So I’m on the hook for video budgets and shit like that. I went begging hat in hand to Joe. I was like, ‘Hey man, can you make me a video? I don’t have any dough.’ All he said was Jimmy the Cab Driver.
We had dinner at our house, I don’t know, we had friends over a month earlier and that was the first time Joe had met Donal. He immediately went there, and I was like ‘Oh, dude. I can’t ask Donal to do this thing.’ You know what I mean? I finally broached the subject with him, and he was so psyched. He was so fucking excited to be able to reprise that character. He was like, ‘Oh, my God. Yes.’ His enthusiasm was through the roof. I mean he’s an enthusiastic dude anyway. I was actually shocked. To me that would be like somebody asking me to do, like, ‘Hey man, can you do your whole first record again?’ You know what I mean? I wouldn’t be psyched, but he was.
mxdwn: He didn’t miss a beat either. It was like I was watching the first one. This was actually funnier than from what I can remember.
Mark: Yeah, well I mean, Donal’s just a fucking…I mean, you know, he’s a classic character actor. He’s been in millions of movies and series and he’s a total pro. When it came to this thing, they didn’t script anything out. He did everything off the top of his fucking head. It was incredibly hard to keep a straight face because he’s fucking funny and he went right into that character. The updated version. I still laugh when I think about it. Especially the intro and outro are the best part of it. They don’t have anything to do with the song.
mxdwn: “Stitch is Up” is from your upcoming record, Somebody’s Knocking, which is your 11th record. Every time I turn around, Mark Lanegan is doing something new. What was the impetus to write this record and how does the recording process differ from your previous records?
ML: Yeah with this record and the last one, I co-wrote everything with a couple of guys who had been part of my creative circle for years. The last one Gargoyle, I wrote half of it I guess with Alain Johannes, who has been my producer for 15 years or whatever. This guy Rob Marshall, this British dude, had sent me three pieces of music and said ‘I’m doing this project, it’s going to have a bunch of different singers. Would you do something?’ This was three years ago or something. I heard the music and whenever I hear something that I like and I know that I can do something with it, I always say yes. I doesn’t matter who it is or if I’ve ever heard of them or anything. I had no idea who this guy was but I liked the tunes. I liked the tunes and I wrote vocal parts in one day for these three pieces of music. This was all the previous management, BMI Management. Once I sent it back, he personally sent me an email saying, ‘Hey man, I love what you did. Thank you. I would love to do something for you if you ever need it.’
I was trying to finish my record, which ended up being Gargoyle. [Alain Johannes], my producer is also part of PJ Harvey’s band. We had two weeks before he was going to be gone on a two year tour. We were halfway through the record. It wasn’t going to get finished. I sent this guy an email, I said, ‘Hey man, I’m taking you up on your offer if you’ve got anything go ahead and send it.’ He sent me eight pieces of music. Bang, that day. Within two days, I had written vocal parts for six of them.
mxdwn: That sounds like a very organic way to write a record.
ML: I’ve done a lot of my records where I wrote every song myself. There’s been records where I’ve had a couple of co-writes with guys who are playing with me or friends. Whatever. I had never, since I think my very first record, done anything where I’d written every song with somebody else, but that’s the way that one turned out. It ended up in the UK anyway getting the gold star response. A lot of airplay on the BBC, all the good reviews, five star reviews and shit. Anyway, it’s sort of a double edged sword. One of those things, like your record, where everyone says, ‘Man, this is your best record by far.’ Also all the music’s being written by somebody else. It’s kind of like, ‘Oh well, I guess I’ve been fucking up for the last 20 years or so.’ It was gratifying but also irritating, but man I took it. I know. You’re going to be pissed off when you get a gold star review? That’s me. I’m irritated when somebody says I look good. With this record, I went into it thinking, ‘Fuck man. He actually put it into my mind you need to do a double album.’ That immediately got me going because I’ve been wanting to make a double album, over an hour’s worth of music for years.
In 2004 the record ended up being Bubblegum, which had 15 songs on it. It was going to be a double album, but it ended up split into two records. One of them was eight songs called Here Comes That Weird Chill. The other one was Bubblegum with 15. That ended up because I had too many songs that I liked. I couldn’t actually put it all on a double album. It had to be two. Then again in 2014, I thought again, ‘God dammit, I want to make a double album.’ You cut them up and make a good one single record that flows and doesn’t bore the shit out of people and all that. Yeah. It’s not easy to pull a fucking Zen Arcade or Double Nickels on the Dime, which is my reference part of classic double albums.
Anyway, we started out with that in mind. At the same time, I had this other friend who’s played with me, he’s a string player and a composer, writer. Dutch man named Sietse van Gorkom, who once upon a time went out and did a duel LP. I did a stripped down thing with a couple of string players and these Dutch guys. He wrote the music for the song that ended up being on my record Phantom Radio called ‘The Killing Season.’ He’s always been sending me music and is, ‘Oh, dude we got to see this record going.’ It was really cool stuff but I’ve always got a lot of shit on my plate. Long story short, between him and Rob and also a song I had written with Al [Johannes] for Gargoyle, but we ended up not using, I ended up basically putting together over an hour’s worth of music, which technically is a double album. Two pieces of vinyl.
The difference I guess between it and anything else I’ve done is — It’s actually the second album where I’ve co-written everything with somebody else. It was also that I specifically wanted to go out of my way to make it all sort of blatantly catchy. Songs that anybody can enjoy. Maybe if it were The 1975 or something. I didn’t want to go all dark. I didn’t want to do my usual thing. I wanted to make catchy songs that could potentially in some alternate universe be played on the radio.I went out of my to do that, and that’s what ended up happening and I’m psyched about it. I also blatantly did homages to my favorite bands. There’s a song that’s pretty much a straight up fucking Joy Division riff. Another one that’s pretty much a New Order riff. Peter Hook is one of my heroes. Those are two of my all time favorite bands. I basically wanted to indulge my own, just get my jollies making a record that was unlike anything else I had ever done and maybe will ever do again.
Fuck dude, it was also one of the things that I go through every time. I go through a period where I’m like, ‘Wow, this is one of the best things I’ve ever done.’ Then the next day I’m like, ‘Dude, this is the worst piece of shit you have ever made. What the fuck are you thinking?’
mxdwn: All artists do that though don’t they?
ML: I don’t know. I know a lot of guys that are pretty damn sure that everything they do is gold. I don’t ever feel that way. Ultimately, it doesn’t ever matter what anybody else thinks as long as I enjoy it. I’ve been lucky because pretty much since 1999 or 2001 anyway, I’ve made records that I myself have enjoyed. I’ve been lucky because there’s a certain amount of people that also connect to it. I never thought it would be millions of people and of course it isn’t. It’s not for everybody. I’ve been lucky that some people connect to it really deeply. Since the ’90s, I’ve made music that I myself am proud of and enjoy, so that’s really what matters.
mxdwn: You run the gamut of different types of music, from Soulsavers to Queens of the Stone Age. There seems to be a lot of blues / Southern gothic that comes through in your music, do you have a deep connection with that genre of music?
ML: To be honest with you, there’s a lot of records that have come along that have changed my life. I was just this fucking nerdy kid who collected comic books when I heard the Sex Pistols. Within two days I had traded in all my comic books for credit at this record store. I bought every punk record I could get my hands on. Then again when I heard Joy Division. It was during a really fucking heavy period of time in my life. I was like, ‘Damn, somebody feels the same fucking way I do.’ That was a revelation. Really it was the record, I was living in my dad’s storage unit in the wintertime, I had taken a Greyhound bus to Seattle to fucking get one of my tattoos I had put on myself when I was 14 covered up with professional tattoos.
The only one that I still have is the one on my knee, which is a smiley face. That’s what Ozzy had on his knee. All the rest of them are covered now. I was looking through the fucking records at Tower Records and I found the Gun Club’s first record. The cover art and the name of the band, it grabbed me in a way. I bought it having no idea what it sounded like. I got back to the fucking storage unit and was going to unwrap my new tattoo and put on this record. Immediately when I heard Jeffrey Pierce’s voice, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. This guy fucking means it, and he’s obviously as fucked or more fucked up than I am.’ This is made specifically for me. Like serial killer music, you know what I mean? This is what I have to do. That’s what really set me on the path of becoming a singer. I still didn’t know anybody in my home town that listened to the same kind of music as me. For seven years I was listening to punk rock by myself. I had friends but I still couldn’t get any of them into it. I ended up getting a job working for these people, their kids had a band and they were the only people that knew punk rock. That became Screaming Trees.
What I heard was Jeffrey Pierce doing essentially punk rock versions of old, from the 1920s, blues songs. That and the fact that my old man had given me a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. My dad was a school teacher and they were demolishing the school he worked. He found a box of records and he gave them to me. One of them was the Lightnin’ Hopkins record. Between that first Gun Club record and the Lightnin’ Hopkins, that was my only attachment to the blues. When I started making my own music, I wanted it to have the feeling of the blues but not be the blues. The worst thing in the world to me is bar band blues. God bless BB King or whoever, but that’s not my cup of tea. Eric Clapton, that kind of shit, it’s just, ‘ugh.’ Robert Cray, who I once was on a plane flight with. I was once on a plane flight with Robert Cray and Bob Eubanks and I remember thinking, ‘This plane’s going to go down and I’m not going to be not even in the fucking…I’m not going to fucking be the Big Bopper here.’ As long as you’ve got Robert Cray and Bob Eubanks dying on this plane flight. I’m one of the nobodies.
Anyway, I’ll say this, Nick Drake, Joy Division, all of that stuff to me has that…I wanted to have that same feeling. The blues, a lot of it spoke to me in that same way. I never wanted to be something was straight up blues. To me, there’s nothing more boring. Those records that I mentioned like Nick Drake, Joy Division, Lightnin’ Hopkins or Son House…
mxdwn: Son House is great.
ML: Yeah, fuck yeah man. There’s not more great than Son House dude. The way all of that music speaks to me it tells me the imaginary story of myself. That’s the way I connect to it. When I went to make music I wanted to do the same thing, you know? It didn’t really matter what context it was in as long as it wasn’t in 12-bar blues. As long as it had a depth of feeling. And thank God you didn’t say I sound like Tom Waits. That’s one thing that always sets me off. Tom Waits. What?
mxdwn: Do a lot of people say that? Do a lot of people compare you to Tom Waits?
ML: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. I will admit that when I began, I was specifically ripping off Leonard Cohen because I wasn’t able to do anything else. I think on my first solo record, which I started writing two weeks after I got my first guitar and learned my first chord. Then was done with the record a month and a half after that. That’s how quickly it came together. That’s also how fucking shitty I was on guitar. I specifically ripped off the melody to ‘Suzanne.’ One of Leonard Cohen’s most famous songs. Blatantly ripped it off for one of the songs on my first record. I get that stuff a lot and you know it’s an honor to fucking be compared to Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. Those guys are geniuses. God bless Tom Waits. I have nothing but respect for him. I feel I have zero in common with him musically and I always get that. When I was a kid I always got Jim Morrison and then it was Tom Waits. Of course when I was a kid I not only sounded like Jim Morrison but I also looked like him. I took that as a compliment because he was a good looking guy. Then as I got older it was, ‘He sounds like Tom Waits and he looks like Tom Waits.’ Then it morphed into ‘He sounds like Tom Waits but he looks like Will Ferrell.’ What the fuck?
mxdwn: I’m sorry, you don’t look anything like Will Ferrell.
ML: I’m like one of those fucking child actors that became a mutant, you know? From a certain angle I see it, too. It’s crazy. If you look at a picture of him in that ice skating movie he did where he’s got long hair.
mxdwn: Blades of Glory.
ML: Not only that but Chad Smith, who’s a really nice guy by the way. I’ve never met Will Ferrell but I know Chad Smith a little bit. He’s a super nice guy. He also looks like Will Ferrell. I was one time shopping for fucking underwear in London. The guys were following me around the empty store. I thought, okay these guys think I’m going to rip something off. I got a couple boxes of underwear. This was years ago when I was still with the Queens [of the Stone Age]. I get up to the counter and all three of the guys who were in the store are suddenly at the counter and they were all smiling and super excited that I was there. One of them finally said, ‘Hey man, we just want to say that your music is so fucking great. We love it so much.’ I’m thinking, wow, I can’t believe these guys know who the fuck I am. Or maybe they’re talking about the Queens. Anyway, it’s flattering. Then they say, ‘Are you guys playing in town? Is Flea here? Is Anthony here, too?’ I realized these guys think I’m fucking Chad Smith, dude. The triplets. It’s me, Chad and Will Ferrell.
I hadn’t seen Chad Smith in years and I was at a Lakers game maybe four or five years ago. I was walking around the fucking outside and I came face to face with Chad Smith. I saw him looking at me but it wasn’t like he looked at me and recognized me from the touring we’d done together. It was he was looking at me and thinking, dude, this motherfucker looks just like me. I could see it. It was like what the fuck? I’m looking in a mirror. It made me laugh because we had done whole tours with those guys. I knew he wasn’t recognizing me from that. He was recognizing the fact that we looked like each other.mxdwn: Have you ever contemplated working with Soulsavers again?
ML: Well Rich Machin, who is the Soulsavers dude, is one of my best friends now. I didn’t know him at all, of course, when I was first handed the music. He’s pretty much specifically Dave Gahan’s dude now. By the way, Dave Gahan, one of the greatest singers of all time. Incredible. I’m a huge fan plus he’s a super cool guy. The last couple of records they’ve done were with Dave. I guess their 20th anniversary is coming up and one of the things that was pitched to me was that I do one of Dave’s songs and he’s doing one of my mine for a 12″ single or something. If that happened I’d be psyched. To me, he wrote the Soulsavers song. A song called ‘Presence of God.’ I would love to do that. Hopefully that will happen.
Me and Rich talk almost everyday. He’s in England. We just finally figured out that right next to the one button on your iPhone that you have to pay for the calls. There’s actually one you can get that’s free. My phone bill’s so high because we talk so much. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ Yesterday he was like, ‘Hey, I just figured it out dude. We can talk for free.’ Me and him and me and Dulli who just called me, we get on the phone. I often don’t pick up a call from either one of those guys because I know if I do, I got to set aside at least an hour. I was going to say, plus it’s always cool when somebody like Dave Gahan sings one of your songs. I’ve seen him do one of my songs before and it was like, ‘Okay, well I can die now.’
mxdwn: Depeche Mode is so fucking good.
ML: They are so fucking good and have so many great songs. We toured as Soulsavers with those guys, because Martyn LeNoble, the original Porno for Pyros bassist, he’s an amazing musician. He plays on all my records. He had played in Dave’s solo band with some off time from Depeche. Anyway, they’re good friends. That’s how we ended up opening an arena tour with those guys for two months as Soulsavers. I watched their whole show every fucking day. It’s one great song after another. I mean really great songs. I’ve seen them playing an arena, I don’t know, maybe 40 times before. Last year or maybe the year before they came to LA and did a private show for fans at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which is basically a room that’s 100, maybe 150 capacity. Tiny room. They invited me to go and I went. Dude, they’re like the most badass club band, too. I’d never seen them play on a small stage. I wondered how’s that going to be? You’re so used to seeing them play these huge 20,000 seat arenas. Dude, it was so fucking bad ass. It all comes down to Dave, because he’s an amazing front man. It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing an arena or in front of 100 people, he’s fucking the shit.
He’s one of those classic frontmen. When I first saw him I was like, ‘Fuck man.’ When I was young and I couldn’t sing and I started with the Trees, I actually did move around on stage because I didn’t have anything else to do. I couldn’t sing so I just screamed and jumped around like an idiot. But I thought, ‘Fuck, wouldn’t be great to be a real front man like Dave? I said, ‘Fuck Dave, I wish I had turned into a front man like you.’ He goes, ‘Dude, I wish the fuck I had done it like you do it so I don’t have to run around five miles every night.’ He does. It’s physical. He’s the only guy, I mean God bless the rest of those dudes, he’s their focal point. He’s out to the end of the runway and fucking all over the stage. He’s a year older than me. I’m not a fucking spring chicken. He’s in great shape and his voice is getting better with age, that’s also something that doesn’t often happen.
mxdwn: Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
ML: I’ve got a memoir coming out in April of next year.
mxdwn: Oh that’ll be a good read.
ML: Well depends on who you are. I’ll probably never be able to return to Washington state or actually see anyone in my family or any of my old friends who are still alive ever again. It basically chronicles my 10 years in Seattle, which we pretty dark.
mxdwn: It’s good that you can write about it though. I guess it’s important to get it out, right?
ML: Well, so it was pitched to me. I had a couple of friends who were famous writers and sort of talked me into doing it. The thought of writing a book as always seemed like, A. Mount Everest and, B. Why in the fuck would I ever want to tell the deepest, darkest fucking story? Once I went in I was encouraged to be honest and I went all the way. It’s pretty heavy. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t feel any relief after it was done. I actually felt the opposite. I had not thought about any of that shit in 20 years. Once you start thinking about that kind of stuff, well if you’re me, you start remembering really fucking ugly shit that you did. That you took part in. In ended up not being a cathartic experience. It opened up a Pandora’s box of shitty memories. I could’ve done without digging up those old bodies. I also didn’t want to make some shitty, stupid rock biography, which is why I had to go in all the way. I’m no fucking Jim Carroll or Rimbaud by any stretch of the imagination, but I wasn’t going to make a fucking book if it was like by Mark Lanegan and the guy who actually wrote it. If this is just some stupid fucking rock biography then fuck it, what is the point of that? There’s enough of that shit and who wants to hear my fucking story anyway. It’s not that interesting. Unless, of course, I go in honestly and into the deep end and mess with it. So yeah, that’s next on the horizon. Whatever else comes along. My life is usually about saying yes to shit and then going through the door.
mxdwn: Before you even know what’s going to happen right?
ML: For years I would never walk through any door. I didn’t want to know what’s on the other side. Now, every good thing that’s ever happened to me is by simply by putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next indicated thing. Whatever comes along, I’ll probably say yes to it and that’ll be the next thing I do.
Mark Lanegan will be performing at Psycho Las Vegas 2019 on Saturday, August 17 at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. Purchase tickets for the festival at the Psycho Las Vegas website.