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There’s a singer with a voice 50 fathoms deep and the consistency of vitrified teak, who has been known to go to extremes in search of a song. Across continents, over oceans, through multiple time zones. From West Hollywood to… Tunbridge Wells. A long way – but Mark Lanegan knows the directions.
Early in 2016, Mark was at home in Los Angeles, working on some ideas for what might turn into his next album. He wasn’t too thrilled by what he was coming up with. Then he got an email from a friend, an English musician named Rob Marshall, thanking Mark for contributing to a new project he was putting together, Humanist. The pair first met in 2008, when Marshall’s former band Exit Calm supported Soulsavers, who Mark was singing with at the time. Now Rob was offering to write Mark some music to return the favour.
“I was like, Hey man, I’m getting ready to make a record, if you’ve got anything?’” Mark recalls. “Three days later he sent me *10 things… !”
In the meantime, Mark had written Blue Blue Sea, a rippling mood piece that he thought might be a more fruitful direction for his new record, and had the idea for a song called First Day Of Winter that felt like an apt closer. “It’s almost always how my records start,” he explains. “I let the first couple of songs tell me what the next couple should sound like, and it’s really the same process when I’m writing words. Whatever my first couple of lines are tell me what the next couple should be. I’ve always built things like that, sort of like making a sculpture I guess. Start with the raw material and let that point me in the direction I want to go. So, once I was pointed in that direction, the music that came from other sources, from Rob, I just went for the ones that helped me build this narrative that I had started already.”
Within an hour, Mark had written words and vocal lines for two of the pieces Rob had cooked up at Mount Sion Studios in Kent and pinged through the virtual clouds to California. Rob’s music fitted perfectly with the direction Mark had been pondering: in essence, a more expansive progression from the moody Krautrock-influenced electronica textures of his two previous albums, Blues Funeral and Phantom Radio. Eventually, Rob Marshall would co-write six of the songs on the new Mark Lanegan Band album. “I was very thankful to become reacquainted with him,” Mark deadpans.
The remainder of the album was written, recorded and produced by Lanegan’s longtime musical amanuensis Alain Johannes at his 11 AD base in West Hollywood. Everything was done and dusted within a month, unusually fast by Lanegan’s recent standards. Both Blues Funeral and Phantom Radio unfurled at leisurely pace over several months. But this time Johannes had only a fixed window of opportunity due to his ongoing touring commitments as a member of P.J. Harvey’s band. But Mark was sufficiently happy with the material to move swiftly, a reflection of contentment with his abilities as a singer and writer, which have now produced a huge body of work spanning a period of more than 30 years: whether it be his own solo records, or collaborative recordings with others, or going back to his legendary first band, the Screaming Trees.
Yet Lanegan hasn’t always felt so comfortable in his own skin, or with his profession.
“I definitely feel like I’m a better songwriting than I was 15 years ago,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m just kidding myself or what, but it’s definitely easier now to make something that is satisfying to me. Whereas when I first starting making my own records, it was difficult to write them, it was difficult to record them, it was difficult to make something that was satisfying. Maybe I’m just easier on myself these days, but it’s definitely not as painful a process, and therefore I feel I’m better at it now. But part of the way that I stay interested in making music is by collaborating with other people. When I see things through somebody else’s perspective it’s more exciting than if I’m left to my own devices.”
By his own admission, as a young man Mark Lanegan used to drive himself crazy when it came to writing songs. Then again, the younger Lanegan lived a crazy life. He grew up in the small Washington State farm town of Ellensburg, in and out of jail for various offenses– aged 20 a doctor told him he would be dead by 30 unless he addressed his alcohol intake. Lanegan would joke that his subsequent hard drugs addiction saved his life. He saw more violence in the Screaming Trees than in any correctional institution: the band he joined in 1984 whirled around a vortex of sibling strife as its songwriting brothers punched their way through a succession of progressively more engaging albums, until 1992’s Sweet Oblivion brought the Trees a modicum of commercial success to match the respect they had earned among Seattle scene peers like Nirvana.
Parallel to the Trees’ turbulent journey, Lanegan began releasing a succession of solo albums, primarily acoustic, which revealed a stentorian voice and commanding persona at which the Trees’ florid rootsy psychedelia barely suggested. His debut, The Winding Sheet (1990), grew out of an aborted attempt by Lanegan and Kurt Cobain to record an EP of blues covers. Lanegan’s treatment of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night survived (and indeed provided Cobain with the template for Nirvana’s subsequent version), but it would be the masterful follow-up, Whiskey For The Holy Ghost (1993), that confirmed Lanegan’s credentials as a truly unique artist.
Another 10 years elapsed, however, before he made an album that pricked the Ghost’s aura. Bubblegum (2004) saw Lanegan emerge from the wreckage of the Screaming Trees and his on-off struggles with addiction to create a new template for the blues: part-acoustic, part-electro-rooted contexts mostly produced by Alain Johannes, with a floating cast of helpers, some illustrious (Josh Homme; P.J. Harvey) others not. Seven years of collaboration followed before Lanegan, now a paragon of clean living, delivered the towering Blues Funeral (2012), with its Harmonia curlicues adding new colours to his molasses thick canvas of ongoing doom.
In 2014, Phantom Radio built on the same foundations, produced again by Johannes, and with Lanegan’s voice intoning deep truths hewn from the bleakest realm. And now his latest offering, titled Gargoyle. While sharing roots with its two predecessors, there’s a significant up-shift in the swaggering powerlode of such keynote songs as Nocturne and Beehive, while the lyrics’ tonal palette is more varied. Beehive, for instance, is a thrilling replicant biker anthem, riffed up and reverberant to the hilt, but you can sense Lanegan’s eyebrow arched throughout as he intones “Honey just gets me stoned”, or the priceless couplet, “Hanging down from above/Everywhere I look it’s a bummer.” The album title comes from a lyric in Blue Blue Sea – “Gargoyle perched on gothic spire” – and was chosen for its hint of self-deprecation.
“I don’t know if ‘whimsical’ is the correct term,” laughs Mark, “but it seemed fitting. I’m most proud of the songs that are atypical to stuff that I’ve done in the past. So I really like Old Swan, because it’s an expression of positivity, which is completely anti-anything I’ve done before!” He laughs. “Y’know, I haven’t played this record for too many people yet. I played it for Greg Dulli, who played on some of it, and he was like, ‘Wow, I had to listen to it twice – it sounds like he’s having a good time…’ So for that same reason I like Beehive, and Emperor…”
Emperor is more startling still: a psychedelic music hall ditty, featuring Josh Homme on backing vocals and heavily redolent of the Kinks.
“Oh, I love the Kinks,” says Mark. “I listen to the Kinks probably every three days or so. I also love that song because Josh is singing on it, and I always love singing with him. But really, I like all three of those songs because they’re… I guess ‘light-hearted’ is not the right term, but just less dark than what I’m normally doing. And there’s nothing wrong with that either, but for some reason those three came out that way and I’m more psyched about them.”
Old Swan is Gargoyle’s perfect finale: a pulsing incantation, an epic hymn to the life that’s lived – and She who provides it. The lyric feels like Lanegan’s most personal – even spiritual.
“Clean/Through the eternal/Through dead seasons/Sail to the sun/My mother and my queen/Honest and serene.”
There’s a chuckle from the author of these words as he hears them read out loud. It’s been a long journey travelled, not always easy, but in 2017, at the age of 52, he’s got the look of permanence about him. Like that gargoyle on the gothic spire.
“Clean, through the eternal…” Mark Lanegan? With his reputation?
He chuckles again… “So far so good.”