Mark Lanegan
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Mark Lanegan Biography

Mark Lanegan is almost 50. He is also about to release a

new album, titled Phantom Radio. It will be the ninth under

his own name, but combine it with the collaborative albums

he’s made, be it with Isobel Campbell, or Duke Garwood, or

as 50 per cent of the Gutter Twins (his ongoing partnership

with Greg Dulli), or his legendary first band the Screaming

Trees, then the total is nearer 20. Then there’s his guest

spots with Queens Of The Stone Age, and, before then,

Mad Season, the mid-‘90s Seattle supergroup that featured

members of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Screaming

Trees. And that’s before we count his many occasional or

one-off collaborations, as the singer on records by the varied

likes of UNKLE, Martina-Topley Bird, Moby, Soulsavers,

Melissa Auf der Maur and Creature With The Atom Brain.

In total, Mark Lanegan has made close to 50 records. Fifty

years, 50 records. What has this life taught him?

Mark Lanegan smiles broadly and gives a chuckle.

“That there’s more to life than

writing songs every day.”

He used to get up every morning and write

something. Leave it for a few hours, come back, chip away

again at night. By the time it came to make a record, he

had a mountain of material, only a small portion of which

survived onto the finished article. But for Phantom Radio,

just like its celebrated predecessor Blues Funeral (2012),

he recorded every song he wrote. It took two and a half

months to make, but that’s because these days Mark likes

to take things leisurely. He would write a song. Bring it

to Alain Johannes, his producer, who then arranged the

recording at his West Hollywood studio. Once the song was

recorded, Mark took a few days off and then wrote another.

He estimates he worked a couple of days a week, and no

more than five hours a day. This is not the workshy regimen

of a slacker, however, but the discipline of a true craftsman.

Mark, typically, regards his modus operandi in rather

more modest terms.

“I’ve got better at distilling what makes a successful

song for me and what doesn’t. I think I’ve become more

discerning. But,” he laughs, “less active at the same time.

It’s a nice balance to strike when you’re 50! I don’t get as

crazy about it when I was younger. It was a lot harder, when

I was younger, to write songs.”

Mark’s younger days were crazy by any definition.

A troubled kid in the small Washington State farm town of

Ellensburg – in and out of jail for theft and drug-dealing

– at age 20 a doctor told him he would be dead by 30

unless he addressed his alcohol intake. Lanegan would

subsequently joke that heroin therefore 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 powerful 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 his band’s turbulent journey, Lanegan

began releasing a succession of solo albums, primarily

acoustic, which revealed a stentorian voice and forbidding

persona at which the Trees’ florid, rootsy psychedelia

barely hinted. 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 later

celebrated 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 version of the blues: part-acoustic, part-electro-rooted

contexts mostly produced by Alain Johannes, with a floating

cast of helpers, some illustrious (Josh Homme; PJ Harvey)

others not. Seven years of collaboration followed before

Lanegan, now a paragon of clean living, delivered the

towering Blues Funeral, its Krautrock curlicues adding new

textures to his molasses-thick doom canvas.

And now Phantom Radio builds on the same

foundations: produced by Alain Johannes, and that voice

intoning deep truths hewn from the bleakest realm. “I saw

the feet of pilgrims bleeding,” Mark sings on Judgement

Time. “I saw whole cities drowning, I saw whole armies

dying.” You believe every word; no other living singer’s

voice feels so charged with Biblical portent.

Which is all part of the craft, because Mark Lanegan

is not as black as he’s been painted. His chief compositional

tool on Phantom Radio was his phone – specifically an app

called Funk Box. “I didn’t bother to hook up my 909 and

808 this time,” he says, “because the app had ’em. I’d write

drum parts with it then add music with the synthesizer or the

guitar.”

Phantom Radio grew organically from these

synthetic roots, taking in Mark’s ongoing love of Krautrock

and also an ’80s new wave show on Sirius satellite radio,

his favoured aural companion as he drives around Los

Angeles. “They have a few good shows – Little Steven’s

garage punk one is great – but the ‘80s one in particular I

like,” he says. “That’s the music that was happening when

I started making music. And although the Trees drew on

Nuggets psychedelia, 13th Floor Elevators and Love, we

were actually listening to Echo And The Bunnymen, Rain

Parade, the Gun Club. A lot of British post-punk. We loved

that stuff. I just waited until I was in my late forties before I

started ripping it off.”

Trip-hop – a peculiarly British ’90s post-punk variant

– is the inspiration for at least one of the album’s peak

moments: The Killing Season (“My soul’s in traction/Cops

and criminals and all that crawl get into action”), co-written

by Dutch violinist Sietse Van Gorkom.

Lanegan’s generous collaborative spirit delivered

another co-write, from British guitarist Duke Garwood, with

whom Mark made 2013’s dustbowl-desolate Black Pudding

and who now offers the music for I Am The Wolf, a Lanegan

signature tune. Mark’s favourite song on the album,

meanwhile, is Torn Red Heart, an intensely tender meditation

for a broken heart that’s like The Velvet Underground’s

Pale Blue Eyes orchestrated by Angelo Badalamenti. He

also has a special mention for Floor Of The Ocean, which

balances sheer catchiness with a deceptively bleak lyrical

reflection on a life lived on the hard shoulder: “Clear eyes,

can’t avoid the searchlight/Hope that they don’t find me/

Find me where I’m lying.” Joining him on vocals is Shelley

Brien, Mark’s girlfriend for the past 10 years. The singer

considers the song, and offers a telling observation.

“It’s rare for me to be moved by my own, but that

song has a sadness that actually affected me when I heard

it back. I’m very fond of it.”

The album title stems from a lyric in

Smokestackmagic, which features on the EP, No Bells On

Sunday, that will precede the album’s release – five songs

written during the same period but which were, in Mark’s

judgment “too goofy” to fit with the rest. “I’m less apt to

throw away a song that might be a little weird nowadays. I

can make it work with whatever I’ve got going.”

Amidst this new Mark Lanegan album’s spooked

headspace, reeling at the beauty and danger amid each

melody, it feels like the Phantom Radio’s been switched

on for all eternity. Notoriously hard to please, its creator

pronounces himself as happy as he can possibly be. “I

never have really questioned the lyrical process,” he says.

“I go with whatever presents itself. And often what presents

itself is considered dark or moody. But sometimes I’ll

actually hear the same thing I’ll hear in somebody else’s

song. When that happens it’s a pleasant experience.”

 

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