From Seattle to the Stone Age
Published Jan 24, 2009With the 20th anniversary of the Seattle scene's insurgence fast approaching, the ghosts of its fallen figures will still not be allowed to rest. However, it's unlikely that proper tributes will be paid to the survivors, those who have transcended the ubiquitous "grunge" tag and continue to make music that challenges both themselves and their audiences. Granted, there aren't many; Pearl Jam and Mudhoney have stuck to relatively familiar territory, while Chris Cornell's post-Soundgarden work is best left out of this discussion entirely. That leaves Mark Lanegan, the scene's poetic misfit, an image largely rooted in his original miscasting as lead vocalist of Screaming Trees. Yet, from his first emergence as a solo artist, it was clear that Lanegan possessed an understanding and appreciation of songwriting that far outstripped his peers. Over the past decade he has allowed those traits to consistently lead him into uncharted territory, both on his own and through a steady stream of collaborations. Whether it's making cameos fronting Queens Of The Stone Age or his latest collection of duets with Scottish folkie Isobel Campbell, Sunday At Devil Dirt, Lanegan's soul-stirring baritone always sounds at home. It's a voice that's become as powerful a vehicle of expression as any in rock'n'roll, and in spite of his well-publicized bad habits, it thankfully doesn't seem like it will be silenced anytime soon.
1964 to 1984
Mark Lanegan is born November 25, 1964 in the small town of Ellensburg, 130 miles southeast of Seattle. Some of his early years are spent in a trailer park, and by age 12 he is committing petty crimes. "When I was a kid I got caught shoplifting by a store security guard in Ellensburg," Lanegan would tell Seattle magazine The Rocket in 1996. "The next time I saw that store guard was when I got thrown in jail again - this time for not paying court fees. The guy happened to be in jail too, right next to me. That's what Eastern Washington is like - you never get too far away from anybody." He begins experimenting with drugs and is arrested several more times. Although his listening habits favour imported British punk singles, his imagination is also stoked by a box of blues records that his father, a teacher, finds in the attic of his school. Among them is Lead Belly's 1944 recording of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." In high school Lanegan strikes up a friendship with fellow punk fan Van Conner, who - along with his brother Gary Lee - play in one of Ellensburg's few bands. Lanegan, however, is more intent on a baseball career; that is until age 18 when he is arrested for drug possession and handed a prison sentence. It's deferred when he consents to enter a yearlong treatment program. Following that, he works for the Conner family business repossessing appliances and furniture. Lanegan eventually falls out with the Conners and takes a job on a farm, a position he only expects to hold temporarily until he's able to ride his motorcycle to Las Vegas where better work awaits with his cousin. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned. Just before Lanegan is about to leave the farm, his boss accidentally runs over his legs with a tractor. "After that, I couldn't ride my motorcycle," he'll tell Mojo's Keith Cameron in 2004. "So I lent it to Van Conner. My girlfriend left me around that time too, so he would come by and bring me food, 'cos I couldn't walk. One day he came back without [the motorcycle]. He'd totalled my bike, so now I didn't have any wheels. That's how I ended up being in the Screaming Trees. Two months later we made our first record."
1985 to 1986
The Conner brothers are in the process of forming a new band with vocalist Mark Pickerel when the still-recovering Lanegan offers to play drums. It's determined that Pickerel is a better drummer, so Lanegan switches to vocals, even though he has little experience in that role either. With few places to play in Ellensburg, Lee Conner buys a four-track and the band records original demos, laying the foundation for a sound that, although rooted in hardcore, shows a strong love of psychedelia, from Lee Conner's fondness for the wah-wah pedal, to Lanegan's Jim Morrison-inspired singing. Seeking to expand upon the demos, the band meets local producer Steve Fisk, who had previously put out several of his own cassettes on Calvin Johnson's K Records. Fisk gets the band to record new versions of the songs and six are chosen for the self-released Other Worlds cassette. This sparks the Trees to write more and by summer, 1986 they finish their full-length debut, Clairvoyance, released on Ellensburg-based label Velvetone. By now Fisk is the band's champion and arranges the Trees's first legitimate show on May 11, 1986 in Olympia, Washington, Calvin Johnson's home base. Johnson is impressed and agrees to re-release Other Worlds on K. The band's relationship with Johnson is fully consummated the next year when they record a joint four-song EP with Johnson's band Beat Happening. However, Fisk's next move is to play Clairvoyance to his friends at SST Records in L.A. and the Trees soon join the label's influential roster that includes Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and the Minutemen.
1987 to 1988
The Trees release Even If And Especially When, a stellar effort that establishes them on the national college radio charts. It also gets them touring for the first time, which quickly brings out underlying tensions among all the members. "We'd come off the road and record an album for the $1,000 advance SST were offering us, because we needed the money to go back on the road," Lanegan told Stevie Chick, of UK quarterly Loose Lips Sink Ships, in 2004. Although the Conner brothers would often fight each other, the singer's main complaints stemmed from the fact that Lee was insisting on writing most of the material. "Those SST records were a mishmash. I was singing parts that the guitar player had written, in a higher register than mine; I was always walking offstage with a splitting headache. He was really into a psychedelia thing, which I wasn't into. He hadn't even eaten acid, which I'd been selling for a number of years." Lee Conner's psych fetish reaches its apex on the next album, Invisible Lantern. Its laboured creation is too much for Van Conner, who quits just after it is completed. He is replaced on bass by Donna Dresch in time for a fall 1988 tour with fIREHOSE.
1989 to 1990
Dresch stays on board as sessions commence in L.A. for the Trees' last SST album, Buzz Factory, before Van Conner rejoins and more tracks are laid down in Seattle with local producer Jack Endino. Under Endino's guidance, the album possesses more qualities that will soon be termed "grunge," which leads to interest from emerging Seattle label Sub Pop. The Trees' only Sub Pop release is the aptly titled EP Change Has Come, although the band temporarily splits again soon after its release. "The Trees was four complete nuts," Lanegan would tell Mojo. "We didn't have a damn thing in common except insanity. So we fought a lot. And we had two brothers, who fought like brothers. Only they were huge. We made a rule that no girlfriends or wives could ride with us. But none of us had a girlfriend and only one of us had a wife. So [Van Conner] felt a little discriminated against. And maybe he was. So he quit for a year and a half. And when he came back, the very first show back, I was walking off while the show was still going, like I usually did, and I heard a commotion that sounded not like your usual applause. I came back out and there he was beating the shit out of Lee Conner, on stage. It was like prison. Without the sex." The Conners each form other bands: Solomon Grundy (Van) and Purple Outside (Lee), while Lanegan signs a solo deal with Sub Pop. His initial idea is to release an EP of Lead Belly covers recorded with fellow Sub Pop signees Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, until he forms a partnership with songwriter/producer Mike Johnson. Their initial efforts form the basis of The Winding Sheet, a stark, acoustic-based collection that shows off the full depth of Lanegan's voice for the first time. A version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" done with Cobain and Novoselic does make the album, and the song will be resurrected three years later when Nirvana performs it in a similar arrangement as part of its Unplugged In New York session.
1991 to 1992
Despite Lanegan's creative breakthrough, the major label feeding frenzy in Seattle pulls the Screaming Trees back together. They sign on with high-powered manager Susan Silver, who lands them a deal with Epic, and her then-husband Chris Cornell of Soundgarden is tapped as producer. The resulting Uncle Anesthesia unfortunately doesn't live up to anyone's expectations and the members start losing interest again. Drummer Pickerel quits before the record is released, and Van Conner accepts an offer to tour with Dinosaur Jr. When the Trees themselves finally tour - with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters sitting in - the tightening grip of drug addiction nearly sends everything off the rails. Specifically, Lanegan is using heroin, which greatly hampers his plans for a second solo album. His initial sessions with Mike Johnson drag on until he is forced to give in to pressure from the Trees' camp to make a new record with the band. Much of the focus is restored when they enlist powerhouse drummer Barrett Martin and hire producer Don Fleming, who brings a more polished pop edge to the new material. However, it's a surprisingly renewed sense of camaraderie that is the hallmark of the sessions, as Lanegan would later explain to Stevie Chick: "I'd quit the band a number of times, but said I'd return for one more album, only if we did it my way. Sweet Oblivion was the first where I wrote all the words, and it ended up being our most successful one." Released at the height of grunge mania, Sweet Oblivion is indeed the Trees' best work in all respects, and "Nearly Lost You" becomes a surprise hit, in part due to its inclusion on the Singles soundtrack. In keeping with this mainstream attention, the band is handed a new touring regimen, one that includes an unfortunate string of dates opening for Soul Asylum and Spin Doctors.
1993 to 1994
As the hype surrounding Sweet Oblivion wanes, Lanegan is able to finish Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, an even more powerful personal statement than his solo debut. Songs like "House A Home" and "El Sol" are drenched in melancholy, and the album as a whole seems to foreshadow the looming collapse of the entire Seattle phenomenon, just as it mirrors Lanegan's own personal struggles. "I started it in '92, and planned to get it done in a week," Lanegan tells Seattle weekly The Rocket upon Whiskey's release in 1994. "I finally finished up this August, but that was for a lot of different reasons. At one time when I was prepared to finish it, I couldn't go into the studio because of financial difficulties with Sub Pop. Another time I couldn't sing. Then I was on the road for over a year [with the Trees]. I used my breaks from that tour to fly to New York and attempt to finish it again. I knew what I wanted the record to sound like overall. I didn't even come close, and that changed. It changed radically about a year and a half into it, and I recorded a bunch of rock songs thinking I wanted to change it, and ended up, actually, after the whole thing was said and done, using more songs from the very first session than from anything else. I think it sounds amazingly cohesive for how it was made." By the end of 1994, questions of a follow-up to Sweet Oblivion are raised, but after recording an entire album's worth of material, the band shelve all of it.
1995 to 1996
The Trees toil for another entire year on the new album, a process increasingly hindered by Lanegan's heroin use. Ironically, he's called upon to contribute vocals to the Seattle "supergroup" project Mad Season when Alice In Chains' Layne Staley becomes too strung out to complete what will be the band's only album, Above. When the Trees' solid, if at times overwrought Dust finally appears in time to coincide with the band's slot on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, its lacklustre sales are another sign that the "alternative" scene's dalliance with the mainstream is coming to an end. This is further illustrated by the controversy surrounding the tour's headliner, Metallica, and the fact that others on the bill such as Soundgarden and the Ramones have already announced their dissolution. To boost morale, the Trees draft Josh Homme - on the rebound after leaving Kyuss - as second guitarist, and he and Lanegan immediately bond. "Josh's presence alone was the glue that kept [the Trees] together the last few years," Lanegan will tell Magnet in 2002. "We didn't want to act up too badly in front of the kid. We were also really aware that he was capable of a lot more than playing these rhythm guitar parts." Still, Lanegan's drug consumption continues to escalate, and before the end of the Dust tour, he is arrested for crack possession and forced into rehab.
1997 to 1998
Lanegan spends eight months at a drug treatment facility near Joshua Tree, California and details the experience in a clutch of new songs. Feeling ready to record, he calls Mike Johnson and arranges for a three-day pass, during which time they lay down Scraps At Midnight, released in July 1998. "I didn't know how to sing any more, 'cos I hadn't done it in long time," Lanegan will tell Mojo. "A lot of friends and family members came out to Joshua Tree and stayed with me while I was making it. A really, really special record. That started beating me to actually make records again." Among those friends is local resident Josh Homme who invites Lanegan to join his new band Queens of the Stone Age, formed out of the infamous "Desert Sessions" held at the same studio where Lanegan and Johnson record. "I wasn't able to play on that first [Queens] record, and in retrospect I'm really glad that's the way it happened," Lanegan will tell Stevie Chick. "I've always preferred being in a band, but I didn't want it to be an unhappy experience. I'd been in this other band for a really long time, and it was a band of people who really disliked each other a lot, beginning with two brothers who disliked each other. There was always this threat of violence and a lot of dysfunction and unhappiness. I didn't want to experience that again."
1999 to 2000
Lanegan and Johnson collaborate again on I'll Take Care Of You, a well-chosen collection of folk, country and soul covers, along with "Carry Home" by Lanegan's close friend, Gun Club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Lanegan forms a new band and begins performing this material at intimate club shows along the West coast. At the same time, he finally accepts Homme's offer to join Queens Of The Stone Age, after contributing vocals to three tracks on their sophomore album, Rated R. "It took convincing on his part that I wasn't tying myself to a rock that was going to the bottom of the ocean," Lanegan said in 2004. "It's been one of the most rewarding situations I've ever been in, and I don't mean because of its success. It's one of the rare beasts in that it's good, but it also has the ability to obviously get through to a lot of people, so it's not marginalized." On June 25, 2000, Lanegan performs one final show with Screaming Trees for the inauguration of the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
2001 to 2002
Field Songs, Lanegan's last collaboration with Mike Johnson, is released to glowing reviews. He tells Mojo at the time of its release, "I tried to make my second record again. Not a sequel to it, but the same record, from a different perspective. One of 'em I made when I was out of my mind, and this one I made when I was not." One of the notable tracks is "Kimiko's Dream House," co-written with Jeffrey Lee Pierce just before his death. "In early 1996, he went to Japan, and right before he left he and I were at his mom's in L.A. writing songs," Lanegan will tell Stevie Chick. "He seemed in really good health - sometimes he wasn't in such good health, sometimes he could barely walk because he was so fucked up. When he came back from Japan, he left me a couple of messages. He sounded completely out of his mind, though not like he was drunk. It was strange, like he'd gone crazy. Finally I got hold of someone, and she told me Jeffrey had been drinking while he was gone, and his liver had sent poisons through his system, and he was experiencing dementia. The hospital turned him away saying, there's nothing we can do for him, his liver's shut down, he's dying. After this, I get a call from him; he was up in Utah and he sounded normal. And I said 'What the hell, man, everyone's saying you're going to die.' And he said 'They always say that.' And a week later, he fell into a coma and died." Lanegan takes part in Desert Sessions 7, which sets the stage for the next Queens album, Songs For The Deaf, a tour de force that has him front and centre on standout tracks "Hangin' Tree" and "Song For The Dead." His appearances at Queens concerts soon become famously selective, an approach he likens to when he was a relief pitcher during his baseball-playing days.
2003 to 2004
Lanegan sings on Martina Topley-Bird's Mercury Prize-nominated debut Quixotic, and makes more significant contributions to the Queens' Lullabyes To Paralyze, while working on his next solo album with members of the Queens circle. Initial efforts are heard on the Here Comes That Weird Chill EP - credited to the Mark Lanegan Band - which finds the singer in a much more experimental frame of mind than ever before. That's partly carried over to the full-length Bubblegum, although overall it is a well-balanced reflection of all of Lanegan's capabilities. Among the many guests are Polly Jean Harvey, who duets on "Hit The City." "I said I didn't want to make that same kind of records anymore," he'll tell Stevie Chick. "I considered them all rock records, but I noticed people thought of them as blues records or folk records, and that's just not interesting to me. I didn't want to make something that was so rooted in period that it was a genre exercise. I wanted to make rock'n'roll records, my kind of rock'n'roll records. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and very little of it is rooted in the past. Mike [Johnson] in particular was not interested in doing anything that was 'unsafe,' y'know? That's no slam on him at all; he makes wonderful records and all those records bear his stamp, and I'm very proud of and love the music we made together. But I wanted to do something else."
2005 to 2006
During a Queens tour stop in Glasgow, Lanegan meets former Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell and offers to record an album of duets with her. Campbell takes up the challenge and writes new material she feels is suitable. They construct Ballad Of The Broken Seas - and the companion Ramblin' Man EP - mostly via the Internet, although they meet in L.A. to record two of Lanegan's selections, one being a cover of the blues standard "St. James Infirmary." Most compare the album favourably to the classic Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duets from the late '60s. "[Mark's] voice is rough and a lot of people say mine is angelic," Campbell said. "It's like two sides of the coin, really. That's how we both always looked at it. It's very unlikely. It's a very feminine/masculine thing as well."
2007 to 2008
Lanegan pushes his musical boundaries further by collaborating with Soulsavers, comprised of English production duo Rich Machin and Ian Glover. The album, It's Not How You Fall, It's The Way You Land, features Lanegan on eight tracks. They include reworkings of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations," Neil Young's "Through My Sails," and Lanegan's own "Kingdoms Of Rain" from Whiskey For The Holy Ghost. However, most of his time is spent getting his long-gestating partnership with former Afghan Whig Greg Dulli off the ground. Lanegan had contributed to several albums by Dulli's Twilight Singers project dating back to 2003, but the two close friends had always planned to put their own band together. Under the name the Gutter Twins, they release Saturnalia, a dark, dense collection that shows Lanegan in top form on "Idle Hands" and "Who Will Lead Us."
Lanegan and Campbell's second album together, 2008's Sunday At Devil Dirt, is reissued with five new bonus tracks. The pair works in closer proximity this time, with Lanegan flying to Glasgow to lay down his parts over the course of a week. The result is more powerfully evocative folk-based balladry, with the damaged grandeur of Lanegan's voice once again the album's most prominent instrument. "I was pretty stubborn, I thought that I could do a lot of things myself," he summed up in 2004. "Nobody likes to believe that they need anybody's help in anything, and the smarter you are - and I'm not smart - or the tougher you are - and at times I thought I was pretty tough - the more trouble you have. The smartest guys I ever met are not around anymore, because they thought they could think their way out of an unthinkable situation, and the tough guys have to just be beaten up repeatedly, and some guys just never do make it out. As far as I remember I don't have any warrants out for my arrest anymore. I can travel without fear. I'm not carrying anything in my pockets that might get me caught, so that's a good thing. I thank God that today, I'm okay. That doesn't mean that tomorrow I won't be of the mind to do something stupid. But God willing, I won't."