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Mark Lanegan Talks New Album ‘Imitations,’ the Genius of Andy Williams and Singing the Blues With Kurt Cobain

Mark Lanegan by Mark Davis, Getty Images
Mark Davis, Getty Images

Mark Lanegan is a man of many faces.

In the years since he fronted grunge forefathers the Screaming Trees — who put out seven albums and scored a surprise hit with 1992’s ‘Nearly Lost You’ — Lanegan has reinvented himself so many times it’s practically impossible to remember he was once an adopted Seattleite.

First, there was the 1990 solo record ‘The Winding Sheet, which featured guest spots from pre-’Nevermind’ Nirvana players Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. That was followed by six more solo albums, a side-project the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, an unreleased EP of Leadbelly blues songs cut with Cobain, a recurring role as part-time vocalist and songwriter in Queens of the Stone Age, three albums with former Belle and Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell and a host of other top-notch cameos.

There’s virtually nothing missing from his résumé — except maybe a hip-hop record, though rapper will undoubtedly sample ‘Nearly Lost You’ someday. On his latest album, ‘Imitations,’ due out Sept. 17 on Vagrant, Lanegan wades into the shark-filled waters of cover songs — an artform that has made many a respectable musician look like a bumbling fool. But as with the majority his prior work, Lanegan approaches each song with a different shade of grace and humility — not to mention that killer baritone voice, gruffer and deeper than the one he sang with in the grungy ’90s.

Fans likely won’t be familiar with the majority of the songs on the album — and that’s no doubt by design. If nothing else, ‘Imitations’ offers a chance to discover some great musical oddities and introduces yet another side of Mark Lanegan.

Speaking to Diffuser from his home in Los Angeles, Lanegan talked about his least-obvious influences, ‘Imitations’ and his late buddy Kurt Cobain.

Where are you right now?

I’m picking up some dog s– out in my yard. I’ve just got the last scoop, so give me two seconds to seal up this bag. [shuffling heard on other end of line]

So is it your dog or someone else’s that s— on your lawn?

It’s my dog. He thinks of our yard as his toilet.

Confession: Our first ever show was a triple-bill featuring the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum and the Screaming Trees in 1993.

Oh, wow.

Do you think the ’90s Mark Lanegan would be cool with all the stylistic twists and turns the ’00s Mark Lanegan has taken?

I think that the ‘90s Mark Lanegan would think that I’m cool today … is that what you’re asking?

Let’s put it this way: Would ‘90s Lanegan have been able to do albums like the ones with Isobel Campbell. Would he have been emotionally available for them?

Well, probably not. I had opportunities to do stuff, probably not as radical as that back in the ‘90s, but I passed up a lot of stuff just because … well, touring with the Spin Doctors takes up a lot of your energy. There’s not much left to do fun stuff.

Musicians often get into rock music for the girls. But in listening to your voice, I’ve always thought it was a deeper thing for you — something less frivolous. Is that a fair assessment, or am I just making up s— as I go along?

You’re just making s— up as you go along, of course. You know, that was a big part of it; I came from a small town where the options were limited for a weird guy like myself, so I was definitely happy to get on the road and see what the world had to offer. [chuckles] But it really came down to the music. I was a big music fan and still am. I enjoy singing, and I found out it was something that I could learn to do; unfortunately, I had to learn to do it publicly.

Why do you say “unfortunately?”

Oh, ‘cause when I started, I just could not sing, but I stuck at it, and now, I think I’m OK.

Your latest, ‘Imitations,’ is a covers album — but there are only a few tunes on here that audiences have probably heard of. Are you the type of guy that sends his friends obscure LPs and says, “You’re gonna love this?”

Yeah, I do that, but my friends do the same. They turn me onto the obscurities out there, too.

Is that how you came about some of the songs on the record?

Well, a lot of that stuff came from my childhood. They were records my folks were listening to when they were playing cards with their friends. Some of the songs I heard on Andy Williams records. He was very popular in our household, and to do this day, I still consider him to be one of the greatest singers of all time, although some people might consider him schmaltzy. I think he’s fantastic.

You do a unique version of Nancy Sinatra’s James Bond theme ‘You Only Live Twice.’ Why did that specific song strike you as coverable?

I actually first heard that song when the Australian punk band the Scientists did it on a b-side of a single [laughs]. That was my first introduction to that song in the ‘90s or late ’80s. It’s just a great song.

Covers are tough to do properly, because if you didn’t write them, it’s hard to find their soul. Did you come to embody all of these songs?

Yeah, I mean, I do that whenever I sing something that I didn’t write — and also when I’m singing something I did write … for the 600th time. I’ve got to find the center of it and put myself in it.

You’re compared to Tom Waits all the time. What are your least-obvious influences?

That would probably be the Bee Gees. On the outside, I have absolutely zero in common with them, but they’ve been a huge influence on the music that I’ve made for years and years. You know, maybe Lou Reed may not be so obvious, but he’s been a big influence. Gene Clark has also been a big influence.

We love Gene Clark. We’re so happy you just said that. We don’t think he gets half the respect he deserves.

I actually have a painting of Gene Clark up in my room right here that Jon Langford of the Mekons did. I’m a huge Gene Clark fan.

What’s your favorite record of his?

‘No Other.’ You can’t miss with any of them, but ‘No Other’ so has nothing in common with anything else that he did before, and it’s just so perfect from start to finish. I f—ing love it.

We’ve always wanted to learn French. Did you have to learn it to cover that pretty tune on ‘Imitations’ that we can’t pronounce?

[laughs] ‘Elégie Funèbre’? No, but I did have to learn it line by line. It was very, very difficult. I did it first because Gerard Manset [the song’s author] asked me to do it for a record that he was doing. He’s in his late 60s, and he’s this genius songwriter, made a bunch of records, huge star in France. But he’s a notoriously eccentric oddball. He asked me to do the song, and then he was like, “You know, I’m actually going to translate it into English.” [laughs]

We read somewhere that you recorded a blues covers album with the late, great Kurt Cobain. Have you listened to the masters since his death?

We were going to make an EP of covers of Ledbelly songs, and we went in and recorded a few, and then lost interest pretty quickly. I put ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ on my first solo album [‘The Winding Sheet’], and then Cobain later re-did that same song in the ‘Nirvana Unplugged’ session. The other songs I don’t think I put any vocals on. I think that stuff has come out on a Nirvana boxed set**. I haven’t listened to it since the day we did it.

Next: 10 Best Grunge Albums

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