He Is the Wolf: A Conversation With Mark Lanegan
'Phantom Radio' is Mark Lanegan's ninth album, or maybe it's his 20th, or 50th. It's really a question of how you choose to count.
The challenge with putting together a complete Lanegan discography is that the guy hasn't stopped working since his first recording band, Screaming Trees, dropped 'Other Worlds' back in '85. That band's last record was released in '96, but even prior to that Lanegan was making solo records, collaborations and guest appearances. Maybe you know him from Queens of the Stone Age or Mad Season, or maybe from his records with Isobel Campbell or the Gutter Twins.
It's no wonder that so many artists want to work with Lanegan. He owns one of those rare voices that just keeps improving. The one-time grunge frontman has grown into a raspy elder statesman along the lines of Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. He's one of those singers who somehow appeals to kids who weren't even thought of when his career began, yet does so without trying to match them. Mark Lanegan is Mark Lanegan, take it or leave it.
I didn't know what to expect when I picked up the phone and dialed Lanegan's number. Here's a guy who has been through the wars, lost close friends, and entertains both a darkness and intensity in his songwriting. What dark abyss awaited me on the other end of the line?
Answer: None. Lanegan was thoughtful, forthright, and funny -- really funny. Within minutes the veneer of 'interview' was gone, and we were simply two old farts having a chat.
And here's the transcript.
I love the new album. I think the last time I was hit with this same feeling when hearing an album for the first time was Leonard Cohen's ‘I'm Your Man,’ so that's a long time ago.
Yeah, it's been a while.
I remember thinking, "Who's this old guy and why is he suddenly so relevant?" He really was. It just really hit home. Arguably you’re that same elder statesman for a new generation that Cohen was for ours. Are you getting that kind of feedback on the album?
Yeah, I'm getting sort of the weirdly positive “crowning achievement” kind of stuff.
How does that go down with you, the crowning achievement talk?
I'm like, "Wait a minute. I'm supposed to be crowned in another 30 years or so." But all positive feedback is good because it allows me the opportunity to make another record. That's really the way I look at it: The better that they're perceived in the real world, the more chance I have of somebody letting me try it again.
That doesn't seem to be a problem. I mean you've got what ---20, 30 records under your belt, something like that --- including all the collaborations?
I'm like the Michael Caine of rock.
Your next album will be ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,’ featuring Steve Martin on banjo.
Hopefully it won't be ‘Jaws 4.’
You're out touring right now, right? I imagine you're probably not doing a lot of writing currently.
Actually I haven't started yet -- so yes I've been doing a lot of writing.
How's that been going? What do you have cooking there?
There are always different groups of songs. It's just what frame they end up being put in. We don't know what that's going to be yet.
The theme hasn't made itself known yet?
On this last one, ‘Phantom Radio,’ there are some really interesting little twists and turns. ‘Floor of the Ocean,’ for example, really jumped out at me. Right from the intro I thought, “Man, this really would've fit perfectly in 1985.”
A lot of the electronic elements and such are really due to my inherent New Order and Joy Division love, which I've been listening to since the ‘80s. I still listen to it, I still like it. The Joy Division/New Order thing has always been an influence on my lyrics and vocal take on things. I picked it up from listening to that stuff. As time has gone on I incorporated a little bit more of the musical side of that stuff too.
I'm just trying to make something that I enjoy.
Also, whenever I'm using electronics I'm really just trying to reference Kraftwerk, which is one of my all-time favorite obsessions. I've always loved Kraftwerk. I still listen to all Kraftwerk records. I'm always just trying to make something that I am going to enjoy, and that's what I've been enjoying.
‘Phantom Radio’ -- where did that title come from?
Man, you've got to call your record something -- it's really no more mysterious than that.
Whenever I'm making a record title I look first in the songs themselves, see if there's something in there that jumps out at me, that seems to be indicative of this group of tunes. I use that same strategy when choosing song titles as well and when choosing lyrics. I just let the first one tell me what the next one's supposed to be.
Do you see yourself more as a lyricist, composer, or right there in the middle with both having equal weight?
I consider myself to be an out of work breakfast cook, though I haven't had to do that work in a long time. Nah, whenever I'm asked for occupation on a visa application or passport, I just say singer.
Is that really how you feel, like you're more of a performing artist than a composing artist?
Yeah, and I'm sure that anybody who might be familiar with my things could argue that I'm not a performer at all. I come from some old school, I can't even think of which one, where guys just stand there and sing. I'm sure it exists. For me, performing is showing up and singing, not dancing around or BS’ing with the audience. I don't have the energy for that.
I sign stuff after every show and I meet a lot of people in that setting and that's how I reconcile the playing music and being in the world. I started doing that a few years ago and that seems to satisfy those people that connect with the music.
Did you start doing that more because it felt right, or because in the current music industry you really have to get out there and make that connection with people?
I started doing it as a practice to bring myself into the world. I've classically been somebody who didn't interact a lot with people. I've always kept a lot to myself. A professional person I was talking to suggested it might be a good idea to put myself out into the world and to meet people.
I thought, "I'm always in this situation where there's a lot of people around and there are people who seem to get some happiness out of meeting me." I started doing it for those two reasons: because it was good for me and because it was something that seemed to make other people happy also.
That's very cool.
It was just something that I did on a whim and now it's something that I do all of the time because I've never had a negative experience doing it. It's always been strictly positive and it makes some people really happy. If I can do that by shaking hands and talking for five seconds and taking pictures then why not?
I'm the same way, actually. Even with a conversation like you and I are having, I kind of have to put on a persona. Do you have that same experience, where there's ‘cave dwelling Mark Lanegan’ and then there's ‘I have to go out and shake hands and take selfies with people Mark Lanegan’?
It's a day-by-day thing. Some days I think, "I really don't want to do this today." But I set it up so that I always have to do it. There's no getting out of it once you've told a bunch of people you're going to do it.
Exactly. Once you're signed up you have to do it, don't you?
That's the fail safe right there, for those rare occasions when I'm just like, "No, I can't shake anybody's hand." Even though if that's my job then I have obviously the easiest job in the world. Still, there's days when you're in Slovakia and it's below zero and you've already played for two hours and you're soaking wet and you just want to go take a shower. It doesn't sound like fun to go sit down and talk to people for two more hours. In those times, yeah, I wish that I didn't have to do it. Ultimately, I'm always glad that I did it when it’s over.
What's that crowd like these days? Do you have fans of all ages at this point coming to see you, or is it pretty much a core group that's hung with you all these years?
If they were only the people who that knew me from the ‘80s or ‘90s it would be a very small group, because I didn't have a large audience. Luckily, most of the fans that I have these days aren't aware of my previous life.
This is elsewhere. In the states, if I have an audience, a lot of times it's old-timers from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Elsewhere in the world, I'm not known for that. I'm known for the records I made with Isobel Campbell and Queens of the Stone Age, and the records that I make on my own. I've been lucky.
So the crowd is a lot of young people and the occasional old person. I've been one of those weird success stories where I've gained a young audience in my senior citizen years.
Please don't call yourself a senior citizen. That puts me right there with you and I'm not ready to accept that yet.
How about middle-aged?
There you go, I'll take middle-aged. Speaking of Queens of the Stone Age, do you have any future plans with them?
I never have any future plans until those guys call me and I do something. Then I never have any plans to do anything again until they call me again.
Is that pretty much what happens: Josh or somebody calls you and says, "We're making a record, can you come do some vocals?"
It's happened every record that they've ever made, except for the very first one. It actually happened on that record too, but I was -- how should I put it -- I was indisposed and couldn't take part in those recordings. But I have been asked to be on all their records and have been on all of them except the very first one.
You've had so many and such diverse collaborations. You're really unique in that way. I think it goes back to your Michael Caine point: You pop up lots of different places. Is that by design or is it just that people call you and off you go?
I've never planned anything.
That's it, I've never planned anything. It's just that I've been blessed with a ton of opportunity and have been approached by a lot of artists whose music I love and who I was thrilled to be asked to do something with and so I did. That's really the way it's worked out.
I've rarely been asked to do something that I've felt less than psyched about doing. The percentages of times that I actually did that thing that I wasn't psyched about doing are pretty small too. Almost always I've been very pleased to work with whoever I've been working with. I've never had a negative experience doing any of those collaborations, it's all been good.
Are you at a point now where you have more people saying, "Mark Lanegan's a big influence on me"?
To be honest, I'm just not interested in reading about music or bands or what's happening in music. It’s not really high in my interest list. I might hear by word of mouth or secondhand that somebody said something, "Have I heard of these guys because they say they like your tunes." That happens on occasion, but I can't remember ever reading somebody saying something like that first-hand.
It's an interesting point. I seriously doubt there are a lot of people in, I don't know, plumbing, who spend every waking hour obsessing about the plumbing industry. Yet, we always imagine that people in the music industry are constantly thinking and reading and plotting about the music industry. It's really a logical fallacy, isn't it?
It is in my house, I can't speak for other people. I don't read a lot about the music. I listen to a lot of music, but I just never really cared one damn thing about what Joe Blow meant when he wrote that song or what he was going through when he made that record. I'm just like, "You know what? That record is mine now. I could care less about you." It's all about what I get out of ‘After the Gold Rush.’
I'm totally with you on that. It's the same pretty much with all art. Once it's made and it's out there in the world it belongs to the consumer of it, to the viewer or the listener of it. It has to -- otherwise, it doesn't work.
That's not to say I'm not absolutely thrilled that Neil Young exists because he makes these beautiful pieces of music that I love to listen to and to make my own. Never have I cared, I guess, about what Neil Young the person was going through.
Yes, exactly. An example of that, I think, on ‘Phantom Radio,’ is ‘I Am the Wolf.’ The wolf is such an evocative image in two distinct ways. One is loneliness and self-sufficiency, the other is as a predator. The first dozen times through that song, I found myself wondering what's the point of view here, is the point of view the lone wolf or the predatory one? Inevitably, I came to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter what Mark meant by it, but how it's resonating with me.
Yeah, man, obviously it doesn't matter one bit what I meant by it. I will say this, that it has most to do with my love of people on the fringes and really that's what sparked that tune. It is the solitary wolf, but it's also the predatory wolf. It's all the wolves.
Maybe that's what's so fascinating about the image of the wolf is that he's out there on the periphery, but don't turn your back.
‘I Am the Wolf’ reminds me of a Nick Cave song. I don’t know whether it’s the subject matter or the darkness of it or what, but I really felt some Nick Cave there.
I've done a lot of touring with Nick Cave, I've worked on a soundtrack with Nick Cave, sang with him a bunch of times on stage. I love Nick Cave, I love his music. I think he's one of the great songwriters of our time.
He really is, yeah.
There's a song that Nick did called ‘Stranger Than Kindness,’ which he didn't write, Blixa [Bargeld] wrote it with Nick's ex-girlfriend, what was her name [Anita Lane]? It's on ‘Your Funeral ... My Trial’ and it's got an ambient guitar type of thing going through the whole song. It's one of my all-time favorite songs. Actually got him to play it live last time I toured with them, that was such a thrill.
There's a direct line between ‘I Am the Wolf’ and ‘Stranger Than Kindness.’ Maybe that's why it reminded you.
You're coming up on 50 next month. Big plans, or will you be out on the road?
I'm not going to be out on the road for once. For the first time in 10 years I'm going to actually be home on my birthday. I'm going to go out to dinner, nothing fancy.
Not going to do it up? No giant Vegas party with showgirls and ...
I've used up all of my partying privileges.
That's all part of the joy of being 50, right? You can look back on the highway and see where you've been versus careening forward at 130 MPH with no brakes.
There you go.