Mark Lanegan is something of a musical gun-for hire, a grizzled mercenary happy to lend his larynx to any posse in need of some outlaw heft. His unmistakeable voice, cracked and weathered by what sounds like an aeon of bad life choices, is just as natural crooning over the moody electronic throb of an UNKLE track or a wispy acoustic composition from Duke Garwood as it does thundering over a Queens of the Stone Age rager.
Having guested to so many varied projects (over 30 guest vocal credits since 2015 alone), it can be easy to lose sight of the neat progressive arc the Mark Lanegan Band project has followed this decade. After 2012’s ‘Blues Funeral’ - his favourite pick of his own discography - Lanegan and his band have delved further into their own unique marriage of overdriven blues and baggy electronica, culminating in the move to the dreampop-friendly Heavenly Records for 2017’s ‘Gargoyle’ and their latest effort, ‘Somebody’s Knocking’.
Despite its ominous-sounding title, this is probably the most cheerful album Lanegan has released under his own name, despite still sounding like Joy Division at their moodiest. “Well I’ve never made it a secret that Peter Hook is one of my absolute heroes, so any time I have an opportunity to basically steal his signature sound on bass I do it,” he chuckles at the comparison.
This is a typical response: self-deprecating and keen to highlight the skill of others in comparison to his own limited non-vocal talents. “It’s not like we’ve reinvented the wheel or anything, we’re just using elements that people have used for decades now. Personally I’m not technically adept at much of anything, whether changing oil in my car or playing a synthesiser!” he admits when asked whether he’s picked up any electronic tips and tricks when collaborating with the likes of James Lavelle, CJ Bolland and Dave Clarke over the years, “By necessity I’ve learned how to run Pro Tools and stuff like that, just because nobody’s giving you money to make records anymore, you have to make it yourself. ”
Despite it being released under his name, Lanegan is keen to point out that ‘Somebody’s Knocking’ is a collaborative project The record was co-written by Rob Marshall (who’s responsible for most of ‘Gargoyle’s music), along with significant writing contributions from violinist Sietse Van Gorkom, Martin Jenkins of Pye Corner Audio, and auxiliary QOTSA and all-round desert rock legend Alain Johannes, with whom Lanegan has consistently worked since 2004’s ‘Bubblegum’.
"Al was the first guy I ever met who made my vision reality. I could show him something on acoustic guitar and say ‘Yes, but I want this to sound like The Who circa 1972’ and half an hour later I’ve got the bones of a song,” he recalls, thinking back to that formative record, “I can’t imagine ever making a Mark Lanegan Band record that he is not more than 50% responsible for. He’s become indispensable.”
It was with Johannes that Lanegan wrote ‘Penthouse High’, a straight up house track which, for the first time in the history of MLB, sounds better suited to a sweaty dancefloor than a traditional rock bar. Did it manage coax a hip-swing out of the famously stone-faced singer in the studio? “Ha! Come on, I’m a 55-year-old man and even when I was 14 I was never a dancer,” comes the unsurprising answer, “But I have always loved that kind of music. That song Alain and I had written to be on ‘Gargoyle’ and the length of it didn’t fit the record. But with this record it became the centrepiece, in my mind, and it was perfect.”
Astonishingly, Mark Lanegan is talking from the studio where he is adding the finishing touches to his next record, a companion album to go along with his upcoming memoir Sing Backwards And Weep, the story of his fledgling years as a solo artist while also fronting the famously dysfunctional Screaming Trees in Seattle during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a time that was exciting for rock music in general but devastating for him personally.
“The book was heavy man, I didn’t receive all the cathartic feelings that were promised by some of my friends,” he admits, letting out a sigh, “But what did come out of it was that I wrote a bunch of new songs that were directly inspired by the experience of remembering, going back into this ancient history.”
During the ‘grunge explosion’ (a label he rejects), Lanegan suffered from a crippling heroin addiction that would claim the lives of many of his friends and leave him homeless, dealing crack to survive.
“Two of my closest friends (Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain) were two of the most famous and popular guys from that scene, but they didn’t survive it,” he remembers, mulling over his status as the most unlikely of survivors, “(Writing the memoir) was a really intense experience because one memory would bring out another memory, then suddenly I’m remembering all of this stuff that frankly I could have done without remembering. I’d put a lot of that away and moved on. It’s not something I dwell on, especially the bad memories. For me a lot of that period of time was very dark, easily the darkest period I’ve ever experienced as of yet. But there’s still time,” he finishes with a wry laugh.
The idea of releasing the songs that came out of this writing process as an album came not long before his band was due to tour ‘Somebody’s Knocking’ in Europe, so Lanegan, a man with an unparalleled phonebook, called in a few favours. He managed to enlist Ed Harcourt on piano, Bad Seed Warren Ellis on violin, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on mellotron, Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold and Simon Bonney from Crime & The City Solution (one of Lanegan’s all-time favourite singers) providing additional vocals, Alain Johannes on everything he could lay his hands on, and, fittingly considering his aforementioned influences, Peter Hook’s son Jack Bates on bass.
The album also features contributions from Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, whose debut solo record Lanegan sang the song ‘Axis’ on. “He had originally handed me a different piece of music and I did the vocal part to that,” he reveals, “And he wrote back to say ‘You know what? I’d like to take this part and put it to a totally different piece of music’. I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s a disaster!’ There’s a freedom in relinquishing control and just being part of something that’s not your own, but what Mark Morton was suggesting had all the earmarks of something that could make me look like a terrible singer and a terrible lyricist! But the way he did it, he made me look like a brilliant singer and not a bad lyricist either, so he did me a solid when I was afraid I was going to be hung out to dry.”
This time Morton sent Lanegan two short acoustic demos that ended up making it onto the new record largely unchanged. “The idea was to make it a mixture of the records I began making, which were acoustic based records, but with elements of what I do know. I couldn’t just go straight back to ‘The Winding Sheet’ and do that again.”
Aside from those two tracks, and despite the rock royalty he corralled into the studio, time constraints meant that most of this new material wasn’t written collaboratively. “I was writing those songs by myself, and there’s a difference making a record of collaborations and one when you’re, like, going in. There was a depth to these songs that was built-in because I started them right after I finished the book,” he explains, “It’ll be the first record that actually features my engineering and me playing instruments. Well, except for the times when Alain Johannes snuck my scratch guitar part into the mix behind my back! But I play stuff on this that I’m not afraid to put my name to, it’s a pretty special record.”
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” Mark Lanegan declares when asked about the secret to his unlikely longevity, “I’ve always had this core audience that has picked up new members along the way. Sometimes I’d play in Milwaukee and it would be 20 Screaming Trees fans and that’s how they would know me, but when I play in England I’m thought of as a guy who’s making music that is vital and of our time, by people don’t even know who Screaming Trees are.” From the sound of things, that audience isn’t going to be short of new Mark Lanegan material, not for many years yet.
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Words: Josh Gray
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