A case of the moody blues

Man-of-few-words Mark Lanegan speaks to the ‘Post’ about performing solo, collaborators and basketball.

Mark Lanegan (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Mark Lanegan
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
If you want to get on Mark Lanegan’s good side, ask him about the NBA. The notoriously temperamental grunge rock pioneer and latter-day brooding baritone vocalist with a long, impressive list of collaborations and credits is a basketball fanatic, able to offer an impromptu scouting report on Israel’s own Omri Casspi.
“He’s got a lot of energy, scrappy defensively and he can hit the corner three. I think he’s really good,” said the 47- year-old native of Washington State, speaking after a sound check recently in the Netherlands. “A friend of mine is a big Cavs (Cleveland Cavaliers) fan, and he also has good things to say about him.”
As eager as Lanegan is to talk about Casspi, his reticence to speak about himself with similar insight has made him a mythically difficult interview subject ever since emerging in the early 1990s as vocalist for Seattle’s Screaming Trees, one of the bands that, along with Nirvana, defined that era’s grunge scene.
Lanegan gives a throaty laugh when presented with the theory that he not a very friendly person.
“Well, on the face of it, I don’t like to do interviews.
But that’s part of the gig,” he said. “I find that talking about yourself over and over again answering the same questions just isn’t very interesting. I’m just a person, and some days I’m in a better mood than others, that’s all.”
Luckily, this was one of the good days, and Lanegan, while never to be confused with, say, Bono, at least makes a gallant effort to shed some light on one of the past 20 years’ more versatile careers in rock. Like Johnny Cash a generation before him, Lanegan has seen the gutter of life up close with various addictions and hardships, and has risen to sermonize about it with his world-weary songs. He’s even got that same weathered, mythic look about him, the result of years of hard living.
Whether on his six diverse solo albums since the Screaming Trees’ 2000 demise, his frequent collaborations with Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, known as the Gutter Twins, his Nick Cave-Kylie Minogue partnership with ex-Belle & Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell or his wailing as a ground-floor member of alt-hard rock heroes Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan has created an oeuvre that takes listeners into a netherworld of cobwebs and reflection.
“On record we have an unspoken and inexplicable chemistry. I think we have a magical blend. That doesn’t happen with just anyone,” Campbell told The Jerusalem Post in 2010, adding that she had been shocked by how much pain there was in Lanegan’s voice the first time she heard it.
Teetering between a restrained and unleashed vocal style, Lanegan’s voice wraps itself around lyrics in a way that prompts artists to pound on his door to sing on their songs. He often has to say no.
“The main reason I won’t do something is that I don’t have time for it,” he said. “I’m always getting asked to work on a project that seems like it would be cool. So first of all, they have to ask me... that’s about all it takes.
“To get me involved, though, it has to be something that I’m a fan of without my involvement. I’m a big fan of Isobel, Greg is one of my best friends and a great songwriter and I’ve been playing music with Josh [Homme, guitarist/ singer of Queens of the Stone Age] since the mid-90s and he’s a really good friend, so those are no-brainers. They’re good reasons to do something together.”
They’ve also produced some first-class music, that along with Lanegan’s solo work with his own band spans the spectrum of alternative music, from somber acoustic ballads to unrestrained catharsis. On his latest album, Blues Funeral, he adds a new element – the rhythmheavy new-wave synth rock of early ‘80s bands like New Order.
“I had purchased a couple of old Casio keyboards and some electronic drums, so I was just messing around with that stuff for my own personal jollies,” said Lanegan. “I wasn’t necessarily writing songs, but it sort of dictated the way the resulting record sounded.”
While Lanegan always seems to be looking forward, many fans of Screaming Trees as well as promoters, who have witnessed bands of the ‘90s like Afghan Whigs and Pixies reform in recent years, regularly call for the seminal band to get back together. But Lanegan seems adamant – that’s one collaboration that’s not going to happen.
“There have been offers, but it’s not something I’m interested in at all,” he said. “I’m not against the idea of reunions in general, I’m really glad the Afghans did it – I saw a show and it was one of the best I’ve ever seen, by anybody.
I think it’s great if people want to do it, and it’s their right, but I won’t do it. I will play with some of those guys – and I have – but getting together as Screaming Trees is something I’m not interested in... and I don’t think the others are either.”
While he has appeared in Israel numerous times – whether with the Gutter Twins or on his own for an acoustic show – Lanegan is bringing his own band here for the first time on December 10 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. He said he doesn’t feel any sense of urgency at being the sole name on the marquee.
“It’s all just music really,” he noted. “I’ve been to Israel just playing with me and an acoustic guitar player, which is as naked as you can get, and as part of The Twilight Singers with Greg, which was a six- or seven-piece band. Whatever it is, I’m just singing and enjoying the music. I don’t really care about the setting. I don’t feel any pressure – I’m just there to sing songs, it’s not that complicated.”
Lanegan took an equally lackadaisical approach to Operation Pillar of Defense, which was at its height during the interview, insisting that it wouldn’t have any effect on the status of the upcoming show.
“I’ve been following what’s happening, you guys are always in the news, you can’t help but know what’s going on,” he said. “But it doesn’t have any connection with us performing there.
We were there during the operation in Lebanon a few years ago, and that didn’t dissuade me.
What can you do? Life goes on.”
He expressed the hope that he’d find the time to plant himself on the Tel Aviv beach, which he acknowledged was his favorite place in the country, although adding that his visits to Jerusalem had been “fantastic.”
Having survived another interview talking about himself, Lanegan sounded relieved winding things up to get ready for the upcoming Netherlands show. There, he can get lost in the place that he really feels most at ease – in his songs.