Too many so-called rock bands these days lack a commanding vocal presence — the adenoidal yelpers far outnumber the guttural growlers out there. But for the last quarter-century, Mark Lanegan has brought enough testosterone to the table to make up for a million weak-kneed frontmen. His five-packs-of-Marlboros-before-breakfast baritone is one of rock’s natural wonders. Remember the gigantic beast in the first Lord of the Rings movie, the one who’s barred by Gandalf from crossing the bridge, when the wizard shouts, “You shall not pass?” If that thing could sing, it would still sound puny next to Lanegan’s towering tones.
Over the years, Lanegan’s moody moan has found a home everywhere from the psychedelia-soaked proto-grunge of the Screaming Trees to the postmodern hard-rock roar of Queens of the Stone age, and collaborations with such disparate partners as Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli and Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell. And that’s not even mentioning his long-standing solo career, to which a seventh album, Blues Funeral is about to be added. Its imminent arrival seemed to afford an excellent opportunity to look back at Lanegan’s long, rich rock & roll history.
In-between the breakup of Black Flag and the beginning of the Seattle scene, four young malcontents from Ellensburg, WA provided the link between punk’s past and its Nirvana-era iteration, with a healthy dose of ‘60s garage-psych influence mixed in. “We all came from the same small town,” recalls Lanegan of the Screaming Trees. “And we were the only guys [there], as far as I know, that listened to the same kind of music. I was working for the parents of the two brothers in the band [guitarist Gary Lee Conner and bassist Van Conner], that’s sort of how it started. [Psychedelia] was one of the things we listened to — we also listened to a lot of punk rock and other stuff as well. The guitar player, Gary Lee Conner, who wrote most of that early stuff, was heavily into the psychedelic thing, that’s probably where that influence came from. I was more into punk.”
“I’ve had songs that were spread out over a number of years and I’ve written some in ten minutes and everything in between.”
While Lanegan’s voice has deepened in both pitch and gravitas over the years, his distinctive, gutsy sound was there from the beginning. “There’s lots of singers that I love, I don’t know if I used any of them as role models, maybe I would have been a better singer when I started if I had,” he says of his few vocal heroes. Lanegan cites his longtime favorites as “Everything from Lou Reed to [Gun Club frontman] Jeffrey Lee Pierce to Roky Erickson and Paul Rodgers, Son House, to name a few.”
By the ‘90s the Screaming Trees sound had evolved from a scrappy blast of garage-band fury to a more muscular, full-bodied, almost classic-rock-flavored feel. “I know I liked it better as it went along,” Lanegan recalls. “I liked the last couple of records we made a lot more than I liked anything that came previous to that. Some bands come out of the box sounding fully realized, and we sort of learned publicly, and were slow learners.”
The Trees came within spitting distance of fame when their 1992 single, “Nearly Lost You,” rumbled up the rock charts, but like a lot of bands that have spent years slogging it out together, they were fraying at the edges. “We definitely had a family bond,” allows Lanegan, “it was just a massively dysfunctional family. Just dysfunction working together, living together, traveling together…we were starting to come to the end of our tether from the first week we were together in 1985.” The Trees released their swan song, Dust, in ’96, and eventually split for good in 2000. “Finally, I personally decided that I wasn’t gonna do it anymore,” says Lanegan, after “15 years of thinking about it. I just pictured more happiness for myself [outside the band], I wasn’t really thinking about any sort of career move.”
By the time the Screaming Trees met their end, Lanegan had long since started making solo albums. His first, 1990’s The Winding Sheet, is a deliciously doomy, relatively low-key recording shot through with folk and blues flavors. Lanegan’s cover of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” here titled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” featured Kurt Cobain on guitar and backing vocals, and preceded Nirvana’s famous MTV Unplugged version by three years. Nevertheless, Lanegan says he wasn’t particularly looking to make his own record at the time. “Sub Pop asked me if I would do one,” he remembers, “and offered me some money to do one, that’s really why I started. I just did the one, and that led to a second one, and so forth. But as time went on, it was attractive to have an outlet that was a little bit different than what I was doing with the band.”
Even after the Trees finally split up, Lanegan was apparently still up for working within a band format. He was a guest on the second Queens of the Stone Age album, 2000’s Rated R, and spent the next five years as their co-vocalist alongside guitarist Josh Homme and bassist Nick Oliveri. “Josh was in the Trees from ’96 until 2000,” Lanegan explains. “So we had been playing music together for a long time. At some point he asked me if I would do stuff with him. To compare it to the Trees … it was a lot more fun. It was a way more conducive atmosphere to enjoy oneself in.” Lanegan played live with QOTSA and appeared on their next two albums, Songs for the Deaf and Lullabies to Paralyze, and his old-school, from-the-gut hard-rock howl couldn’t have been a better match for the band’s heavy-riffing, larger-than-life sound.
With Isobel Campbell
Not one to be musically typecast, Lanegan made an unexpected sonic shift after stepping away from the Queens. Over the next five years, he would release three albums as part of an odd-couple duo with former Belle and Sebastian member Isobel Campbell. As with so many other aspects of Lanegan’s career, this partnership apparently fell right into his lap. “She contacted me, and asked me if I wanted to sing on something,” remembers Lanegan, who says he was already a fan of her work at the time. “She just started sending me songs, and I started singing them.” The resulting album, 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas, kicked off a critically acclaimed trio of records where Lanegan played the devil to Campbell’s angel in a sort of modern-day Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra scenario. The fragile folk tunes and drama-drenched orchestral-pop ballads they recorded are as far from Lanegan’s hard-rocking past as it’s possible to get, but that didn’t phase him a bit. “ I just enjoy singing with her,” he says, “I enjoy singing the songs she writes. Naturally if I’m singing over really loud music my approach is gonna be different than if I’m singing over some quiet acoustic music…It’s quite different [from QOTSA] musically, but my level enjoyment is really not that different from one to the other. I try to do things that I’m gonna have a good time doing, and both those things fall into that category.”
Obviously Lanegan’s not the sort to pass up the possibility of a promising partnership. In 2008, between records with Campbell, he and Greg Dulli celebrated their long-fermenting project the Gutter Twins with the album Saturnalia. Like Lanegan, Dulli was a survivor of the grunge years, having led the Afghan Whigs. “I think we first met in the late ‘80s,” Lanegan remembers. “Later, as we started talking about music, we realized that we had a lot of the same tastes. We liked a lot of the same kind of music, some blues, some soul…” He had already contributed some vocals to Dulli’s post-Whigs band the Twilight Singers, but the Gutter Twins was a true collaborative effort. “If Greg’s playing on one of my records, then he’s basically supporting my vision,” explains Lanegan. “If I’m singing on a Twilight Singers record, then I’m there to support his vision. If we’re working as the Gutter Twins, it’s a shared partnership, 50/50 shared vision.” Lanegan says he and Dulli first started thinking about working together in the late ‘90s, but it took a while for a finished product to emerge. “We didn’t make that record overnight,” he says. “We started it several years before we finished it. We basically just did it whenever we had time.”
While he’s kept himself busy with one band after another — and often more than one at the same time — Lanegan has never abandoned his solo work. He followed The Winding Sheet four years later with the mysterious, magisterial folk-rock rhapsody Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, and over the next decade, four more solo records arrived. His first in eight years, Blues Funeral, finds Lanegan in the company of old pals like Josh Homme and Alain Johannes from Queens of the Stone Age, former Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons, and Greg Dulli, though Lanegan reckons that “Alan Johannes plays most everything.” The album moves from driving garage-rock rave-ups (“The Gravedigger’s Song,” “Riot In My House”) to deep, dark, bluesy creepers (“Bleeding Bloody Water”), with plenty of evocative detours in between. “Ode to Sad Disco” even marks Lanegan’s virgin venture into dance music, though its inspiration isn’t exactly Saturday Night Fever. “There is an instrumental song called ‘Sad Disco’ in the film The Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands,” he says. “[It’s] by the Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive). ‘Ode to Sad Disco’ is an homage to both the song and the film.”
Rather than rooting around in a bag of old tunes for Blues Funeral, Lanegan says, “I just started fresh with this one. I wrote a couple of songs — while those were being recorded, I wrote another one, recorded it, and really they were all written while making this record. I’ve had songs that were spread out over a number of years and I’ve written some in ten minutes and everything in between. Some of these took a day, some of them were written over the course of a week, maybe, but they were all written pretty quickly.” Compositional process notwithstanding, anyone who’s had their eyes and ears on Lanegan for any length of time ought to know that his latest release should be seen not as any kind of culmination of his artistic evolution, but simply as his next sturdy step on the way to territory yet uncharted.
Blues Funeral is out February 7 on 4AD Records. Stream the album at KEXP.org.