Sometime Screaming Tree and Queen Of The Stone Age Mark Lanegan discusses reunions, nostalgia and his new, acoustic-heavy covers album with Joel McIver
After eight solo albums and a vast number of collaborations with artists as diverse as Moby and Unkle, the Washington-born singer and guitarist Mark Lanegan should know a bit about songwriting by now. You only need to listen to the Screaming Trees, the band with which he first came to prominence and who have been mourned by anyone into alternative Americana since their demise 15 years ago. If you’re looking for music with significance, look no further.
All of which means that Lanegan’s new covers album, Imitations, deserves more of your attention than the average covers project. Paying homage to artists from his youth – such as Andy Williams and Kurt Weill – Lanegan delivers a delicate, impassioned set of standards in his own, inimitable (ahem) style.
But why do a covers album at all? It’s not as if Lanegan is ever short of inspiration, judging by his prolific output in recent years. ‘When I was a kid,’ he tells us in that instantly recognisable growl, ‘my parents would play cards with their friends, and they were always playing Andy Williams and Perry Como and Frank Sinatra records – which I wasn’t really into as a six-year-old. I wanted to listen to The Jungle Book! But as I got older, those songs stuck with me. I grew to appreciate Andy Williams, for instance, as one of the greatest singers of all time. He was a one-of-a-kind talent. For a long time I wanted to make a record that had the same feel as those records, which also included some country music that my folks also listened to at the time. So I used some of the songs that I heard as a kid, and some that were a little bit newer.’
Was he concerned that Imitations might not match up to his original albums? After all, a lot of covers records function solely as contract-fillers. ‘Not at all,’ says Lanegan. ‘There have been some amazing covers albums before. For example, Bob Dylan did a couple in the 80s that I thought were really great. Those two albums were as good as any others he’d ever made. David Bowie too, and also Bryan Ferry did one that I liked quite a bit – he did ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ on it. That was a really great record.’
The idea of a covers album has been bubbling under for some time, he explains. ‘A while back, my deal had run out with the record company, and I’d just signed a new deal with them. They were so generous with me that I said: “I’m gonna give you guys two records instead of one – a covers record as well,” and they were like: “Wow, great!” I was in the studio doing some covers for B-sides at the time and I thought I’d just knock an album of them out. Dude, I ended up spending more money on that covers album than I did on my own record… That first one was off the cuff, it wasn’t really planned – I just sort of did it. This one I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time.’
Asked if the songs – which include soundtrack and classical pieces – required much rearrangement for the instrumentation, most of which is based on acoustic guitar, piano and strings, and Lanegan explains: ‘Some of them were recorded note for note like the originals, and some of them were changed – but I wouldn’t say radically, though. For instance, we did ‘You Only Live Twice’, the Nancy Sinatra James Bond song, which is heavily orchestrated, and we stripped that down just to an acoustic guitar and voice.’
He hasn’t heard of Robbie Williams, or Williams’s song ‘Millennium’, which is based on a sample of the strings motif from ‘You Only Live Twice’ – but when I tell him that British audiences are most likely to recognise the song because of the Williams sample, he says: ‘In that case I’m glad we left that part out! I think we play two seconds of that melody on an acoustic guitar.’
Talking of which, Lanegan and his team went to tried and trusted sources for their acoustic parts. He chuckles, ‘When they told me I was supposed to talk to you today, I was like: “I don’t know shit about instruments, and Acoustic magazine are definitely going to ask me what kind of instruments we used!” I believe we used some Martins and some Gibsons. I was busy in the other room, messing about while people played those instruments.’
He adds: ‘I don’t play guitar on this record. Sometimes on my own records they sneak in a guitar track by me. I’ll play an acoustic or electric track, and the producer or engineer will sneak it in and tell me later: “Hey man, I’ve got you on this song!” and I’ll be like “Aaagh!” Ha ha! I’m a terrible guitar player. But these songs were already written, so I didn’t have to show them to anybody, and there’s no evidence of me playing anywhere.’
So is Imitations an exercise in nostalgia, we ask? Anything but, he tells us. ‘I’m nostalgic for the 2001 Seattle Mariners, and I’m nostalgic for my other sports teams, but music? I don’t know. I might get nostalgic for a Neil Young show that I saw in 1996 or whatever, when I stood at the side of the stage and a tear came to my eye. I might get nostalgic if I think about stuff like that, but that stuff rarely happens to me.’
Lanegan never stops moving, it seems, with various projects on the go most of the time. For example, he guested on the recent Queens Of The Stone Age album …Like Clockwork, a welcome return for QOTSA fans who had enjoyed his appearances on three other Queens albums around a decade ago. It seems that he simply likes to be in demand, although he qualifies this, intoning: ‘If being in demand means that my girlfriend wants me to go out into the yard and pick up the dog crap, then I am in demand for that. That’s my duty for today… No, I like to stay busy, you know. I think it was Lou Reed who said: “I don’t know about other people, but to me thinking is working.” Part of working for me is planning what comes next, and formulating schemes and dreams and hopes for what’s going to happen next.’
Is the life of a musician an easy one, we ask? ‘I’ll tell you what, it ain’t digging ditches,’ he deadpans. ‘I’ve done a lot of things in the distant past and I’d much rather be doing this, that’s for sure. In 2006, I decided I didn’t want to be a musician for a while and I got a job as a scenic painter, which sounds more skilled than it is. A scenic painter is a guy that paints and puts sets together for TV shows. I did that for a while and I really enjoyed it, because I didn’t have to do it, know what I mean? It was a nice break for me. But I realised that I actually did want to be a singer.’
Finally, the million-dollar question which is put to Lanegan on a regular basis. Any chance of a Screaming Trees reunion? ‘I’d say there is zero likelihood of that,’ he replies. ‘I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me, and I can’t say what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be involved in any Screaming Trees reunion stuff. I’m pretty sure the others don’t either.’
Has he been offered money to reunite the band? ‘It has happened, but they’d have to quadruple that amount for me to be interested in it! Ha ha! Anything’s possible, but the kind of money that it would take to get me to do that, I don’t think they’re going to pay. In the case of the Trees you’ve got four guys who live in four different parts of the country, so you’d have to go someplace and spend money and time, and I can bet a million bucks that at least two of the guys haven’t picked up an instrument in the 15 years since the Trees broke up. It would be no fun.’
However, reunions aren’t generally a problem for Lanegan. ‘It’s totally fine for other people,’ he says. ‘When the Afghan Whigs got back together I was totally excited, because I wanted to see them, and they were unbelievably great – and so much better than the last time I had seen them. I saw Mudhoney play about four years ago when we had a show with them in Greece, and they were unbelievably great, and also much better than they were in the 90s. Soundgarden are good friends of mine and they’re also out there playing unbelievably great shows. So more power to them: it’s just not for me personally. The Screaming Trees are in the past, and in my mind they should remain there,’ he concludes – and with records of the calibre of Imitations to enjoy, it’s probably best that way for all of us.
Mark Lanegan’s Imitations is out now on Vagrant Records, he tours the UK throught November.