In the decidedly dark, surreal year we’ve all just experienced, some artists refused to be lulled into the most obvious reaction — reflective coronavirus complacency. Instead, they got busy, making more and more art, sometimes for therapeutic reasons but — more often than not — just because creativity still remained their lifelong Prime Directive.
And if there were a 2020 award for MVPP — Most Valuable Pandemic Player — one of the top candidates would be ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan, who pretty much hit the ground running amid the chaos and never stopped. First, his harrowing autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, was published in April, followed by a stark, skeletal solo album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, featuring dirges that parallel chapters from the book. After a brief initial spell of chihuahua-shivery paranoia (duly documented in an earlier SPIN interview a few months ago), he just kept doing what he does until finished: An eponymous goth-punk debt EP with his wife Shelley Brien as Black Phoebe; A second outing under his Dark Mark alias, Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe, with Icarus Line mainstay Joe Cardamone; a Baudelairian book of poetry, initially titled Hour of Venus but newly re-dubbed Leaving California to mark his recent spur-of-the-moment move to Ireland.
Currently, the 56-year old catacomb-timbre crooner has multiple new overseas undertakings — a full-length Black Phoebe album, a team-up with Jimi Goodwin of The Doves, a collaboration with various musicians on the Magnetic Eye label, and a new solo outing with a certain dream producer (fingers crossed).
“I was a little ahead of the curve, I think, because my instinct told me early on that I had to get into action, at least on a personal level and for my own sanity, as well,” Lanegan says of his reaction to the lockdown.
He had no idea at the time that it would lead to the most productive period of his career.
“I could not have anticipated the other side of quarantine, coupled with the inability to travel. But that was all the time that I needed to just create, so I just tried to take advantage of that and write, write, write. And that’s pretty much all you can do,” he says.
Having disappeared down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole in our last chat, he was much more reserved, grounded, and altogether stress-free during this Christmas-season exit interview. That doesn’t mean he’s stopped looking over his shoulder, though — otherwise, how would his best, most sinister slithery songs ever get written?
SPIN: What motivated this move to Ireland?
Mark Lanegan: Well, I thought about coming here a lot, since most of my business is in the UK and Europe, in terms of where I play. And as far as everything else, I can do the rest of it no matter where I’m at — I can write, I can record, I can do stuff for people. As long as I’ve got my recording rig, it doesn’t matter where I’m at. Plus I have Irish heritage — my great grandparents come from here. And I like it. These are my people. And I’m in County Kerry, in the Southwest, and it’s really beautiful, physically. The past 90 days, up until a week ago, they were on a major lockdown — I think it was Level 5, I’m pretty sure that’s the grade they go by here. But it was pretty dead in town. And now they’ve opened it up for Christmas.
Do you have bad associations with your old place in California? It’s almost like it was haunted.
Yeah. I think I was haunted. It was at least 50% of me being haunted. I mean, I’ve got a ton of great memories from that pad — I made a lot of records I really liked there. So I’ll always have fond memories of it. That said, I’m not sad to be gone.
In your book, you talk about toxic validation, how negative things can inform your work, then validate it when everyone likes it.
Yeah. And just because events might prove a person right in their musings doesn’t really make it any better. And I’m seeing coming into play a lot of the stuff that we talked about early on, and I’m just sort of with my jaundiced eye watching this shit unfold, and of course, more will be revealed.
You mean that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they ain’t out to get you?
Exactly. Which I just turned into a poem, by the way. There are about 30 more new poems now — I kinda went on a writing binge. But just because you’re paranoid? Truer words were never spoken. So the jury’s still out in my head on the way shit is gonna happen from this point on. That’s right. I’ve gone from one conspiracy on to another one, and it has to do with the new regime. So we’ll see how it goes — that’s all I’ll say. I don’t want to go to the extremes that we went to the last time we talked.
How did the Black Phoebe project start?
That just came from the record I made late last year. I left all my gear set up in the studio and came out one day, and Shelley had figured out almost immediately how to run all this vintage gear, and she’d started making music. And it was the kind of music that I personally love, so it was pretty easy for me to write singing parts to it, as well. So it was just a no-brainer to start recording it. And she also learned how to run ProTools in one half-hour lesson from Alain Johannes. And over the course of this year, she taught me how to do what she’d learned in a half hour. And now we have a record coming out of that same EP, but it’s all reimagined by Not Waving — Alessio Natalizia, the guy who I made the record with as Dark Mark in 2018. So he’s putting out the whole EP, but remixed, and that’s really great, too.
And then you have Dark Mark vs. Skeleton Joe coming up, with the Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone.
Yeah. That was Joe’s idea. Again, he just handed me all this rad music, and I started writing singing parts to it. So it was another one of those things. It used to be a rarity that somebody would give me music and I’d find it really easy to write singing parts to. But in the case of both Shelley and Joe, everything they give me is just like, Bang! In no time at all, I’m finished.
It’s interesting to note that book sales stayed steady this year. Literature, music, art — all of it remained incredibly crucial throughout the pandemic.
Absolutely. More now than ever. I just got the end-of-the-year email from the CEO of Hatchette Books, who put out my memoir and the lyric book that I put out before that. And he said that when it first started out, sales took a big hit. But in May, sales started to pick up, and through the summer to now, I think they’re actually doing a quarter better than the previous year, which is quite a bit of business.
Do you feel like a survivor now?
I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. But I’ll tell you this. I definitely feel like in the last couple of months, at least, a weight has been lifted off. And that I may have dodged a bullet. For now. But you can’t last forever though.
You worried that there might not be room in this constricted new COVID-19 world for non-arena-headlining artists like you. I think you were wrong.
I think so, too. And I’m very glad about that. And even just with all the opportunities that have opened up for me since I came out here? I mean, what a pleasant surprise. I did not see this coming.
How was the flight over to Ireland?
It was totally dead. There were maybe 20 people in coach, and the airport in L.A. was completely empty, the airport in Dublin, completely empty, too. That part was scary — it was like some post-apocalypse movie. Minus the zombies.
Are you missing the Clippers? And have you found new sports to follow over there?
There’s rugby, hurling, football, European style. But you know, last year, not being able to go to any games, anywhere, it was almost like a strike zone, with nobody playing games. So I’m not missing it, to make a long story short.
Final comment — now that you’ve left America, McRib is finally back at McDonald’s. How sad do you feel?
Ha! I’d heard that! You know, I’ve been to McDonald’s twice since I’ve been out here, just for nostalgia’s sake. And they didn’t have McRib on the menu here, sadly. But over here they’ve got — and I actually ordered one — the Double Big Mac, but it was a bit too big for me. It’s four beef patties, four slices of cheese.
Do you have to unhinge your jaw like a snake to finish it off?
You’ve got to crunch it down. You’ve got to flatten it out and make the sauce and stuff spill out the sides. It wasn’t really worth it — let’s put it that way…..