He doesn’t want to sound Aleister Crowley-mystical, but ex-Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan truly believes that there’s a certain magical energy coursing through the sinister grooves of Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe, his new full-length collaboration with former Icarus Line anchor Joe Cardamone, using the longtime aliases they’ve adopted for various projects and performances. Trouble is, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“The ‘Skeleton Joe’ record was almost finished when I left Los Angeles, and I just had four more songs to sing,” Lanegan sighs, phoning from his pastoral new home in County Kerry, Ireland, where he moved in August 2020. A couple of months ago he put the finishing touches on the decidedly Gothic disc, letting his deep, sepulchral croon darken the Sisters of Mercy shadings of “No Justice,” “Living Dead,” “Sanctified,” and “Turning In Reverse.” When he ominously murmurs lines like “I woke to find a spider bite/ So infected I was paralyzed,” joining forces with Skeleton Joe makes good Halloween sense. The album, released on October 15, is exactly the way his fans have wanted to hear him for years, and he’s found the perfect spooky foil in Cardamone.
“But when I heard it played back, fully sequenced and mixed the other day, it just put me right back in L.A., and I was like, ‘Whoa!’” he says. “More than any other record I’ve ever made, it totally has the feel of a time and a place for me. Because we did the bulk of it right in the midst of the pandemic, when things were getting crazy in Los Angeles and I was getting, uh, too close to the sun.”
The Icarus reference isn’t entirely inapt. Creatively, 2020 turned out to be a banner year for Lanegan. He published his gritty Sing Backwards and Weep autobiography, issued a stunning companion-volume album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, that essentially provided its soundtrack, put out a poetry book, and, as Black Phoebe, even cut an EP with his vocalist wife Shelley Brien. Currently, he’s in the process of demoing his next solo foray. He might have looked like he was walking on air, but in reality, he was screaming from the sky in a jumble of molten wax and feathers as if California itself — which he now equates with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Republic of Gilead — was out to do him in. He goes on to explain…
SPIN: You’d think we’d have learned a lot from the pandemic, maybe acquired some grace or dignity. But it seems like in America, we’ve learned nothing. And now climate change is set to kill us all.
Mark Lanegan: I think so, too, man. I think this is all just the big wind-down. And if we’re lucky, we’ll both croak before the big end. But this is why I finally said, “Fuck it. I have to leave!” And I really didn’t care where I went.
Do you remember exactly how and when you made that decision?
Well, there was about a month when I was getting really out there on the edge. I was sleeping in the studio every day because there were only two entrances there that I needed to cover, as opposed to the nine inside the house. I was sleeping in the big chair with three handguns in my lap and a shotgun leaning against my leg. I felt like I was being hunted. And I was. I was involved in some shit that I shouldn’t have been involved in, but that’s the story of my life. But also with the pandemic, the Trump administration, and all that shit, it just became this huge fucking whirlwind of shit. And I just wanted to get the fuck out.
Why did you choose to move to Ireland?
Ireland was the only place in Europe that was accepting United States citizens in August of last year. Nobody else was. And I’d sold my house, I’d put all my shit in storage, and I was really on my way to Portugal. But since Ireland was the only place taking us, I bought a ticket to Dublin. And my plan was to quarantine for a couple of weeks in a Dublin hotel and then move on to Portugal. But I have a good pal, Donal Logue, who had a house in County Kerry that was just sitting empty. And when I told him what I was planning, he said, “You should just take my house and chill there!” And when I got there, I saw all the physical beauty of this place, with this amazing national park and three huge lakes and all the mountains and the trees. And it was just a trip after 23 years in Los Angeles. So I decided to stay.
Did you turn to nature for solace?
Yeah, totally. We had foxes and weasels and deer, literally coming up to our door every day. And I got a bicycle, and I walk every day, and this park is just an amazing, giant expanse, and it’s filled with bike paths and foot trails, and people are out there every day. But you can still walk all day and never see anybody because it’s that big. So that’s what’s kept me sane, basically. But the weather does change very quickly over here — I can wake up and it would be sunny as fuck, and five minutes later it’s just pouring rain. I dunno if I’ll stay here forever, but it suits me for now. Spiritually and emotionally, it’s been very good for me.
A great discovery we both made during the pandemic was ordering from the incredible punk/giallo catalog of Atom Age Industries and getting fun T-shirt packages in the mail. Waiting for it to arrive was half the excitement.
I’m wearing my Damned T-shirt from Atom Age right now! That was a good find. And my wife really loves that shit, too — that’s like her uniform, that stuff every day. I got the “Suspiria” shirt, too, but I dunno if people around here know what it is. But yeah, it was cool getting packages in the mail, especially when you’re semi-isolated.
I think we both kept ordering books last year, too, right?
Yeah. And there’s a really good bookstore here, and I was in there with a mask on one day, and a woman came walking up to me with my book and said, “Is this you?” And I was like, “Wow! How could you even recognize me with a fucking mask and a hat on? But yeah, it is me.” So I signed a copy for her. But I was shocked that they actually had my book here.
What conspiracy theories have you focused on lately?
I haven’t, really. I came to the conclusion that this thing is a natural event, although governments have certainly always been known to use natural events to work their dark arts. But fuck, man — in four years, half of the world’s population died from the bubonic plague. 250 million people dead. And then in 1918, a full third of its population croaked from Spanish flu.
What has gone so horribly wrong with humanity, in your opinion?
Nobody gives a fuck about anybody else anymore. Maybe they never did. And I hate to bring it back to this again, but also, this pandemic just feeds into that. The separation, like stay away from other people, wear a mask, don’t get too close, be careful. Everybody’s paranoid. Nobody wants to talk to anybody, which feeds into that whole narcissistic me, me , me thing. Like, “Look out! I don’t wanna catch this thing, so you’d better stay the fuck away from me!” It’s a fucking mess, man. And people don’t seem to get it, that the pandemic is far from over. The other shoe hasn’t even dropped yet!