Screaming Trees singer battles his demons

Published Oct. 23, 1998|Updated Sept. 14, 2005

(ran GB edition)

Mark Lanegan pulls a cigarette from his pocket. The one in his mouth is little more than a glowing nub, but Lanegan draws a final labored puff anyway. The dying remains of the first are quickly used to kindle its replacement.

On a cloudy midsummer day, the singer-musician is sitting outside the Still Life Coffeehouse. He is dressed entirely in black: black jeans, black T-shirt, black jacket, a black-knit hat pulled down hard on his forehead. He drinks his coffee black. Even his eyes look black, though they're hard to see through his permanent squint. Lanegan has a way of keeping his brow furrowed as if he'd spent a lifetime staring into the sun.

Those who follow music know Lanegan best for his role as the lead singer for the Screaming Trees. The band, formed in Ellensburg, an eastern Washington college town, in 1984, came to be associated with the thriving Seattle music scene of the early 1990s. Though never reaching the astonishing record sales of Seattle bands Nirvana or Pearl Jam, the Trees' success has always been respectable: The band recorded 11 albums and EPs and scored its biggest hit with 1992's Nearly Lost You, which was included on the soundtrack of the movie, Singles.

Fans are never sure what to expect from a group legendary as much for hard-rocking, occasionally brilliant performances as onstage drunkenness, brawling and accompanying mayhem.

Much of the band's fortunes have been tied to Lanegan's well-chronicled ups and downs, including several drug-related setbacks. He has been known to walk off the stage 30 minutes into a set. On other occasions he had to be goaded into performing at all. The band crested on his soulful voice and emotive lyrics, then crashed when he lost focus or simply turned his attention elsewhere. It was hard to know which Lanegan would show up.

But now, at age 33, the singer has changed his outlook, some would say matured. The drugs are a part of his past. These days, it is his music that consumes his passion and demands his energy.

While accolades for several of the Trees' recorded works are deserved, many fans and critics argue that it is Lanegan's three individual efforts, including the rather remarkable Scraps at Midnight, released this summer on SubPop, that mark his best work. Where the Trees provide raucous psychedelic thrills, Lanegan on his own, particularly on this most recent album, prefers gloomy, almost surreal quietude. There are still hints of rock 'n' roll, but country, folk and blues, at their most despairing and forlorn, are the most discernable influences.

While not necessarily autobiographical _ Lanegan says writing about real-life events is boring _ the new album provides glimpses into a soul that those squinting eyes won't allow. Songs such as Last One in the World come across as a whispered confidence. Others

like Hospital Roll Call and Day and Night share that same personal intensity. As an entire work, Scraps is a harrowing account that is both sorrowful and redemptive, letting the listener drop endlessly while throwing only an occasional rope to cling to.

When, on Stay, Lanegan sings "Living ain't hard, it just ain't easy," the unadorned sentiment seems inexplicably profound. It's a life reduced to a line and for Lanegan it fits better than any other.

Growing up, it was the sad songs that Lanegan liked most. He remembers listening to his parents' records: songs by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and the Kingston Trio.

"I remember there was a song about Anne Boleyn getting beheaded and walking through the castle," he says. "That made an impression."

If his songs sound spooked, like lost spirits floating through space, there are reasons for that, too.

"My favorite record growing up was Songs of the Haunted House, a Disney record that was just wackiness," he says with a wry smile. "It's still one of my favorites actually."

The music world is full of singers trying to sound injured or anguished, but no one is as convincingly bummed out as Lanegan. His voice is a deep bottomed reservoir of hurt. It can be gritty one moment, gloriously serene the next, but it almost always prefers the sorrow-filled shadows to the light.

"Everyone can relate to darkness, if you want to call it that," he says, taking another long drag on his cigarette. "Everybody has unhappiness."

Sad songs. Haunted songs. Songs that ache without being self-pitying, that pull you in without contriving. Lanegan writes and sings with a passion that is convincing, and an emotion that scorns pretense.

Perhaps the darkness of his music sounds so true because he understands it so well.

The singer's battles with his own demons have been well-publicized throughout his career's haphazard path. Last year he was arrested in San Francisco before a concert for allegedly trying to buy crack. The charges were later dropped, but the incident wasn't his first encounter with the police or with drugs.

"I was in trouble with the law from when I was real young. I was arrested a lot for all manner of stuff, mostly drug- and alcohol-related," he says.

Problems with drugs interfered with his career and put his creativity on hold. He laughs at the idea that he used drugs or alcohol for inspiration.

"I think it's ridiculous," he says matter-of-factly. "The guys in my band would laugh if it weren't so serious. The only time that I could work, and it got increasingly hard over the years, was when I would stop for a while. I mean I could tour ... but as far as making records or writing songs it was completely hopeless. That's why in 10 years I only made three records. It wasn't something I was capable of."

Last fall Lanegan hit bottom.

"I was very ill at the end," he says. "Heroin, crack, just about everything. I was a hard-core heroin addict for several years, that was the main thing, but I did just about everything."

Lanegan had already lost many close friends _ including Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain _ to failed battles with drugs and depression. Now he found himself wondering if he would make it. With so many rock-'n'-roll drug casualties, Lanegan knows that he is lucky. It was not so much becoming a statistic that bothered him as becoming a cliche.

"Well, yeah, I almost did (die) many times," he says. "And tons of my friends did. But, when you're in the midst of what is ultimately just a horrible nightmarish existence, the last thing you want to believe is that you might not get through it."

There's a cautiousness to Lanegan as he answers questions. He can be open and revealing, and yet at the same time demand anonymity: A singer who wants his voice heard without the attendant scrutiny of fame.

Some questions are off limits, and he quickly tires of telling about a part of his life he now feels he has put behind him.

"I'm not a human interest story, man," he announces testily at one point. "I'm just a musician trying to make some small records and be happy, be peaceful."

For years, peace had eluded him, but with the help of friends and the Musicians Assistance Program _ a record industry-sponsored program that provides funds and guidance for musicians seeking attention for drug and alcohol dependency _ Lanegan was able to get into a drug rehabilitation center in California late last fall. After spending a month there and another six months in recovery homes, Lanegan says he has finally put drugs behind him.

Now living in Southern California, he is busy writing songs and recording new material with longtime collaborator Mike Johnson, formerly of Dinosaur Jr. These days the songs are pouring out of him. He already has an album of new material ready to go, and the creative faucet can't be shut off.

Though his songs still explore the darkness, his sense of humor is intact. Of the many critics who compare his voice to Jim Morrison's, he says:

"It's probably what they say about all guys with deep voices sounding overwrought."

And he smiles when asked about the Trees' legendary reputation for inter-band brawls.

"That's all behind us," he says, laughing. "I'm all about hugs these days."

Lanegan wouldn't recommend the path he has taken to anyone, but he also doesn't worry about what he can't change now.

"Would I have done it differently? I don't know. I'm really happy right now and I think that everything happens for a reason, as corny as that sounds," he says.

"I'm a much happier person now than at any other time in my life."