Credit: Steven J. Messina
February 22, 2023, marks one year since the passing of one of rock’s all-time great vocalists, Mark Lanegan – who while probably best known for his contributions to the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, issued countless outstanding recordings as either a solo artist or as a collaborator or guest with others.
To pay tribute to the singer, I assembled the book Lanegan, for which I conducted over 20 interviews with musicians and/or admirers that worked alongside Mark in some capacity over the years. Below are exclusive excerpts from the book, which focus on the creation of 10 of Mark’s best albums, spanning 1990-2014.
The Winding Sheet (Mark Lanegan, 1990)
MIKE JOHNSON [Mark Lanegan guitarist, ex-Dinosaur Jr. bassist, solo artist]: He had been working on stuff with Kurt [Cobain] – he was going to do that Lead Belly record that I’m sure you heard about [a project reportedly called the Jury, featuring Mark, Kurt, Krist Novoselic on bass, and Mark Pickerel on drums]. I think he changed his mind or he wanted to do something else – he had this idea of doing an actual solo record [The Winding Sheet], and that’s when I got a phone call.
And he and I talked to each other semi-regularly and wrote letters to each other, sent tapes. He was like, “Hey man, would you be interested in making this record with me? I’ve got a solo album.” I was like, “Where do I sign up?!” He sent me a tape of these demos that he had, that were all pretty simple three-chord songs – with really cool melodies and words.
So, I drove up from Eugene to Seattle. First, we four-tracked the songs – the whole part of writing intros and any middle break type stuff. Then, we went into the studio like, a month later – with Jack and Pickerel. We must have practiced with Pickerel, but I don’t remember. But anyway, it was really quick. It was like, three days – just in the studio, laid down the stuff. First, I think we did the tracks that Pickerel played on, band tracks, the basics, the acoustics with Mark doing guide vocals. So, it was really fast and simple.
The story I would always tell is, “The first album was three days…and the second album was three years.” The Winding Sheet was all very new to me – it was the first professional album I had anything to do with. I’d only recorded singles and tapes with my band. And song-wise, I remember putting the most effort into “Mockingbirds” and “Ugly Sunday.” I remember Steve Fisk telling me about the piano part I wanted to play on “Mockingbirds” – “Dude…that’s going to sound like Bob Seger.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not!” Which it didn’t. I don’t think I was there when he did the vocals. I think he and Jack did the vocals.
Sweet Oblivion (Screaming Trees, 1992)
GARY LEE CONNER [Screaming Trees guitarist]: The thing about Sweet Oblivion, the problem with the collaboration is we’d have all these songs, but a lot of them were only half-finished lyrically. Because usually when I did a song, I’d finish the lyrics, and then Mark would just take them and change them up. But instead, he was singing stuff but without lyrics – dumb lines or joke lines.
So, when we were in the studio, half or at least a third of the songs didn’t have all the lyrics – or sometimes, even titles. We’d just have “Van’s Song” and stuff like that. Mark would never tell me, “These are the lyrics I have.” He’d just sing them and then we’d find out what they were. After about two weeks, we were ready to do the vocals, and they kicked us out of the studio.
But a couple of days or three days before, Lanegan had gone missing in New York on a drunken odyssey of God knows what happened. He was gone for three days, and when he came back, he was so fuckin’ massively hung over. And if he doesn’t sing all the stuff and have all the lyrics, the album’s delayed. We were a little apprehensive, to say the least.
I went to stay at my girlfriend’s – now wife – because she lived in Upstate New York, and Van and Barrett probably stayed in a hotel. Three days later, Lanegan came back and gave us a tape, and we’re just floored. We were like, “Oh my God. This is amazing.”
Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (Mark Lanegan, 1994)
JACK ENDINO [producer/mixer]: Mark started Whiskey for the Holy Ghost with Terry Date – if I remember right – and got some songs recorded, got partway into it, didn’t finish anything. And then someone may have worked on it in there – I think Ed Brooks. At some point, he brought the two-inch tapes to me, we did more work on it, and we tried to finish the record. I think I worked on it several times.
But I found myself working with him at Bear Creek Studio at one point and I only tracked a few songs on that record, myself – most of them were overdubs I was working on. Which, mostly would have been vocals. There may have been some guest musicians, too.
But we tracked “The River Rise” at Reciprocal and we tracked a few other songs. And then, the rest of it was redoing the vocals on these other songs and adding overdubs to these other songs that he had already recorded with Terry Date or Ed Brooks. And there were many songs on quite a few reels. There was a lot more material that we worked on than what ended up on the album.
And the problem that I had was that Mark was having a “sophomore jinx.” Which meant that he was his own worst critic of everything he was doing – which meant that no vocal track would satisfy him, no performance of himself would satisfy him. He was very self-critical. By comparison, The Winding Sheet took I think just a matter of days to record and mix. I keep thinking six or seven days – it may have been less, it may have been more.
But it went very painlessly and very quick. It was kind of magic, actually. I even ended up playing bass on about half the record. But Whiskey took a couple of years, and as I said, I think four different producers. Finally, John Agnello is the one who ended up bringing it over the finish line and mixing it.
Field Songs (Mark Lanegan, 2001)
JOHN AGNELLO [producer/mixer]: Field Songs was the one that I started with them, and having Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden play bass, Mike Johnson play guitar, and Dan Peters from Mudhoney played drums. It was so much fun. But again, controversial – Ben Shepherd got really mad at one point, because he couldn’t get a part right, and he threw his bass and he was spitting. I had to kind of calm him down.
I think he referred to me as either “coach” or “sergeant.” Like, “Hey coach, what do you want to do now?” He was super-nice – in fact, in the middle of all this shit, he basically got me a hotel, because he felt bad that I was staying at the studio and he felt that I needed to get out of there. So he just booked me a hotel for two days. It was so nice of him to pay for it.
Songs for the Deaf (Queens of the Stone Age, 2002)
NICK OLIVERI [ex-Queens of the Stone Age singer/bassist]: Josh is really smart, but he was incredibly smart back then when he produced the record. He put the right people in place to be on it and to be in the band, and to share the front spotlight with another frontman was a key to that band’s success. Being able to put your ego down and share the stage with these guys, Dave and Mark. It’s really a reason why this record is special – because there are different frontmen on it. And Dave on the drums is “a frontman.” He hadn’t played drums on a record in a while, so Josh was a smart guy to put these people in place that really made the band special.
There was so much going on at that time, because we had been writing the stuff, and showing Dave songs that were already ready to go, and then him writing this amazing drum part for it and then we’d go and record it. I remember a lot of it was working on the music stuff, and then the vocals came after that. On “Song for the Dead,” Mark sings it so raw, so rough, and so good. It really is a great performance on that one – he’s really laying into it.
The deep voice thing is not always easy to sing at high volume – as far as I know. But he was a really powerful singer, with that low growl. And he had some highs in his voice, too – which he didn’t use as much as he did working with some of the earlier recordings. There’s some stuff on Whiskey for the Holy Ghost where he’s singing some higher pitch stuff. So, he had great range.
Bubblegum (Mark Lanegan Band, 2004)
ALDO STRUYF [Mark Lanegan bassist]: Bubblegum was the first time I worked with him. I went to the studio in Joshua Tree, Rancho de la Luna. I was on the plane on Christmas Eve [Aldo is from Belgium], so there was nobody on the plane – except for ten people. So, it started really weird for me. I arrived and his manager drove me to Joshua Tree, and they were waiting for me there – with a bottle of tequila and some weed!
A couple of songs were already recorded – or at least parts of it – but I was there with Mark, Chris Goss, Josh Homme, Dave Catching, and also a girl that played bass on some songs and sang a little bit [Molly McGuire]. And then more and more people came over, and I noticed I didn’t produce that much stuff – because I was a bit intimidated by everybody that was there.
And then that second day in the evening, he said, “OK. Everybody can go home now and stay home for three days – because now, we’re going to record with Aldo.” He sent everybody home, and then we worked for a couple of days on nine or ten songs. That was surprising that he sent Josh Homme home – to work with me. I worked on a song that PJ Harvey had sung on, and other people I admired – Dean Ween from Ween. And I’m a big Ween fan – I have a Ween tattoo on my back.
The songs were so good – and there were some beautiful songs that didn’t get on the album, because he said, “Too much ‘Nirvana’ songs. Let’s drop it.” But it wasn’t a Nirvana song and it was great. There was a lot of beautiful stuff being recorded by beautiful people and great musicians.
Hawk (Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, 2010)
JEFF FIELDER [Mark Lanegan guitarist]: Once we started working [on Hawk, the third album credited to Mark and Isobel Campbell], it was really something. It was just the three of us. And I was curious to see how it was going to turn out. But I wish I had tapes of those original things, because all my parts got edited to fit a “whole band mix.”
But all the acoustic guitar on that record is me – and there’s a couple of electric things. But mostly, all of the acoustic rhythm stuff, we did just then and there. And the band was put on later in Scotland. And we did a bunch of tunes – we did that and two more over the course of the week. I think we ended up with about seven tracks by the end of the week. And then she did the rest of it with her guys back in Scotland. And then that was done, and we didn’t talk much – me and Mark. We just did the thing and then he split. And then getting into 2010, I just basically wrote it off as, “That was a cool experience.”
Blues Funeral (Mark Lanegan Band, 2012)
ALAIN JOHANNES [producer, Eleven singer/guitarist]: Blues Funeral was the same kind of idea [as Bubblegum] – “The Gravedigger’s Song” is just me and him playing all the instruments. And we invited Jack Irons, who was in Eleven with me and was the first Chili Peppers drummer. So, Jack played, Goss came down, Duke Garwood would send stuff from overseas, Dave Catching came in, Dulli…it became this revolving door of friends. That was the template – that, Phantom Radio, and Gargoyle, we did at the house [11AD]. And then I moved out, and we did Somebody’s Knocking and Straight Songs of Sorrow at his place. I basically took a mini version of my studio and set it up in his garage.
Dark Mark Does Christmas (Mark Lanegan, 2012 and 2020)
ALAIN JOHANNES: The original version of Dark Mark Does Christmas, he just made vinyl that he sold on tour. The first version came out in 2012 – we did six songs – and then he added to it in 2020. So, in 2012, I would say it was after Blues Funeral that we did it – because I think he took it out on the road for that Christmas of 2012. He just made limited vinyl.
It’s super-raw – it’s just his voice and an instrument or two. And then the 2020 version, he asked me to remix it and remaster it, and he added three songs to it. I got stuck and I couldn’t get home – I went to Chile after I got Covid to play Lollapalooza, and they locked us down and my flights got cancelled. I was there for six months.
Phantom Radio (Mark Lanegan Band, 2014)
ALDO STRUYF: For [2014’s] Phantom Radio album, I didn’t do that much. In a way, Mark was really OK with working with Alain. I remember for that album I was feeling a bit down. One day, we talked on the phone, and I told Mark that, and he said, “Wait man, I’m going to book you a flight.” It wasn’t the intention I think – to play on the album. Because I was also living in Belgium and a flight to the States is expensive.
And he said, “Come over and we’re going to record a new album. Set your mind to something else and have a good time.” And again, I played on a few songs. Mark was changing the vibe of the album a little bit – he was listening more to new wave music, like Joy Division and all those bands. For me, it was the first change into going more electronic, more danceable music. He really wanted more electronic stuff to be on the album – and of course, that was fun to do. But Alain did most of the stuff.
Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor. Lanegan is his 39th book overall, and is available as paperback, hardcover, and Kindle versions (and soon, an audio version).