Mark Lanegan’s 11th studio album Somebody’s Knocking is on its way in October.
Lending a close ear to it before meeting him, I felt completely gripped in its world thanks to vivid metaphors that will stand the test of time and be recited by future songwriters and poets.
That, alongside the Factory Records-esque synth and drum machine feel, the rock DNA, and of course Lanegan’s distinctive godly vocals.
The interview below with the former QOTSA man comes off the back of the Joseph Arthur interview at his own home, which inspired a lot of my questions. And it comes days before Mark goes to New York to play with the Seth Meyers house band. When I do get to speak to him, I find he’s fully attentive and is a thoughtful conversationist. Lanegan’s in good spirits and elaborates in depth after my observations about his work.
Over the course of over an hour’s conversation, we hear about “phony” early Screaming Trees, the grievous circumstances that led to the creation of Whiskey For The Holy Ghost. Moreover, we speak about Anthony Bourdain’s role in writing his debut novel, Divinity, the “criminal” music industry, homelessness, drug addiction, losing the ability to feel music, literary influences, and much more.
Without further ado, here is Mark Lanegan speaking with Gigwise. By the way, it’s long. Maybe grab a wedge of cheese and a glass of wine, plug in your speaker and settle down with it for a little while.
Gigwise: Hi Mark, sorry we crossed wires the other day but it’s good to speak with you finally. And sorry to hear about the loss of your pet. [We were supposed to talk a few days earlier but circumstances got in the way].
Mark Lanegan: Oh man, it’s the most heartbreaking thing. This pet was my wife’s baby. I’ve lost a lot of pets and I’ve lost a lot of friends. It gets harder to lose pets because they don’t have the baggage that family and friends have. When you lose a pet, it’s pure unconditional love. This animal was only six years old. It took forever for the vets to get what was wrong. Two days before he choked to death they told me he was fine.
GW: I’m away a lot and currently calling you from Latvia, I don’t have the pleasure of caring for a pet here.
ML: Latvia! I’ve just been to the airport but I don’t think that counts.
GW: There’s a few places I’ve only visited like that. Germany, Only ever hitch hiked through and been in the airport.
ML: I have certainly been to Germany enough times. Goddamn, you’re not missing much. Especially not in the 80s. It was the most dismal place. Everything closed at 5 o'clock at night, including the gas station on the autobahn, which was the only place you could find something to eat while you were driving from place to place. Except all they had to eat there was chocolate, warm beer and porn. As men in our young 20s, we spent our peas on porn.
GW: Was that early days touring with The Screaming Trees?
ML: Yeah. That was circa 1987.
GW: Was that around the time you hadn’t fully laid down that you had to be OK with every track on the album? Sweet Oblivion and Dust are huge records I came across in high school and there were some earlier records on SST, I haven’t had the chance to listen to them yet. How do you feel about those 80s records?
ML: I haven’t listened to them in 20 years but I would assume they are still just as shitty as they were then.
GW: OK. I mean, you’re not necessarily one to blow your own trumpet. I just tuned into the Joseph Arthur podcast filmed in your home and there’s numerous times where they were like, ‘Mark! Your stuff means a lot to us’. And you were modest in return. But with that [early Trees] you did say [in an interview] it took you to be OK with the tracks to make a good album. That’s what it was? Being the visionary for the band?
ML: Well, that’s not how I’d put it. They put words in my mouth. The truth of the matter is I made a lot of records with those guys simply because I worked for their parents reproducing television sets. Those guys were the first I guys I met in eight years – I had been listening to punk rock – who had been listening to the same kind of music as me.
At some point, they wanted to incorporate me into their band. First as a drummer. But I was no good for that. And then as a singer, which I also wasn’t equipped for but over time I learned how to do it. For the entirety of the 80s, and our first major label record, my job was simply to sing songs written by somebody else with lyrics that had nothing to do with me. Lyrics that I considered to be terrible – I’ll just say that. But I also saw it as my way out of my own town, which it became. And by the time Sweet Oblivion rolled around, I had made a solo record strictly because I was offered money to do so. And so I learned how to play just enough chords to write songs. I didn’t know how to do the rock songs that The Trees had been doing all these years but I did know how to write songs. And so, I hate to say it, because this makes it look even worse, I was basically the de facto leader of the band, strictly through force of will. Whether I had my hands on the reigns, or not, it was always a shit-fest. But somebody had to hold the reins and that just happened to be me; the least proficient musically of the entire band.
By the time we made Sweet Oblivion, Nirvana was in full force, and were interested in keeping us around. But I had a pretty good deal with Sub Pop at the same time, and I was in the process of making my second record, which I was serious about. I didn’t have to answer to anybody else, fight with anybody, or anything. So I decided I wasn’t going to play in the Trees any more. They talked me into it by saying we would write together as a team and the lyrics would be in my hands. As opposed to just remaking the demos our guitar player made, which we had always done before.
GW: The second solo record being Whiskey For The Holy Ghost? Did you think them hearing that was a game changer in terms of handing over so many ideas to you? Because it’s a fantastic album…
ML: No. They hadn’t heard that yet. It was released after Sweet Oblivion. But I had made my first solo record, which was not a genius masterpiece and so I already knew how to do it. They never heard Whiskey until afterwards. But I knew it was in the works. And I also considered it to be... you know, never mind what happened, I had made a bunch of records and I was still in my mid-late 20s and I was already sick of music because of playing in this band. And if I was going to die, I wanted to make one great record. I thought Whiskey was going to be that record. So I didn’t share any of that with those guys. They talked me into it. They allowed me inclusion in the writing process and they were true to the word. That, and getting Barrett Martin as our new drummer. He really had a lot to do with the classic rock feel of Sweet Oblivion as opposed to the phony 60s psychedelia feel of the other records. We stepped up from the 60s to the 70s with Sweet Oblivion.
GW: You’ve spoken previously about not getting along with drummers and you’ve very much taken the album process into your own hands in terms of bringing different ideas. You’ve crafted Somebody’s Knocking largely out of this drum machine feel, or is it different?
ML: I think it’s way more trad than anything I had anticipated it was going to be. The two previous records before that had more synth and drum machine stuff on than Somebody's Knocking. Yeah, that’s where my heart is, since I was a little kid I have been listening to Kraftwerk. My dad gave me a copy of Autobahn when I was a really young kid. He had found it in a box at work. And then I was into punk rock at 14. I’m talking Sex Pistols and The Damned and The Ramones and that changed my life. That was the first music that got me really psyched on music. I listened to that music in solitude for years until I met those other guys. And the rest is the story I just told you.
GW: So in terms of the sonics of this new record, you said it was a lot more trad and there’s the synth, electronic stuff. Because it’s such a long album you can move between references and ideas. It’s nicely set out.
ML: I wouldn’t disagree with that. I wanted to make a record for a very long time that in the old days would have been considered a double album. Two pieces of vinyl, more than an hour’s worth of music. I first was going to do that with Bubblegum but it ended up being two records: Here Comes That Weird Chill and Bubblegum. And I was going to do it again with Phantom Radio in 2014 but again that ended up being a long album and an EP instead of a double album. With this one, I was like, ‘Fuck It’. I had these songs I had co-written with people who have become important within my circle of creativity and I wanted to make a record that was unabashedly….
Put it this way: I was a big fan of The Stranglers as a kid and their music always seemed catchy enough that in my perfect world they would have radio hits except I guess the lyrical content and the times prevented that from happening. Then in the 80s they made a record called Aural Sculpture which had a huge hit everywhere but here, called ‘Skin Deep’ and every song on the record was catchy as fuck. It seemed like they made a conscious decision to just go full-on radio friendly music while still retaining the depth and greatness of their earlier records. That is what I wanted to do with Somebody’s Knocking, make a blatantly catchy double album simply because I never had and wanted to see if I could.
As for sequencing a record, although it’s one of the things I love the most about making a record, it’s also one of the most challenging things. It’s like making a great setlist except it’s one that’s going to last forever. Not that it even matters anymore because of streaming and shit — no one even listens to a record all the way through. But to me it’s still important that from start to finish it has a certain flow, a feel, a cohesiveness. There might be a song of intense beauty and sadness followed up by a song of a darker element but they go together.
GW: I’d like to move back and talk about the cover: It’s called Somebody's Knocking and you’ve got this knocker on the cover. You said in the Joseph Arthur podcast that the shopkeeper told you it had a dark energy and then you bought it for the house. I noticed there’s a reference on ‘Penthouse High’, right in the middle of the album, where you sing, ‘ghosts inside this house’. I kind of wondered if ‘Penthouse High’ sparked the ideas of putting this knocker on the front cover?
ML: First, I’m somebody who doesn’t like to bring a lot of shitty energy into the house because I’m a true believer that houses, especially old houses that have been around forever (my house is made in like 1920 I think) carry energy. Stuff has happened in these houses. People have died in these houses. Maybe people died violently in these houses, or maybe they died by their own hands. Whatever, dark shit happens everywhere. I’m one of those people who does not like to be where I can feel the oppressiveness of that darkness. I am not likely to bring things into the house that have been blatantly cursed [laughs].
But, it was such a cool looking piece. When you see it in person it is a lot different to the terrible cell phone photo I took for the cover. It’s a striking piece of artwork and I thought regardless of whether this is cursed or not; whether this would curse my house or studio — even if it would curse my record; and you know heaven forbid that ever happens — I still want it on the cover of my record. It looks badass. It appealed to the weird occult side to me you know gets sucked into shit like that. Penthouse High was already written before I ever saw that thing or bought it.
GW: Yeah, that’s a point, it was supposed to be on Gargoyle.
ML: Yeah I wrote it with Alain Johannes for Gargoyle and it wasn’t appropriate once we finished the record. It feels totally appropriate with this record but not with the last one.
‘Penthouse High’ is basically... most of my songs are about me [laughs]. And no one would probably ever get it with me but it’s the story of… it’s one version of the story of my existence.
It’s also imaginary. There's a way I would like things to be. Actually, with most singers they create a landscape, atmosphere or mood, or a place or a big story, which is the worst by the way. I have no time for that. But I put plenty of imaginary stories. But not big ones. [laughs]
First off, I would assume most singers are trying to create things that are catchy or considered a hit – if that means anything anymore?
I don’t think that means anything anymore. Music gets some radio play on the BBC and you get some video plays on youtube and *bang*, the time frame that used to take a year or two to go through a record cycle is now reduced to four months. But yet the record company doesn’t want you to put out a record every four months. You can go and work in McDonald’s for the other 18 months in between records because the music business has basically become a worse criminal enterprise than it was when they were stealing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf songs in the 40s and 50s. Record deals used to be predicated on physical pieces of music and that doesn’t exist anymore. So we are expected to pay our own money to make music and not be paid for it. To me that’s a criminal enterprise. I hate to say it, that anybody in the music business besides the artist — and a lot of artists because you don’t have a choice — are complicit in this thing.
And really the only way to make a living off of music — and I’m speaking from the experience of someone who has managed to scratch making a living out of music for 35 years — is basically to play as much as possible and to sell your own merch. That’s it. If you’re not Beyonce, you’re not going to sell CDs, records, or however it is people put out music. I press my own bootleg CDs and I’ve written a couple of books. Those are what sell at my merch table along with the usual T-shirts and such.
GW: I just read that piece that your memoir collaborator Mishka Shubaly did on Bubblegum. It was interesting, he wrote in quite a lively way. It made me crave to read something long form. I noted his novel title down. But with your book on the horizon next year, I think it is something I’m also keen to dig into. When was Sing Backwards and Weep written? A different time from Somebody’s Knocking?
ML: Sing Backwards and Weep started pretty soon after I had released a book of lyrics. A friend of mine, who is an enthusiast of my works and my music — a really positive influence in my life — basically insisted that I make a memoir. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
GW: Was that Anthony Bourdain?
ML: Yeah, that was Anthony. Mishka, on the other hand, was already trying to get me to do it but I wasn’t really listening to him even though he was a writing instructor at Yale, and a bestselling memoir writer himself. I basically was like, ‘Whatever dude’. By the way, I’m very close friends with Mishka, he is one of my closest friends now; he is a fucking amazing dude who has taught me so much about, not just writing, but about life and music. He is a very interesting cat, wise beyond his years.
Yeah, it was Bourdain who said, ‘Write a prologue and send that to me and said I’ll tell you if it’s any good or not. And if it is we will proceed’. And I sent him basically a two-paragraph prologue and he, with his usual enthusiasm, was very over the top. Long story short, we did the book. Even though I lost him half way through, I still had Mishka, who was, you know… I had two guys reading my stuff every day. Giving me pats on the pack and the occasional, ‘Hey man, you can’t write like this’. Then it would be a fight because I’d be like, ‘If you haven’t read Kinski Uncut then you don’t know where I’m coming from. So go ahead and read that book, maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from’. Kinski Uncut is basically performance art in written form. It is one of the most entertaining books but it is also one of the most full of shit books ever.
GW: I’ll check it out. So you had 12-hour writing stints, as far as I’m aware. You said you wouldn’t get up and drink water. It was very much an immersive experience. I suppose it had to be?
ML: It was. You know, man, it is one thing to say you’ll do something and it’s another thing once you are actually faced with the reality of what you’ve agreed to do. What I agreed to do was go into the darkest, most painful decade of my life. And the only reason I would work for so many hours without getting up, moving or doing anything — until Mishka finally insisted that I every four hours at least get up and walk around the block — was because I wanted to get it done very badly. It was very painful.
GW: How long was the whole process?
ML: It took me three months to do it. They said I was the first guy who ever turned in his book six weeks early. Apparently that was some sort of record. I’m a pretty fast worker. It took us seven days to put Somebody’s Knocking together. Even though some of that music was recorded already. But still that’s not a great right of time. A lot of the music was recorded in the Netherlands...
GW: Yes that must be Sieste Van Gorkom from the netherlands?
ML: [laughs] Sietse.
GW: Sorry for my ignorance.
ML: He is a pretty well known Dutch string player and once upon a time I had to finish my first record with Duke Garwood and at the same time I had to release a record of covers. And so we put together a show that was me and Duke and a couple of guys from the Mark Lanegan Band with these two string players; these two Dutch guys: Sietse Van Gorkom and Jonas Pap. And we toured Europe. At that time, he had written me a piece of music which was called ‘The Killing Season’, which was on Phantom Radio. But, yeah, he wrote a ton of music for this record. Basically steamrolled me! On the other hand, I had a lot of great music, Rob Marshall, who put me back on the map with Gargoyle. I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I had a lot of music from both those sources, and also I wrote a lot of songs myself, which I always do. And Alain Johannes and I had written some songs together, which we always do.
GW: You had a lot of music, more than ended up on the album?
ML: Yeah for sure.
GW: When it came to putting the album together, was it things that clicked quickly that went on or were there any tough ones to do that ended up on there?
ML: I generally stopped banging my head against the wall 13 years ago. It’s not that if it doesn’t immediately jump out at me I’m going to throw it away. I don’t only go for songs that are the easiest to write to. I’m looking for ones that go together.
Usually how I start a record, I look for my opening song and my ending song and those are usually the first two songs I record. Then I start filling in the blanks. That’s just how I do it. And both those songs happened to be songs that Rob Marshall did for me. There were a lot of other catchy tunes that Sietse had written that seemed to go alongside it. And because I had finally decided that I wanted what for me was a double album, it was much easier to put those songs next to each other and have them be appropriate. The music doesn’t feel like it’s written by ten different guys. Maybe that’s because my voice is the thing holding it together.
GW: I can’t sit here and identify who wrote what. I suppose the last song isn’t the archetypal post-punk fan from Stockton-on-Tees. It’s a moving piece of music and as far as I knew could have been academic music. I don’t want to have to ask you to tell me who is on where — I’ll wait for the CD to come — but one thing that grabbed me about the last track, it felt very intimate and personal and I wondered if you can remember that take, whether there was something about it that was emotional?
ML: It’s interesting you should mention that song because it’s written by two guys from the north: one guy from North America and one from the north of England, Rob Marshall. And neither one of us are what I would describe as academics.
GW: My question is: How was it to sing? It seems like one of the only tracks that are tear-jerkers.
ML: It’s weird you say that, you’re only the second guy who said it brought tears to their eyes. Even though that’s not exactly what you said but Greg Dulli was also, he is one of the five guys I share my records with before they go out. Everybody has their group of dudes that they want to hear: Is this record a piece of shit? Or is it OK? What do you think? He is one of those guys. He said, ‘There’s a lot of great songs on this record, but the last song almost made me cry’. And I had to go back and listen to it to get the gist of why that was, and I think I understand it. Rob, for his part, wasn’t completely pleased with the way I mixed some of his instrumentation. I had done something to the piano that put him in a bad mood. But he is the purest, most straight music loving guy that I have ever met. He doesn’t care if he has to work in a kitchen for the rest of his life to be able to afford to make records — he’ll do it because he has to. He is one of the most talented guys I have ever met.
GW: I get that. I opened for his band Exit Calm when I lived in Brighton with a little band I was in years ago. He has a fantastic fringe, very indie.
ML: You’re talking about his do? [laughs]
ML: He’s still got it. I don’t know how he pulls it off, it’s great on him. With me though, let’s not go there. He is an interesting cat, he is really giving. I ended up meeting him because his management asked me if I would write some singing parts for these songs, for his project that was not yet out. I listened to it and I immediately liked it, I could hear myself on it, and I said yes because that’s the only criteria I ever use.
GW: The Humanist record? Dave Gahan, John Robb are on it too.
ML: Yeah. But I was the first one [laughs].
But the thing was man, two years later I already used a bunch of his songs to release Gargoyle and I was done with Somebody’s Knocking and the Humanist record wasn’t even out yet. As it turned out — and this really sucks because it happened to me before — a song I had originally done for them that was an obvious single now had to be moved around because it was coming out at the same time frame as a record that I had written. It got pushed back almost a year due to business circumstances. I kind of screwed Rob there. But he is such a good guy, he took it.
But I know what it’s like: for my last record, Gargoyle, I was putting out my third single and the week that single came out another band — a more popular British band than I — had used a song that I had done vocals for them and released it as the single the same week. Thereby obliterating my single. They’re only going to play one single with me singing, put it that way. So if it’s a choice between UNKLE and Mark Lanegan, they’re going to play UNKLE. That’s kind of the situation I put Rob into. It started me having appreciation for his music and doing four songs for him. And two years later, he’s written two records worth of music for me, and now he can’t release the song that he got me for. It’s ironic in the shittiest way but he’s been great about it. Luckily, I was able to turn my friend Dave Gahan onto Humanist and he graciously sang one of the songs we had written in my stead. That was the pay-off.
GW: So you almost got to where Greg and I got moved by the last song. I wondered if you could think back to that question, what you felt?
ML: Well I think it’s because... it’s obviously an imaginary song. Everything in it is a metaphor for something else. I’m not a Mennonite by the way, nor have I ever been
GW: A Mennonite?
ML: That’s one of the lines in the song.
‘Two Bells Ringing At Once’ half stanza:
“I was a Mennonite they forced my face into the dirt /
with my broken teeth I tore the buttons from my shirt /
GW: I picked up on different characters throughout the album but must have missed that one.
ML: A Mennonite was like a Quaker. They were staunchly pacifistic and they all refused to fight in WW2 so they all did a prison sentence where they were beaten on a daily basis and abused by the guards because they were traitors who refused to fight for the United States. But also amongst a lot of different, of I guess what we would think of different practices. Mennonites do not wear shirts with buttons on them. And in prison in the 30s and 40s shirts had buttons on them. So the Mennonites would be handcuffed and beaten but they would still tear the buttons off their shirts with their broken fucked up teeth. That’s how much they believed.
I mean, the song for me, songs are bits of pieces of dreams, they’re not real life, I’m putting myself in a story that I would like to be told. That’s what I was getting at, that most singers create some sort of universe, or a two-and-a-half-minute world where they are the hero, the victim, the bystander, whatever. But it’s not real.
GW: You’ve got this line about the blackout artist [On ‘Gold In Kabul’]. That for me is quite a jolting line, in a good way. It reminds me that you’ve laid a lot of honesty into your work. I think most people have had a binge and felt that destructive. Was that line a reference to your past?
ML: Like I said, man, at the end of the day all of my songs are about me because I’m just a self-centred person who is unable to write about anything but himself. But within that there is lots of room for the other people who come in and out of my life and the experience of the stranger. I might read about it in the paper. You know, I might write about Shackleton’s fucking failed attempt to hit Antarctica and the next verse might be about robbing an old lady at an ATM. Somehow they don’t tell a linear story but to me they all make sense. That’s just from years of doing what felt appropriate and nothing about the overall picture of what the song means. I’m just trying to set a mood. And Mishka, the book guy, for instance, is also a musician and he was a big fan of my music and I had listened to his music. I asked what is it he likes about my music, because I found our music to be quite different to one another’s despite him citing me as an influence. He said, ‘It’s the way you can take something that seems on the surface so personal, even down to like a minute personal detail and somehow it comes across as universal. And many different kinds of people can relate to it’. I can’t claim that but that’s what he told me. If I get away with writing songs, I think it’s because part of that might be true. There’s been a handful of times that I have written about a specific person. Of course, those are the people who are dead, or the people who heard them and immediately said stuff like, ‘Oh, so you finally ripped off Iggy Pop’.
GW: Are you talking about the press release? It mentioned Iggy Pop.
ML: I went for a love song when my first wife was kicking me out and of course, when she finally heard the song, her only comment was, ‘Oh, I see you’ve finally ripped off that Iggy Pop song that you love so much’. [laughs]. In other words, the people who you write a specific song for usually never hear it or aren’t aware of it, or even give a damn. Or are already dead, which is what happened to a lot of the people I have written songs specifically about. Again, those are about me and life, survivor’s guilt, or my fucking part in the downfall of their spiral.
GW: That’s a really hard thing to hold yourself up to. A lot of people would bury their heads in the sand. You’ve spoken before about using music for healing. Do you think having written about it is a sustainable way to exist as opposed to hiding it all? Has it enabled you to be the productive musician you are today?
ML: I’ll agree with that although Im not thinking too deeply about that question. For me, thinking about the meaning behind the song is not something I’m going to put on people because what a song means to me when I’m writing, I’m probably going to get 99.9 per cent sure that either whoever hears it is not going to know what I’m writing about, or they’re going to think they know. Or, best case scenario, they connect to it on their own level and it tells their story back to them. Which is the music that I connected to. I hate to say but I never cared, it never even occurred to me what Ian Curtis meant. All I know, he was telling my story to me, and it was super powerful.
GW: I understand, I’m not really looking for track by track breakdowns, I think what I’m interested in more so is the process of what it feels like to have written it: how you get into the state to get those lines out of you. For example, where you are now in LA, when you wrote for a week, did you work at night? What puts you in a place where you can write incisively to the level you expect of yourself?
ML: I have written in over a 100 different places in every circumstance you can imagine. I wrote the entire record Whiskey For The Holy Ghost in Motel 6 bathrooms while the rest of the band slept at night. So I can write anywhere.
GW: So for this record, where did you write?
ML: I wrote in my house, my studio. I generally write with my phone, which is bad for my eyes but it’s easier for me to type on my notes than say bring up a word doc in my Mac and do it that way. Although that’s how I did my book. It works when you write songs, those are much smaller chunks of words. I write on the bus, any place. I bring the smallest iPad, my Macbook and phone and that’s all I travel with and all write with. I also have a little portable speaker to listen to the music I write words to. I usually listen to versions with and without words. But if I’m writing the whole song myself then I usually start by writing the vocal map and the chords at the same time, if that makes sense?
GW: So the vocal melody?
ML: Vocal melody and phrasing really. And some of the words. Once I get a word or a line down that would tell me what the next one was going to be. More important than the words is the phrasing and the melody and how it goes with the chord progression. I do the same thing if somebody is handing me a piece of music. I do it with the music already finished.
GW: Towards the middle of this album, there’s some really euphoric moments. Did you have a few lines or melodies that you got excited about and and were telling people about them?
ML: No. I would never tell anybody about anything. I’ve said more to you about songwriting than anybody in ten years. I don’t know, you must have some gift of getting it out of me. Although I don’t [share], I do get a strong feeling when I think I’ve hit on something that I think it is going to be of lasting value to me. By that, I mean, it’s something that I’m not going to mind playing for a few years. It might even be something I don’t mind playing for the rest of my life. That has never happened yet. But I wait for that to happen. Josh Homme once told me, ‘I don’t write a song unless I’m sure going to play it for the rest of my life’. And I said, ‘Riiiight’. And now of course there’s lots of songs that he won’t play for the rest of his life [laughs]. I just had lunch with him yesterday so I can bust his balls.
But yeah, that’s a false paradigm, unless you are Billy Joel and you write the shittiest music of all time, which he does; and you're the lowest common denominator in music, which he is; and you’re only playing for money, which he does. Then you can, then every song is one you can play forever because that’s your point. Not making art, it’s just writing shitty music like Billy Joel. Did I get the Billy Joel thing across yet?
GW: Yeah [laughs] I think Billy Joel’s pretty shit. But I barely pay him attention. I’ve always been interested in music that’s found through recommendations from people’s work I already like. So Kurt Cobain’s biography was a big influence for me. And from reading interviews with you I’ve found Throbbing Gristle, Coil and Lightning Hopkins. I’m aware of them but going to give them more time.
ML: You kidding me!? I mentioned Lighting Hopkins in the same sentence with Coil and Throbbing Gristle! Yeah my big influences are Coil, Throbbing Gristle, and Lighting Hopkins… [laughs]
GW: They were different interviews.
ML: I wish you had let me believe that I had somehow got them in the same sentence. Lightning Hopkins is a wild card. Ah that made my day.
GW: I’d like to ask about the setlist. You went around the States with the Stitch It Up tour and didn’t play anything from the new album apart from that track. Is the next tour going to be the live debut for all this material? And how has it been to get it together with the band?
ML: Yeah it is. The only reason that tour happened is because the record was supposed to be out in May and only the US got that memo so my US booking agent booked me a tour. Meanwhile, my ex-booking agent in the UK put a year-long moratorium on booking me any shows in Europe. The one area of the world where I normally make my living. My new agent immediately booked me a great tour for the fall so it’s all good. I had been with my previous agent 17 years and although I love him dearly it was obviously time to move on. It almost bankrupted me and got that record pushed from May to October. So in order to give this American tour a reason to exist because — it was already booked — they just put out ‘Stitch It Up’ as a single and we did the Stitch It Up tour
GW: Is your wife [Shelley Brien] in the band now?
ML: My wife first started singing with me 15 years ago. She is not on a lot of my records. She worked in TV for a long time and finally decided to give that up and she is a wizard with a synth, using the drum machines and taught herself the tools and learned in six months what I learned in 35 years. Yeah she adds a lot. I also have a new drummer.
If I take the whole band, which is half Belgian and half American; six people including me, it’s pricey, you know. So a lot of times in the off years when I don’t have a record we go out with stripped-down shows, which is me and a guitarist, or me and my guitarist and my wife. And we've toured like that all over the world as well. We’ve probably done more shows as just a duo than I have even with the band.
GW: I think I saw you do that in Manchester with Nick Oliveri.
ML: The great thing about Nicholas, every time we would get up, he would be like, ‘Come on, I’ve booked us a show in a record store’. We’d have a show that day but first have to do half a day in a record store. But he was great. I love Nick so much. That was the last one. It was a lot of fun doing shows with him. He is one of a kind.
GW: I had a single of his that I loved [solo band Mondo Generator]. He opened for you as well. That was cool to see.
ML: He also took over from... my wife actually started.... I had made a record that had a bunch of duets with my ex-wife and a couple with PJ Harvey; and they needed somebody to sing on that tour, and my guitar player at the time said, ‘My girlfriend is a good singer’. And that was his folly and my bounty, I guess. That’s how I met my wife. It didn’t end well. Luckily, I had Nick out there as my opening band so he just stepped right in and became my guitar player when I had to send that guy home.
He got her a job singing with me, one thing led to another and things fell apart band wise and their relationship wise. But luckily I had Nick Oliveri waiting in the wings to play rhythm guitar when I had to send the guitar player back to the States.
GW: You spoke before on the podcast about being 40 years old, it being a dark time for you. On the surface, you had just released what I think is your best record since Whiskey and I was quite jarred to hear that. I'm curious what about that year was difficult. It reflects a few times in your career, you have extreme highs and then a low. So what happened at age 40?
ML: That was 2004, 2005. I had a near death experience and I was in a coma for 10 days. And when I came out of it, music, which had been my entire life’s pursuit, and my saviour; basically my life just revolved around music; everything good thing about my life was brought on by music. And when I came out of that coma, I no longer felt music. Forget about like singing, writing or playing music; I didn’t even want to listen to any music. Radio, records I had previously loved, childhood favourites, it didn't matter… I just couldn’t listen to music. Then, I thought this is kind of scary, I’m going to have to find another way to make a living. Eventually, Greg Dulli forced me to go out on the road with him as a guest singer, kind of like I had done with the Queens, for a long time. Also, around that time, I had an offer to write a record with Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian so I did that as well. And it was those two things. Even though I gotta say the first six months of touring and singing, I still wasn’t feeling it, it had just left me. I hoped it would come back at some point and eventually it did. It took me eight years of doing other things and not making my own record before it finally came back. A pretty long stretch.
GW: With Isobel Campbell I love the song ‘Deus Ibi Est’. That’s a cracking song. I tried to listen to the album but used to listen to that song on repeat then do something else.
ML: Then take a shit on the rest of the record and throw it out of the window?
GW: No, no.
GW: It was the days of Limewire.
ML: I went crazy on Limewire. Then I found out you could actually get porn, too. Oh my god, I was in hog heaven stealing music and porn until I realised that, hey wait a minute you’re stealing it yourself and someday this is going to come back to bite you hard in the arse. And here I am aged 54 where nobody buys records.
GW: So you got a book deal?
ML: Yeah [laughs]
GW: I’m quite excited. It needs to be literature, you said. I’m quite excited to see how it turns out.
ML: Hopefully you'll agree. Who am I to say what’s literature and what isn’t. I’ve never written a hook before – you know there’s a lyric book and another book that came out on Pomona Books, it’s part of a series called Sleevenotes, and different songwriters talk about their favourite songs and the process of making them. I did one of those. But I have read quite a few books so I know the difference between a shitty rock biography and Jim Carroll. I shot for Patti Smith, Jim Caroll and you know other people whose writing I have appreciated and have gotten through who had nothing to do music.
GW: You mean literature had a profound effect in the way Joy Division had done for you? Any literature that had a profound effect of you you can recommend?
ML: Yeah there is, somehow at some point somebody gave me a Penguin book of Poetry and it had poems by some of the masters from all over the world. Some were alive at the time, others not. I came across Robert Lowells’ For The Union Dead, and even though it had nothing to do with my experience it spoke to me somehow. Then I had a book called Imitations by him, which was a title I ripped off for one of my records. He was a poet from New England. He wrote a book also called Imitations that was his version of poetry throughout the ages that he had loved and it wasn't like him translating the poetry, it was like him doing his version of these poems and there's a huge difference. It’s really powerful. It’s one of my favourite books. I was also into beat writers: Ginsberg, Burroughs. Harold Morris was a big deal to me, he wrote this crazy biography that was really expansive. He had known all these people from all these different walks of life. So that; Verlaine; the kind of stuff you read when you’re a teenager. I was told by my high school teacher that I was failing her class but she was very proud of me because I was the only male she had ever had that had chosen Sylvia Plath as the subject for the final paper, which of course I flunked.
GW: Cool, I’ll check it out. I read in different directions. I got really inspired by the Celestine Prophecy when I was about 18.
ML: Oh wow, damn.
GW: Have you read it?
ML: No but I had a girlfriend who did and it changed her life. In fact I still don’t know.. it’s a sort of mystical thing. It’s spirituality?
GW: To me I was quite into the action side of it. People can read it in different ways. It was so long ago, like 2007. I can’t remember, it was quite intense and made you think about the prospects of consciousness differently. What did she say about it?
ML: This was a woman, my first date with her... She was an art student and told me, ‘I can read people’s minds’. And I thought to myself, ‘We will see if you can baby... go ahead and read my mind’. I mean, I didn’t say it like that. But I was like, ‘Oh yeah, what do I think?’
She was like, ‘I don't think about it anymore because it scares me what people are thinking’. Fast forward nine months, I’m laying in bed, she’s asleep and I have terrible insomnia and my mind drifts back to this very specific thing that I had done whilst I was with her that she would have been very unhappy about. Whilst I was wistfully going over my remembrance of this incident, she suddenly woke up and said, ‘Oh baby, I just had the worst dream’. I said, ‘Well what was it?’ And she said, ‘You were with blah blah blah doing blah blah blah with blah blah blah’. And, dude, I took a shock out of my hands like I was Angus Young on the cover of Powerage. It was just the most insane feeling and I just said, ‘Oh that’s weird, go back to sleep’. She read my mind in my sleep. This is the same woman that was into the Celestine Prophecy. After that point, there was a definite shift in our relationship where I couldn’t think the things I wanted to think because I was afraid she would. So to specifically read my mind while I was asleep told me she had a gift that was beyond some normal intuitive nature.
GW: You have had some weird experiences yourself. I agree with you from a comment in an earlier interview about the problem with organised religion. I found it interesting that you said a higher power can intervene with certain men and you felt something similar.
ML: Well they say a man finds God when he has nothing else to find. Although I’m sort of loath to call my interpretation of what it is; and by the way, it’s nothing tangible, it’s nothing I could ever describe to you. This force I feel somehow has a handle on things in this world, and in many others I'm sure. But I choose to call it God. And I had one of those epiphanies at a point in my life where I spoke out loud, something that was not typical for me at all, and it was the sheer desperation, and the moment I said it, I had the wish granted. That’s about the only thing I can say about it. It was the most profound experience of my life and I have never doubted for one moment since then that there is a power that can intervene with some men.
GW: When was that?
ML: Around 1997. That would have been when I was 32, in case you're keeping track of the Hindu calendars that my wife is.
GW: 1997 was a turning point for you... you were homeless, right? In Seattle?
ML: I was homeless wherever I went. That’s where I was homeless the most.
GW: You said Courtney Love left something? You went from 15,000 cap arenas to not finding the thread with your musical career. How did you get so far removed from one thing you were really high up in? I’m aware you were using heroin and that can take over a life. I guess there’s an aspect of that? Would you be able to describe that journey from 96 to 98?
ML: That started happening in the 70s or whenever I was a 12-year-old kid. I was somebody who was loaded every day from his entire teenage years into his adulthood. So it wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was something over decades came to fruition. And by the way, 15,000 cap places!? If you’re saying 1,500 cap and not 15,000 you might be correct
GW: You did though.
ML: The only time we played big shows was as an opener.
GW: They still count.
ML: Well they do but you get on those tours when you share the same management as Metallica. That’s how it happened for us and it’s the way it still works in music.
I lived a parallel life. Yes, I was making music when I could and I was able to participate in all of that but at the same time most of my time and energy was spent making, selling, buying drugs. And finding ways and means to do more. That was really what took up most of my time. So it wasn’t like one or the other. They happened at the same time. And in those years, it started when I was a young kid. It was just the way I was…
GW: It just got to the point where there was a break in the music cycle. What was happening?
ML: It came to a point where I didn’t have anywhere to go. I was in trouble with the law. I was in trouble with them from a young kid until my 40s. I was in trouble with the law and some other people who were more dangerous than the law for something I had done. It came to the point I didn’t have any choice but to leave Seattle. And Courney Love had provided me this out by giving me some literature on a programme that helped musicians with drug problems. When I had nowhere to go I remembered that and went and asked what was that thing, and within eight hours I was on a plane to some place sunnier.
GW: Well, it can’t have been easy, like, ‘now I’m going to the doctor’ vibes.
ML: It’s hard unless you’re sleeping in the rain under a carpet you fished out of the dumpster and eating soup at 6 in the morning after you have to sit through candled mass, which for me I’d rather shoot myself than do that again. But when you’re starving and that’s the only food you’re going to get that day you would go through it. It wasn’t a hard decision to make, believe me.
GW: Sounds to me like you’re at a great place right now. I think people will lose their shit when they hear the new album. I think it's my favourite since Bubblegum.
ML: What!? You didn’t hear Blues Funeral motherfucker. That’s my best record !” [laughs]
GW: Alright, I’ll give it another go.
ML: If you don’t listen to anything but Blues Funeral I don’t give a shit. [laughs]
GW: It coming eight years after rediscovering your feeling for music, it must have been quite a thrill?
ML: It was. The thing that was not quite a thrill was: every record that I had started before then I had this canvas bag filled with cassette demos of songs. I was always working on bits of pieces of songs, full songs, songs that didn't work for one record and I would use for another one. Every time I would start a record, I would go into that canvas bag and I would listen to these 120 minute long cassette tapes and would find things that didn’t make sense when I first made them but now they did. Some of my best songs came out of that bag. But when I went to make Blues Funeral, I went into that bag and every single one of those tapes had been demagnetised so I spent three days listening to blank tapes. And realising with horror that you know, basically my life's homework didn’t exist anymore. By the way, immediately it freed me to not give a damn and that’s why I love Blues Funeral so much. It was also the first record where I recorded just the number of songs I needed for the record. And to me it is as perfect of a record as I will hope to make.
GW: I will give it another run through.
ML: It’s my favourite record and I suggest it become yours as well.
GW: I like your enthusiasm for it, I will check it again. And I’m going to go play Blues Funeral and Lightning Hopkins.
ML: This is what you’ll do: Coil, Lighting Hopkins, Throbbing Gristle and follow it up by Blues Funeral and you’ll have the best day. [laughs]
Thanks for listening to me bullshit. Been nice talking to you. I hope we get to meet in person someday.
GW: I’ll try and make the London date.
ML: And you must introduce yourself as this man I’ve been talking to because it’s been a pleasure.