Whether fronting a band, performing solo, or pairing with a collaborator, Mark Lanegan’s voice can be counted on to add a little weight to the proceedings. The seriousness isn’t an act by a long shot, either. Interviewing Lanegan is like trying to have a deep conversation with Hellboy. Not Ron Perlman, the actor who plays him, but the actual phlegmatic, taciturn, constantly hungry, gravelly voiced demon. Lanegan tends to give one-sentence answers and makes no bones about questions that he considers normal journalistic bullshit. He also apparently likes crunchy food, which he consumed between giving answers and erupting in throaty coughs. We spoke over the phone, and I never asked Lanegan exactly what he was eating — it took enough guts to ask him whether the Screaming Trees would ever get back together.
Tell me something exciting about Sunday at Devil Dirt, which you recorded with Isobel Campbell.
Dude, I don’t know how to answer a question like that. The album is a guy singing and a girl singing. It’s nothing more, nothing less. If you’re into that sort of thing, then buy the album. If not, then buy something else.
How did you end up collaborating with Isobel Campbell in the first place?
She sent me some songs in the mail and asked if I wanted to sing them. I did.
Was there anything different this time around?
I was actually in the same room with Isobel this time. That was a different experience than the first time.
Do you approach singing your own songs differently than songs written by someone else?
I just try to find my place in the song and get comfortable singing it. It’s something that just happens naturally. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I wish there was something magical to tell you about. There’s not. You go in and sing the song. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve been lucky enough to have it work more often than not.
In addition to fronting two bands, you’ve also worked with Campbell and Greg Dulli. Which collaboration worked the best for you?
You can’t really compare the experiences. It’s like apples and oranges. I will say that working with Greg and Isobel has been great, but each of them has their own good points. The important thing is that it’s easy to do. After I finished up with Screaming Trees, I said I wasn’t going to do anything that wasn’t easy for me.
Is there a chance that you’ll call the Conners up and get the old band back together?
They are both good guys. I love those guys and played music with them for fifteen years. I think that whatever that band had to say was said, and the process got to be too grueling. Does that mean that if a promoter called me up and offered me a million dollars for a reunion concert, that I wouldn’t take it? No. But a promoter isn’t going to call with that kind of offer, so I don’t have to worry about it. But since I was in that band, there will always be that question out there.
Will you ever get out from under being part of the grunge movement and Seattle sound?
I can’t change what I’ve done. I don’t think I would if I had the chance. Elsewhere around the world I’m better known for my work on other projects. In Europe they know me for my work with Isobel and an album I did with Soulsavers. I don’t consider myself a part of the Seattle thing. That became mainstream really quickly, and anytime anything in my career has headed anywhere near the mainstream, I’ve taken a hard left. There were places where I could have gone all in, but I wasn’t ready to do that kind of thing. I’m pretty lucky to have worked as long as I have in this business.
You don’t have any regrets, then?
I always consider myself to be a pretty good breakfast cook that ended up as a singer. If you told me when I started in 1984 that I would still be singing in 2008, let alone have somebody asking me about it, I would have laughed. I’m sure there are things I missed somewhere along the line, but I don’t think about it. When I wanted to make music the opportunity has been there. There were times when I didn’t want to make music and I did other things.
What other things have you done?
I worked construction. I was painting houses for a while. The music thing wasn’t happening. I did something else.
Did anybody know that you were a musician?
Nobody cared. There was a job to be done.
Your artistic persona seems pretty intense. Do you ever just kick back and bowl or something?
I do normal shit. I spend time with family and friends. I’ve bowled on occasion. I listen to a lot of music. I follow basketball pretty closely. I have season tickets for the Clippers, which is the only economically feasible way to follow the sport in my town.
What do you think about the Sonics heading to Oklahoma City?
It’s a bummer, man. That was my team, you know, the one that I followed. It sucks that they’re gone. There’s no hard feelings, though. You can’t be angry that a city wants to have a team, you know.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re kicking back?
I listen to anything but the kind of music that I play. I need something other than all that darkness. There are lots of things, you know?
Are we talking the Carpenters?
No. I just can’t think of specifics without having my iPod out in front of me. I just sort of plug in and let in go. Definitely not the Carpenters, though: It doesn’t get any darker than that.