It was Mark Lanegan’s music that drew Anthony Bourdain to Seattle in the first place. So it’s only natural that we asked another of Bourdain’s favorite music heads, Mike Ruffino (Parts Unknown composer and author of the epic punk memoir “Adios, Motherf***er: A Gentleman’s Progress Through Rock and Roll)” to interview Lanegan about life, Los Angeles, and touring. Here’s their phone conversation, from the road in Europe, in full, with tunes from the episode.
Mike Ruffino: You’re in Europe.
Mark Lanegan: Yeah. Italy, a hotel, somewhere near Venice. Just passing through, coming from Switzerland, someplace that started with a “K”. Maybe. I really don’t know where I was yesterday.
Ruffino: That happens.
Lanegan: It does. I’m on the way to Croatia, I know that.
Ruffino: Home is Los Angeles now, right? It’s a strange place. You like it?
Lanegan: I love it. The weather suits me. I’ve had enough of grey and rain—all that gloom. I’ve been there about 20 years now. I can’t think of another place in the country I’d rather be living.
Ruffino: Me neither. No sense putting up with miserable weather if you don’t have to. In the acknowledgments for your book [I Am the Wolf] you thank Falling James. Well-known around L.A. for his music writing, but not for [his former band] the Leaving Trains, this great band. He doesn’t play at all anymore, far as I know.
Lanegan: Absolutely. He was a huge influence on me. Those albums were so good. He played not too long ago. Couple of shows, I think—
Ruffino: What? Sh*t.
Lanegan: Yeah. I would have loved to have seen that. He emailed me to let me know, but I was away, I just couldn’t make it. It’s criminal, how underrated that band is.
Ruffino: Originally, you’re from Washington state. Farm country?
Lanegan: East Washington, yeah. Ellensburg—a couple hours from Seattle. Interesting fact: Washington state is the only place that has all of the world’s ecosystems represented. Alpine, prairies, estuaries, wetlands, grasslands, coniferous forest, rainforest, beaches, marine habitats—all of ‘em. True fact.
Ruffino: Desert? What’s the Washington desert like?
Lanegan: High desert, low desert, got it all. It’s like California, minus the cactus.
Ruffino: So, this book—a collection of lyrics from your solo albums and collaborations, plus some autobiographical pages. How’d this come to be?
Lanegan: I asked a friend of mine in publishing how much it would cost to print up a bunch of lyric books, something simple, so he was looking into that and he wound up saying, f*** it, we’ll put it out, but there’s one condition—you’ll have to do some writing. I said, “Ah, come on man, you’re killing me with this.” But it turned out I actually enjoyed it.
Ruffino: In the bit about Gargoyle, you mention that you enjoyed writing the more lighthearted songs here—”Beehive,” “Emperor,” “Old Swan”—because that’s so unusual for you. Where did the lightness come from?
Lanegan: Why the lightness, I can’t say. Whenever I’m writing a piece of music I just do what comes instinctively and let the chips fall.
Ruffino: Have you thought about doing more of that sort of writing?
Lanegan: Tony [Bourdain] has been telling me for years that I should write something—a book, a memoir. But I never had any kind of confidence that I’d be able to do that until now. I’ve been writing a lot lately, trying to write a few pages every day in the hotel.
Ruffino: Are you finding you have to do a lot of actual research on your own life? Fill in the hazy parts and such?
Lanegan: I am. At the moment, I’m doing a lot of emailing [to] old friends. Asking whether certain things really happened, or how something happened—whether it happened the way I remember it, which I find pretty often is a kind of fantastical version. But you know, you want to get it right.
Ruffino: Definitely … Has getting into it changed your sense of how you got to where you are? Your perceptions about the early years, coming up in Seattle, where you were in that whole thing?
Lanegan: No, it hasn’t. I never really thought about that at the time, or since. My memories of that time range from bittersweet to painful. I’m so immersed in the minutiae of my own life at the time, I’m not even close to thinking about the big picture.
Ruffino: What were the first shows that had an impact on you?
Lanegan: Our second show ever was opening for northwest legend Greg Sage and the Wipers. That is still probably the biggest thrill I’ve had in music.
Ruffino: Years before Seattle became “the New Liverpool” Screaming Trees had put out several albums on SST [Records], along with fIREHOSE, Dinosaur, Jr., and Sonic Youth—a peak era [of music]—then signed with a major [label]. Exciting, triumphant, moment, for sure. But then, it’s ’89, ’90—[it’s not] not hard to imagine you’d suddenly find yourself in a studio with a [talent scout] from the Michael Jackson, Winger, and Miami Sound Machine program going, “We’re not hearing a single” [and] spit-balling opening slots for hair bands, or Milli Vanilli.
Because what else was there at [Screaming Trees’] level? However manufactured the Seattle hype was, at least a post-Nevermind (Nirvana’s hit album) record executive had some context for what he was looking at.
Lanegan: I was always surprised when anyone liked what we were doing. It’s true that when we first signed with Epic they didn’t really have a reference point for what we did. I remember someone at the label comparing us to the Psychedelic Furs and Midnight Oil and at the same time including our tunes on hair metal compilations. So yeah, it was weird.
Ruffino: I wonder about the regional thing. Increasingly, technology lets you leapfrog most of the formative circumstantial stuff—weather, a certain studio or producer everyone could afford, availability of drugs, industrial noise pollution, geographic accessibility. Not that there aren’t local scenes, but music that naturally, necessarily sounds like the place it’s from seems like a thing of the past.
Lanegan: I still don’t really pay attention to what other people are doing. And sometimes I don’t even know where I am, anyway. Whatever anybody wants to do, more power to ‘em. Maybe there are these happening places—I’m sure there are people all over doing something really interesting I’ve never heard of. Whatever the great new groundbreaking thing is that’s going on, I probably don’t know it.
Ruffino: What do you like about touring in Europe, currently?
Lanegan: Best thing about touring Europe right now is it’s not [a] sh*tshow [like] the States.