Mark Lanegan is almost 50. He is also about to release a new album, titled Phantom Radio. It will be the ninth under his own name, but combine it with the collaborative albums he’s made, be it with Isobel Campbell, or Duke Garwood, or as 50 per cent of the Gutter Twins (his ongoing partnership with Greg Dulli), or his legendary first band the Screaming Trees, then the total is nearer 20. Then there’s his guest spots with Queens Of The Stone Age, and, before then, Mad Season, the mid-‘90s Seattle supergroup that featured members of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees. And that’s before we count his many occasional or one-off collaborations, as the singer on records by the varied likes of UNKLE, Martina-Topley Bird, Moby, Soulsavers, Melissa Auf der Maur and Creature With The Atom Brain.
In total, Mark Lanegan has made close to 50 records. Fifty years, 50 records. What has this life taught him?
He smiles broadly and gives a chuckle. “That there’s more to life than writing songs every day.”
“I’ve got better at distilling what makes a successful song for me and what doesn’t. I think I’ve become more discerning. But,” he laughs, “less active at the same time. It’s a nice balance to strike when you’re 50! I don’t get as crazy about it when I was younger. It was a lot harder, when I was younger, to write songs.”
Mark’s younger days were crazy by any definition. A troubled kid in the small Washington State farm town of Ellensburg – in and out of jail for theft and drug-dealing – at age 20 a doctor told him he would be dead by 30 unless he addressed his alcohol intake. Lanegan would subsequently joke that heroin therefore saved his life. He saw more violence in the Screaming Trees than in any correctional institution: the band he joined in 1984 whirled around a vortex of sibling strife as its songwriting brothers punched their way through a succession of progressively more powerful albums, until 1992’s Sweet Oblivion brought the Trees a modicum of commercial success to match the respect they had earned among Seattle scene peers like Nirvana.
Bubblegum (2004) saw Lanegan emerge from the wreckage of the Screaming Trees and his on-off struggles with addiction to create a new version of the blues: part-acoustic, part-electro-rooted contexts mostly produced by Alain Johannes, with a floating cast of helpers, some illustrious (Josh Homme; PJ Harvey) others not. Seven years of collaboration followed before Lanegan, now a paragon of clean living, delivered the towering Blues Funeral, its Krautrock curlicues adding new textures to his molasses-thick doom canvas.
And now Phantom Radio builds on the same foundations: produced by Alain Johannes, and that voice intoning deep truths hewn from the bleakest realm.