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Mark Lanegan’s Memoir Gets to the Heart of a “Breakfast Cook Who Fell Into Singing”

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It’s a relief to find that Mark Lanegan is quick with a laugh or a self-deprecating joke over the phone, because his new memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, paints an often dark and angry portrait of the musician who first made his name with the Screaming Trees, then later found new audiences with Queens of the Stone Age, numerous collaborations, and an acclaimed solo career. The book unsparingly covers Lanegan’s upbringing and the Screaming Trees years, and winds down when he kicked heroin as the Trees dissolved in 2000.

Sing Backwards and Weep is filled with tales of famous friends from the Pacific Northwest rock scene, many of them fallen to the same demons Lanegan confronted, along with recollections of violent confrontations (both on and offstage), the endless grind a serious drug addiction requires, and the bursts of joy that musical invention can inspire. It arrives alongside Straight Songs of Sorrow, a new album inspired by the process of writing the memoir.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Lanegan in 2020, which finds him in a good place in his career and in his mind, even if people in airports have started mistaking him for Will Ferrell instead of Jim Morrison. Over an hour-long conversation, the self-described “breakfast cook who fell into singing” talked about letting the anger go, how inspiring words from Anthony Bourdain encouraged him to move forward with the book, and his decades-old feud that seemingly won’t die.

AllMusic: Did any other rock memoirs inform what you did or didn’t want to do with yours?

Mark Lanegan: The last book I read that was a rock bio was John Phillips‘ in the ’80s. He certainly talked about doing drugs a lot, quite a bit more than I did in my book, which is surprising, because I talk quite a lot about it. I read Randy Blythe‘s book, which is not really a rock biography, it’s something way more than that. But that was it, I didn’t read anybody else’s. I tried to read Richard Hell‘s book in the early 2000s, because I liked him a lot, but instead it was boring as fuck. I thought, “Richard Hell, come on, man.” I was a huge Richard Hell fan, and I couldn’t believe how it had no information I wanted to know, nothing exciting, just boring. It didn’t stop me from liking his music, though. So I’ve read three. Randy’s blew the other two out of the water.

AllMusic: Did you have any false starts when it came to deciding on the tone and how much to reveal?

Lanegan: I didn’t even want to do it. I was first approached in the early 2000s to do a book, and I remember thinking, “I’m only 33, what do I have to talk about?” But as it turns out, I’m just talking about the same period of time anyways, so I might as well have done it then. But I had to have 25 years of separation from that debacle to now to where I could actually talk about it.

Tony Bourdain was a friend of mine, and he believed that I should do it. He said, “You can make the type of book that somebody who doesn’t know anything about rock music or Seattle or any of that shit would find interesting,” like how people who didn’t work in a kitchen could find Kitchen Confidential interesting, I could do the same thing. I didn’t believe him, but he said to just take one story and write it as though it were a prologue to the book and to send it to him, and he’d tell me if I could do it. So I sent it to him and he wrote back, “You’re doing it.”

AllMusic: And at that point it was no longer an option.

Lanegan: It was not an option. Tony was a real champion of my work, an enthusiast. I wasn’t going to say no if he said I should do it, I’d at least give it a try. But it seemed like climbing Mount Everest. I didn’t wear a safety suit, I didn’t understand what I was getting into or what I was going to remember or any of that stuff, because I’d put it away, I’d forgotten it, and that’s how I survived. I don’t look back too often, and I also don’t look forward too often. I’ve found that to be the way I stay happiest, if I stay in the here and now. But you have to look backwards when you’re writing a memoir, and it was not the experience that I would have chosen. [laughs]

AllMusic: I was impressed by the level of detail, considering how loaded you were for a good chunk of the time covered in the book.

Lanegan: You may notice that the stories are all me shitting on somebody or somebody shitting on me. I have a tendency to remember the pain that I’ve caused myself and the pain that I’ve caused others, and it’s something I don’t forget very easily. Especially the pain I’ve caused myself, and there’s plenty of that. Usually there’s some humor to that, at least I find some on it, and I try to focus on that. But of course, during that time frame, a lot of bad things happened to people I cared deeply for, and those are also things you don’t forget, when your closest friends die in their 20s and early 30s, you don’t forget the surroundings and what was happening at the time and how it went down.

AllMusic: There’s a lot of anger and vindictiveness in there, is that still how you feel?

Lanegan: Hell no, you can’t hold onto that stuff. Someone said that’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. I’m writing a book from the viewpoint of where I was at that time, so certainly I dug many, many people’s graves in my mind back then, and real or imagined, I had a ton of enemies, mostly imagined. [laughs] But I don’t carry any of it around today. I find Liam Gallagher to be humorous whenever I see him on TV or Twitter. I was writing it from the standpoint of my feelings at the time, not now as a 55-year-old man.

AllMusic: I loved the Liam Gallagher chapter [detailing a conflict between the two when Screaming Trees supported Oasis in 1996], and I believed every word of it.

Lanegan: Whenever you write a book, the publisher gets a lawyer to assess the risk of slander or court action that could come from what’s in the book. The best part about the Gallagher thing was there was no risk there, because no matter what I said about him, his reputation is such and he’s behaved in such a way so many times that he could never prove in court that he didn’t act like that. [laughs] And he did act like that, he was a maniac.

AllMusic: The Screaming Trees chapters really illustrated what a toxic situation that band was. I felt like that was you finally getting it out of your system so you never had to answer the reunion question again.

Lanegan: Only dumbasses or naive fans would still ask me about it after all this time, and I’m not going to give them a bunch of shit unless they start yelling for Screaming Trees songs during a show. That happens maybe once a tour, and anyone who’s heard me talk to the audience after that’s happened never wants to say anything to me again. I can’t say that they’ll never reunite, but I can say with certainty that it will not involve me if they do.

AllMusic: That said, you write so passionately about your appreciation for musicians like Jeffrey Lee Pierce [of the Gun Club]. Did your own enthusiasm for his music help you understand how to engage with people who told you how important your music was to them?

Lanegan: It took me a really long time to not be an asshole to anybody who was a fan. While I was in Screaming Trees, except for the last two records, if they started playing the music someplace I was, I would leave. Really early on, in my early 20s, I didn’t understand when someone would come up and say, “Other Worlds is the greatest record ever.” The first six Trees records are probably amongst the six worst records of all time, anyway. So I’d always be like, “Are you kidding?” I was that kind of jerk.

I couldn’t see it through the prism of anything other than my own discomfort, and that’s to my shame, because music means different things to everybody. Now, people come up and tell me they love a Screaming Trees record, and I say, “Thank you very much.” I probably talked to like two fans during the entire ’90s, it wasn’t until I started going out to sign stuff after shows that I really started meeting people every day and hearing their stories, and some of these people felt these songs deeply, maybe their father was a huge fan and he had passed away, there’s a serious emotional thing that happens when someone meets me, and I had to realize that. It took me a long time to really reconcile that, because I’m just a fucking nobody, I’m a breakfast cook who fell into singing.

AllMusic: After you got clean, were there any relationships you were surprised that you were able to repair?

Lanegan: Mike Johnson was my guitar player when I made my first solo record, which was about two months after l learned my first chord. He was a friend of mine from Eugene, Oregon, and I talked him into coming up to Seattle and putting intros and middle sections and outros on my songs. On the second record, I kind of lost my mind, I was on tour with the Trees a lot, taking four years to get it done, and halfway through he stopped showing up. I thought, “This guy will never talk to me again.”

But in 2013 or so I decided to make a second covers record, and to make it with the guys who made the first one, and I decided I wanted to make it in Seattle. I talked Mike Johnson into coming over and staying in Seattle and playing on that record with me, and when I was rolling through France he got up on stage with me. He was also the best man at my first wedding, and we were pretty close friends. Most everyone else either couldn’t find me to kill me and disappeared, or just let me go. The friends of mine that I had, the ones I had burned and made amends with, they were great in that way, nobody told me, “Fuck you, I don’t want to hear your apology.” But there’s still time, it could still happen.

AllMusic: Your past few records have leaned in a more electronic direction. Were you initially hesitant to embrace that sound?

Lanegan: When I was 12 years old, my father was a teacher and was working at a school that was closing down. Somebody found a box of records somewhere, and the box had a John Lee Hooker record, a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, and Autobahn by Kraftwerk, and those three records pointed me in the direction I was going to go for the rest of my life.

That was my idea for Field Songs the whole way, synthesizers and drum machines, but I’d spent so much money that I needed two grand extra or something, and Sub Pop was like, “No.” So my “electronic record” ended up being Chris Goss playing two minutes of synthesizer on one song, and that was it. [laughs] But I was always into that kind of music. After I did all my collaboration records, I came back to Alain Johannes and said, “We’re going to make these records the way I envisioned them,” and he’s the first and only guy I’ve ever met who can articulate my vision musically. Alain is one of the real genius musicians of our time, without a doubt. Real musicians revere him, because he’s the real deal.

AllMusic: I’ve also heard that about Hal Willner, who passed away recently.

Lanegan: Hal Willner did something nobody else had ever done. In 2010 or so he was doing a record with Marianne Faithfull, and he called and said, “Hey, do you mind if we cover this song you and Greg Dulli wrote?” We were like, “What? Please do.” You don’t have to ask somebody to do that, you just file the paperwork and make sure the publishing goes where it goes. It’s almost unheard of, but he did call but asked if we wouldn’t mind. Hal, what a guy.

And she did an amazing version, and later I wrote songs with her on her latest record. My relationship with her was all email, but they were long, beautiful, amazing emails. At one point I was in the middle of something and she asked me if I could do another one, but I just didn’t have time, and to say no to Marianne Faithfull was very, very hard to do. She sent me three emails, not to talk me into it, but just saying how glad she was that I had work and how blessed she was to have worked with me just the once. Who does that? Nobody. I just thought, “Wow, what a wonderful woman,” and she really is.

AllMusic: Are you going to start sending emails like that now?

Lanegan: No, I usually send accidental ones. I’ll brutally rip somebody apart and then find out I sent it to the wrong person. [laughs]



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