For more than 20 years, Mark Lanegan has drawn inspiration from the darker side of human nature, whether fronting the psychedelic rock band Screaming Trees; crafting bleak, soulful solo albums; or singing with Queens of the Stone Age on their last two records. So it's no surprise that Lanegan hit a creative peak with his new record, Bubblegum, last Christmas, at a time when he was feeling pretty low.
After spending 18 months sharing laughs and jamming in California, North Carolina and Texas with PJ Harvey, dudes from Queens of the Stone Age, ex-Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, ex-Guns N' Roses members Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin and others, Lanegan was alone in the studio, stressed out and unsure where to go with the record.
"Everyone had deserted me to go home to be with their families," he recalled. "I decided I had to get it finished right then and there or the momentum would be lost. I kind of lost my mind, because the equipment at the studio all broke down and I was in Joshua Tree [in the California desert], miles away from everything, so I threw a bit of a rock-star fit and stomped around in the cacti for a while. But when things were fixed, I got a lot done."
The ironically titled Bubblegum is a little lighter than Lanegan's previous solo outings, but it's far from sunny, as song titles like "When Your Number Is Up," "Methamphetamine Blues" and "Morning Glory Wine" suggest. Musically, the disc is a hodgepodge of dusky dirges, gloomy country-folk numbers, keyboard ballads and staggering blues romps. But whatever the musical mood, Lanegan's vibrato-laden baritone resonates with the too-depressed-to-get-out-of-bed ache of someone who has loved and lost again and again.
"I think that kind of darkness will always be one aspect of my personality, but not the whole thing," he said. "In real life, I'm far more lighthearted than I come across on the records. I like to stand in the light and enjoy myself, but I do frequently, unconsciously, go back to [dark] places when it comes to writing songs."
There was a time when Lanegan sought comfort in his despair. He was moody and morose, fell into drug abuse and was arrested several times. Now, however, he saves his volatility and self-destructive expression for his records. "I think I've just matured over the years," he said. "The guys who spend their time brooding in their younger years either lighten up or go away. You just realize that you don't know everything there is to know. The older I get the less I know, and that's a good thing. When I was young, I knew everything, and everything wasn't necessarily good."
Working with a diverse assortment of guest musicians helped make the creation of Bubblegum more enjoyable for Lanegan than his other solo albums had been. One highlight was having McKagan and Stradlin sing backup on "Strange Religion."
"It was like having Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders both singing on your song," Lanegan said. "They looked at the words once and did it, and it was perfect. Then they spent a couple hours telling stories."
Working with PJ Harvey was just as rewarding. "That was like a dream come true," he said. "She came in with 20 ideas, where usually somebody might have one. And all her ideas were great, and she just did them bang, bang, bang. She was totally focused."
Lanegan also dug working with his former Queens bandmates — guitarists Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen and bassist Nick Oliveri — though he abdicated his Queens throne in February to focus on supporting his solo album (see "Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan Leave Queens Of The Stone Age").
Lanegan said he'd hoped to leave the band more than 18 months ago, but promotional opportunities and endless touring kept him roped in. Even so, he has remained close with everyone in the band and contributed to Oliveri's upcoming acoustic solo LP.
"It was always a bit of a tightrope walk for those guys to get along when they lived in such close proximity to each other," Lanegan said. "These are guys who have been friends since they were 12 years old, and they're from different ends of the spectrum. It made for a wonderful creative atmosphere at times, and it definitely made for some ruffled feathers at times."