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A Quietus Interview

Scratch Acidic: Mark Lanegan Interviewed
Jeremy Allen , May 5th, 2020 07:39

Mark Lanegan has written one of the rawest, most talked about memoirs in years, and he has an album out that’s pretty great too. Jeremy Allen calls him in L.A. to find Silicon Valley and the machines conspiring against him in lockdown

The first time I try to call Mark Lanegan he doesn’t pick up. It's evening time in the UK and just after 10am in Los Angeles, where he lives. Having been given two numbers to reach him on, he answers the second time on the alternative number, though I’m met with surprise on the other end. “Oh. I'm sorry, yes, my phone doesn't work,” says a man sounding half asleep. “This is my big phone from the 80s.” I faintly hear Lanegan chuckling and clearing his throat through all the crackles. What follows is a few minutes of “Mark?” “Jeremy?” “Mark?” and little in the way of quality human interaction before the line goes dead. When I try to call him back again, the automated response kicks in, which asks me to leave a message for “Old Scratch”.

The interview is rearranged and my next shot comes the following day and Old Scratch tells me he has a new phone. I’m filled with some trepidation because I’m talking to a man who refers to himself as a ye olde English expression for the devil, and because I’ve just finished reading his brutally frank and frankly brutal memoir Sing Backwards And Weep. I hear the word “brave” bandied about with memoirs a lot these days, but few compare in their candour to Lanegan’s account of his life up to the turn of the 21st century - when he has an epiphany and enters a new phase in his journey. What comes before is an incredible ride, a wild mudslide into the slop of degradation.

Lanegan is doggedly honest about his dishonesty, as he attempts to navigate his way through alcoholism and then heroin addiction and finally crack addiction. He’s a violent, angry, thieving monster at times, and having had to deal with one of these addictions myself, I’m more than aware of what a terrible person you can become and how easy it becomes to justify your behaviour. But, because he’s laying his neck on the line, you can’t help but love him for it. His story is picaresque. In an age where the truth is too often varnished it feels invigorating and a little bit transgressive to be reading something so unashamedly forthright and unflinching. These are the kinds of confessions you’ll hear at a 12-step meeting where you hope your misdemeanours will remain within the four walls among like-minded folk who’ve similarly transgressed and done mad bloody things while under the influence. Lanegan puts it out there for all to see, and I’m glad he has. Hats off!

It’s a down and dirty account but the honesty makes it such a fascinating, and at times hilarious, read. Names aren’t changed to protect the innocent, and some of the misdeeds Lanegan coughs up to are eye-watering to say the least. The writing is sharp too. There’s an account of a mission across the border to Amsterdam as he attempts to score while strung out. It’s paced with beautiful precision and shot through with pathos and farce, a gritty, no holds barred description that had me gnawing at my own fingernails.

The excruciating self-examination that comes with such an endeavour, and the catharsis too, has inspired a new album Straight Songs Of Sorrow, an excellent companion to the autobiography featuring some of his best work for years too. Lanegan is in good form when I speak to him too, and I needn’t have worried that I might end up talking to the devil. He seems to be in a good place these days too, despite the lockdown, at least until I ask him how he’s coping in quarantine. Then - around the 40 minute mark - things take a darker, more conspiratorial turn.

Worse still, there’s an added irritation that our call is being broken up by an intrusive phantom-like signal. At times when he speaks, something will start ringing, psychophonic voices will enter the conversation, ghostly city radio transmissions that only enhance the cloak and dagger atmosphere: “I was planning on using the lockdown to do a lot of recording but when I started to record, I don't know why, but I started looking through my Pro Tools and I came across some strange looking folders that said FB... something something…” he confides. “Then I started looking into the third party agreements - you know, the licenses, and I found that the FB stood for Facebook. I try not to get involved… Someone started a page for me, I think it was an ex-manager or something, but I don't go on it. I've just always felt there was something to mistrust there. I came across this third party license in my Pro Tools and as soon as I clicked it open it turned into Mongolian or Arabic or Chinese, and that intrigued me even more…”

Langegan starts leafing through a 500-odd page agreement, the type most people click on immediately to make them go away. “It said, ‘whatever you make is your own property’, which was good news to me because I'd made several records with Pro Tools and my Mac, but then it said, ‘unless at any time you store any of it on our servers, then it becomes in perpetuity the property of Facebook, royalty free, to use however we see fit, to change in any way etc…’ Basically it said they owned anything that was made that had been put on their servers for any amount of time. The minute I started talking about it on this thing-” Suddenly, Lanegan is replaced by the noise of interference and what sounds like someone bellowing into a walkie talkie. “ stuff suddenly stopped working in real time. It was the strangest experience I've ever had. It was as though I was being surveilled, and that I had found something that they didn't want me to find…”

I involuntarily let out the words, “Jesus Christ”.

“I know it sounds crazy but I kept looking and I found some folders that were marked ‘public’, and they were unreleased, unmixed songs of a band my wife and I have, and apparently…” the ghostly voices redact much of the next sentence “...they can take that stuff over.”

Langegan tells me it’s a school boy error for musicians to record in Pro Tools and be hooked up to the wifi, as intellectual property can be siphoned away. “So Facebook is in the blatant business of data stealing. And I've woken up in the middle of the night and seen my phone updating and I've had everything turned off. So in other words…” bzzzz crackle pyiiioooooo “ happened by them doing it on purpose and that scared me. The streaming and the culture changed, so there's already that loss of the business, but now it's being devalued to the point where they're just going to blatantly take records that I spend my own money to make to do what? Make a Black Angus commercial out of it? The more I talked about it, and the more I wrote about it…” the line short-circuits again “ stuff suddenly just stopped working”. More crackly interference; a ghostly woman’s voice interjects “...friends were like, ‘Why would they do this to you, Mark?’ That's the question I asked myself first. I've watched the Snowdon documentary. there's only so many people to collect so much data and the only reason they'd shut you down is if they'd heard you say ‘Al Qaeda’ or ‘bombmaking’ or ‘terrorism’ or something like that. But this happened immediately the moment I found these licenses and this old record of mine, it was shut down in real time!”

Lanegan contacted Avid, the makers of Pro Tools software, who informed him they had no control over third parties. “And then specialists came in and it turns out that anything smart in my house, like my lightbulbs, had to be completely thrown out. So I lost my work laptop, my personal laptop, I had, you know, my flatscreen TVs, everything had to go. This is at a time when you can't replace anything. So I can't make music because I was hacked and surveilled. It sounds like an insane story but that's what I've been dealing with for the last three weeks, it's cost me thousands and thousands of dollars of shit I had to throw out. How they were able to be right there at every step of the way was because it was the products themselves that were taking logs of my actions and recording every word. And that's happening to anybody that owns Apple products by the way. That's been happening to people for years and they're the ones who make this equipment for Apple.”

Mark hasn’t been able to make any music in lockdown, and furthermore he’d been looking forward to a show with a Q&A at the Barbican in May, but because of Covid-19 he misses out on both gigs and book launches and the two combined. He’s disappointed, but stoical all the same: “I'll be happy to sit down and read about it on the Quietus when I can get out of my house. So I do have this platform, but more than anything, what I'd like to get out there is about companies like Facebook blatantly stealing data, and that includes all of my intellectual property. After 35 years of making records this is not the way I envisaged music going. Something I've paid my own money to make just taken away by some phoney update that put my music on their server for five seconds or whatever they're doing.” Schwiiiiiiizzz bing bong “... greed. For me that's a huge crime and people need to be aware whether you're a musician or not to where that's leading. That's some upper level 1984 shit that's way beyond my pay grade.”

In the book Josh Homme calls you ‘Scratch’. How did you come to be called Old Scratch then?

Mark Lanegan: Ah yeah, I think it's an old timer expression they used to use for the devil. It's been a nickname of mine since I was a kid.

Reading the book, you've certainly enjoyed the luck of the devil. It’s astonishing that you're still here.

ML: Yeah, I've been pretty lucky in all aspects of my life!

The chapter ‘Ice-cold European Funhouse’ where you go to score in Amsterdam suffering massive withdrawals is the best thing I’ve read for ages.

ML: Oh, thank you very much. I also read the audio version of this and of course I thought that would be the easiest part of it. I've done voiceover stuff over the years but this turned out to be the very hardest part of it. Not only was it the tenth time I'd been forced to read the book, but now I was doing it out loud into a microphone. That chapter alone took me eight hours to record!

It’s often said that writing these kinds of books is a cathartic experience. Was it?

ML: I was very emotional. I was completely unprepared for what I was going to find when I agreed to do this. I'm not a person who looks backwards and by the very nature of this thing I was forced to look back. I wasn't really prepared for what I was going to find. I’d put most of that stuff to bed and not thought about it for years and years, and as I started to dig into it more stuff would come up. And it was heavy.

There's a lot of sex, drugs, thieving, violence and rock and roll. You don't pull any punches do you? It’s the kind of candidness you might find in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous but you don’t expect so much to find it all written down like that…

ML: Sure. And I had to think about that as well. I also broke a couple of people's anonymity during the process of writing it. I was writing about those people with love and not anything else. In some cases one of the shared aspects of our association was through meetings or my attempts at meetings.

Do you think people are less bothered about anonymity nowadays? Addiction was far more shameful when the “Big Book” of AA was written in 1937 or whenever it was.

ML: I can't really speak about that as it was before my time [laughs]. I'm pretty old but I'm not 100 years old yet. Whole books have been written about people's experience in recovery though. Amy Dresner wrote a great book that I liked a lot, for instance. So it's not really taboo now. I think a lot of people recognise addiction as an illness rather than a lack of moral character or a weakness or something like that. It's a genetic condition just like the whole branch of my family who are blind.

In the book you talk of ‘getting well” when you’ve had your fix, and that’s a better description than “getting high” isn’t it? You’re sick and you need to get back to your default state and keep sobriety at bay, whether that’s through alcohol, heroin or eventually crack.

ML: That's true. I was probably 10 or 11 years old the first time I got drunk and I remember thinking as I started to feel it, wow, this is what I've been waiting for my whole life. And of course that happened with many other drugs along the way. I was never happy with the way that I felt, my natural state, so I was always looking for something to change that feeling whether that be alcohol, drugs or sex. Music did it for me for a long time. I think the last one was one of the less harmful addictions that I still have. But music was a lifesaver, and do you know what, those other things were as well at the time. But then they shortly thereafter became the problems themselves, and stopped working, and worked against me like all drugs do. Heroin actually saved me from drinking myself to death. I could not give up drinking. I tried as hard as I could and I have pretty strong willpower. I was like an ant trying to stop a train against my alcoholism.

There's a song on the new album. ‘Ketamine’, about a drug you apparently never took. Is that right?

ML: Yeah, that's true. A friend of mine, Wes Eisold of Cold Cave, was good friends with Genesis P. Orridge. He said the last time he'd seen her she was in a hospital bed and there was a priest in there and he heard her say: "No thanks father, I'm okay, but if you have some ketamine." I thought that was such a great story that I actually wrote the song from that, and Wes sings it with me on the record. But that's one of the few songs that wasn't connected to the book. Had anyone ever offered me some ketamine I'm sure I would have taken it in a second because I would have taken anything.

I remember having a conversation with god in the mirror of a train going to Birmingham after some ketamine once.

ML: [Laughs] Wow!

It's good stuff, but I wouldn't go doing that now. One thing I noticed: you still have a great memory despite taking a lot of drugs and drinking a lot. There's so much in there that's razor sharp.

ML: Well, look, my memory of this conversation will probably be wrong ten minutes after we have it. That's kind of the nature of memory. But when you're talking about events that happened 25 years ago, put it this way, I kind of walked into it not really thinking about what I was going to remember. And as it started coming back to me, I was doing 12 or 14 hour days and then realising I hadn't walked or drunk any water. I hadn't done anything but just get buried in these memories and then I was trying to put them down on paper in a way that would be interesting. It was my first attempt at writing a book. I'd written a few things but this was a whole different thing. My perception of when certain events happened were so far off, sometimes years off in a different direction. Google helps a lot in that way [laughs].

Did you kind of exhume memories you’d forgotten then?

ML: It was a journey of discovery and really it was a lot of stuff that I hadn’t wanted to revisit. That was really what I discovered - I was remembering stuff that I couldn't put away.

You write touchingly about your friends Kurt Cobain and Layne Stanley who are both no longer with us. Do you feel a sense of survivor's guilt?

ML: I have always felt a lot of guilt about Kurt Cobain, because he was essentially like a little brother to me. I dunno if you read the section where he passes away but the fact that I didn't pick up the phone because he was reaching out to me will haunt me forever. And I wasn't a good influence, obviously. He was a genius and I cherished him like a little brother, you know.

Courtney Love came out of the book well. She supported you when you got clean. It’s nice to read positive words about Courtney because there’s so much unpleasant stuff out there written about her.

ML: Well, she was huge in my life. On one hand the reason I didn't pick up the phone on the day Kurt was ringing me was because I assumed she was there and I was trying to avoid her. But then I went into shelter and my life turned around and she was my saving grace. You just never know where it's going to go. She was really important to me, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her. And also she's been such an easy target. And so has one of my closest friends who I met Kurt through, Dylan Carlson, of the band Earth. He was also vilified because Kurt had talked him into getting him the shotgun that he used to commit suicide with. And so since that day forwards things got nuts, especially on the anniversary of his death. One of the most loyal, sweetest bona fide genius musicians, who would never do anything to hurt anybody. Kurt was his best friend, that was the only reason he bought it for him. It could have very well been me. We were used to doing things for him because it was impossible for him to go out in public without being harassed, especially in a small city like Seattle. Everyone knew who he was around the world, but in the city where he lived, he couldn't go to the corner store without people raising hell.

In the book you call Liam Gallagher a “cancerous slug” and claim to have never encountered anyone with a bigger head or smaller balls. I’ll not spoil it for readers anymore but he doesn’t come out of the encounter well does he?

ML: That's how I thought of him 25 years ago and I’ve not seen him since. I've crossed paths with Noel a few times. He's gentlemanly and treats people with respect. The way I wrote about my dealings with Liam are exactly as they took place. Of course the way I describe my feelings about him are of a 32-year-old man 25 years ago - I actually find some of what I see of him now humorous and I realised he was just a kid at the time. But you don't talk to me like that, no matter how big a star you were. He was one of the biggest, most disrespectful pricks I've ever come across from the get go. I was just eating tomato soup you know!

There’s still a lot of years you didn’t document in Sing Backwards And Weep. Might there be a followup memoir?

ML: No, because writing about myself was probably much, much easier than writing a novel like Nick Cave would do. To me writing a fiction novel would be like walking on the moon and completely out of my realm. But I would never write about myself again because the first one was so much more than I had anticipated. And yeah that book ends when I'm 33 - I'm now 55 - I have lived a bit in the time since the end of the book til now, but I just wouldn't write another book like that. There's a small press that did a series of books by songwriters called Sleevenotes; I did that the day after I did the last proof on the memoir and I did that in two days. It's a very different kind of writing and not nearly as involved. Me and Wes Eisold wrote a book of poems which should be coming out soon. If I did another book it would be a book of a different kind. I can't write another autobiography. I have an ex-wife and a wife and neither of them would allow it!

Sing Backwards And Weep is out now on White Rabbit, Straight Songs Of Sorrow is out on Friday via Heavenly