This December, White Rabbit will publish Devil in a Coma, a new memoir by Mark Lanegan. The book arrives just a little over a year after the release of Sing Backwards and Weep, Rough Trade’s 2020 Book of the Year. I spoke with the great singer about his prose and poetry, musical collaborations, the writing process, and the changing of the seasons.
I nervously typed the digits of Mark Lanegan’s Ireland number into my phone and pressed the green call button. It wouldn’t connect, and my heart sank. A few seconds later his number appeared as an incoming call. Is this still a good time? “Yeah,” he says, in his gravelly, quiet voice.
My introduction to Mark Lanegan came through Screaming Trees in the ‘90s, probably like a lot of fans of my generation. Lanegan co-founded the band with Gary Lee Conner, Van Conner, and Mark Pickerel in Ellensberg, Washington in 1985 and was the frontman until 2000, when Screaming Trees officially broke up. In that time and since, he has recorded more than a dozen solo records. You might have listened intently to albums like Bubblegum or Blues Funeral, enamoured with those post-Screaming Trees sounds, or Straight Songs of Sorrow, the at once fierce and melancholy musical companion to Sing Backwards and Weep. There have been so many dazzling collaborations in the last twenty years, too, with Queens of the Stone Age, Isobel Campbell, Duke Garwood, and more. Recently, Lanegan has begun publishing prose and poetry – a sonic and textual virtuoso.
His new memoir Devil in a Coma recounts through vignettes his terrifying experience with Covid-19, nearly dying in a hospital in Kerry. Was it cathartic to write another memoir, to revisit that horrifying personal experience of the pandemic? “I actually started writing it while I was still going through it because I had months of hospitalisation and … a bit of time on my hands,” Lanegan laughs. “So I started writing it while I was still in the process of getting better.” After all the accolades for Sing Backwards and Weep, it seems only natural that Devil in a Coma, too, would be published by White Rabbit. “Lee [Brackstone, founder of the White Rabbit imprint] is always encouraging me to write,” Lanegan tells me, “no matter what it is. So when I started writing this, and it was shaping up to possibly be a book, I told him about it.”
There’s a 500-copy limited edition of Devil in a Coma that’s accompanied by a 12-inch print of one of the singer’s artworks. I asked him if he’s been painting and drawing for a while now, or if it’s something new. “I took one day of art class in high school and my art teacher told me I had no imagination and to get out of the room,” Lanegan says and laughs. “A couple of records ago, I started designing my own record covers for better or worse. But I didn’t start drawing until about a year ago. It’s really primitive, really amateur [laughs].”
Lanegan has been so staggeringly prolific in the years of the pandemic, before and after the experience recounted in Devil in a Coma. Before he moved to Ireland, he started publishing his poetry. “Poetry is something I’ve kind of secretly dreamed of doing since I was a kid, dreamed that I might be able to write. But every time I tried to do it, it just didn’t seem to work for me. But in 2020, Wes Eisold suggested we do a book of poetry together, and he encouraged me to start writing poetry.” That book is Plague Poems, a powerful assemblage that’s split between Lanegan’s words in the first half and Eisold’s in the second. Throughout the book, Lanegan’s poems are haunted—by loss, by anger, and by the strange and prescient spectres of judgment days to come. “My first go at it was kind of lyrics masquerading as poetry. But I think I’ve gotten a little better at it since then. It’s something I enjoy. It’s more akin to songwriting, there’s a freedom in it. When you’re writing an actual book, there’s no freedom,” he laughs. Following Plague Poems, Lanegan wrote Leaving California, a collection that reflects on living in liminality, in fragments. Second editions of both Plague Poems and Leaving California were published in October 2021 and are available through Eisold’s Heartworm Press.
Thinking about how so many of the poems in Leaving California illumine experiences of wandering in a pandemic, I ask Lanegan if he starts writing in his mind before he puts anything to print. “It always starts in my head,” he says. “You have to have a thought before you can put it down on something. At least I do, anyway [laughs]. But I never write on paper. I write on my phone or an iPad.” Writing poetry, prose, and songs are different processes, he explains. “If I’m writing a book, I’ll sit down specifically to write for it,” and emphasises that he always writes with an aim toward finishing a book or an album. “I don’t really do something unless there’s a project I’m working at … I don’t really write songs unless it’s for a reason. I’m not somebody who just sits down for the fun of it and writes, although I do enjoy it. Since I usually have more than one thing I’m working on at a time, I have to sort of focus on whatever’s right in front of me and work on it.”
One of those recent projects was Lanegan’s collaboration with Joe Cardamone, the album Dark Mark vs. Skeleton Joe. The musicians made the record under their respective monikers, recording desolate and atmospheric synth songs set to Lanegan’s affecting voice and lyrics. Over the last couple of months, Lanegan and Cardamone have released striking music videos for the tracks Living Dead and Sanctified. “Joe’s a great director,” Lanegan tells me. “He does all kinds of videos for himself and other people. He’s the director in the family.” The visuals in Sanctified are especially stunning, and I ask if they’d done the filming in Los Angeles before Lanegan left for Ireland. “Joe started after I left, but he also came out here. We filmed some here, some in Los Angeles.”
Speaking of Ireland, has the landscape of the country shaped the work Lanegan has been doing? It’s so different from LA, I say. “It’s extremely physically beautiful here. But I’ve written songs in a lot of different locations over the years. At one point, I wrote an entire record in Motel 6 bathrooms in the middle of the night, sharing a room with the rest of my band. You can’t help but put a part of wherever you’re at, whether mentally or physically, into what you’re working on, and I know I do.”
I’m still thinking about the Dark Mark vs. Skeleton Joe collaboration, and so much of Lanegan’s other work that has been part of my own life soundtrack. I’ve wondered about his songwriting process, and whether he writes the lyrics and music at the same time, or if one conjures the other. Reading Lanegan’s poetry, too, makes me reflect on the ways that words on a page can create aural reverberations. “I’ve never written lyrics separate from music – ever,” he says. “It seems like an impossible task.” Yet some great musicians do it, Lanegan implies, and takes me on a quick tangent. “One of my all-time favorite singers is Simon Bonney of Crime & the City Solution, from Australia. Simon was living in LA when I was making Straight Songs of Sorrow, and we were working on some songs together. Around that time, I asked Wes [Eisold] if he ever writes lyrics separately, and he said no, it’s impossible to take words and fit them to music. We both consider Simon to be the master of phrasing, melody, and lyrics. He’s got an amazing voice, everything. We asked him, do you ever just take words separate from music and make it fit? And he said, that’s all I’ve ever done. Wes and I thought, well, that makes sense because Simon is the only genius we know.” It’s funny, of course, because I’d say the same about Lanegan’s singular, resplendent work.
It’s wintertime here, and it’s almost Christmas. Just before I spoke with Lanegan, the first snow of the year had fallen in New York. I know I’ve got to ask about Dark Mark Does Christmas, an album that has some of the most exquisite songs I’ve heard in ages. How did Lanegan come to make a holiday record? “I had a couple of specifically Christmas acoustic shows, one in Belgium, one in the Netherlands. I was in the studio doing something related when it came up with Alain Johannes, my longtime producer. We decided to take an afternoon and try to write down as many edgy Christmas songs as we could find, which proved to be difficult [laughs]. I had some CDs originally made up for those two shows, and it turned out to be so popular that we ended up pressing vinyl, and now it’s easily my best seller at the merch table for the last few years.”
Dark Mark Does Christmas has a couple of versions. The first is a six-track recording from 2012 that features dark carols and ends with a cover of Roky Erickson’s Burn the Flames. Rough Trade issued a Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020 album last year that featured additional tracks, including original songs and some new covers. When I heard Lanegan’s version of In The Bleak Midwinter, the heartbreaking beauty of that song stopped me dead. I don’t think I could bear to hear anyone else sing it. I wondered how Lanegan decided to cover it. “As soon as I made the original CD, like a week later I heard In The Bleak Midwinter and was like daaaaamn, I missed the boat on that one. It would have been perfect. It’s obviously a great song. When Rough Trade approached me about making it an official release last year, their one request was that I cover In The Bleak Midwinter. I was like, well, I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me to do that.”
I ask Lanegan if he feels the seasons in his songs, and I tell him that so much of what he sings conjures autumn for me, darker days with warm and fading light. “I grew up in a place where we had really hot summers and really icy, snowy wintertimes. But the fall and the spring are my favourite seasons when you’re in a place that has four seasons, fall being the best. I find it an inspiring time, something about the crisp air, the smell of woodsmoke, the changing of the colours of the leaves.” There’s a little bit of autumn left before the solstice, and it feels like the perfect time to read Lanegan’s new memoir while listening to his records.
Many thanks to Justin Hampton for permission to feature his Mark Lanegan artwork. You can find Justin’s work on his website here.