Funny how the image you get of some on a record is completely different to what they're like in real life. Listening to Mark Lanegan's troubled songs of far off redemption and right now regret, you'd expect him to be surly and uncooperative but it transpires that he's anything but.
Just back from a European tour with rock outfit of the moment Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan is about to start work on that band's new album, his own album 'Field Songs' has attracted the best reviews of his solo career and he's happy to talk about all of it. For fans, the 36-year-old's run of good luck comes as something of a relief because for a long time it seemed that Lanegan wouldn't be around to enjoy any of it.
As the former frontman with the much cherished but now defunct Screaming Trees and as a solo artist in his own right, Lanegan's career has featured as many ups as downs. While others took his work very seriously, he himself wasn't quite so circumspect with heavy drinking and drug addiction chasing him for much of adulthood. He may have made acclaimed solo albums and two of the great rock albums of the last decade (the Screaming Trees' 'Sweet Oblivion' and 'Dust') but by 1997 Lanegan had hit the bottom, finding himself in rehab and having to start all over again.
"You only have so much time, and you finally come around to…" he says, trailing off as if it's all too painful. "I've enjoyed music for many years now but I always had other things that took precedence over music. Now I'm a little older. I don't know if I'm any smarter, but I am a little calmer."
This path to personal sovereignty began twenty years ago in the Washington town of Ellensburg, where Lanegan was the school quarterback who liked punk rock and formed the Screaming Trees with brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner even though he didn't really get along with them. "We were the kind of guys who just wouldn't have ever considered anybody wanting to listen to our music," he recalls. "We made a number of records because somebody gave us $1000 and said 'hey, why don't you just go out and play for $100 a night for month's on end?'. That seemed fine to us because we came from a place where we had nothing else going on."
They became an institution in the Pacific Northwest, paving the way for the generation of bands that followed, and when a certain three piece from nearby Seattle made the world their own in 1991, Lanegan & Co had the spotlight thrust upon them. "The thought that music would be some sort of career, that our band would ever be popular, just seemed ridiculous to us!" he laughs. "And when the world was in such a way that we somehow veered towards that because of where we were from and the bands we knew, we still thought it was ridiculous."
The records they made were anything but. 1992's 'Sweet Oblivion' placed them far above the grunge movement they were lumped in with and gave the band the recognition they deserved. The irony was that Lanegan had already achieved it on his own two years earlier with his first solo album 'The Winding Sheet'. Looking back he admits that he was reluctant to even make the record and even roped in old friend and now long time collaborator Mike Johnson (once of Dinosaur Jr) to help him out.
"I was going to make a record just for the fun of it with Kris and Kurt from Nirvana," says Lanegan. "They wanted to do blues covers in a heavy way and I thought that sounded like fun. But they were leaving town and I was pretty dead broke and the record company asked me to write something else."
At this point Lanegan had only ever worked as lyricist but when faced with more money than he'd ever been offered in his life he picked up a guitar, bought a chord book and learnt the same four chords that he jokingly says are still the only ones he knows today. When the album came out it didn't sell too much ("pins were dropping all over the world and I could hear them") but it got great reviews and made many end of year polls.
Eleven years on it's still easy to see why. It may have only taken three days to record, but Lanegan had unwittingly beaten the entire alt.country movement to the punchline with songs that dug deep for the roots of American music – he even covered Leadbelly's 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' four years before Nirvana made it their own.
"At the time the guy who produced the album, Jack Endino, and Mike both felt very strongly about it but I said 'this is just crazy. It's an outrage!' "I was really embarrassed by it but they had belief. Then the album came out and they called me genius so I kept making them!"
People are still saying the same things about Lanegan five albums later with 'Field Songs' building on the success of 1997's 'Scraps at Midnight' and his 1999 covers album 'I'll Take Care of You'. Since the recovery of four years ago, he's made three albums in four years and seems to have a new lease of life. "I never took any of it that seriously. The band records or the solo ones. I did my albums in my spare time for the hell of it. Really without any serious goal in mind and that was that. Now I enjoy it more. I've been lucky to have played with a lot of really cool musicians and guys from all different walks of music who have graced me with their presence on these little records."
It's heartwarming to talk him. A man who once seemed as likely to walk off a stage as stay on it, seems to be at peace with both himself and his talents. In interviews in the past Lanegan always seemed to be on a very short fuse, but he's spent all day on the phone talking to journalists and even though his voice is going, he seems happy to talk for as long as you want. And when you tell him you're delighted that things seem to be going really well for him, he sighs like a man who's lived to tell the tale.
"Definitely. In fact, they've never been better". Long may it last.
Mark Lanegan with special guests Brett Netson (Built To Spill) and Juno play The Half Moon Theatre, Cork on Saturday 24 November; Whelans, Dublin on Sunday 25 November and The Empire, Belfast on 26 November.