While the recent announcement of Sunday at Devil Dirt–the second full-length from the sweet and sour pairing of Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell–may seem like a surprise to most given Lanegan just released the Gutter Twins’ debut, we know better over here at self-titled. Why? Because Campbell told us the duo was almost done with another album a few months back–when a few simple questions about working with the former Screaming Tree turned into quite the insightful Q&A.
The true dirt after the jump …
self-titled: So what have you been working on lately? An EP or LP follow-up to [the 2006 solo album] Milk White Sheets?
At this precise moment i am in the studio trying to wrap up a new album and am very excited. It has been my obsession for this year. It’s like album bootcamp right now. It’s another Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan album.
When did you finish that? Is it anything like the folk leanings of Milk White Sheets or is it more in line with the dark, cinematic duets of [Ballad of the] Broken Seas?
I am just about finished–so long as Mark likes what he hears when I send everything to him. It’s tough telling you too much about the new album at the moment as it’s hard to see the wood for the trees right now, ‘cos I have been shut away and immersed in it for the entire year and have listened to the songs literally thousands of times. So much so it sometimes drives the engineers I work with to distraction. I’m surprised none of them have bumped me off!
It has always been my intention that the second album should be a continuation and elaboration of Ballad of the Broken Seas and with a bit of luck it’ll be an improvement … I hope. There is always room for improvement, I think. Of course it might come out and sound completely different than Ballad of the Broken Seas to the listeners, but a leopard don’t change its spots that quick!
What was it like working with him in person this time? Was it intimidating at first, or the complete opposite because Mark can be so shy?
It is always a treat for me to work with Mark. I feel blessed to have met him. Working together seems like a natural thing to me. When Mark was in Scotland in March [of 2007] I was so happy we could be in the studio together for this one. It was all pretty easy, [although] it is always a wee bit scary showing new songs to anyone. I get self-conscious about that. Because what if they think the idea stinks? There was only one day [like that], when I thought, ‘Oh, shit … I feel a bit self-conscious,’ but then Mark said he trusted what I was doing so that made me feel a whole lot better.
How did your live performances go the first time around considering your debut was done through traded tapes? Were they as seamless as the recordings sound?
I loved the live performances; for me they made perfect sense. It was a good excuse to try out new songs too. I mean, I had spent most of 2006 touring Ballad of the Broken Seas without Mark and that just didn’t make any sense to me at all. It was very frustrating. I was cut-up about that. It wasn’t much true to the vision y’know? All it meant was that I ran up a huge bill for tour support, which meant even though the album had more than recouped I wouldn’t get paid. Nobody likes not getting paid. When we played we all seemed to really enjoy it and the band were really happy to finally get to meet this guy who they’d heard singing on tape. The last tour we did in August flew by and all the boys said it had been too brief. It’d be great to play in the U.S. sometime too.
Was it your idea to work together this time? Or were you both excited to do so after Broken Seas turned out so well?
Doing an album last time was Mark’s idea. He asked me. This time I really wanted to ask him but was a bit scared. I already had a few new songs in mind. We got to our last show together in Greece in January ’07 and I knew if I didn’t ask him then it might never happen. But I felt pretty shy about it. I’m not good at asking people for things. I’m pretty independent that way. Finally my tour manager egged me on–you know, “ask him, ask him, ask him…” So I did and he said he do it in a heartbeat. I got home ’round about February 4th and wrote and wrote and wrote…
To bring things back a bit, what’s your earliest memory of hearing Mark’s music? An ex-boyfriend introduced you to his music a few years ago, right? Just before you worked with him on “Why Does My Head Hurt So?” Do you remember what song or album you heard first? How did it make you feel?
Yeah, that’s right. He played me a song off [Lanegan’s 1998 LP] Scraps At Midnight. I can’t remember which one. I’d never heard of Mark or the Screaming Trees before. I was either a bit too young or out of touch to know much about grunge really. I was too busy listening to my Dad’s Stax and Small Faces 45’s.
The voice I heard sounded haunted to me. I’m not sure if i can remember what it made me feel, but it made me want to ask him to sing on a song of mine.
Do you have any favorite albums of his?
When we started to work together I knew none of his work which is pretty scandalous! Now I know some of his albums inside out. I love Bubblegum–the title track is really beautiful but so are the rest. (“Wedding Dress,” “Strange Religion” & “Like Little Willie John” are current favorites.) I love the [Queens of the Stone Age] stuff too, and [the 1999 covers albums] I’ll Take Care Of You–there’s some beautiful stuff on that.
Recently a friend sent me a YouTube link of the Screaming Trees on Letterman. The song was “I Nearly Lost You.” That song’s pretty great and the hair was so funny! [laughs]
As a singer yourself, how do you think Mark’s voice compares to other modern rock vocalists?
For me Mark’s voice is incomparable. Maybe I’m biased but I know he’s one of the American Greats. I have no doubt about that. He can do rock/folk/torch songs, the phone directory, or whatever.
What was one of your personal motivations for working with Mark? He suggested doing an actual LP right? Were you hesitant at first?
Are you kidding? I didn’t hesitate for one second. I just went “yahoo!” Even though I always enjoy singing with different folks I think that I was always looking for the right person to complement my singing. After I met Mark I said to Bobby from Belle & Sebastian, “Bobby, I think I’ve met my Lee [Hazelwood].”
When you sent Mark some music and he decided to sing over everything as it was written, were you surprised at how seamless everything sounded? What were some of your favorite songs during those early tape-trading sessions?
Yeah, I was surprised–surprised and relieved. I always loved “Ramblin’ Man” and “The Circus Is Leaving Town.”
In the press, Mark has been portrayed as this dark, menacing character
many times. Has he been easy to get to know over time, or does he seem guarded in conversation with you?
When we first met I just felt that we had some kind of affinity. I can’t really explain it. He seemed gentle to me, and kind, and unpretentious. Which can be a rare thing in the music industry sometimes!
Although it’s not as apparent with me–’cos i try to cover it up a lot–as it is with Mark, I can be pretty shy too. Sometimes to the point of being bashful. And you know it’s true he can be so funny–[ex-Screaming Trees drummer] Mark Pickerel says that too, that he’s one of the funniest people he knows.
Were you surprised that Broken Seas was nominated for the Mercury Prize since many viewed it as a one-off side project?
I was surprised but I knew we’d earnt it. I put so much into that record. (I paid for it myself.) It nearly bankrupted me and then Mark paid out of his own pocket for us to finish it in L.A. It made me so happy that some folk really seemed to dig the record. That makes us feel good and proud. It’s definitely one of my favourite projects … alongside this new record of ours.
To close, tell us a story about your work with Mark–one that reveals something about him that people don’t realize or understand simply by listening to his records or, well, reading some stupid music magazine.
I don’t know where to begin or what to say and I wouldn’t want to let anything slip in any case … um … “he wears grey on his days off?”
People like the mystery in any case, don’t they?