The Gun Club, Part 4 (Mark Lanegan Interview)

Mark Lanegan
Gun Club Fan; Friend and Collaborator with Jeffrey Lee Pierce

“I would talk about Jeffrey 24 hours a day,” Mark Lanegan confessed to me during a phone conversation some twenty-odd years ago. “And I still do.” Such is but one example of the colossal impact Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club made, and continues to make, on young musicians upon hearing the band’s visceral, poetic collision of punk with blues, country/western and other American roots music styles, who would in turn be inspired to run with the spark and form their own bands. In Lanegan’s case, it was psychedelic hard-rock group Screaming Trees, one of the more prominent acts of the Pacific Northwest’s grunge heyday.

But it’s in Lanegan’s more folk and blues-oriented solo albums that Pierce’s influence really smolders to the surface. Lanegan’s stripped-down version of The Gun Club’s “Carry Home” opens his fourth album, I’ll Take Care of You, in 1999, and a songwriting collaboration with Pierce, “Kimiko’s Dream House,” is included on 2001’s Field Songs.

It was at some point in between those two albums that I spoke with Mark at length about his love for The Gun Club, his friendship with Pierce and how they came to collaborate, if only briefly.

You and Jeffrey were working on some songs before he died…

“We did a little writing together. I knew Jeffrey for a long time. Right before he passed away, a couple of months beforehand, I was in L.A., in late ’96, working on a record, and he was living there and we did some writing together. We had talked about doing that for a long time. He was living in England, so we didn’t see each other that often. So this was cool, we were both in the same place at the same time and did some things. I just recorded a couple of those songs for an album I am working on right now but I don’t know when it’s going to come out.” (“Kimiko’s Dream House” from Field Songs)

How did you meet him?

“Well, I was just a huge, huge fan. I guess it was really after I heard the first Gun Club record that I even thought about having a band.”

I can hear a lot of it in your music, especially your solo albums.

“Yeah. I think everything that I do is influenced by what he did. To me, that was all there was, really. I think it was in ’88 or ’89, it was after Mother Juno, I was down in Los Angeles again, and the guy doing sound for them was a guy that I knew. I ran into him at the Whisky. I asked him what he was up to and he said he was doing some shows with The Gun Club. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. ‘Where? Europe?’ He said, ‘No, over here. I’ll introduce Jeffrey Lee to you tonight.’ While the [opening] band was playing that he was mixing, he was trying to get my attention. I looked across the room and there was Jeffrey. I walked across the room and started talking to him. Basically, a few months later I was in London and then that is when we really hung out and got to know each other. He got to be one of my closest friends, which was interesting enough in itself. He was fuckin’ one of a kind.”

How so? What was he like?

“Really, really intelligent. Extremely creative. The first time I went to his house over in London, you know, he was playing Hendrix note for note on the guitar. He had, like in a couple of years, had decided to get real serious about playing guitar. That was his big thing when I first met him… he wanted to play ‘Little Wing’ hahaha! And he was good! On all those later Gun Club records, that was him [on lead guitar]. Whereas on the earlier stuff, he mainly just sang. And, you know, he would show me videos of The Gun Club from like the real early days, on through the later stuff. That was an experience. Seeing that early stuff where he was basically just standing there talking shit at the audience. Bottles being thrown and whatnot, and he looked like Debbie Harry. Then like through Mother Juno, the stuff from then, he was like Iggy Pop or something, in great shape and right on it. The thing about him was, man, every record got better… just genius all the way along.”

Yeah, a lot of people tend to discount the later Gun Club stuff, but I thought it was incredible.

“I think that’s horseshit. I just was always, always amazed… I would be loath to say anything about any of those records except that at first some of the later production was a little off-putting, but the songs and what he is saying and the way he is saying it always is so… it just goes straight to your heart. Nobody sang like him. He had the hugest impact on my own personal musical life. Nobody was a bigger influence… just in the way that I think and in the way that I say things. Because I had never heard anybody like that kind of weird mixture – you know, so personal, but covers a lot of ground when he says something. And of course, it is in the way that he is saying it. It’s just like…as real as death.”

You also seemed to share a common interest in old blues and country music. Were you into that stuff before you heard The Gun Club?

“Some of the earliest records I have are some my old man gave me, some early blues stuff, but I didn’t really embrace it. I was into rock. But like I said, when I heard that first Gun Club record and heard the way he did those old blues tunes, suddenly it made total sense to me. And of course I went back and…I love all that old shit now. But it was really from hearing him, you know, I mean, hearing, like, ‘Preaching the Blues’ right next to ‘Sex Beat,’ there was something about that that, you know, it suddenly it made sense to me when he did it.”

What are the songs like that you wrote with him?

“It was mainly him. He had the music and the melodies. Writing with him was not like writing with anybody else because Jeffrey was very strict, hahaha! It was a pretty serious affair, although he laughed a lot, you know…mainly at the wacky things that he would say. I rarely made him laugh, hahaha! He would always have very strict instructions for me, like ‘I want this kind of effect on the guitar, should you use this.’ It was a big deal to him. I’m sure that none of this stuff he gave me he recorded before… I don’t know if there are any versions of him doing any of this stuff with lyrics or anything. But, I remember he had words for the chorus of one song, and I was like, ‘Jesus, I can’t say that, man!’ It was just wacky. It was a woman’s name, a woman that was one of his roommates in London, a Japanese woman, Kimiko. I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t say that.’ And he was like, ‘Why?’ and got pissed off. ‘Why does it have to be Shirley?’ I am trying to do them as close to the way he showed them to me as possible now. And the lyrics that he didn’t have, I’m really trying to… it might sound ridiculous, but [I’m trying] to say what I think he might have [said]… He had a very clear vision of the way things should be. And he would follow that through to the ends of the earth. So I’m just going to try and do it justice.”

How many total songs did you do with him?

“I don’t know, four or five. It was just bits and pieces. It wasn’t a whole record. We’re talking about a three-day period of just sitting around. He was getting ready to go to Japan. I was workin’ on a record already. And we just spent three or four days together making home recordings and stuff, on a tape player. Not even a four-track or anything, it was like a Radio Shack tape player. Then he left the day after we were done for Japan. The trip proved fatal because when he came back, that was when he was real sick, and it was shortly thereafter that he passed away.”

Did you see him anytime after he got back from Japan?

“Well, he had left a message on my machine, and he was real sick. I had come back up to Seattle, and he had left a long message on my machine in Los Angeles. He was ill. Then I heard through mutual friends a couple of weeks later that the doctor told him he only had a month to live, because for years he had trouble with his liver. A couple of weeks after that I was back up in Seattle and he called me from Utah, where he was with his dad – he would go there from time to time – and he sounded fine and in his right mind again. I said, ‘Jesus Chris, man, what is going on? They said you have a month to live.’ And he said, ‘Aw, they’ve said that so many times.’ And he sounded just like himself. And he wanted to know how the songs were going and how I was doing with them, and had I recorded anything yet. I said no, ’cause I hadn’t. I was pretty ill myself at the time, although obviously not like that. But then it was just a couple of weeks later he was gone. First he went into a coma that lasted several days, and that was it. But I talked to him a couple weeks before that happened, and he sounded like himself. I thought he would be around longer than me. That was devastating. I miss him all the time.”

Is that why you put those songs away for a while and kind of let them sit?

“That, and I lost the tape for about a year. I wasn’t making any music anyhow. And then when I made this record, I had just found the tape again in a box of my personal stuff. I had put something on it…I thought it had his name on it, but it didn’t. I did find the demos for [1990 Gun Club album] Pastoral Hide and Seek, too. He did all that shit before he [recorded] it, and those versions are amazing. Not that the record wasn’t great, too, but I have a tape of all that stuff, the demos for that stuff. I listen to that stuff to death… For the most part, I don’t think he made a whole bunch of [demos]. Like, getting him to set something down on tape, even around the house, was kind of a chore sometimes. Only because his mind worked ten times faster than mine, hahaha! He already had, you know, the next thing he wanted to do… I remember there was a Japanese band, God he was so into it. Like, the sixty-second songs. He was so into that right before he passed away. And rap and all this other stuff. His interests were really wide. I couldn’t always keep up in that department. I didn’t even try.”

Do you remember any of the funny things he said to you?

“Oh, he said a lot of funny things to me. I remember one time I had a new girlfriend, and for a while there was a period of time he would call me just about every night from London, going through some tough times…and one night, I had this new girlfriend, and I was playing her…I think it was Miami or something, I had it cranked in my apartment…and he happened to call. And I had been telling her about this friend of mine and that this was the best fuckin’ music you’ll ever hear, of course, trying to find one chick that likes that kind of music, hahaha! It’s tough! This particular girlfriend, actually, she loved it as well, and got to meet Jeffrey later. Anyway, this was the first time I was playing her any Gun Club, and he happened to call me right then! And I still remember, I think it was ‘Calling Up Thunder,’ and I picked up the phone, and it was him, and I said, ‘Shit, man, listen to this,’ and I held up the phone, and he said, ‘What the fuck is that?’ And I said, ‘That’s you, man.’ And he said, ‘Huh…I don’t know what kind of frenzy I was in that day.’ He said shit like that all the time. He was really, really funny. And just his whole manner. He had a crazy, crazy laugh.”