At a time when his peers in Nirvana are being remembered with the deluxe reissue of their final studio album, In Utero, former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan has no interest in celebrating his past. Rather, the singer, who is perhaps best known for the Screaming Tree's 1992 alternative rock hit "Nearly Lost You," is looking to the future with Imitations, a collection of his interpretation of songs that have influenced him throughout his life, due on Sept. 17.
The 12-song set features Lanegan — with his trademark deep, soulful voice — covering Nick Cave's "Brompton Oratory," the Twilight Singers' "Deepest Shade," and John Cale's "I'm Not the Loving Kind"; as well as such classics as "Mack the Knife," "Solitaire," and "Autumn Leaves." The latter two songs are closely associated with that sweater-wearing crooner Andy Williams.
Some might be wondering how Lanegan happened to stumble across these tunes. "I heard them somewhere," he says. "Might have been at my parents' friends' house when they were playing cards, but I know I used to hear Andy Williams a lot and it sort of stuck with me. I consider him to be one of the great, great singers."
When we mention that Williams isn't appreciated by most rockers or rock fans, Lanegan acknowledges, "Yeah, most people consider him to be a bit schmaltzy, but I once heard that [David] Bowie's biggest influence was Anthony Newley, so inspiration can come from everywhere."
As Lanegan explains, he's been performing covers since he first started singing way back in 1982. "It's a time-honored tradition," he says. "It's a different kind of satisfaction, different kind of enjoyment than making your own songs, to remake someone else's song that you really like. I enjoy my own songs, but I can never love them in the way that I can love someone else's song."
To that end, Lanegan carries a deep emotional attachment to most of the songs on Imitations and the artists that originally recorded them. As for John Cale, Lanegan says, "I've played with him a number of times. He's been one of my heroes sine I was a kid. I love all his records and all his different directions. If there's anyone if I sort of used their career as a guidepost, it would be him because he just does exactly what he wants. It's always interesting. It's always great. He's probably my favorite artist of all time."
He has similar admiration for Nick Cave, who he's toured with and performed with in the past. Lanegan has collaborated with Greg Dulli in the past as the Gutter Twins, as well as in the Twilight Singers, so there's a connection there.
When the track listing for Imitations appeared on Wikipedia, it listed "She's Gone" as the Hall & Oates hit, but Lanegan can't go for that. No can do. "That's some misinformation on the Internet," Lanegan confirms. Our advanced digital copy of the album didn't come with credits and we admit that we didn't have a chance to track down the origins of the tune, but offer that it sounds a bit like the Everly Brothers. Lanegan tells us it was actually recorded by a country singer named Vern Gosdin. "It was the Gosdin Brothers, in the mid-'60s and early '70s they were doing something similar with the harmonies," he says.
When Lanegan isn't working on his own projects with the Mark Lanegan Band, it seems he's always collaborating with someone on something. He's worked with the Queens of the Stone Age on and off since appearing on their second album, 2000's Rated R through this year's ...Like Clockwork, and has also toured with the band. He also recorded a trio of duo albums with former Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell, recorded as the Gutter Twins with Dulli and also played with the Twilight Singers, recorded and toured with British band Soulsavers, and worked with Moby on "The Lonely Nights," featured on his forthcoming Innocents album.
"When I do something, I do it for the specified amount of time and then I do something else," Lanegan explains. "Usually I get asked to do stuff that's cool and if I ever can't do something, it's usually because of logistics, I don't have the time for it. Rarely do I get ask to do something that I'd rather not do. I usually do it if I feel that it's something I can do."
One of Lanegan's earliest collaborators was Kurt Cobain. At one point, the pair had planned to make a Leadbelly covers album. "We went in the studio and did a couple of songs," Lanegan recalls. "One of those songs ended up on my first solo record and the rest of them, I think, ended up on a Nirvana boxed set [With the Lights Out] as extra stuff." And, of course, Nirvana famously covered "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" during their "Unplugged" performance. "We discovered it together," Lanegan says. "We were discovering not only Leadbelly, but some other blues guys at the same time."
Now, however, Lanegan has no interest in looking back at his grunge-era past. "It was just a period of time when I was making music," he says. "I'm someone that prefers to be in the here and now. If stuff gets reissued it doesn't affect me one way or another. I'm not even really aware of the Screaming Trees stuff when it gets put out, unless someone tells me about it or they need my permission. I obviously don't spend any time listening to that stuff. It was what it was."
So don't count on a Screaming Trees reunion. "I was really excited when the Afghan Whigs did a reunion tour," he says. "I got to see them and they were fantastic. And a lot of people I know are doing are doing reunion tours — the Soundgarden guys, the Alice in Chains guys — and they're making new records. I totally get that. If that's what they want to do, they have the right to do it. It's just that my old band I was with for almost 15 years, and that's plenty of time for one thing. I'm not embarrassed by it. I'm not proud of it. It's just what it was — a learning experience. I'm not interested in a reunion with the Screaming Trees, although I personally love those guys. They're like family to me."
In fact, a couple former members of the band, drummers Mark Pickerel and Barrett Martin, play on Imitations. "So it's not like we don't see each other or make music together," he explains. "I just don't want to do it as the Trees." Other notable musicians on Imitations include past Lanegan collaborator Mike Johnson and former Guns N' Roses member and Seattle scenester Duff McKagan, as well as live string and horn players.
Lanegan has proven to be a survivor from the Seattle scene that claimed its share of victims. "People that aren't in rock bands from Seattle aren't immune to personal problems either. It's the human condition," Lanegan observes. "Someone once said you get old or you don't. I'm personally happy getting old."