Many men feel the oppression of a long shadow hovering over them. Could be a strict father, or a successful older brother, a popular friend...
Many men feel the oppression of a long shadow hovering over them. Could be a strict father, or a successful older brother, a popular friend, a demanding coach?
In the case of Mark Pickerel, it was Mark Lanegan who loomed mightily over his career and life for years. Lanegan is now partnered up with his buddy Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins, and Pickerel — long a supporting player, as the drummer often literally in frontman Lanegan’s shadow — has struck out on his own.
The two musical Marks first met at Ellensburg High School, early ’80s. “I was terrified of Mark Lanegan,” Pickerel said the other night, at the bar of the Sorrento Hotel, a favorite haunt ever since a record-company executive first brought him here.
“I was a freshman, and [Lanegan] was a senior — he was a menacing creature in the hallway. I think he had a beard; he looked like a lumberjack.
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“I was intimidated by Lanegan. He wasn’t even anyone I would look in the eye.”
Pickerel formed a friendship with Van Conner, whose older brother Gary Lee Conner had an impressive music collection. Lanegan came across a drum set (“I think it might have been from a drug deal,” Pickerel said), and recruited the Conners and Pickerel, who had formed their own cover band.
The first version of the Screaming Trees had Pickerel on vocals and Lanegan on drums — which lasted about a song. The untrained Lanegan couldn’t keep a beat, so he and Pickerel (who had played drums in marching bands for years) traded places. Within a few years the Screaming Trees had invaded Seattle and become one of the town’s big grunge bands.
Lanegan and Kurt Cobain became friends, and decided to record an album. Pickerel played drums on four Cobain-Lanegan songs that would eventually surface on a Lanegan solo album “The Winding Sheet” (“Down in the Dark” and a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) and, years later, the Nirvana boxed set (“Grey Goose” and “Ain’t It a Shame”).
Pickerel says Cobain and Lanegan were both leery of being perceived as the leader of their short-lived collaboration. As a result, Pickerel felt his input and ideas were valued more than with the Screaming Trees, where he was frustrated that his opinions fell on deaf ears.
“My fantasy was to ride off into the sunset with Nirvana,” Pickerel said. “And it almost occurred — about six months before Kurt Cobain died, he was talking about doing the next [Nirvana] album with different drummers — Dan Peters, Dale Crover, Dave Grohl and me — each on a few songs.”
Back on the Screaming Trees front, just as Lanegan’s band approached a major-label deal, Pickerel grew tired of his opinions and input being ignored, and quit the band. “I had to do it, mentally and emotionally,” he said.
He returned to Ellensburg, where he started a record store. All along, he has been a pretty in-demand drummer, recording with Neko Case and Brandi Carlile, and touring with the Dusty 45s.
In 2006, Pickerel steeled himself, and — braced for comparisons to the Screaming Trees — wrote his own songs and sang lead on an album. The respected Bloodshot Records (Neko Case, Ryan Adams, Bobby Bare Jr., etc.) released “Snake in the Radio,” which received generally favorable reviews. (Amazon.com: “This gem of a solo debut by early Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel offers one surprise after another.”)
Pickerel’s fears were unnecessary, as no one really held it up against the Trees’ work — it was too far removed from grunge. Pickerel says the influences for his solo work are folks like the Mills Brothers, Sam Cooke, Lee Hazelwood and Nick Cave — although he has stopped listening to Hazelwood and Cave, again fearful of comparisons and overt influences.
Pickerel appears calm, cheerful and relatively clean cut, wearing sideburns, a vague Elvis hairstyle and denim jacket. Cool on the outside, though in the coming weeks, he will become a father for the first time and launch his second album, “Cody’s Dream” (Bloodshot again).
Don Yates of KEXP, who liked Pickerel’s first album, recently reviewed the successor as “a more confident and stylistically diverse set of noirish roots-rock that brings a broader range of psych-rock, western swing, soul, folk-rock and other influences to his dark, stylish blend of spaghetti western and Lee Hazlewood.”
“Cody’s Dream” is indeed bold and playful in its musical choices, though not straying too far from alt-country borders. “It’s a lot harder to be a guy about to turn 40 and try to front a hard rock band,” Pickerel said, wryly.
He and his band (the Praying Hands) launch “Cody’s Dream” at the Tractor Tavern on Saturday (9:30 p.m., $10).
On the new album, Pickerel again shows he has found his own, distinct voice. With, perhaps, one exception …
Told that he sounds a little like Lanegan on the title song, Pickerel gives a slight nod. “Someone else told me that,” he said. “In a way, it would make sense, because when I wrote it, lyrically my mind was in the early ’80s — it’s about a kid trying to ride the coattails of a band out of town …
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Lanegan seeped into that.”
Tom Scanlon: firstname.lastname@example.org