Olivia Jaffe

Interview: Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe – Breaking Out Of The Basement

The horrors of reality tend to eclipse whatever fictional horrors a person can dream up. Under their twisted outlaw alter egos Dark Mark and Skeleton Joe, Mark Lanegan and Joe Cardamone survey this notion with an infectious spirit of inquiry. Sonically, their synthpop-based debut album often calls to mind a campy, House of Horror aesthetic that underpins the real-life terrors smoldering upwards from the bonfire. Like building a neon-lit retro-futuristic metropolis around Devils Tower, Cardamone’s spacey synth arrangements accommodate Lanegan’s signature ashen drawl with palpable reverence.

First and foremost, Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe sounds like two rock paragons having a giddy good time just creating, and – in their own words from separately conducted interviews – “just letting it flow”.  And given the nature of their respective previous projects, that sense of fun is wholly relished and cultivated. Lanegan spent the bulk of 2020 navigating the whirlwind fallout of his brutal tell-all memoirs Sing Backwards And Weep, whereas Cardamone’s plans took a left turn by the necessity of making Quarentina, an audiovisual album project that compelled him to bare his soul and rummage the debris of his existence during the pandemic.

“The Quarentina project was more or less exposure therapy,” Cardamone comments from his garden, surrounded by soothing birdsong and insect buzzing. “It was about trying to find meaning, some sort of sense out of a situation that in my own mind seemed like chaos and confusion. Rather than walk away from it I decided to bathe in it for months on end and mine my own sort of grief or meaning.  Most of my work is that: super personal and trying to find meaning in stuff that seems meaningless on the surface. Or has no trajectory, and is just chaos. To find some kind of order in that chaos.”

Lanegan himself had to revisit myriad blood-curdling, bone-rattling situations he left on the back burner for many years. That, in a nutshell, wasn’t exactly his idea of ‘fun’ either. “Writing a book like that is a completely different experience than writing poetry or songs,” he says over his phone from his bucolic Ireland residence. “Writing poetry and songs is enjoyable. It’s something I do instinctually and I don’t put a lot of thought into it. And I enjoy it a lot. But writing a book like that: zero pleasure. It’s a totally different process. Especially the nature of that book, it was unbelievably painful at times to go back into those memories. To the things I did and didn’t do. And the people I lost. The havoc, the damage. It was a heavy experience. And not a fun one. “

The duo connected for the first time in 2004 when Cardamone’s now-defunct post-hardcore agitators The Icarus Line opened for Lanegan’s solo band after the release of the latter’s album Bubblebum. “The Icarus Line had the same booking agency as me, and they presented them as the opening act,” Lanegan remembers.  “And I said, yeah, of course. I loved their records.” Cardamone also expresses fond memories of that tour, and specifically, that album. “I really became a fan of Mark’s work through Bubblegum.  That was the first one I knew things he had worked on and thought were cool. But Bubblegum was tied to a moment of my life that meant something to me beyond knowing Mark as a person. So that record cemented my opinion of him as a singer and songwriter. That record became part of the fabric of my canon and it never left. It was the soundtrack for a certain period in my life. When something enters your life like that it rarely leaves. It becomes a part of who you are right now.”

“We never talked about doing anything for several years,” Lanegan comments. “But then we reunited, (him) opening for me again as a solo act. You know, we’re just good friends. Same taste in music. You just know it with some people, that it’s going to be cool. The first thing we worked on together was a video of mine, and that was killer. After that, he just tossed these instrumental tracks at me: ’Go sing these’. And I was like, ‘sure’.”

Given Cardamone’s recent proclivity for extending his music into film (plus factoring in his background as the son of a filmmaker), the Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe project indeed strikes like an actor-director type of dynamic, with Cardamone taking more of a back seat to allow Lanegan’s voice to orate in its full distinguishable glory. As many great horror films have shown in both landmark classics like Halloween and contemporary trail-blazing entries such as Hereditary, it’s about manifesting some very earthbound idea into the sublime and supernatural so it can be communicated in a potent way. 

Cardamone nods in approval. “These films became vessels to hide bigger ideas or bigger questions inside of a genre. You have a vehicle to make people think about things a little bit differently than within a genre where they are already predisposed to enjoy. People want to be scared. If you look at a film like The Exorcist, that’s more of a drama than a horror film. The last twenty minutes are horrific, but most of the movie is about people. A mother and a daughter and a man who’s having a crisis of faith. Those films are using horror as a great device. I think that’s what made me fall in love with horror immediately. It wasn’t just the scares, though the thrill is great, but there was so much more. They are art pieces. Hereditary is an allegory for mental illness and generational trauma. There is a lot of that on the surface, but all in all: that’s what it’s about. That’s a cool accomplishment. Mental illness is such a hard thing to talk about, or even describe properly because it is hard to put your finger on what it is. So using possession as the allegory works fine because it might as well be fucking possession. Some of that shit mirrors stuff I have been through personally, and that is way more horrific than a clown popping out of the sewer.”

Lanegan on the other hand, admits to being less immersed within the horror genre. Nevertheless, on the album, he performs the role of doom spelling denizen with stunning conviction. It’s not just that undeniably totemic voice, but the experiences festering within the said voice. Cardamone: “That’s the great thing about Mark as an artist: he can really tell stories through his songs, and bring you to this visual place. You can see the whole thing unfolding. He’s amazing that way.Having read Sing Backwards And Weep, it’s hard to believe some of the scenes Lanegan paints are even real-life events, especially passages chronicling abjectly nauseating tales of his drug habit at the time. The potency and incandescence of his storytelling, and often dark humor imbued within, somehow makes it impossible to look away and to put down. 

“I will say this”, Lanegan concedes after some prodding.  “Whenever you put something out into the world, it’s something you think is worthy. And there is a part of me that’s gratified when something is received well. That said, the nature of music is not for everybody. And not everyone’s gonna like everything you do. The reaction to that book was heavily positive, but also a source of pain for some people. Myself especially.” He lets out a devilish cackle. “So yeah, you know what I’m talking about. I’m glad you noticed the humor. I tried to find it wherever I could.”

Cardamone: “I was reading the book halfway into recording the vocals and I was just stunned at how beautiful it was. It was one of the few books that at the end I was in tears. I had never really experienced that before. I just related to a lot of the stories that he told. They felt like stories from my life to a certain extent. Since he was still in the throes of going through the book, these stories were fresh in his mind. Even before reading the book I had known some of the stories through conversation. I feel like the book is in this record a lot. You can feel the same sort of sentiment. I feel like the book and the record are definitely tied together. “

Indeed, Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe explores a comparable ambiguity: the same kitschy suspense as John Carpenter’s soundtrack work, or nineties cult horror shows like Tales From The Crypt. But there’s something piercingly real in the lyrics, something that stops you in your tracks a bit and gives pause to think that the entertainment factor in the track might – perhaps unintentionally – be a bit of a ruse. A song like “Crime”, despite its freeform synth-based arrangements, strikes more like some bygone folk or blues spiritual than anything. The opening line is simply devastating: “If they came for me today / I’ll pull the pin from this hand grenade”. Lanegan: “Well, I will say this: during the recording process and writing process of this record, things were getting a little bit crazy in Los Angeles. And things were hectic in my personal life as well, so you know you always reach for the lowest hanging fruit. The thing that’s right in front of ya. So you’re not wrong.”

“Yeah, that’s life though isn’t it?” Cardamone comments on the record’s rather macabre sonic atmosphere. ”That really is life. But to me, I feel like a lot of the stories told on the record are probably close to the truth. With a few songs, I didn’t even realize until after we were done that they were about situations in my life that we had talked about. Later on, I would find out ‘Oh shit, that was about a situation I was going through!’. Mark would be writing about it and I had no clue. And later on, he would tell me ‘I was writing that song to you’.” 

“This record has a specific vibe that every track had to encompass,” he continues. “We spent more time during the recording process just hanging out and talking than we did actually recording. We’d record for an hour during a four-hour session. Maybe less. The world was in major flux during the making of the record, everyone’s life was in flux. There was a whole lot to talk about. Mark is like a big brother to me, so I can confess about my life and he’d tell me about his. There’s no way that that doesn’t sort of bleed into the project.”

Lanegan says it was a godsend that the files Cardamone sent him already had their working titles. It immediately gave him something to riff off of.To be honest with you, I approach every musical project I’m writing for exactly the same way. Whether I’m writing music myself or whether somebody else is, I’m making sort of a vocal map the first time I hear a piece of music, not knowing where it’s going. By that I mean just a phonetic, melodic thing, maybe a few words that spring off the top of my head.   And then I listened back to it, and one of the words will tell me what the line is going to be. And that line is going to tell me what the next line is going to be. It’s not brain surgery. More like building a fence. I do it strictly by instinct, although I try not to repeat myself over the course of an album.” Again, his wicked cackle resonates through the phone speakers. “That sometimes happens.”

Cardamone: “Traditionally I’m not a great collaborator. But Mark is really a pro collaborator. He can kind of walk into any situation and find himself in it. I do not collaborate a lot. The conditions have to be very specific for me to find myself in something and see myself in a project. Working with him, I’m telling you,  I didn’t have to think about it at all. It was really intuitive and natural.  That was really a gift for me because I struggle to collaborate with other people. When something fades outside of the vision I have for a project, I sometimes find it hard to reacclimatize or recover. It takes me longer. With Mark we didn’t have these problems. All the vocals I did on the Dark Mark record, I wrote them right when I was singing them. “

During the interview, Cardamone is on the cusp of leaving for Ireland to visit Lanegan and do what he has been doing with his other more recent projects: transpose the music into a visual plane of existence. Besides chasing a mutual curiosity, he admits there isn’t much of a plan in place. ”It’s a great opportunity to express the sentiment in another dimension,” he enthuses. “It adds another layer to the storytelling. At this point, music without a visual element to me is almost half of a project. That’s maybe sad in some ways because records used to hold up by being on a piece of vinyl and your imagination takes it away. But for me as an artist, I love to mine the material for other purposes.”

At 56, Lanegan’s curiosity for new sounds and disciplines hasn’t satiated: he admits to taking up drawing, and name-dropping Cold Cave’s Fate In Seven Lessons and Pharaoh Overlord’s 6 among his current favorites. Cardamone, meanwhile, has been really caught up in Kanye West’s output. “He dropped a new version of DONDA last night!” he fervently notes. “There’s two up on iTunes now… the one that got dropped and the new one that came out last night.” Regardless of critical reception, Kanye has broken industry conventions once again with DONDA, changing the music on the fly after its release, allowing it to live a life of its own. That kind of maverick mindset seems to appeal to both Cardamone and Lanegan as well: any method that deviates and untethers from the same album-rollout paradigms and streaming-focussed release schemes feels worth pursuing.

Like two necromancers resurrecting the dead with a spell, extending Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe as a film-based project seems like a logical next step to nurture the duo’s ever-flowing and reciprocating creative pact, giving the work its intrinsic worth. The notion of a constantly changing, evolving alliance, driven by process over result, seems like a healthy form of revolt in today’s claustrophobic modern music experience. Hopefully soon, there will be a way out of the basement. 

Cardamone: “That’s the gist of all my projects. I’m an intuition-based artist. I let the project dictate where it goes, let the work push you towards a conclusion. Follow the momentum.”

Lanegan: “Of course it’s all rooted in something from your reality, something you’ve seen and heard and know. But in the context of the song, it’s not real. In other words: there is reality, it’s based in reality, but the song itself is not real. And that’s the critical difference between a song and the book that we were talking about earlier. There’s a freedom to singing, and to poetry, that just kind of flows. And that’s why I enjoy it. Of course, it comes off the top of my head from someplace, but in the end, I don’t really question where it’s coming from.”

Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe is out now via Rare Bird/Kitten Robot. Order the record here