Dulli – Under the Radar
By Frank Valish
Greg Dulliís career thus far has been a storied one. He formed rock and roll powerhouse The Afghan Whigs in Cincinnati in 1986; the Whigs went on to release some of the best and most lauded alternative rock of the 90só1993ís Gentleman being applauded as one of the best rock albums of its time. Since breaking up the Whigs in 2001, Dulli and his new project, the sleeker, sexier Twilight Singers, have gone on to release three albumsóthe most recent of which was 2004ís She Loves You, a cover album that saw Dulli interpreting songs from artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Mary J. Blige, and Fleetwood Mac. Currently, Dulli is preparing to release Amber Headlights under his own name. Rather than new music, Amber Headlights is the long-lost batch of half-finished demos that Dulli cut after disbanding the Whigs, a project that he ultimately shelved when friend and filmmaker Ted Demme passed away in 2002. Dulli spoke with UTR from his home in sunny Los Angeles, where he has begun work on a new Twilight Singers album.We had the chance to speak with Dulli about his career, Amber Headlights, the demise of the Whigs, and the projects he has on tap for the future, not the least of which is his highly anticipated Gutter Twins collaboration with ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan.
Under The Radar: Hi Greg. So, where am I calling? Are you in L.A. right now?
Greg Dulli: [in mock weatherman tone] Los Angeles, California. 71 degrees. Fa-a-a-antastic day.
UTR: Taking some time off before heading overseas? [Ed. note: Dulli will be playing live shows with Mark Lanegan as Gutter Twins and with Italian group After Hours as a sideman]
Greg: I wish. Iím starting to mix songs for the actual next Twilight [Singers] record. Iím going over to meet with the string composer today and then weíre going to lay the strings down tomorrow on four songs.
UTR: So the writingís completed for the record?
Greg: Nah, I write up until the bitter end.
UTR: I wanted to talk to you first about Amber Headlights. I know that when you recorded these songs, the first Twilight Singers album [2000ís Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers] had come out about a year and a half earlier, and youíd just recently announced the breakup of the Whigs. So, tell me about the headspace you were in when you recorded these songs for Amber Headlights. Where were you planning on going with the project?
Greg: Well, I had just announced the breakup of the Whigs and started working on some songs. Some of the songs were songs that I had for the Whigs and, you know, when we got there, it just wasnít working out. So I sat on them. And when I mean I brought songs, I did not bring completed songs, I never did to the band. I would just do them on the spot with them. Because unless I have instruments in front of me, you know, I play basketball. So my headspace, I would probably categorize it as tentative and probably out of sorts. I had never broken up a band before. Not a band of 12, 13, 14 years, you know what I mean? So I think I was kind of sad and kind of mourning something that meant a lot to me. So I think I probably just went in by the seat of my pants.
UTR: Was there something about the logistics of bringing these particular songs to that band that didnít work and led to the breakup of the band?
Greg: No. It was just a general feeling of being out of sorts. We were coming in from 4 [different places]. We had decided to meet in Cincinnati to work on the record. Rick and I hadnít lived there in a decade. And when we got there, I think we just felt like fish out of water and did not know what to do. For the last record that we madeówhich makes sense that it was the last record that we madeówe all got together down in New Orleans, and we hadnít seen each other in a year and a half when we got together to do [1998ís] 1965. But we all lived together in New Orleans, and that record was probably the most cohesive record we had done since we were 21 or 22 years old, because we were all hanging out all the time. By the time we hit [1992ís] Congregation, we were kind of scattered all over and that worked really well for a while, but then when people started having kids and stuff like that, it got a little tough to keep it down.
UTR: It sounds like you knew, at least in part, that this was not going to be a long-term thing anymore, at the time when you had some of these songs and you were coming in to try to do it.
Greg: Uh, correct. I went into the final Whigs situation with the best intentions, but you canít squeeze blood from a stone. And it finally wasnít happening anymore. So I just took the songs, took the riffs that I had and went back to California. And I didnít do anything for [a while]. I went over to England and remixed the first Twilight record with Fila [Brazillia, a British ambient duo] and then I came back and I did I guess like two weeks of shows with the Twilight Singers, and then I didnít do anything for about a year. I didnít play music for like a year.
UTR: I know that you stopped writing the album when Ted Demme passed away. What effect did Demmeís passing have on the place you were coming from with your songwriting at the time? In other words, was there a reassessment or change in focus or direction as a result?
Greg: Well, Iíll put it to you this way. Amber Headlights, as it is now, was a work in progress that stopped. That record was not complete. That is not a complete record, because I usually will write at least 20 to 25 songs and then pick through and put together the best record that I possibly can. So I was literally barely halfway through the process when Ted died. And I canít say that all of those songs would have made it. I can say that I liked them enough to complete them as best I could. But when Ted died, that record meant nothing to me because it wasnít reflective of where I was as a human being, which is kind of the way Iíve always done music. So I stopped and I started all over again and that became [2003ís] Blackberry Belle, and for Blackberry Belle, with the exception of ďGet the WheelĒ which became ďFollow You Down,Ē all of those songs were brand new at that point.
UTR: Is there a sense of relief, like a big sigh now that these are out? Like a weight has been lifted? Is it cathartic at all?
Greg: Itís cathartic to me in the way that I know everybody knew about the project and, like I said, I wanted to get it out from behind me so that I could move on. I mean, Iím sitting on 15 new songs right now, plus Iím sitting on 13 Gutter Twins songs. So, having this out from behind me is allowing me to move on.
UTR: I wanted to ask you about the genesis of the Gutter Twins [the project Dulli began with Mark Lanegan]. You said you have some songs completed. How did that project come about?
Greg: Mark and I had been friends for a long time. Mark and I started actually working together in 2000 briefly on some of his songs. And then I played him some of mine and then we sort of talked about doing something together, but that wasnít the Gutter Twins. And then he got the Queens [of the Stone Age] job and took off with that and I continued on with what I was working on. And then Ted died and then I restarted and then Mark came back in after than, because heís on Blackberry Belle. And then I played on his record, and then he toured with me and I toured with him and at the end of me touring with him, thatís when we talked about doing a record together.
UTR: So it was just common sense at that point.
Greg: Yeah. We were gigging together and hanging out together all the time. You can do good or you can do bad, and we decided to do a little bit of good [laughs]
UTR: This is a strictly a rock and roll project, correct?
Greg: Itís kind of rock and roll. Itís actually a little bit moreÖthere are country and folk elements all over it, and there are electronic elements too. Itís a strange record. Itís strange. It doesnít sound like either one of us.
UTR: Do you split the vocals?
Greg: We split vocals. and thereís a couple songs that we sing top to bottom in harmony. There are nods to The Everly Brothers. There are nods to Simon and Garfunkel. There are nods to The Stooges and Primal Scream too.
UTR: Is there a time frame to releasing that record?
Greg: Well, we seem to work on it every Christmas. This is our third Christmas coming up. And I think this Christmas is when weíll lock it down.
UTR: Well, Merry Christmas to you then. I read that youíre working with some high profile guests this time around on the Twilight record. Not just Lanegan, but Ani DiFranco, Joseph Arthur. Iím wondering how this influenced your creative process on the record. Is it a more open, collaborative-type of project?
Greg: Joseph Arthur and I collaborated on a couple of songs. And we wrote one song together, which is gorgeous. Ani is my producerís girlfriend, and sheís a friend of mine too, and sheís singing on two songs. But it was her suggestion. She actually liked one song in particular and went in and did this vocal harmony that I would have never thought of and it really elevates the song. I think sheís a fantastic singer, and she certainly did me a big favor by singing on this song, because it completely transformed the song.
UTR: How will the album compare to Twilight and Blackberry Belle?
Greg: Easy answer is logical progression, but it probably is a little more harder rock than either one of those.
UTR: I know Iím jumping around a bit here, but Iím wondering what made you want to work with [the Italian band] After Hours.
Greg: I had seen them play in Italy years ago and I was really moved by their performance. Theyíre a really emotional and visceral onstage group. They gave me a couple of their records. I think I listened to them a little bit, but then they invited the Twilight Singers to go over and tour with them a couple of years ago. And I went on tour with them and I got to see them, probably eight nights in a row, and they blew my mind. Theyíre beautiful human beings and great musicians and songwriters, and they asked me to produce their record and said they were going to do it in Catania, which was my favorite city in Sicily, and would I come over there for five weeks and co-write and produce their record. It was May and June of last year, and thatís a nice time to be on the Italian Riviera, bro, so it was kind of a no-brainer [laughs].
UTR: So do you strategically pick your times to go back over, because I know youíre going over to play with them soon?
Greg: Yeah, because itís summer [laughs]. Weíre playing a bunch of resort towns. You know, 10-20,000 people will come to see them play every night and Iíll get driven around in my own Mercedes and stay in a five-star hotel by the beach.
UTR: And play some piano and guitar.
Greg: I play piano and guitar, and I sing with them too. I sing a song in Italian at the end of the show every night. I donít know what Iím saying, but my pronunciation is impeccable [laughs].
UTR: A true craftsman. I have to ask this: With the recent successes of bands like The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and even Slint, do you ever feel inclined to reform the Whigs for one last go around?
Greg: [quickly] No, nah, no. Weíve gotten some offers, and weíve gotten some nice offers. But, Iíll put it to you this way. We werenít big enough to get the kind of money Iím looking for. You know what Iím saying? I loved The Pixies. I loved Dinosaur. I loved Slint. So Iím not going to say anything about those groups, except for, if thatís what they wanted to do, then good on Ďem. But I tend to lean more toward what Bob Mould says about HŁsker DŁ. I did it already. If the Whigs wereówell, itís not even a question, because if we were an ongoing entity that were still being creative and making records, that would be a whole Ďnother story. But [a reunion] would literally be going out and playing songs that we all played 2,000 times already. And I think that mightÖIíll never say never, but Iím saying not now.
UTR: Was it an amicable break? I got the impression that it was.
Greg: Oh yeah. Yeah. I talk to [bassist] John Curley every week. I talk to Rick [McCollum, guitarist] every two weeks. Theyíre my boys and I love them and I support their projects. Iíve played with both of them since then. Johnís on Amber Headlights and Rickís on Powder Burns, which is the [Twilight Singers] record thatís coming up. So I still talk with them and collaborate with them. But as far as being The Afghan Whigs, again, we were and we did it extremely well.
UTR: From the choices youíve seemed like youíve made throughout your career, you donít seem like the kind who would go into it strictly for the money.
Greg: No, well I barely made any money in the first place [laughs]. I never did it for the money. I did it because it fed my passion, and thatís what I have to have. And the fact that I was able to go out and take some time off and then come back and do something wholly my own has been enormously satisfying, if on a smaller scale. Iím doing fine.
UTR: You talk about HŁsker DŁ, and Iíve talked to Bob Mould and it seemed to me that for him, being in HŁsker DŁ and Sugar and being the rock and roll guy is almost the cross he has to bear. Like heís got to answer questions like Iím asking you, about his old band, every single time.
Greg: But see, I donít mind talking about the Whigs. At all. I guess I get the feeling that Bobís situation was much more unpleasant than mine. And for him to have to deal with the infighting and Grant [Hart]ís drug abuse. I didnít have that. So, it was literally, our situation was like, the day came when we all looked at each other and realized that weíd taken it as far as it was supposed to go. And we hugged each other and said goodbye. Said goodbye to that, but did not say goodbye to each other. Weíre very active in each otherís lives.
UTR: Have you seen the documentary? [Ed note: Upcoming documentary Ladies and Gentelmen, created by Afghan Whigsí soundman, Steve Girton, which chronicles the bandís 1993 European tour]
Greg: I have not.
UTR: I wonder whether thatís a time that youíd even care to relive. I always had the impression that 1993 was a tough time. Gentleman was an emotionally heavy album.
Greg: Yeah. I donít even have a copy, and I donít want a copy, of the documentary. I think itís great for people who want to check it out. But, I donít know. What is that, 12 years ago? I lived that. I donít need to look at it, you know.
UTR: Ever thought of re-releasing Big Top Halloween, because I see that it goes for a pretty penny on eBay these days?
Greg: Curley talks about that. It is horrible. It is a horrible record. So the idea of pimping that out is not up my alley. But if John Curley wants to take it on and send me one fourth of the money, Iím certain that my accountant would accept that check. Weíre actually going to do a retrospective with Rhino [Records] next year, and Iíve already begun digging up some old stuff. And thereís some cool stuff that no one ever heard, including two of the last songs we ever did as a band, which I was actually really excited about.
UTR: Whatís the next Greg Dulli project that will come out? Is it going to be Twilight Singers? Is it going to be Gutter Twins? Are you doing production work?
Greg: Twilight Singers. And the record is going to be called Powder Burns. My deadline to get it done is November 1, and if I get it done by November 1, I will be able to put it out in late February, and thatís my plan. And Iím pretty close. Iím going to have four for-sure songs mixed before I leave for Italy on Saturday.
UTR: Alright, well best of luck, and enjoy your time overseas.
Greg: Right back at ya. Thanks a lot, man. See ya.