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The Skinny: Dulli Interview

The Skinny – Written by Dave Kerr

“I make most of my records rather selfishly, they’re done for me by me. That someone else would like it is just a bonus”

“Narcissism isn’t always bad, bro”, Ohioan soul rocker Greg Dulli cautions The Skinny. KanYe West he is not, but Dulli acknowledges the tricky dichotomy of ego and introspection he treads; essential components to the success of the self referential poetry he has pushed over the years.

Fundamentally heralded as something of a vanity project, he relays to us that The Twilight Singers started in his house with a click track, only to evolve through an extensive cast of characters and producers over the course of the four albums to follow under the moniker thus far.

Following the first album, for Dulli to further his post-Afghan Whigs swagger proved a troubling period, as following the untimely death of his friend, director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, Blow) in 2002, he scrapped the work in progress that was to become the recently released ‘Amber Headlights’ and thought again about how to peddle his aesthetic. However, with a high level of production, the process has appeared as more a rejuvenation of the soul than a plague of writer’s block.

Creative promiscuity abounds, 2004’s ‘She Loves Me’ was reputed to be a training ground for Dulli and his players to push their artistic flex with an eclectic range of covers from Bjork to John Coltrane, thus exorcising any previous restrictive sloganeering that the outfit held previously in mind. Dulli recalls; “It started on the side, as more of an ambient atmospheric project, and that kind of hovered over me subconsciously. Touring ‘Blackberry Belle’ and ‘She Loves You’ with a rock band helped me throw some of the yoke away, all bets were off. So when I wrote the riff to I’m Ready [the first track proper on the new Twilight Singers LP], I thought ‘oh fuck, this is good, I’m going with it, I’m not going to put any kind of restrictions on what I sound like anymore’.”

To meddle with the ambience further, the recording of latest album ‘Powder Burns’ in New Orleans amid the gloom-laden days and nights in the aftermath of Katrina made a heavy impact on the end product, as Dulli affirms, “Lyrically it did, I had done most of the basic tracks two weeks before the hurricane, but got back three weeks after it happened”. He recalls; “There was a curfew in place, with marshal law, no hot water and rolling blackouts. We used generators a lot to fire up the equipment when the power went out. A lot of times I would stay up late after the curfew and write the lyrics by candlelight, it was very romantic” he laughs heartily, before sombrely relating; “But to come back and see New Orleans in the condition it was in was like seeing a friend in the hospital, it was dark.”

Having spent his formative years putting together 8mm shorts and attending film school for a spell, it should come as no surprise that ‘Powder Burns’ mirrors the trademark stylistics of a film score, he considers this idea; “I think this one is particularly cinematic, in the way that it’s sequenced and the story that it’s telling to me. I make most of my records rather selfishly, they’re done for me by me. That someone else would like it is just a bonus.”

Making sleazy machismo sound like romanticised optimism and vice versa; a mark of contrast is stamped all over the record. Although the title to Bonnie Brae may initially allude to a highland ballad played with panpipes and sung in Gaelic by a ginger haired native from Skye, Dulli sets us straight; ‘It’s a street in Los Angeles. When the sun goes down on Bonnie Brae, you drive your car down there and people will come out from buildings and sell you things.’ Such is the level of subtlety employed to convey the darkest of subject matters that a zealous couple who fell head over heels for the song recently enthused to Dulli after a gig; “My god we’re gonna have a little girl in two months and we’re gonna name her Bonnie Brae.” The fun to be had explaining that one at a christening.

So is the cult of the Afghan Whigs forever buried? What of the legacy of a group who emerged from the murky waters of Subpop to find themselves at the ebb of something mammoth for a respectable term but never bowed down by diluting their style for the sake of sealing the deal. Dulli lets us hear it; “The Whigs have been offered significant money to reform, but if it was about money, I would have quit this a long time ago. I do it for what I feel is the most pure reason and that is desire, so if I pull out a ‘Whigs song [on tour], you can bet your ass that my heart is all the way behind it.”

The Twilight Singers really should fear going on tour though, especially with the heinous tales from previous groupie experiences in Dallas, Texas where Dulli recalls; “I was propositioned by a mother and her daughter – I passed, I instantly did not do it – although it was talked about for weeks.”

The man has more than the proposition of freaky threesomes on his plate, as a relentless work schedule crams his diary with ease; “I’m working on a screenplay and I’ve started taking animation classes. So I’m developing a cartoon called Domino and Jimmy’s Reason to Live Lounge, it’s awesome; one of the characters is Jesse Garron, Elvis Presley’s stillborn brother” he wryly declares with a devilish snigger.

Besides touring the arse off of ‘Powder Burns’, there are plans to conclude the three-years-in-the-making Gutter Twins collaboration with Mark Lanegan; “We have studio time booked when I return”, he enthuses; “It is fucking cool. It doesn’t really sound like either one of us. We’re both primarily solitary songwriters and lyricists, but we sing a couple of songs top to bottom together, that’s kind of a new experience for me.”

He goes on to explain the rationale for his James Brown-styled hard work ethic clearly; “I like to write, I like to draw, I like to play music; I like to keep the razor honed.”

Powder Burns is released through One Little Indian on May 15
Twilight Singers play King Tut’s, Glasgow on July 7 and King Tut’s Tent at T in the Park, Balado on July 8.

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