In the Twilight zone
Former Afghan Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli finds inspiration in New Orleans for his new band’s latest album
Friday, June 02, 2006
By Keith Spera
For years, Greg Dulli fed his appetite for destruction in seedy bars along lower Decatur Street.
But weeks after Hurricane Katrina, with the city still largely abandoned, the former Afghan Whigs and current Twilight Singers vocalist strode down an empty Royal Street early one morning. And instead of regrets, he came away with a song.
That intimate composition, “I Wish I Was,” is the final cut on “Powder Burns,” the fourth album from the Twilight Singers. On it, Dulli, an Ohio native, mourns New Orleans, the city where he lives part-time: “Strings of your death, tied to your breath/All that’s been seen, cannot be unseen . . . Deeper you fall, the places you crawl/To find you’re unclean, unsaved, defeated by self and no one else, my love.”
“New Orleans has been like a girlfriend to me for almost 20 years,” Dulli said this week from a tour stop in Philadelphia. After the storm, “I felt so sad, but filled with love for her. I wanted to write something as honest and heartfelt as I could about a place that I dearly love, projected as if she were a person.”
Dulli’s personal and professional lives have long been writ large across New Orleans. He has recorded five albums here. He assembled the original Twilight Singers here as an ambient, after-hours alternative to the Afghan Whigs’ amplified sonic assault. The Twilight Singers’ touring lineup includes guitarist Dave Rosser, formerly of local experimental rock outfit Daydreams & Curry and the Famous Door house band.
New Orleans also factored into Dulli’s near self-destruction via substance abuse.
“When I came down in ’97, that started the (downward) spiral,” he said. “I was clearly having fun at the beginning of it. Then I lost control of the wheel. A 24-hour city, it’s very seductive and everything I wanted it to be. At some point unbeknownst to me, it moved from recreation to need.
“I blame my troubles on me. I went looking for an enabler and found one (in New Orleans). But if it wasn’t there, I could have gone to Las Vegas, to Amsterdam, to Paris. It was going to happen wherever it was going to happen.”
Two years ago, Dulli cleaned up his act. He is not opposed to the occasional drink, but avoids hard drugs. When he returned to New Orleans in the summer of 2005 to record “Powder Burns,” he bypassed his old haunts.
“New Orleans is a devil of a town, and the devil comes in many forms,” he said. “I’m not done dancing with the devil, just that particular devil. I still love Decatur Street, but there’s a couple places I don’t go in anymore.”
With Dulli free of distraction, “Powder Burns” evolved as the most rambunctious Twilight Singers album to date.
“After the Whigs broke up (in 2001) and I took a little time off, I started to reconcile the fact that I like hard rock music, too,” he said. “Playing shows got me back into the visceral impact of the rock experience. Any preconceived notion about what the Twilight Singers were, I decided to smash against the curb and start to rock a little bit.”
To that end, he turned to New Orleans producer Mike Napolitano, whose credits include World Leader Prtend, the Neville Brothers and C.C. Adcock. Living and working in Napolitano’s home studio at the edge of the French Quarter, Dulli collaborated with singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, another occasional New Orleans resident. Contemporary folk singer Ani DiFranco, Napolitano’s significant other, sings back-up on four tracks.
“I love her and her voice,” Dulli said. “I always thought we would sing well together, and I think I was right.”
Two weeks before Katrina, Dulli left for a scheduled tour of Italy. His heart sank as he watched news reports from abroad.
Several days after the storm, Napolitano sneaked back into his unflooded home and retrieved Dulli’s unfinished tapes. They resumed recording in Brooklyn, but flew back to New Orleans as soon as the airport reopened. Dulli was determined to finish the project where it started, despite a curfew and rolling blackouts.
“In a lot of ways it was spite,” he said. “I wanted to be with the city when the city needed people the most.”
He, Napolitano and DiFranco formed their own cloistered creative community.
“A lot of times, it was just the three of us in the house,” Dulli said. “She was making her record upstairs, then would come downstairs and take a break and watch us. That whole experience bonded us in a way that cannot be broken. It was us against the world. There’s a group of people that are like my family.”
Recording under such remarkable conditions focused intent and heightened emotions.
“There was no hiding at that point,” Dulli said. “It was a buck naked experience, one that I would never trade. It was a defining period of my life. Not just the artistic part, but my sentient being.”
In addition to “I Wish I Was,” three other songs — “Underneath the Waves,” “Bonnie Brae” and the “Powder Burns” title track — took shape post-Katrina.
“It’s never hard for me to get inspired in New Orleans,” he said. “But after I’d been there for a week, seeing the city like no one had ever seen it before. . .it’s impossible for it to not affect you. And with the alone time I had — which was a lot, because of the lack of people — I started to draw parallels between self-destruction and natural destruction. I was able to marry some of the songs to that.”
Early reviews for “Powder Burns” have been positive. The Twilight Singers’ current tour stops at One Eyed Jacks on Wednesday. Ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan joins the band for that show.
Katrina was not the first storm to intrude on a Dulli recording session. While working on the 2003 album “Blackberry Belle” in a warehouse off Broad Street, he and his fellow musicians emerged after a downpour to wade through hip-deep water.
He had just started “Powder Burns” when Tropical Storm Cindy hit in July. Then along came Katrina.
Apparently, a Dulli recording session also functions as a hurricane magnet. But fear not, cackles this harbinger of doom.
“I have no plans,” Dulli said, “to record this hurricane season.”