Rock ‘n’ roll cravings
Like his beloved New Orleans, Greg Dulli has survived life’s storms and stays hungry for more of the unexpected
By Dan Nailen
I’m here to make the case for Greg Dulli, leader of The Twilight Singers and formerly of Afghan Whigs, as the personification of the American rock ‘n’ roll dream.
Consider the evidence.
Dulli grew up in suburban Cincinnati, where he formed the Afghan Whigs in 1986. Three years later the Whigs became the first non-Seattle band to sign with Sub Pop Records, a move that marked the label’s expansion beyond local “grunge” acts and Dulli’s expansion beyond his home state.
Since then, Dulli has toured the globe with the Whigs and his new band, The Twilight Singers; lived in places stretching from Sicily to Los Angeles to New Orleans; appeared in movies (“Beautiful Girls,” “Fresh Horses”); survived a seven-year, self-described “drug haze” and a near-fatal beating in Texas after a show; and seen his New Orleans home through three hurricanes.
All that living led to “Powder Burns,” Dulli’s latest collection released under the Twilight Singers’ name. The 41-year-old Dulli’s reputation as an ace songwriter helped land Ani DiFranco and Joseph Arthur to join his ever-changing cast of players on the album, and former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan is joining the band for the final two weeks of The Twilight Singers’ tour, including a stop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
See? It does sound like Dulli’s living the dream, right? And when you talk to him, Dulli lets you know it’s no accident.
“It was a plan for me,” Dulli said. “I knew I was going to blast out of Ohio when I was 13. Nothing against my home state; I am fiercely loyal and proud to be from there. It’s just a little sleepy for me, and I crave stimulation. And I went and found it.”
The “stimulation” Dulli has spent his life pursuing – musical, sexual and chemical – infused his songs through the years, whether a devastatingly direct attack on a former lover in one of his originals or covering one of the funk and soul acts such as Prince or Marvin Gaye that Dulli adores. On his current tour, Dulli already has worked up a cover of R&B hip-hoppers Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
“Powder Burns” sums up Dulli’s life and music to date, and was largely written while he was “learning to live unclouded.” He started writing and recording in New Orleans a couple of years ago, then took time to produce Italian band After Hours and join them on a tour through Europe as their guitarist. Dulli kept writing and recording while he was in Italy, then returned to the States to finish the set.
Dulli was in New Orleans working on the album just before Hurricane Katrina hit, but he left town after hearing reports of what was coming. He already had been through two Category 2 hurricanes in his years living in the Big Easy. Despite the decimation of the city, though, Dulli returned a couple of months after Katrina, intent on finishing the album where he started it.
“New Orleans is like a really dear friend of mine, and if you’re only around for your friends in good times, you’re not a true friend,” Dulli said, noting that he had to finish recording using power generators and was literally writing lyrics by candlelight. “It was really important for me to go down and be part of picking the city off its feet, because that’s what everyone there was doing. When I was there, the city was at a quarter population and under a military curfew. Martial law. It was totally surreal, but the experience worked into the songs and some of the lyrics.”
Dulli’s home there, where he spends about four months of the year, was in the high country of New Orleans, but the first thing he did when he returned after Katrina was head to the east side of town, which he now describes as “overwhelming, like Nagasaki.” Like many New Orleans residents, Dulli has been underwhelmed by the government’s response to the tragedy, saying, “They’re not doing s— down there.” The rebuilding that will be necessary is something this country has never done before, he said, at least since Atlanta burned in the Civil War, and Dulli is particularly sad about the long-term demographic changes to New Orleans.
“It will never be the same, and here’s why: because the cultural diversity has been erased,” Dulli said, predicting that much of the city’s black population will spread across the South since there’s nothing to go home to. “And the government’s reaction before, during and after has ensured that the racial makeup of New Orleans will be changed forever. And that, to me, is a travesty.”
Still, Dulli has no plans to abandon the city. He’ll be going back at the end of the “Powder Burns” tour.
“I think New Orleans will always be the most special city we have,” Dulli said, “and how it reinvents itself will be interesting to watch. And I’ll be part of that.”