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Amplifier Magazine Issue #54

By Brian Baker

There is an almost unearthly calm that emanates from the phone as Greg Dulli speaks. It’s reminiscent of the deathly silence that comes moments before a tornado heedlessly levels everything in its erratic path, not because it has any malevolent intent, but because that is its nature. There was a time when Dulli had more in common with the tornado’s demolition than the uncharacteristic peace that precedes it, but times have changed. Greg Dulli has found serenity.

In the course of our conversation, Dulli brings up the salient point that he and his rotating cast of musical talent known as the Twilight Singers have now released nearly as many full length albums as the Afghan Whigs, the whack ass indie soul/rock/punk band that occasioned Dulli’s rise in the early ’90s and earned him the type of slavish fans that most bands can only dream of. There was a time when Dulli would have proclaimed this fact with the kind of belligerence that generally occurs right before a pool cue gets snapped in half for use as a weapon. But that was then, this is now.

Greg Dulli is the eye rather than the storm these days. He will gladly discuss the band that established his reputation, but naturally he would rather talk about Powder Burns, the latest and perhaps best Twilight Singers album to date. Still in all, he understands the continued fascination with the Afghan Whigs.

That understanding, and Dulli’s newfound sense of inner calm, was at least mildly evident at this year’s South by Southwest festival. On the event’s second day, just hours before the Twilight Singers were scheduled to take the stage at Friends for an 11:30 PM showcase, I ran into Dulli on the sidewalk as I was heading back to a hotel room to write my daily notes. Recognizing me as a hometown writer (and someone whose history goes back to the formation of the Whigs in Cincinnati in 1987), he greeted me warmly and we chatted for a few minutes before a woman inserted herself into the conversation.

She was passionate in her love of the Afghan Whigs and there was no question of her sincerity even as Dulli thanked her profusely for her longstanding appreciation. Then she confessed that the last time she had seen the band was at the infamous 1998 Liberty Lunch gig in Austin, when a post-show altercation between Dulli and a stagehand landed him in the hospital with a skull fracture and resulted in a lawsuit that was dropped when the club went out of business.

The incident has long been a sore point with Dulli and I cringed at the woman’s mention of it, fully expecting his demeanor to reflect his discomfort, quite possibly in a most negative manner. Instead, he smiled sincerely and said, “I don’t remember much about that night.” He noted that he should be leaving before she thanked him again and that was that. As we walked down Sixth Street together, Dulli asked if I was just hanging and if I would like to join him.

Although the exchange I had just witnessed was uncharacteristic, I was still wary of disappearing into the late Austin afternoon with Greg Dulli. Unless you knew him back in the early days, you have no idea of how many explanations to cops, judges, bosses, and angry girlfriends all started out with, “Dulli and I went to this bar…” I weighed his offer against my journalistic responsibilities and told Greg I should head back to my hotel to get some writing in. He smiled, nodded and headed up the street. I walked back to my rental car, secure in the knowledge that I would be sober and unbooked for the evening ahead.

“I’ll be perfectly honest – about two years ago, I had a major awakening/lifestyle change, and it was with that change that I decided to take a glimpse back on the scorched earth policy I had been endeavoring to put upon the nation,” Dulli reports three weeks after our Austin meeting from his home in Los Angeles. “I was 38 years old and I had to decide whether I wanted to stick around or jump off a cliff. My zest for life had reached an insatiable point and I really had to make a conscious decision on how I wanted the remaining hours and days to go. The slow realization probably came from the internal dialogue that had been going on for years but was constantly obliterated by outside forces. I think I had been a passenger in my own Cadillac and I decided to take the wheel finally. I was headed for Hank Williams.”

If it’s hard to imagine a serene Greg Dulli, witnessing a current Twilight Singers show is not likely to make imagining it any easier. Dulli is every bit the swaggering, boisterous showman of old, approaching the Singers’ material with the same ferocity that always made the Whigs a viscerally compelling live force. Even in his quietest onstage moments, Dulli is like a truck spring that’s been coiled a couple turns too many. He is intensity personified.

It is that intensity that has also been successfully translated in the studio over Dulli’s nearly 20-year recording career, first with the Whigs and now with the Twilight Singers. The first Singers album, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, was actually conceived in 1997, four years before the Whigs called it a day. Basic tracks were laid down with Howlin’ Maggie keyboardist Happy Chichester and Screaming Trees drummer Martin Barrett, among others, and ultimately remixed by British dance gurus Steve Cobby and Dave McSherry, known professionally as Fila Brazilia. The album finally saw the light of day in 2000, and it was widely hailed as a fascinating and diverse side project.

In 2001, the geographical distance that separated the members of the Afghan Whigs finally took its toll. With Dulli in Seattle (and L.A. and New Orleans), bassist John Curley and drummer Michael Horrigan in Cincinnati, and guitarist Rick McCollum in Minneapolis, the band decided it was time to put the Whigs to rest.

“The logistics became intolerable; four guys in four cities and three different time zones,” says Dulli. “I grew up with those guys. We were a gang. Had we attempted to continue, we would have done permanent damage to our friendship. That we had the foresight to know when to walk away with grace is something I will always be proud of. I see people who were in bands together and they fucking hate each other and that would break my heart. We all sensed that it had reached its logical conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, tears were shed. It was not an emotionless experience; it was heavy.”

Considering Dulli’s activities to that point, the shift to the Twilight Singers was almost seamless. Dulli had already begun writing songs for a new Whigs record so he simply adjusted his mindset to the Singers and continued. While working on new Singers material, Dulli worked on several other projects, including friend Mark Lanegan’s Bubblegum album, singing with the Lo Fidelity All-Stars and Cypress Hill’s Muggs on their respective albums, and providing John Lennon’s vocals on the soundtrack for the Beatles biopic Backbeat.

Dulli was well into the making of his sophomore Singers album, Blackberry Belle, when good friend and director Ted Demme died of a heart attack during a pick-up basketball game. Dulli scrapped much of what he had already written and began working on a darker, more reflective set of songs. The resulting album was a departure from the arc Dulli had originally intended, and it could be assumed that this is where the Twilight Singers’ singular album-by-album approach had its start, but Dulli is quick to note that he has a long history of not repeating himself.

Dulli acknowledges the diversity of the Singers catalog, but adds that, “every Whigs record had a different personality. The idea of making the same record twice does not appeal to me. The only people who should make consistently similar records are the Ramones and AC/DC. Once you have a formula like that, you’re an idiot to ditch it.”

In a sense, Dulli’s refusal to duplicate himself across even a pair of albums is his formula, and it has served him well. Even the Singers themselves do not adhere to the rules of rock band membership, as Dulli assembles musicians the way Jim Phelps used to put together a strike force on Mission: Impossible – on an individual, as-needed, as-available basis. All of the Singers’ albums, including the unpredictably diverse covers album, She Loves You, the messy, jammy rock of Amber Headlights (a collection of tracks recorded around the time of the Whigs break-up and actually credited to Dulli rather than the Singers), and Dulli’s perceived fresh masterwork, Powder Burns, have been constructed in this manner.

“I write a lot, actually more so now than when I was in the Whigs, to be perfectly honest,” says Dulli. “Sometimes I’ll do it just to keep the sword sharp. I’ll farm out songs to different people and I’ve worked with a variety of people. Once I grasp some sort of thematic thread, that’s when I start to put a record together in earnest. To wit, the oldest songs on Powder Burns are ‘Dead to Rights’ and ‘Forty Dollars,’ and they were just songs that I liked. I didn’t know what would happen with them. Then when I wrote ‘I’m Ready’ and ‘There’s Been an Accident,’ I saw those four as kind of a foundation for what I wanted to do.”

While Dulli admits to that there is something of a conceptual theme running through the songs on Powder Burns, and grants that it might be connected to his recent introspection on the party-til-you-hit-the-wall days, he is less inclined to make any obvious statement on his direct intentions. “Yeah, but at the risk of being gauche, I would say that it’s a thread to me and to put it on the listener would be unfair,” says Dulli. “It’s not Tommy.”

Powder Burns may not be an epic concept album but it is most certainly one of most powerful musical statements that Dulli has offered in either of his acclaimed band entities. His soul and punk skills have rarely been melded into such an effective hybrid, like a genetic jumble of Paul Westerberg and Marvin Gaye; neither takes precedence yet both are in glorious evidence. From the Replacements-channel-the-Stooges bluster of “I’m Ready” to the jazzily cinematic swell of the album’s closing track, “I Wish I Was,” Dulli revisits familiar themes like lust and love, regret and pride, cynicism and hope.

Powder Burns was recorded in a number of locales in the U.S. and Italy, primarily in Dulli’s beloved and ruined New Orleans, before and after Katrina’s devastation. “New Orleans is where the bulk of the recording was done and has been done for the last eight years,” says Dulli. “I have a recording family down there and it’s my favorite place to record. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I live in Los Angeles the majority of the time, so the building blocks were created here. My musician circle is here so I built three or four of them here and I recorded the strings here in Los Angeles. In Brooklyn, I needed a particular drummer and I was visiting New York at the time and I was able to book a week of studio time and nail that down. Catania, I have friends there and visit there a lot. Daniele Grasso has a studio called The Cave there, and I have carte blanche to come in there and lay things down whenever I want, so I did basic tracks for one song there. And I produce this Italian band called After Hours, and we actually did their record in Catania, but they’re from Milan and they asked me to join the band and I did 50 shows with them in Italy last year, so I recorded basic tracks for ‘I’m Ready’ in Milan.”

In a brilliant burst of irony, the very distance that spelled the end of the Whigs five years ago has now been eliminated, through the use of technology that allows Dulli to treat the Singers’ material like a musical jigsaw puzzle. One track of particular interest to longtime fans is “Candy Cane Crawl,” which features Whigs bassist John Curley and guerilla folkie Ani DiFranco, who was recording her new album in New Orleans at the same time Dulli was working on Powder Burns.

“‘Candy Cane Crawl’ was written as a ballad and then was changed into a rather visceral rock song,” says Dulli. “On the She Loves You tour, we previewed it as a rock song. When I was putting the record together, I had plenty of uptempo numbers and needed another ballad so I switched it back to its original arrangement. I was alone at that point in New Orleans, it was just me and Mike [Napolitano], and we recorded the track to a drum loop, then it was the magic of the internet. I sent the files to New York for my friend Wiz [Greg Wieczorek] to play drums on, I sent the files to Cincinnati for John to play bass on, I sent the files to Los Angeles for Scott Bennett to do the Beach Boys vocals on. They sent them back the next day. The bass is vintage John Curley…he laid down the track, I called him and tweaked it a little bit and he got it in the second take. He’s my favorite bass player, I ain’t gonna lie. And he’s my best friend. Ani DiFranco lived in the house with Mike and I and she came in and added her part last, and it was done. That song was done in 48 hours in four different cities without me ever leaving the house.”

Powder Burns possesses all of the qualities that have infused the best work from both the Whigs and the Twilight Singers; a bruised but unapologetic romanticism, a visceral rock foundation, and a funky soulfulness that hasn’t been this evident since the Whigs’ triumphant Black Love. At the center of it all is the Hamilton, Ohio native who has grown from small town bad boy to one of the best-connected musicians in rock and roll. After nearly 20 years of work, Dulli is in the position of having his catalog evaluated for posterity and, as it happens, it holds up pretty well. He completely understands the increased interest in the Afghan Whigs, as he remains a fan of his bandmates to this day. Curley’s new band, Staggering Statistics, and McCollum’s Moon Maan have both opened for the Twilight Singers and have even joined Dulli on stage for impromptu one-night Whigs reunions. While Dulli sees no broader Whigs reunion in sight, he appreciates the excitement generated by the prospect.

“I was a fan, too,” he says with a wry laugh. “Those guys were my boys. They’re my family, they’re my brothers. We’re thick as thieves. My favorite groups had their run, then they laid it down and never came back. Right now, at the core of the Whigs – me, John and Rick – I see three happy guys doing their own thing now who still have a friendship. We‘re all supportive of each other. The Afghan Whigs made six records and did 2000 shows and if you heard those songs and liked them and saw one of those shows, and it rocked you, fuck, man, there you go.”

The Twilight Singers are perhaps harder to quantify, since Dulli is still in the midst of creating their legacy. He offers a thumbnail roadmap for the Singers’ creative arc. “The first one was a side project, but it was treated as a reaction. I really wanted to make a different style of music outside the Whigs; I still had the Whigs when I first did that, and I expected to continue doing it, so I made a 180-record,” explains Dulli. “Blackberry was the first record I did without the Whigs and it was a reaction to a variety of things, most notably my friend Ted’s passing. She Loves You was the inevitable interpretive record that I couldn’t believe it took me that long to do. I’d been doing mash-ups and covers my whole life. That was a direct by-product of going out and playing with a band for the first time in three years. The original blueprint for the Twilight Singers was to sing with other people. The first one I sang with Happy and Shawn [Smith], the second one I sang with Mark Lanegan, Apollonia, and Petra Haden, this time I’m singing with Ani DiFranco and Joseph Arthur. I love seeing what different personalities can bring to a situation.”

The difference in Powder Burns is clearly the difference in Greg Dulli. Even if his lyrics remain as guarded and cryptic as ever, there is a clarity of purpose in these songs that emanates from their singer. “I’m not going to say I wasn’t present for the other records, but none so much as this one,” says Dulli honestly. “This one is about as clear as I’ve ever been. It felt kind of liberating, actually. I think I needed to make peace with certain things in my past in order to be able to move on. I think this album is intrinsically transitional and what happens next will be a completely liberated record. The one that happens next is the one I’m looking forward to.”

What’s next is always in the forefront of Dulli’s creative mind. He’s already tracked a couple of songs for the next Singers’ release and he’s trying to block out some time with Mark Lanegan for the pair to finish their long-awaited Gutter Twins project (“I wish I’d never told anyone about it,” he says. “I wish we’d just finished it and put it out…”) As for the Singers, what does the future hold? Will Greg Dulli long for a more permanent entity and put together a stable line-up that becomes the permanent Twilight Singers? Don’t bet on that horse. “To paraphrase Mark E. Smith from the Fall,” says Dulli with an audible grin, “if it’s me and your grandma playing bongos, it’s the Twilight Singers.”

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