Rising Above the Flood
Written by Jim Dunn
“We’ll work on a riff, we’ll see where the riff goes, then we’ll go drinking.”
Greg Dulli, formerly of the Afghan Whigs and currently big papa of the Twilight Singers, is a man of many desires, not all of them good for his health. He pours those passions into his albums and various projects too numerous to mention, though, and we are all better for it. It makes for an outsized character that is respected but can also be seen as a bit prickly. At an Indianapolis show two years ago, Dulli had a cigarette dangling, a drink never far away, and swagger—lots of swagger. At times, he appeared to be channeling Sinatra, Elvis, and Louis Prima, all at once. It was a riveting performance, craft and showmanship at its best.
Dulli’s voice cackles over the phone line as we talk about that show. When I describe the band as his Memphis Mafia, he carefully concurs. “Elvis until the pills took over was an incredible live performer. And as far as the Memphis Mafia goes, what I liked about that is everybody loved each other and trusted each other.”
Onstage, his command of the band is impressive. You can see members of the band waiting for his cue, almost as if he were the conductor. “Everybody learns to watch the signal giver—me—and gets ready to take it somewhere else at a moment’s notice,” says Dulli. “Everything we do is completely different from the night before.”
That tight control of both live shows and recordings comes from a long career that started with the first Afghan Whigs album in 1988. His output includes the Whigs, Twilight Singers, solo albums, guest appearances on dozens of albums, work on film soundtracks, and video projects.
Powder Burns nearly got lost in the disaster of last fall’s New Orleans flooding. Luckily, the Twilight Singers’ latest CD has emerged, Phoenix-like, from the submerged city.
Powder Burns, his latest effort with the Twilight Singers, started to come together in the weeks before Hurricane Katrina. Dulli has a home and studio in New Orleans, and had the basic tracks down. “I had a job in Italy, and I watched the hurricane and the aftermath on CNN,” he says. “I came back on the first plane that they allowed into New Orleans.” Problem was, nobody was allowed into the part of the city where the tapes were. “Mike and Ani rescued them,” Dulli chuckles. “Mike Napolitano was the engineer of the record, his girlfriend is Ani DiFranco, and she was working on her record at the same time I was working on mine in the same studio. They slipped down a day or two after the levees broke and went in on a Mission Impossible–style raid.” (DiFranco also makes an appearance on one of the album’s songs.)
The New Orleans vibe itself extended to the way Powder Burns was recorded. For as freewheeling as Greg Dulli tries to be onstage, I wondered how exacting he was in the studio. Was it all mapped out? What were the rules when recording in “The Big Easy”? Dulli reports, “Usually, I come down there to vibe it, and then I bring in musicians. We’ll work on a riff, we’ll see where the riff goes, then we’ll go drinking.” He pauses and laughs. “Then we’ll come back after drinking and see if it wants to go, and then we’ll go drinking again. It’s definitely a very organic process.”
Despite a longstanding reputation of drinking, drugging, fighting, and chasing skirts and danger, he has been conquering his demons. He has spoken publicly about these things and, while not dodging responsibility, has brought up some able reasons for wanting to bury the pain, including the loss of close friends and a late-’90s bar fight that left him in a coma. Selfishly, I worry that Greg Dulli without his demons would not be nearly as interesting or able to write the next great fuck song. Dulli laughs, reassuring me, “I have plenty of demons; there were some that were necessary to conquer. But there is no shortage of demons in me, Jim. Believe me.”