Bad News Boys
Tattoos, drugs, beatings, stalkers, prison, betrayal and years of making great music – could Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan be any more rock’n’roll? They talk to Paul Lester
Mark Lanegan can make the most benign enquiry sound like a veiled threat. We’re backstage at Koko in Camden, north London, waiting for Greg Dulli to finish soundchecking for tonight’s Twilight Singers performance, and for some reason the conversation has turned towards the prissy journalist’s preference for Diet Coke over the regular full-sugar variety.
“Did you like the taste right off the bat?” wonders the tall and rangy singer, a former member of Queens Of The Stone Age and recent Mercury Prize nominee (for his unlikely collaboration with Isobel Campbell). He squints at me through the smoke of his Marlboro with the mannered menace of an old Hollywood bad guy. “You got hooked on it, huh?” he asks. His voice and intonation are pure Jack Palance.
With his heavily tattooed hands and aura of simmering blue-collar rage, Lanegan really is quite intimidating, even if he is wearing a cheap, nerdy, black anorak that looks like a present an elderly relative bought him from Walmart. He’s impossibly guarded, parrying even the gentlest question with sighs, longueurs and barely concealed contempt.
At best, he is laconic, ironic considering the emotionally wrenching nature of his recordings: “Youthful indiscretion,” he replies when I ask what the tattoos of stars all over his hands mean. At worst, you suspect he’d like to wring your neck.
Luckily, he has just joined a band, Twilight Singers, fronted by Dulli, a candid and garrulous interviewee. He takes delight in articulating, even poeticising, his partner’s monosyllabic grunts.
“I think I had sex in there once,” Dulli, the fabled lothario of grunge, nonchalantly informs me, pointing towards a toilet as we negotiate the maze of steps that lead away from the stage area to a quiet dressing room upstairs.
Dulli explains why he and Lanegan will be doing the interview together. “Because if I’m not there to smooth things over,” he says, by way of reassurance, “he will eat you alive.”
Despite their differences, the pair – who have begun recording together as The Gutter Twins, with a debut album due next year – have much in common. Both were born into dysfunctional working-class families: Lanegan in Ellensburg, Washington, in 1964; Dulli in Hamilton, Ohio, a year later. Both spent the 80s and 90s on the fringes of the Seattle grunge scene with, respectively, Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs. Both have seen good friends take their lives, unable to cope with fame: Lanegan lost Kurt Cobain in 1994; in 2003 Dulli lost Elliot Smith. Both have suffered life-threatening drug addictions, Lanegan to crack and heroin, Dulli to cocaine. And both have a jaundiced view of love they’ve spent years expressing in their music, stretching back almost to the moment they met.
“We met at a party in 1989,” recalls Dulli, “and it was just, ‘Hi, how you doing?’ There were no other pleasantries exchanged. Soon after, we had a strange disagreement that kept us … not friendly for many years. It concerned a young lady. She later confessed that she’d duped us and set us against each other, for her own gain.” But what did she hope to gain? “Both of us, probably.”
Despite that, they became close. In the past decade and a half, they have shared cities – New Orleans, around the time of Hurricane Katrina – and even a home, in Silverlake, California.
“We lived together for about a year and a half,” says Dulli. “We rarely saw each other, though. Everyone assumed we were drug buddies, but we never did drugs together. You can’t with heroin and cocaine – you’re going to two different places. It’s a fork in the road. One guy goes left, the other goes right.”
After they moved out, about three years ago, Dulli hit rock bottom. It was Lanegan who saved him.
“It was Mark who prevented my self-destructive tendencies from completing their mission,” says Dulli of the time he was trying to finish The Twilight Singers’ second album, Blackberry Belle, which came out in 2003. It’s a period that informs the murderously intense material on their third, this year’s Powder Burns.
“He’d come to record something,” Dulli remembers, “and I’d refuse to leave the house till I had some cocaine. I’d lock myself in. Finally, I did go out and record some songs, but two months later, when I heard them, I had no memory of who they were by, who played them or who wrote them.
“I’ve always suffered from depression, and I think I’d embraced nihilism to the point where I wanted to, you know, take it home to the chariot in the sky. But there came a point – and I’m not ashamed to admit this – where I got scared, and I decided I wanted to get off the horse. It was a nasty episode, but he was the one I called, and he came over and helped me through it. He was a true friend in my hour of need.”
Did Lanegan ever make a similar phonecall to Dulli? “I definitely had my ups and downs with addiction over the years, and towards the end Greg was always there, when I was at my lowest,” he admits, open for once.
Did Lanegan ever wonder why he chose heroin while Dulli picked cocaine? What did those choices say about them?
“We’re fire and ice,” Dulli answers for him. “He’s the more outgoing one,” responds Lanegan. “That’s the false promise of cocaine,” adds Dulli. “You can power through a couple of dark days and be right back on top of the mountain again. I don’t think I even realised I had a problem.”
These days, they own separate homes in Los Angeles, but speak, according to Dulli, “at least three or four times a week.” Without their friendship, things would have been different.
“Definitely,” growls Lanegan. “Greg’s been there for me in some of my hardest times. He’s my best friend.” The same goes for Dulli. “I would not be sitting here with you right now,” he says, “if it hadn’t been for my friendship with Mark Lanegan.”
Dulli couldn’t be a shoulder for Lanegan to cry on during his first series of scrapes, simply because they hadn’t yet met. Lanegan spent his teenage years in and out of jail for petty thieving and drug offences before nearly dying, aged 20, following road accident involving a tractor. Does he still bear the scars? “I never think about it,” he replies, “until somebody brings it up.”
Dulli does think about his own, more recent, brush with mortality. In 1998, two nightclub bouncers in Austin, Texas, almost beat him to death.
“There were two black gentlemen in our entourage who these two bouncers referred to repeatedly as ‘niggers’, and that set me off,” he tells me. “I had them pinned down, then asked for them to be ejected from the club. As it turned out, the manager was one of the bouncers’ cousin, so he let them back in and they waited for me in the dark. When I came out of the bathroom, they took turns at kicking my ribs in and took a baseball bat to the back of my head. I woke up two days later in the hospital. I’d been in a coma.”
Trouble seems to follow Lanegan and Dulli wherever they go. Both, for example, casually drop into the conversation that they have stalkers. Dulli has a restraining order on two over-obsessive female fans. Lanegan has stalkers of both sexes. He’s cool about it, though. “Anybody who makes records, regardless of how well-known they are, can have somebody get attached to them like that,” he says. What is it about him that attracts such delusional characters? “I have no idea. I think when people hear your music sometimes they get deeply attached to it and think they know something about you, that you’re kindred spirits or something. When they’re listening to your music all the time, you become part of their life, and some people get obsessed.”
Dulli believes the star-fan barrier should remain intact. “I’ve never really wanted to meet my heroes. I’ve had opportunities to meet Dylan, Van Morrison and the Stones and I passed on all three, because I’d rather leave them in the imagination.”
I ask Lanegan, who has written a song for the Gutter Twins called All Misery, how he imagines he might have dealt with the pressures of fame that destroyed Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains.
“That’s retarded, man,” he says, unimpressed. You think? “Yeah.” Why? “Because it’s conjecture. That’s for you to do. I don’t do that. I just see what’s in front of me. That’s what I’m happy with.” Are you happy that you never achieved the sort of super-sized celebrity that Kurt experienced? There is a painfully long pause. “Yup, I’m definitely happy that I’m not super-size.”
Perhaps it’s their cultish fame that’s kept them alive. “I think it’s, er, largely due to luck,” decides Lanegan, standing up to shake my hand just in case I was intending to stick around. “But it’s also about having a drive, or will, to live as well. I think we both have that.” Do you have to work at that, or is it in your DNA? “I think it’s part of your DNA,” he growls his last. “I mean, we definitely don’t want to die, you know?”
· The Twilight Singers’ A Stitch in Time EP, featuring Mark Lanegan, is out now on One Little Indian. The Gutter Twins will issue their debut album in 2007.