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Surviving the storm
The Twilight Singers cleaned up after Katrina.

Imagine being booked in to record a new album only to have a hurricane rip through your recording studio. That’s what happened to Greg Dulli of the Twilight Singers as he prepared to record Powder Burns in New Orleans in 2005. Most musicians would delay the recording or move it elsewhere. But feeling a debt of gratitude to the Crescent City, Dulli decided to stay.

“I have a home in New Orleans and I had been there a week before it hit, but I went on tour so I watched it all on television,” Dulli says on the phone from Austria on the eve of his first Australian tour.

As soon as authorities reopened the airport – about a week after the calamity – Dulli returned to the city he loves.

“I went back first and foremost on a goodwill mission, to check everything out and make sure my friends were OK. Four of my friends completely lost their homes, so I helped them salvage whatever they could out of their houses. But then I wanted to stay because I thought the town needed some love, and for us not to run away. It was a small bit of discomfort we endured, but nothing compared to the people who were actually there.”

They weren’t ideal circumstances to work in: power to the city was shut down every night about 11 and a curfew forced people back into their homes by midnight.

“I’m a late-night person so the only way we could do anything was by candlelight,” says the former Afghan Whigs singer. “You had to take everything out of the freezer and put it in the cooler each night so it wouldn’t go bad.”

Powder Burns may shimmer and sparkle with melodies but it also contains a pervading sense of foreboding, evident from the eerie instrumental opening song, Toward the Waves. Dulli believes it would have been a very different record had the hurricane not happened.

“Once I got down there and saw the apocalyptic, surreal New Orleans, it was like the Twilight Zone. The streets were empty, the trees were drowned, the animals on the ground had died and the birds had all left because there was nothing to eat. This was once one of the most vibrant cities in the world and now it’s sort of stillborn.”

But performing the songs on this tour has helped Dulli deal with the loss. “When you start to play in front of people, the audience helps you play the songs, so it has become kind of an interactive experience.”

The album is also coloured by Dulli’s decision to clean up from his addictions. “I’m alive, it kinda took me by surprise/but every time I look away, there’s no light,” he sings on There’s Been an Accident. And on the drug-deal lament Forty Dollars, he sings: “Mangy dog without a collar, buy me love for forty dollars.”

“I think with that (addiction), coupled with what I saw in New Orleans, I began to draw parallels between self-destruction and natural destruction,” he says.

After making a name for himself in cult rock band the Afghan Whigs, Dulli says he set the parameters for the Twilight Singers as wide as possible, incorporating guest singers such as Ani Di Franco and Joseph Arthur and Brian Wilson’s musical director Scott Bennett. “I set the band up that way so it could be a transient experience, go anywhere and take on any guise. The show is very nomadic and gypsy-like. We just played our 101st show in Warsaw last night and it felt completely new to me again.”

After years kicking against the pricks, Dulli, as with former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, has found a more sympathetic vehicle that suits his mellower lifestyle and caramel baritone voice. He has also recorded a full album with Lanegan (who will perform about a third of the show with the band) under the name the Gutter Twins – a play on the Glimmer Twins Mick and Keef. The teaming of two of the richest voices in rock is an exciting prospect for fans.

“We’ve been singing together in each other’s kitchens for years,” Dulli says of his old mate Lanegan, “stuff by Hank Williams, Leadbelly, Skip James, Bob Marley, Nina Simone. We would get together on Saturdays and just play all day long, so it’s just a logical extension to that. I really like singing with him and backing him up. The guy is a phenomenal singer.”

Dulli has had a busy year: along with the Lanegan collaboration and Twilight Singers, he contributed to a new electronic collaboration called Intramural and the debut album from Nine Inch Nails member Jerome Dillon. And then there is his part-time acting career, playing small parts in the crime dramas Monument Avenue and Rescue Me.

Dulli says he thinks of his albums as scenes in his own movie. After surviving Katrina and addictions and living to tell the tale, where does he expect the movie to head next?

“I don’t know, but with Mr Lanegan on board as co-star for the next stage, maybe it’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

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