Between the Gutters
BY Brian Baker
Over the past four years, nearly every conversation with former Afghan Whigs/current Twilight Singers frontman Greg Dulli has invariably included some fleeting reference to The Gutter Twins. The rotating collective with Dulli and former Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan at its swirling core has been a project that both have been committed to but only in concentrated bursts of activity dictated by each artist’s demanding schedule. That effort has finally paid off with the release of Saturnalia, The Gutter Twins’ darkly impressive debut.
“When we did carve out time to do the songs, we would spend upwards of a week working two songs concurrently,” Dulli says from his Los Angeles home. “Sometimes they came very quickly, but I think you can tell by listening to it that it is carefully constructed. There’s a lot going on. You don’t get that in a day or two days. Sometimes you have to wait for the cello player to get back from Italy. We really worked the songs.
“I’m not saying we were Steely Dan or anything, but neither were we the Germs.”
Although Dulli and Lanegan have been working on The Gutter Twins (a clever play on the Glitter Twins, the production nickname bestowed upon Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) since 2003, the roots of their collaboration go back nearly 20 years. The pair initially met in 1989 at a Sub Pop Records house party in Seattle when both were in the bands that brought them to prominence.
“I’m pretty sure Kurt (Cobain) introduced us,” says Dulli. “Everybody was at that party. Mudhoney was there, Nirvana, Tad … it was definitely a Seattle music scene party.”
The Gutter Twins actually began with Lanegan, who has spent nearly as much time collaborating with other artists as he has working on his solo career. While the pair had often talked about working together, nothing had been formalized when Dulli took a call from an Italian journalist in 2003.
“He was like, ‘What’s up with the Gutter Twins?’ and I said, ‘What’s The Gutter Twins?’ ” Dulli says. “He said, ‘It’s you and Mark Lanegan,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. It sounds interesting.’ So Mark conceived and named us. I called him and I said, ‘So I hear we’re the Gutter Twins,’ and he was like, ‘Well, yeah, I thought it would be a good idea.’ And I said, ‘That’s cool. Give me a call when you get back to town and we’ll try to make some songs.’ We recorded our first song, which was ‘All Misery,’ in December of 2003.”
Since then, the duo (which Dulli has christened “the satanic Everly Brothers”) has parceled out every available moment possible to put together the songs that comprise Saturnalia. During their long separations, Dulli and Lanegan would invariably come up with songs that they knew would work with the project and would stockpile them for the next meeting, but their sessions together always resulted in new songs.
“We wrote half the record together,” Dulli says. “Six songs were co-written and the other six were split between the two of us. But I will say this, even the songs that we brought solo to the table, the other person was equally involved.”
On paper a collaboration between Dulli and Lanegan might seem problematic, given the mercurial and quixotic personalities of each participant. Politics and Rock make strange bedfellows.
“He’s kind of the easiest person I’ve ever worked with,” Dulli says. “No. 1, we’re friends and we started out as friends before we started to collaborate. The first songs we ever played together, we played on the front porch of my house. Then I joined his band right around the time we first got going, he sang on (The Twilight Singers’) Blackberry Belle and then he did some shows with me. It’s a very natural outgrowth of our friendship. He’s probably the most unselfish musician I’ve ever met.”
Saturnalia will certainly stand with the best work that Dulli or Lanegan have fashioned in their various creative guises. “Idle Hands” is a cross between the greatest Iggy Pop song never written and a 21st-century-schizoid “Kashmir” while “Circle the Fringes” sways like Jazz-tinged “Man Who Sold the World”-era Bowie and “All Misery/Flowers” swings and thumps with a psychedelic Jazz/Folk fervor.
Given that the album was assembled over a broad expanse of time by two artists whose attentions were being pulled in differing directions when they weren’t together, Saturnalia displays an amazing cohesion and continuity. Dulli credits the songs with providing the anchor.
“The way to make things not sound piecemeal is to write a good song in the first place,” Dulli says. “In our culture, we’re led to believe newer is better and I’ve never thought that. I’ve sat on songs forever. I’d written (The Afghan Whigs’) ‘My Curse’ in 1989 and it didn’t come out until 2003. Most of Physical Graffiti were outtakes or things that were left unfinished and it’s my favorite Zeppelin record, so sometimes you write songs that don’t fit the particular moments but there’s nothing wrong with that song. To me, ‘All Misery’ sounds as fresh today as it did that day four years ago. I believe that to my core. That’s the sign of a song that’s going to sound fantastic in 20 or 30 years. There’s a timelessness to a lot of the stuff we’ve done.”
The question of The Gutter Twins’ future plans is answered when Lanegan calls Dulli in the middle of our interview.
“It sounds like it’s starting today because he wants me to bring a Neumann mic to the rehearsal,” Dulli says, laughing. “I think that means we’re probably going to cut something.”