A glance at the stars

A glance at the stars – Music – Entertainment – smh.com.au
These two forces share a murky past and a thrilling collaboration.

PERFECT collaborations between established artists are few and far between. Rarer still are such projects that surpass just about everything each contributor has done before. Projects that result in albums such as Saturnalia by the Gutter Twins.

These black-clad “twins” comprise (the unrelated) Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan, two legends in alternative-rock circles. Dulli was the devilishly suave frontman for the Afghan Whigs, about the most soulful American guitar band of the ’90s. When they disbanded in 2001, he formed the Twilight Singers, who seamlessly, gorgeously picked up where the Whigs left off.

Lanegan’s Marlboro-ravaged growl first attracted attention with Screaming Trees, the breathtaking Seattle grunge-era rockers that would have been, in a parallel just universe, as big as Nirvana. His distinctive tones have since occasionally added an extra, creepy dimension to Queens Of The Stone Age and appeared on several remarkable solo albums. Lanegan also regularly collaborates with one-time Belle & Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell.

Having once shared a house as well as having worked together on Twilight Singers recordings, there was always a chance Dulli and Lanegan might join forces to make a very special album but no one could have expected anything quite as rich as the brooding, thrilling rock of Saturnalia. Indeed, few probably expected them to complete it. The duo wrote their first songs as the Gutter Twins in December 2003, then two more in 2004 before reuniting last year to finish the job.

“Mark was flying over to Scotland to work with Isobel again,” Dulli says. “I told him when we [the Twilight Singers] were in Brisbane to meet me in New Orleans in 30 days and we would start finishing [the album]. And 30 days later I picked him up from the airport.

“I think it’s a tribute to our tenacity – just that we kept at it for that long. Y’know, for something to stretch on for a seemingly infinite amount of time and come out as cohesive as it did.”

The long wait may seem reasonable, given the duo’s full creative plates, but these two also have murky histories that could have provided major distractions. Both have battled with substance abuse in the past.

“People do things and they don’t do things any more,” Dulli says. “Did I do drugs? Sure. Does that have anything to do with my album or my songs? No.”

Some might say it does.

“Ah. How?”

Aside from the fact it took two seasoned musicians more than four years to make an album, there’s the idea of inspiration from altered senses.

“Right. Well, listen, man. I have no regrets. I did what I did and now I do what I do. I wrote some great songs loaded. I’m not gonna lie. And I’m not here to tell some cautionary tale of ‘don’t do drugs’. Do what you want. Don’t kill people. Don’t hurt children. Other than that, y’know, fine.”

Saturnalia positively seethes. Its atmosphere is thick with menace as bass lines rumble and drums shuffle sombrely. The two singers’ distinctive voices work effectively whether they’re taking turns or crooning in harmony, while guitars, piano and restrained strings provide the evocative melodies.

It makes one wonder how the mood must have been during the recording. Was it true to the image fans have of Dulli and Lanegan maybe drinking a virgin’s blood and smoking her bones before knuckling down? Dulli laughs.

“It’s kinda like that,” he says. “Before every songwriting session we would drive to farm and find a baby goat and, y’know, put it on the altar and do some incantations … you’re not far off.”

It’s worth noting at this point that when offered Dulli or Lanegan for this interview, Spectrum couldn’t ask for the former quickly enough. They’re both known for their dark lyrics but Dulli’s humour has always come across, too.

“He’s hilarious, man,” Dulli says in Lanegan’s defence. “Honestly, if you would have heard the original words for all these songs, you probably would have [thought] they were written by a 10-year-old. ‘Cause we had melodies and then we started working on the words and the words always were designed to make the other one laugh.

“So we would go through that first … and then the baby goat would come out and we’d get serious.”

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