I Heart AU » The Gutter Twins Interview
I Heart AU » The Gutter Twins
Dulli and Lanegan bring their righteous rock ‘n’ soul to Irish shores
Amongst discerning rock fans, the most exciting new band on the planet is The Gutter Twins – two men conjuring up some dark ju-ju on their debut album ‘Saturnalia’.
Except that it’s not strictly a debut, for the twins in question are Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, two men who should need little introduction following their work with Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age and Soulsavers (Lanegan), The Afghan Whigs (Dulli) and The Twilight Singers (both). ‘Saturnalia’ has been five long years in the making, and with fans’ appetites whetted by several stunning collaborations on The Twilight Singers’ albums, expectations were nearly at fever pitch.
“Other’s expectations, we can do nothing about,” says Mr Dulli down the phone from New York. “All we can be concerned about are our own, which were to simply make the best record that we could. To me, it has a very organic feel, a document of songs we wrote together.”
Dulli denies that they set out with a specific plan for the record: “There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking going on! We both agreed that we were channelling something that is already there and just needed a place to come through. You just get in a room with some instruments and say, ‘What can this produce today?’”
Saturnalia is a brave, questing record that channels spirits both malevolent (the satanic majesty of ‘Idle Hands’) and divine (the angelic ‘Who Will Lead Us Now’), starkly unafraid to ask big questions about life and death, love and hate, heaven and hell and all that good stuff.
“The first songs we did together were gospel songs,” recalls Greg. “I love that stuff and the fact that Mark is so steeped in it too made it easy for me to go back there. It felt very sincere.
“I actually came from a more religious background than he did; I’m Irish Catholic. I turned on it when I got into music, my songs tending to be a bit more lascivious than Mark’s, but I would say that he took the lead. That made it easy for me to go back in that direction.”
Indeed, in a past life, Greg served time as an altar boy, an image a world away from the “lascivious” nature of the his work with the Afghan Whigs. Did any of the music he heard in church influence his future musical vision?
“I liked the majesty in the spectacle of it,” says Greg, “ but it was only when I went to Pentecostal churches that I felt the joy of it. I mean, Catholic church music is very austere, and no less beautiful for it, but it’s very controlled and very overly serious, whereas you go into the Black churches and it’s a celebration. There’s a soulful feeling, and that’s where a lot of the tenets of rock and roll come from.”
Dulli and Lanegan have two of the most distinctive voices in modern rock. They fit together naturally on ‘Saturnalia’, each taking turns to be centre stage or play support. Was it difficult to find the right balance?
“The songs that we wrote together, we wrote the lyrics together,” Greg explains. “A lot of things I wrote personally, I gave to him, and anything he wrote personally, he gave to me. It was very much each guy writing for the other and that made it really simple. Anything I came up with, I was like, ‘you do it’ and he was like, ‘no you do it’. So he would do it and it would start tilting his way and he would make sure it was tilting back mine. That’s what brothers do!
“The melody is the hardest part, figuring how the song is going to be sung. I wish sometimes that we could leave in the more ‘bathroom’ lyrics that we started with because those were enormously funny, especially for such serious material. Some of them were very dirty.”
Greg found that the experience of writing and recording the album allowed him to stretch out as a songwriter and musician.
“Sure, Mark has been in The Twilight Singers and that’s the band who’s playing behind us, so there’s a familiarity there. We’re all very close, so you’re not afraid to take chances like maybe you would be with a new person. When you’re comfortable with a group of people, you can try something new, because at least when you fall down, it’s only your friends that are laughing at you.”
The sweeping, Beatles-flavoured ‘I Was In Love With You’ is one readily identifiable product of this newfound freedom.
“Yeah,” Greg agrees, “that one just kind of wrote itself. When I came up with the chord sequence, I was like ‘wow, that doesn’t sound like The Beatles at all!’. I’d never written a song like that before, so I was like, ‘I’m going to go for it and, while I’m at it, I’m going to nick the ‘Dear Prudence’ guitar sound’. It’s The Beatles right down to the reverb sound.”
You may as well steal from the best. The subject matter of ‘Saturnalia’ marks a further departure away from Greg’s intensely personal writing style, a move that began with The Twilight Singers’ ‘Powder Burns’ album, partly inspired by the destruction of Greg’s beloved New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
He says: “I think that’s true for sure. You can only beat a dead horse for so long. Though I still go round the back of the barn sometimes to find that horse. I like what I like, you know? Honestly, my soul is not as totally tortured as it has been and I don’t want to be a phoney by still writing songs like that.”
Greg and Mark have both been more literally in the gutter at various times in the past with well-documented struggles with illicit substances. Both are now clean and serene, but how does the process of making music sober compare with creating while high?
“It’s much easier!” Greg says. “I have no regrets and I certainly wrote things when medicated that I’m like, ‘Where did that come from? That’s crazy!’”
The lyrics “Ladies let me tell you about myself / I got a dick for a brain” from 1993’s ‘Be Sweet’ spring to mind…
“I could never write that again,” he confesses. “You do things in life and then, as the proverb says, you put away childish things. When I stepped away, I never looked back. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some moments from my illustrious career that came from the cradle of insanity where I look back and go, ‘Damn, that’s actually pretty good’, but I’ll still sing it and mean it. I knew that person once, he was me.”
Despite their roots in grunge-era favourites The Afghan Whigs and Screaming Trees, the Twins have both resisted the lure of the reunion gravy train.
“I’m not here for any nostalgia trip. It’s been and gone. I’ve played with all three of the guys from the Whigs at different times in The Twilight Singers. Bands have a finite life span, you do what you do and move on. I did that and you know me from that, but what I say to people is, ‘Look at the name on the ticket – that’s who you’re going to hear songs by. If you’re in, cool, and if not, that’s cool too. Maybe I’ll drop a Whigs tune in if I’m feeling it – the guys in the band all love them – but we did 1500 shows. You had your chance!’”
With a stellar back catalogue of songs and two of rock’s most charismatic frontmen at their disposal, The Gutter Twins live is a spectacular experience more akin to a soul revival than your average rock gig.
Dulli agrees: “There’s never a moment when there isn’t music happening onstage. I hate going to watch a band and seeing them staring at their shoes, tuning up. With us, once the music starts, it doesn’t stop.”
Both Twins have a strong, passionate fanbase in Ireland – not to mention Irish roots – so the upcoming gigs in Belfast and Dublin should be unmissable. Come and get your soul food. James McDonald