Greg Dulli’s vision shines through
By Rege Behe
Greg Dulli knows what’s coming. In every interview and every review of his work with the Twilight Singers, one theme is mentioned: Darkness.
While the music never will be mistaken for sun-splashed pop, Dulli isn’t writing funeral dirges, either.
Does it bother him?
“No, because darkness is part of light,” Dulli says in advance of his show Saturday with the Twilight Singers at Mr. Small’s Theatre in Millvale. “You cannot know light without knowing darkness. When I do shine light in my songs — and I do — whether that’s muted light or a crack in your window, light is light no matter where it comes out. Light always illuminates darkness. Plus, it also helps you see how dark it really was.”
“Dynamite Steps,” the recently released album by the Twilight Singers, is an indescribably good album that defies categorization. Featuring sophisticated arrangements and excellent musicianship and songwriting, it’s music for adults. Dulli points to Tom Waits and Nick Cave as examples of musicians who influence his process.
“I view them as examples of how to evolve gracefully as a musician,” Dulli says, “and fail sometimes. I don’t love everything they do. But what I do love, I recognize it took a great trial-and-error period to get there. I have a lot respect for them and a lot of respect for their audiences, as well.”
Dulli’s evolution started when he fronted one of the best indie rock bands of the past 30 years, the Afghan Whigs. When the Cincinnati-based group disbanded in 2000, Dulli formed the Twilight Singers, a loose amalgamation of players who provide the accompaniment for his vision.
He starts, simply, with five good songs from “the good pile. Then, I go to the I-don’t-know pile,” Dulli says.
It’s hard to believe that any of the 11 songs on “Dynamite Steps,” which features guests appearances by Ani DiFranco, Joseph Arthur, Mark Lanegan and Petra Haden, were considered subpar. Especially notable are the lyrics, which read as if they are ripped from the pages of a crime novel. It turns out Dulli is a fan of the genre, and specifically of James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and Denis Johnson (whose first foray into crime fiction, “Nobody Move,” Dulli was reading at the time of the interview).
“Mystery and crime writers, they’re writing about the fringe,” he says, “and people’s basest, most primal instincts. I’ve always been attracted to that side of humanity.”
That element can be heard in songs such as “Blackbird and the Fox,” “Waves” and “Be Invited.” But if there’s a theme, however subliminal, that emerges from “Dynamite Steps,” it’s wanderlust. While the album was recorded in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Joshua Tree, Calif., it’s Dulli’s constant touring — he also performs with Lanegan as the Gutter Twins — that provides the subtext for the album. Dulli speaks of “playing at the top of Finland and the next day you’re on the beach in Tel Aviv, after flying in from Athens, Greece.” Not bad for a guy from Southern Ohio who once thought Cincinnati was Oz.
“It didn’t take me long to want to get out of there, and that’s nothing against Cincinnati,” he says. “It was a springboard for my imagination to go and see what else was out there.”