Twilight’s First Gleaming
Greg Dulli discusses his new Twilight Singers project and the future of the Whigs
By David Simutis
By his own admission, at least four times a week Greg Dulli eats at the House of Pies, a greasy spoon within walking distance of his Los Angeles pad. He sits on the outside patio because he can smoke.
With a Galaxy Gallery T-shirt, oversized sunglasses, thick stubble, and a stunning pair of Pumas, Dulli looks very L.A. But the Hamilton, Ohio, native likes his Camels and Los Angeles’ anti-smoking attitude doesn’t jibe with his predilection to chain smoke. Still, he finds time to eat a salad, a bowl of soup and a BLT — hold the tomato — between puffs.
The waitress recognizes him and teases him for not coming in lately. He explains he’s been back in Cincinnati for the past couple of months, working on the seventh Afghan Whigs record shortly after completing the debut from his long-awaited side project, The Twilight Singers. But odds are she shouldn’t get too used to seeing Dulli around. His current stint here is his fourth in the past 15 years or so, during which time he’s racked up about five years total. He has also received mail in Cincinnati, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Louisville and New York City. What brings him back?
“The sunshine always brings me back,” he smiles. “And it’s the same thing that drives me away every time — fucking traffic. I’ve always loved it, and I have a lot of friends out here, but the traffic really gets to me. But I don’t really know where else to go.”
He’s a rambling man by nature, but he also drops hints that he might realize that it’s getting time to settle down, that he’s getting too old to bet on being a part of the young man’s Rock game for much longer.
The flecks of gray sprinkled within his dark black hair betray the often hard-living of his 35 years. He doesn’t go out very often anymore and even jokes that one day he’ll grow up and “have a couple of shorties.”
Dulli has been through enough in the past couple years to deserve to take it easy for a while. His current project is The Twilight Singers album, Twilight As Played By The Twilight Singers, which was started in 1997 in Seattle, worked on in New Orleans, and finished in March in Hull, England. It was completed by Dulli and British Electronica/Acid Jazz duo Fila Brazillia, working 33 days straight, with Dulli living in the studio. Between the start and finish of Twilight, the Whigs released 1965 and toured America and Europe. And Dulli spent a couple of days in a coma after an altercation in Austin.
Three years to work on an album that has some 20 musicians on it seems about right.
“It wouldn’t have taken that long, but I had to do a record in between,” he says. “I don’t know that I’ll ever make one like it again. I probably won’t — I hope not. But, ironically, when I went down to New Orleans to start making the record, I was listening to Fila Brazillia almost exclusively. I didn’t know them yet, and I didn’t know that I would end up finishing the record with them. But there is such a thing as destiny.”
The original destiny Dulli charted was much different. The starting concept was to do a record with three singers; Dulli, Brad/Satchel’s Shawn Smith and Howlin’ Maggie’s Harold Chichester. Recording sessions for the album started at dusk and went through the night in New Orleans. Bootlegs of the recording sessions were widely circulated. But Dulli and Smith — who has sung back-up vocals on three successive Whigs albums starting with 1991’s Congregation — didn’t see eye to eye.
“Getting three lead singers in a room — unless you’re Emmylou Harris — bad idea. Egos caused the problems, mostly,” he explains. “Shawn and I had worked together before, but never on something together. Frankly, we clashed, and I sent him on his way. Haven’t spoken to him since. We were very good friends. Lived in my house. I don’t hate him or anything, and I’m sure he doesn’t hate me — but we got nothing to say to each other.”
It got ugly?
“Not physically ugly. But, yeah, it got ugly,” he says somberly. Yet Smith’s distinctive falsetto is on the record in places, most notably on album opener “The Twilite Kid.”
“Sure. He was paid,” Dulli says. “I don’t have to like someone if they do a good part. Harold, on the other hand, was and is one of the most generous and giving performers, not to mention one of the best, that I know. He was the reason I kept it The Twilight Singers, instead of releasing it under my own name.”
Chichester is a fellow Ohioan, the bass player for Columbus funk revivalists The Royal Crescent Mob a decade ago and the frontman for Howlin’ Maggie. Like Smith, he’s a long-time friend of The Afghan Whigs. Unlike Smith, he’s part of the touring Twilight Singers, joined by Whigs drummer Michael Horrigan (on bass) and Howlin’ Maggie’s Lance Ellison and Carlton Smith.
After Smith left and the basic tracks were recorded, they were set aside as Dulli went back to his main project. And the bootlegs started circulating. Then late last winter he got back in gear, contacting the British duo of Steve Cobby and Dave McSherry, who helped him radically change the sound of the album. It went from a soulful, late-night AltRock record to something more akin to acoustic Electronica. But it also pulses and breathes with Dulli’s long-running love of American R&B, updated with drum machines and burbling synth loops. When it gets to the heart of the matter, it sounds unlike anything else out there. It does drag a bit toward the middle end, as mellow records can do, but it’s an album, making its weak points stronger because it’s a fully realized vision.
Dulli bounced ideas off of Cobby and McSherry. He takes full writing credits for seven of the 12 songs, sharing the rest. But the two are listed as co-producers. Dulli says that, even with 20 people pitching in and Fila kicking in with the electronics, 75-80 percent of the album is him. So what did the pair do?
“They really transformed it,” he says “All those beats are theirs — almost every one. They replaced the bass playing on about five of ’em. The sonic accoutrements — that was a combination of the three of us. I had no idea how to do that stuff. I knew the sounds I liked, but they knew how to get them.”
Working with the Fila guys, whom he had never met before going to England, raised his competitive nature. “When you’re meeting people for the first time — which I was with them and they were with me — I think, weirdly, you try to impress each other. You don’t know them, they don’t know you — what you want everyone to think of you is you’ve got chops; you can sing, you can play. You do your best. That’s not to say I slack off among my own guys, but people do get complacent. You don’t when you’re working with someone for the first time.”
It’s a subtle switch in working style for Dulli. He writes and produces 99 percent of the Whigs’ material, a band he’s led since the late-1980s. The perception is that he’s responsible for so much of the Whigs’ sound and direction that people in Cincinnati scoffed at the idea of him doing a “solo” album. Dulli says he may do the majority of the writing and producing, but agrees that artists such as Prince suffer when nobody is around to tell them when their ideas are crap. He hopes he always has someone around to tell him when his choruses are too sloppy or his melodies a bit weak.
“Believe me, on this project I had Harold, and on every other record I’ve had [Whigs bassist] John Curley — who does it as coldly as he possibly can, too,” he says. “Your pet theory is not a bad one. I always wonder when Paul McCartney puts a record out who helps him sort through ideas.”
Though he has help picking through his less-developed ideas, not enough people will hear his good ones. His music is too cerebral, too deep, and too much of an antithesis to disposable Pop to have a giant impact on the majority of record buyers. The promise of grunge is such a distant memory that it’s easy to forget that the Whigs were the first non-Seattle band signed to Sub Pop. As if that sort of minutiae matters anymore. Getting older, more mellow, Dulli knows he can no longer be the obnoxious musician doing outrageous things onstage and that his time for being a Rock StarŪ have come and gone.
“You know what? I think I’m a rock comet. Come along every couple of years, burn brightly, light up the sky, go away. That’s what I am,” he says. “Naw, it’s a little too late for that now — (I’m in my) mid-30s. Now I do it when I want to do it and if I have something to say. Not out of any need to fulfill something like contractual obligations, blah blah blah. You know what you’re getting with me and with any group I have anything to do with.”
As he has done for the past couple of Afghan Whigs releases, he claims that the next one will be the group’s last. Maybe. Like Robert Smith of The Cure, Dulli seems to relish reports of his band’s demise. But asked how much longer he can keep the band going, he takes a long time to answer.
“Uhhh,” he pauses, followed by an uncomfortably long pause. “I would not be shocked if this were our last record,” he finally says. “We’re all pretty spread out at this point. It’s kind of a hassle to bring everybody in and all of that. The one thing, we have such great love for each other. It’s really a brotherhood. But, John’s got a baby now. I live out here. Rick (McCollum, Whigs guitarist) lives in Minneapolis. I don’t know, we’ll see. But, we’re closer to the end than we are the beginning, I’ll tell you that. That doesn’t mean we won’t do the greatest thing we can do. That’s what we’ve always done. There’s no way I’d half-ass my way out of the band and the people I grew up with.”