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Shake Your Black Love

Following The Afghan Whigs’ amicable breakup, Greg Dulli drowned his sorrows by tending bar and tending to his life. Then a small earthquake hit Los Angeles and Dulli was jolted back into action, prompting a writing spree that he’d never experienced before. Adam Lauridsen caught up with rock’s coolest player and talked with him about first kisses, moving plates and the new Twilight Singers record.

Photo by Chris Cuffaro

From DIW Magazine, Issue 5.3
The subscription version contains a 7″ single with the unreleased Twilght Singers track, “Wicked.”

During more than a decade fronting The Afghan Whigs, Greg Dulli never passed up an opportunity to unwind a good story. As Dulli prepares to release The Twilight Singers’ Sophomore album, Blackberry Belle – his first true post-Whigs work – there are more than a few twists and turns to be told.

In an opening scene that would make James Ellroy proud, the tale begins in a Los Angeles bar. After The Whigs’ amicable decision to call it a day (“The most dignified, sweet, and beautiful breakup in the history of rock,” says Dulli) and the completion of the first Twilight Singers record, 2000’s Twilight, Dulli found himself living in Southern California for the fourth time in his life. “I bought a bar and started working in it,” says the 38-year-old. “I basically forgot all about music and that I was a musician.”

One of alternative rock’s godfathers – and perhaps the most overlooked of the bunch – didn’t pick up a guitar or play the piano for nearly two years, but there was never a conscious decision to give up on the only life he knew. “It wasn’t anything I even thought about,” he says. “You know how boxers retire after every fight? Then somebody comes up with $10 million and a a Vegas party. Then they say, ‘Okay, this one’s going to be my last fight.’ It wasn’t anything like that – I just sort of noticed that when people would come up and ask what I was working on I’d say, ‘Uh, I’m working on life and a bar.”

After 13 chaotic years leading America’s most articulately menacing band, playing 1,500 shows, living in 10 different cities, getting knocked into a coma in a post-show assault and kicking a fierce heroin habit, it appeared as if Dulli had finally found some stability. Then, as frequently occurs in California, the Earth moved.

“About two years ago there was an earthquake. It wasn’t a major one or anything – I was just sitting at home and we had an earthquake. Literally two minutes after that earthquake happened I got my guitar and wrote the first song I’d written in two years,” says Dulli, referring to Blackberry Belle’s “Papillon.” “I think I needed to realize that I was pretty sad [following The Afghan Whigs’ breakup] – I needed to grieve it a little bit.

In a post-quake burst of creativity, Dulli recorded nearly 50 songs. While insignificant by Ryan Adams or Robert Pollard standards, the number nearly equaled the total output during Dulli’s entire career with his previous band. “I’ve never been a very prolific writer,” he admits. “Usually, in The Whigs, I’d write 11 songs and they’d all make it. People would ask, ‘Where are all your fucking outtakes?’ Anything that was going to be an outtake I’d get bored with and kick to the curb. This is the first time I wrote like crazy.”

As on Twilight, Dulli is joined on Blackberry Belle by a rotating cast of guests, including Petra Haden (That Dog), Harold Chichester (Howlin’ Maggie [sk note – Happy is not listed in the album’s credits], Muggs (Cypress Hil [sk note – Muggs is not listed in the album’s credits as a performer], Brian Young (Fountains of Wayne) and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), the latter of whom Dulli almost pursued an entire album of collaborations. The opportunity to play with others got Dulli excited about making music again. “When you play with a band, it’s sorta like a marriage,” says Dulli. “When you collaborate with new musicians, it’s almost like having an affair. It’s that new spark, like the first time you kiss somebody. If you’ve been kissing somebody for 15 years, it’s like, ‘Whatever, let’s get this over with.'”

In classic Dulli style, the album convenes with a gleefully sinister declaration: “Black out the windows, it’s party time.” The opening track, “Martin Eden,” conveys intense despair but ultimately lay s it to rest. In commenting on the song, a nod to the Jack London semi-autobiographical novel, Dulli says, “Martin Eden is Jack London. The parallels I felt with that character were palpable. The description of his suicide in the book is why I wrote the song. He drowns himself at the end of the book. So, to start with a song where someone is killing himself, there’s really only one way to go, and that’s up.” Along the way, Dulli offers of the ecstatic escapism of “Teenage Wristband” and betrays some tenderness on “Follow You Down,” but the emotional release of the album comes in the relentless defiance of “Feathers.”

“Happy songs are the hardest to write,” says Dulli. “Paul McCartney, I don’t know how you did it, but goddamn, you did it a million times and I’m tapping my toe to all of them. I’ve only written a couple of joyful, happy songs, and I take the piss out of them in some way, shape or form.”

It’s obvious that Dulli has yet to find his happy ending, but he’s continued his search for it with newfound ferocity. “I try to make something compelling and different every time,” he says. “I write what I know, and for two years I didn’t have anything to say. Then, all of a sudden, the day that earthquake happened, I had everything to say.”

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