Force of Feeling
After the break up of his influential band, the Afghan Whigs, and a long break from music, Greg Dulli has a new album. But, as he tells Nick Cowen, he had to overcome personal tragedy to finish it.
Originally published in Telegraph.co.uk.
Greg Dulli is probably the most criminally overlooked rock musician of his generation. For the better part of 15 years, he fronted the Afghan Whigs, a band that won masses of critical praise but never managed to crack the mainstream.
In a musical era when metal-tinged angst and self-pity meant sales, the Whigs worked with a broader palette, incorporating soul, funk and grunge into their sound. All of their work was fuelled by Dulli’s tales of passion, sex, lust, drugs, violence, love and, above all, rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s surprising such dark melodrama comes so naturally to a man whose favourite track is I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. When I ask Dulli about this, he bursts out laughing.
“Oh I know,” he exclaims with a gravelly chuckle, “And that’s my favourite song ever! What can I say? I am a mess of contradictions, sir!”
Fans of his will be pleased that Dulli brings this compelling spirit of contradiction to his new band, the Twilight Singers, and their new release, Blackberry Belle. But with such a heady cocktail in the petrol tank, it’s a wonder the Afghan Whigs ever broke down. Dulli says he wasn’t surprised when the quartet decided to call it a day in 2000.
“I saw the end in sight for a couple of reasons,” he says. “First off, the bass player was about to have a child. Second, the four of us lived in four different cities. Not only four different cities, but three different time zones. And, when you’re Led Zeppelin, you can pull that off. When you’re the Afghan Whigs, it gets a little expensive.
“Also, looking back now, the last tour that we ever did, we had a ten-piece band with a horn section and it was this kind of James Brown review type show. We had pretty much taken what we had to its logical conclusion and there was nowhere else we could’ve gone with the band.”
Dulli says the split was “sweetly dignified” but that all the members were of the same mind. With the band’s demise, Dulli moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, where he took a lengthy sabbatical from music. He says this wasn’t a conscious decision.
“I just, kind of, drifted away from it for a while. I was in the Afghan Whigs for 15 years, played thousands of gigs… I think I may have been burned out.”
For nearly two years, Dulli didn’t pick up an instrument or write any new material. The drought was finally broken with a song that would later appear on Blackberry Belle. According to Dulli, it owes its birth to a fault-line.
“It was weird. I was sitting at home one day and we had an earthquake. I have no idea why, all of a sudden, two minutes later I was playing my guitar, which I hadn’t played in over a year or so, and I wrote what later became Papillion.”
Now writing songs at a prolific rate, Dulli was about to reconnect with an old flame – the Twilight Singers. The band began life as a side project while he was still in the Afghan Whigs, involving Harold Chichester (Howlin’ Maggie) and Shawn Smith (Pigeonhed, Satchel). The three combined their song-writing talents with British dance artists, Fila Brasilia, and the end result was Twilight As Sung By The Twilight Singers, a light blend of R&B, laid-back funk and dark soul.
Blackberry Belle, their second album, took thirteen months to complete, undergoing numerous changes along the way. Dulli was poised to release a record a year ago but a personal tragedy struck that changed the course of his life and music. Ted Demme, a film director and one of Dulli’s closest friends, died of a heart attack. Dulli says the suddenness of Demme’s death left him inconsolable.
“He was one of my closest friends, and I was pretty disconsolate for a while. I had really hard time getting over it… I probably never will fully get over it.”
Not long after, Dulli scrapped the 12-song record he was ready to release. From that album, only one track, Papillion, would make it onto Blackberry Belle.
“It was such an ‘up’ album, and all of a sudden, ‘up’ was the last thing I felt. I think I would’ve felt like a cheap charlatan had I attempted to pass that off as how I was feeling. It was important for me to examine what he’d meant to me, and what his loss meant to me.
“The lights got dim when Teddy died, and I just had to explore that – not only for me, but to honour my friend’s memory.”
Blackberry Belle has a far darker tone than its predecessor. The album opens with Martin Eden, a song that was inspired by a scene from Jack London’s novel of the same name.
“It was the description of Martin Eden’s suicide. It is one of the most exquisitely poetic things I think I’ve ever read about sorrow. In my own way, I think I wanted to write a song that would honour the spirit of Jack London.
“Weirdly, that passage in that book about suicide was kind of like a lifeline to me. Not that I was suicidal or anything, because I wasn’t. I was just so, so sad. I wanted to write something as beautiful as that. So I gave it back to him. It was because of that that I felt compelled to name the song after his book.”
With a touring band numbering five, Dulli is now set to take Blackberry Belle on the road. The Twilight Singers arrive in the UK in January, and while for the most part Dulli will be performing songs off his new album, he says he’s not sure that audiences have seen the last of the Afghan Whigs back catalogue.
“I’ll tell you what, it probably has not been retired, because the current members of the Twilight Singers touring band will not let it die. Every time I walk into the rehearsal room, they’ve got another number worked out. And I’m like: ‘Jesus Christ!'”
Will he be persuaded into performing any?
“We’ll see what happens at the time,” he says, “if I’m feeling it, I’ll do it, but I’m not gonna force it.”