Dulli Breaks New Ground
Greg Dulli breaks new ground with the Twilight Singers
By Matt Sebastian, Camera Music Writer
October 30, 2003
The Daily Camera
Greg Dulli’s never been one to look on the bright side of life, and his new Twilight Singers record is no different: “Black out the window,” he grimly croons on the album’s opener, “It’s party time … so let’s all play suicide.”
For fans of the singer’s work with the sorely missed Afghan Whigs, the just-released Blackberry Belle is another exploration of Dulli’s black heart, a sonic journey through damp alleys and hazy bars. Even so, this isn’t the record Dulli intended to make.
“Everything changed when Teddy died,” Dulli says of the sudden death, in January 2002, of his best friend, film director Ted Demme. “I had a record, actually, almost in the can before he died, and in one minute, that record wasn’t me anymore.”
Stricken by grief, Dulli — who opens the Twilight Singers’ fall tour Tuesday at the Bluebird Theater — dumped the material he’d been laboring over and started anew. The resulting songs, which ultimately landed on Blackberry Belle, don’t explicitly address Demme or his death, yet, as Dulli puts it, “There’s not a song on there that don’t have Teddy in it somehow.”
“His death was that cold and unsentimental reminder that life is cruel, sudden, swift and unexplainable,” Dulli says from his Los Angeles home. “My life’s changed forever. That guy was a force; he had a light burning inside him that I’d never seen in anybody before, and that light got snuffed out. And I was like, ‘I want that light.’ Then I realized I have to be that light.”
With Blackberry Belle, the darkly soulful Dulli has reworked his post-Whigs project, turning it into more of a solo vehicle than originally intended. When Dulli began work on the Twilight Singers’ debut in 1997, he conceived the band as a trio of singers — himself, Howlin’ Maggie frontman Harold “Happy” Chichester and Shawn Smith, vocalist for Satchel and Brad.
“That lasted about a day,” Dulli says, laughing. “You put three alpha males in a room and there’s going to be blood and fur everywhere — and there was. This thing is my little Ziggy Stardust, role-playing fantasy anyway,
so — his voice drops a few registers — “I continue alone.”
When the Afghan Whigs signed to Columbia Records in 1998, Dulli decided to release what would be that band’s swan song, 1965, first, even though the Twilight Singers’ debut was nearly done. After the Whigs’ final tour, Dulli returned to the Twilight Singers material, partnering with British breakbeat duo Filia Brazillia to remix the entire album from scratch.
Released in 2000, Twilight as Played By the Twilight Singers was strikingly different than the Whigs’ work. The songs, some quite mournful, were bathed in dusky electronics and trip-hop beats.
Working with an entirely new cast of musicians on Blackberry Belle — including Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan and former Prince sidekick Apollonia — Dulli toned down the techno, mixing in a little more of the grungy, R&B-splattered rock he perfected with the Afghan Whigs; rockers like “Teenage Wristband” and the funky “Feathers” would have been more at home on a Whigs record than on Twilight.
“I really liked the stainless-steel cold precision of the first Twilight record,” Dulli says. “I’d always wanted to hear my songs like that. I still put it on and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s me!’ But when we played those songs live, we hotwired them. You get up there and you can’t play a mood record on stage — you’d snooze everyone out like you’re Mazzy Star.”
The music may be a little more uptempo, but lyrically, Dulli continues his fascination with the seamier side of life. He insists he doesn’t feel pigeonholed as a dark lyricist, even after the Whigs’ 1993 album Gentlemen, which, in wrenching and nearly misogynistic fashion, detailed the disintegration of a relationship.
“When I’m experiencing delirious highs of joy, I’m not looking for a pen and paper to talk about it,” Dulli says. “If I could write a happy-ass song like Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney, I’d probably do it. But I’m working something out when I’m writing these songs. It’s a voyage of discovery. I kind of have to do it, or I’d probably blow up if I didn’t release these feelings.
“Of course,” he adds with a chuckle, “I’ll occasionally put a nice little jam behind it, so even if you’re not listening to the words, you’re bobbing your head and shaking your ass.”