By Steve Baltin
Photography by Chris Cuffaro
It’s been nearly three years since Greg Dulli has played live when the former Afghan Whigs frontman takes the stage at Silver Lake club Spaceland on this August Wednesday night. Fronting the current incarnation of his new “band,” The Twilight Singers, Dulli seems a little reserved as the quintet launch into “Martin Eden,” the sublime mid-tempo track that kicks off Blackberry Belle, the second album from the Twilight Singers, followed directly, as it is on the album, by the more rocking “Esta Noche.”
If Dulli isn’t the outspoken, charismatic presence he’s proven to be time and time again with the Whigs, fans should cut him a little slack. The three years between gigs have been a tumultuous time in his life, with the death of close friend, director Ted Demme (the two worked together on Demme’s charming Beautiful Girls) and the breakup of the Whigs, the band that made Dulli a cult hero.
But as the band blisters its way through “Teenage Wristband,” a sparkling rocker with one of the best hooks of the year, and the packed Spaceland crowd greets Dulli as if he’s a lost love, the singer lets loose a huge grin. He’s back where he belongs.
Greg Dulli is back, and as he says in the opening line to Martin Eden,” “Black out the window, it’s party time.”
Venice: Ted Demme was a close friend of yours and I know his passing had a big impact on you musically, as well as personally.
Had Ted Demme not died, this record would’ve sounded a lot different. It was already nearing completion when that happened and I junked the whole record after he passed on. And that’s what this became about.
Was there any hesitation about junking something you’d invested so much time in?
No, that record wasn’t me. My life changed. That guy was my big brother. He was one of my best friends I’ve ever had on the planet. And my life changed inexorably after that. So, whatever I had done previous to that it didn’t matter anymore. [The old songs] are all laying around, but I rewrote the whole record. And that’s why it’s taken three years.
Were you surprised at how much of an impact his passing had on you and how much it infiltrated the music?
I had a very dear girlfriend of mine die about 12 years ago; before that, my grandmother, who kind of helped to raise me, so those were both pretty devastating. But they were both sick. With Ted it was like I was with him Friday and he was dead on Sunday. So the shock of his passing…I didn’t even begin to process it for months.
And to the second question, I’m a pretty visceral writer. Whatever’s happening to me is going to come out in anything that I do. I don’t keep a journal, I don’t take photographs, I don’t keep photographs, so records that I do are the snapshots of where I am. So, no, I’m not surprised by that.
Were most of the songs written in a blur?
Yeah. They were written in a blur and then, not like I doconsciously conceptual records, but I start to react to other songs and then they need a friend kind of. They need a link to the next one. So then, I probably had like five and then I charted it out as to where it needed to go. The first two songs on the record were the last two songs I wrote. They kinda had to be, I guess. They weren’t there yet. I didn’t have a starting point on this one.
It’s been an emotional few years for you. The Whigs split after 15 years together.
I talk to John Curley twice a week. I talk to Rick [McCollum] sporadically. When we broke up we did it around a table not unlike this one and laughed and hugged each other. It wasn’t like fuck you or anything like that; we’re friends still. It just wasn’t going to work out anymore and when you’re young and idealistic and you say stuff like, “Hey, we’ll stop doing it when it’s not fun anymore,” well, that day came. There’s a couple of ways you can do it. You can do what (Guided By Voices’) Bob Pollard did and just get a whole new band and keep calling it that, but that would’ve been pissing all over what I shared with those guys; I never considered that.
Did having the Twilight Singers already make it easier when the Whigs split?
I think I knew it was coming and I had started the bridge before it happened. I think I was preparing for the inevitable in retrospect. I always like what Anton Fier did in the Golden Palominos. Basically that’s kind of the theory I’ve adopted, only I’m not the drummer, I’m the singer and I write the songs, too, so that gives me a little more flexibility.
Who else would you really like to work with?
I’d work with Beyonce for sure. I would love to work with John Forte [prodcer, singer]. That’s another record I’ve been listening to, because that record he did after the Fugees record, when he was kind of hot, I hated it. And I was kind of shocked that I did. And I felt like he disappointed me, not that he lost any sleep over it, but…He put it on the line this time. I don’t like every single song on his record, but it’s fucking honest and it’s uncomfortable to listen to sometimes, but the dude had to come to grips with who he was and the path he chose to walk. And I think it’s beautiful, so I’d work with him in a heartbeat. There are a whole lot of people from all genres. I got to work with Muggs (of Cypress Hill), and when I went over there, I was kind of like in awe, but I don’t think I’ve met a ncier person in the music business.
He mentioned he did a couple of tracks for the Twilight Singers record.
Those got pushed aside, but they’re there and we’re going to work together again. I’m actually supposed to call him today. I think that guy’s a genius and working with the Lo-Fi’s (Lo Fidelity Allstars) and (Mark) Lanegan, the people that I worked with in the interim, were all kind of disparate, but I fit right in with them.
After having spent so many years playing with the same musicians, what was it like being able to work with whomever you wanted?
It’s great! It was back and forth, back and forth, and it was often whoever was around. I got to play with all my favorite drummers, a bass player I’ve known since I was a teenager in Cincinnati. Somebody introduced me to Apollonia, she expressed an interest in wanting to be on it, and I’ve been working with Petra Haden, got her in on it. Lanegan and I were actually starting to work on a duet record and then he got the Queens (of the Stone Age) job but then I ended up going to him on this so that was cool.
During that break, you stayed away from the stage as well.
I realized I had been playing in bands since I was 14, I’m 38, and in those 24 years, I played almost 2000 gigs. I didn’t like that part of it anymore. I liked the hour, two hours, and as the Whigs went on, three hours, on stage, but all that other shit, I coudln’t take anymore. All that driving around, staying in hotels, everything that was cool when I was 24 started to make my stomach hurt. But I took a nice long break and I’m ready to godo it again now. In all humility I’m as good as you’re going to get in a live setting. I’ll come back and defend my rep.