By Tim McMahan
The Omaha Weekly-Reader
Talking to The Twilight Singers’ anonymous frontman, Greg Dulli, former frontman of the anything-but-anonymous Afghan Whigs, was a complete and utter surprise.
Anyone who has heard The Whigs’ mid-’90s opuses to self-loathing, Gentleman and Black Love, would expect what I expected — a deep-throated, barely audible monologue by a sunglassed, cigarette-lipped guy talking from a shuttered room somewhere in L.A., trying as hard as possible over a throbbing hangover to keep his boiling rage from overflowing into an interview for some Midwestern hayseed publication.
His dark image is galvanized by The Twilight Singers’ new CD, Blackberry Belle, a throwback of sorts to those mid-90s Whigs’ assaults — bitter, tense and angry. The Dulli that everyone remembers is back and as loathsome as ever, crossing smoky, almost bluesy melodies with equal servings of heartbreak piano and rough porno rhythms. Underscoring it is Dulli’s voice, at one moment seductively trying to lure you into his back seat, the next spitting angst and panic directly into your face.
I wasn’t looking forward to the interview, fearing a breathy, short-fused indictment to my ignorance of all things Dulli. Instead, I got this:
“Dude, I’m in L.A. walking through my living room. I just finished cleaning up. My cat did a hairball, a really nasty thing. I picked up the big chunky part and underneath was some gluey shit you could seal the space shuttle with.”
Turns out, talking to Dulli is like rolling down Dodge Street with the breaks out. He just keeps jumping from topic to topic like a crazed, drugged-out evangelist selling rock and roll. He is not dark. He is not somber. He is not withdrawn or bitter. He is funny and fast and ready to tell you whatever is on his mind no matter what anyone thinks. He’s that slightly lubed guy at the party who in 10 minutes has made friends with everyone in the room. By the end of the night, he’s drank or stolen most of your booze and slept with your girlfriend, and the only thing you’re pissed about is that he left so early.
Needless to say, we didn’t talk that much about music.
On the California fires: “Dude, it’s nothing but smoke all day long. I hate to say this, but I think it’s a terrorist thing. I do. It’s to cause confusion and get everyone on one side of the place and get things fucked up where it ain’t.”
On these “just downright shitty” times: “Every generation is vain enough to think they’re the final one. You got dum-dum in the White House and dum-dum in the Governor’s house. It’s like boxing in Vegas, it’s all fixed. Your vote and my vote, it doesn’t count. I voted for Larry Flynt. He wasn’t gonna win, but I went to a party at his house once and got laid, so that’s worth a vote. Bush — he’s a ‘tard. I’d go to a baseball game and do coke with him — he could get some top-shelf blow and good seats — but not president.”
I tell Dulli that these are just the kind of quotes I’m looking for. “Either define yourself or be defined,” he replies.
It took a bit, but I finally pulled him into a music conversation by saying that Blackberry Belle is probably the darkest thing I’ve heard since Black Love, and asking if this is where his life is right now.
“Honestly, I was about to put out a record called Amber Headlights that was pretty naughty but not in a bad way,” he said. “But then my best friend up and died. I saw him on Friday and we went to dinner and I was supposed to play in this basketball game with him but something came up and I couldn’t, and he died. The moment I got the call, it rendered Amber Headlights useless. You put out a record and say, ‘This is me and what I’ve been feeling.’ So I wrote that record and the second that Teddy died, my life changed forever.”
“Teddy” is Ted Demme, director of such notable films as The Ref, Beautiful Girls, and Blow, who died Jan. 13, 2002, from a heart attack suffered while playing in a celebrity basketball game. He was 38.
“I only knew him eight years and he was my favorite person,” Dulli said. “I’ve never been so inspired by a human being or seen someone so kind or magnanimous. He lit it up and the lights dimmed when he left. And I don’t know if they’ll ever go back up. This is all about me figuring what to do without Ted Demme. Straight up.”
“He lit it up and the lights dimmed when he left. And I don’t know if they’ll ever go back up. This is all about me figuring what to do without Ted Demme. Straight up.”
“I was in the Whigs, I loved the band, I loved the songs and I’ll throw them out for you. Why wouldn’t I?”
Blackberry Belle, like 2000’s Twilight by the Twilight Singers, is a collaboration with a multitude of musicians. Vocalist Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), drummer Stanton Moore (Galactic), multi-instrumentalist Petra Haden (That Dog, The Rentals), even Apollonia Kotero (yes, that Apollonia), are among the more than 20 musicians credited on the album. But for the Nov. 6 Sokol Underground show, expect just a five-piece band.
“It’s like Miles Davis said, what we did in the studio is there, we’d be stupid to do it again live. I’m not out to make it sound like the album. I told the guys, now the Twilight Singers have two records. I can play cover songs until the last person drops dead on Tonga.”
Dulli said expect a two-hour set that will include Afghan Whigs songs. “I was in the Whigs, I loved the band, I loved the songs and I’ll throw them out for you. Why wouldn’t I?” he said.
Dulli threw in a few more rants before the interview came to a close.
On Ryan Adams: “Dude gets pissed off because they yell ‘Cuts Like a Knife’ at his shows. Chill little boy. I saw Westerberg on the Tim tour and they opened with ‘Summer of ’69’ and played it all the way through. Ryan Adams should do that.”
On the business: “I made this record and I own it. It’s just licensed (to the label). If it starts to go party-hardy I’ll put a pool in my front yard. I ain’t owing fucking Columbia. I’ve never made an expensive record. Black Love cost $90,000 because we were buying ecstasy and coke all the time. I made this one for $25,000 and everyone got paid.”
And on reliving Ted Demme’s memory every night when he performs Blackberry Belle: “Ted taught me to live life. I am blessed to have known him. I have no problem singing this. I’m picking up the wheel where he left it.”
And then the interview ended: “Tim, I love ya, I miss ya, but I gotta talk to Australia now so I’ll see you soon.”