What sunrise? Greg Dulli’s Twilight Life
by Rob van Alstyne
Right about the time everyone else is going to bed, mentally preparing for their dreary day ahead working for the man — Greg Dulli comes alive. As you toss and turn hoping in vain to form the perfect union between neck and pillow, Dulli is out on the streets, causing mayhem, getting into more trouble and excitement in one night than most of us will experience in two or three lifetimes.
Greg Dulli likes to party and he wants to take you along for the ride. Blackberry Belle, the latest bacchanalian Dulli opus (from his current guise as The Twilight Singers) begins with a command (“black out the windows/it’s party time”), and proceeds to take no prisoners and shake boundless asses over the ensuing 45 minutes.
None of this should come as a surprise to those already familiar with Dulli’s musical modus operandi, he’s been staking out this turf for 15 years, since he first led the Afghan Whigs out of America’s heartland (can you believe this bad-ass is from Ohio?) and into national prominence during the early ‘90s. One of the few buzz bands glommed onto during the post-Nevermind indie-band feeding frenzy that was actually worth a damn, the Afghan Whigs weren’t grunge (despite their Subpop pedigree)—they weren’t even rock. The Whigs strutted artfully between multiple genres: equal parts theatrical R&B tricksters, coked up punk motherfuckers, and glamorous pop stars. They managed to make only one truly hit album (1993’s Gentleman which featured MTV staple “Debonair”), but garnered a large cult following. Much of the draw was Dulli, an over the top front man ready to be whatever his audience needed, a brash white punk with soulful musical inclinations and sinister intentions … or so the records would lead you to believe.
Record label indifference (the Whigs hopped from Elektra to Columbia after disappointing sales) and geographical separation (Dulli moved to L.A. with the rest of the band scattered in various pockets of the U.S.) caused the band to call it a day at the close of the ’90s.
“We [broke up the band] in such a funny way, it was like, ‘Yup, time to quit … let’s get drunk,’” explains Dulli via telephone from his home. “So when I walked away from that I didn’t consciously think I was done with music or anything like that. I just noticed like a year or so went by and then it was like, ‘wow, I used to play in a band, I used to make albums,’ so then I just started writing again.”
Dulli had already left some noteworthy post-Whigs work in his wake; Twilight was an album he had dabbled on during 1997 while the Whigs were between record labels. That record, released under the nom de plum of the Twilight Singers finally surfaced in 2000, a few years after its initial recording, which had been during the low point of Dulli’s heroin addiction.
A dense dark journey on par with any of his prior work, Twilight enlisted the aid of fellow crooners Shawn Smith (Brad, Satchel, Pigeonhead) and Harold Chichester (Howlin’ Maggie) and the dance-proficient production skills of Fila Brizillia to make depression, addiction and loneliness sound oddly sensual.
Dulli’s songwriting lay dormant for three years, from the time of the Whig’s dissolution—he kept himself busy tending bar at the establishment he owned in L.A.’s Echo Park—until the combined jolt of a close friend’s death, filmmaker Ted Demme, and a low-level earthquake forced him to reclaim his artistic life and restart his Twilight Singers project.
“The whole cycle of record, tour, record again just got tiring,” claims Dulli. “I used to call it the ‘habit trail,’ when you’re 19 you want on that habit trail so fucking bad. You know what I mean? ‘Wow, I’m in Amsterdam, wow I’m in Prague!’ And then, all the sudden it’s ten years later and you’re like, ‘I hate this airport, I hate buses, I hate the way you eat… I hate you.’ It was really good to just unconsciously step away [from being a musician] for awhile. With this new record I ended up drawing a lot of inspiration from my job, owning a bar and then bartending in a bar, man you’re privy to all sorts of conversations. You just walk by one and you’re like, ‘you don’t even know I’m listening to you, you don’t even know I memorized something really cool you just said . . . you will never see a dime of the royalties from this record (laughs).’”
Judging by the content of Blackberry Belle, Dulli’s barroom denizens must lead exceedingly interesting and angst-ridden lives. The slick borderline ’80s pop of “Teenage Wristband,” with it’s electric piano loop and driving rhythms perfectly captures the reckless abandon of an endless night with only sordid possibilities in store for the characters involved (with it’s incessantly catchy chorus, “You wanna go for a ride? I got no more money to burn and I’m gonna stay up all night.”).
“St.Gregory” is a slow burning midtempo acoustic number whose sporadic skittery background percussion prevents the song from finding solid footing, thereby perfectly supporting the scattershot narrative of the song’s strung-out protagonist who seems all too autobiographical (“I heard your woman left you/I heard you quit your band./How you on money?/You still feeding that jones?”). As always Dulli’s voice puts fire into the belly of each tune, whether talk-singing in a detached low register (“Martin Eden”) or letting rip with some patented screaming (“Decatur”).
At 38, Dulli’s a true survivor in the rock game, and thanks to the aid of assorted talented collaborators (among them Mark Lanegan and former Prince co-hort Appolonia) Blackberry Belle is every bit the sonic lightning rod that his best past records have always been. Still making art that goes to extremes, Dulli is quick to acknowledge he’s been fortunate to get through the process intact.
“I think aspiration to transcendence and intelligence is more than likely most people’s downfall,” claims Dulli. “Easily in the artistic world. What happened in Elliott Smith’s living room [referring to Smith’s suicide] is a modern day parable about what can happen. I didn’t know him well, but I did know him and I did have a deep fond affection for him. More than thinking about what he did, or the music he made before that, all I can think about is the five minutes before the act was completed. And that to me is just the absolute depth of loneliness. And that right there is why when you choose to expose yourself in an artistic way you’re putting yourself in a dangerous place.”
Dulli, like Smith was a hard drug user and agorophobe who couldn’t have been a worse candidate to handle the fame and attention that was coming the Whigs way during the height of their career. Fortunately, he was able to withstand the glare of the spotlight and move on, while Smith simply couldn’t cope. With renewed vigor and a clean slate Dulli seems anxious to get back on the road and return to the role of nightlife shaman and irascible musical mischief maker. As long as there’s time left on the game clock, Dulli is going to live it up.
“I bet you every generation that has walked this earth has had the fucking vanity to think, ‘we’re going to be it, we’re going to see the apocalypse happen.’,” says Dulli in his closing comments to me. “But bro, I like are odds man. It’s looking like fucking fire and damnation out there. This motherfucker’s cracking up.”
The Twilight Singers featuring Greg Dulli play Fri., Nov. 7, at the 400 Bar. 9 p.m. $15. 21+. 400 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls. 612-332-2903.