Black Out the Windows
Black Out the Windows, It’s Party Time
Greg Dulli Steps out of the Twilight For a Moment
By Steve Bowes
A Conversation With Greg Dulli From the Twilight Singers – As Told By Steve Bowes of The Pharmacy Prophets
For many, like me, there is a perverse sort of thrill in being absolutely confident that you know music better than the knucklehead next to you at the stoplight. They say Metallica, you say Iron Maiden (the superiority of Maiden over the goat choke which has become Metallica is as much a fact as evolution and the moon in the sky…but I digress). They say Goo Goo Dolls you say Big Star. They say R. Kelly you say Marvin Gaye. You get the idea.
So to all of you who might say, “I think that is the bee’s knees as a singer”, I present one Mister Greg Dulli.
Dulli, a singer/songwriter/actor/author/bar owner/expatriate Ohioan, was fronting the Afghan Whigs on Sub Pop before Seattle became Seattle and cranking out some of the most intense, gut-wrenching and entrancingly beautiful rock of the day. The Whigs, (Greg Dulli, Rick McCollum on guitar, D.C. native John Curley on bass, and a procession of drummers), released an impressive amount of material over a ten-year span starting with “Big Top Halloween” in 1988 and culminating with “1965,” their last release for Columbia Records, in 1998.
The Whigs hit their stride nationally with the release of their first major label release, “Congregation”, in 1992, but it was the three subsequent albums, “Gentleman,” “Black Love” and “1965” that made them a tour de force on the rock and roll map. Combining elements of soul, punk, country, a middle finger and a soft caress, the Whigs influenced and impressed many of the better bands out on the road today. While they never achieved the over-the-top mainstream success of some of the Seattlites of the era, the Whigs nonetheless demolished live shows, created amazing records and left a legacy as one of America’s truly great rock bands.
Along the way Dulli has collaborated with an impressive cadre of musicians on various projects. In 1994 he played in the Backbeat Band, a super group of sorts from the alternative set that provided the soundtrack for the movie “Backbeat.” “Backbeat” was a film about the Beatles’ early days slagging away in the clubs of Hamburg, Germany. The band included Dulli on lead vocals, Don Fleming on guitar, Springfield’s very own Dave Grohl (need I do more to identify him?), REM’s Mike Mills on bass, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth on guitar, and some vocals by Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. The album is a raucous and informative look at the style of music that laid the foundation for the legend that the Beatles would become, and is definitely worth taking a listen to.
The Whigs amicably broke up in 2001 and Dulli started a new project called the Twilight Singers. He released their first album “Twilight as played by the Twilight Singers” a few years back, and an EP earlier this year, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” that whet the appetite for the much anticipated new album, “Blackberry Belle.”
I can’t say enough about “Blackberry Belle” and how it achieves on so many levels. The naked honesty of the songwriting and the performances by the multitude of collaborators all coalesce into a stark, haunting, beautiful record that gets better with every listen. With the release of “Blackberry Belle” on Birdman Records (buy now I urge you), and an accompanying tour, Dulli is returning to his rightful place as the master of the stage and the voice that summons a thousand heartbreaks all together to share a drink.
I had the chance to spend some time talking with Greg on the eve of the tour. I went into it with a batch of questions and was as prepared and eager as a young Jimmy Olsen, but after a couple of minutes the script was set aside and we just started chatting. The following are excerpts from that conversation, and range from the evils of Peter Angelos to the overall beauty of music and how, despite your best intentions, sometimes you just have to admit to singing along with Dave Matthews. The conversation went in many different directions, (my interviewing skills are somewhat dim in comparison to my love for a good chat) so I have broken things down into sections with a brief contextual explanation for each.
*Dulli on where he was and what he was up to when I called, and on baseball in D.C.
So far the tour is going great: I’m still on my couch in California. Right now I’m watching the Red Sox. The Sox can’t seem to solve David Wells, although Manny belted one out earlier. I’m a big baseball fan; the Reds are my team. I’ve gotten to enjoy some World Series love from the Reds. In the 1990 World Series with Barry Larkin and Eric Davis and the Big Red Machine back in the ‘70s…one of the best teams I ever saw, one of the best teams anyone will ever see—that was before free agency.
Washington will never get baseball back as long as crazy old Peter Angelos owns the Orioles. He has no pulse. He seems to be running on embalming fluid.
*Dulli on whether it was difficult to put together a touring band that can pull off songs from “Blackberry Belle,” on which over 20 musicians perform:
No, because [when forming the band] I went for versatility and hangability over anything else. When I gave them the material I took the pressure off them by letting them know that we were going to be a five-man band that was going to cover this material. So [live] this stuff will sound like we want it to… it’s like jazz. Trying to produce something down the nth [degree] is so boring. If you want to hear the album, listen to the album. You’re going to hear live what OUR version of the album is. Even if you go see Radiohead these days, in all their infinite Pink Floyd analness, they will stretch and riff in the middle of their shows. It’s like; you already did it that way once, why do it again? I’m not saying turn “Layla” into a busker song like Clapton did, but let it be what it’s gonna be.
*Dulli on who is the one person he would like to work with in the future:
I’ll tell you what…the person I would most want to work with, weirdly or not so weirdly, the one guy who comes to mind every time for me is Jimmy Page. I want that drum sound that he gets and he’s a pretty good guitar player and a pretty good songwriter on the guitar… He would probably be a cool guy to hang with, I could catch up on my Alistar Crowley stuff and I could ask him how many…..EDITED BY REQUEST….. [raucous laughter]
*Dulli on working with Screaming Trees and sometimes Queens of the Stone Age singer Mark Lanegan:
Mark is the greatest, he’s just one of my best friends. People who don’t know Mark don’t realize how funny he is. He’s very dour looking and rarely smiles, but you get him alone and he’s got the best jokes and the best cutting sarcastic remarks. We went out two nights ago and he just tore me up.
*Dulli on where he recorded “Blackberry Belle”:
We recorded in L.A., New Orleans, and then half a week of overdubs in Memphis, Tennessee. The locale is devastatingly important for me. New Orleans and L.A….they have that fabric that you have to be blind not to find inspiration in.
*Dulli on being haunted:
I don’t believe in ghosts. Show yourself…show yourself and run away??!? [Screw] you pussy…I ain’t scared of you.
*Dulli on past visits to Washington, D.C.
I don’t have any not so fond moments… I’m a big history guy so I love to get in there… I love going to the Smithsonian. I always make a pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial because…Abe’s my dog. Abraham Lincoln is probably my biggest hero.
Historically the Whigs did very well in D.C. They’d give it up to us. In the car and driver metaphor that I like to use we always got a full tank of gas in D.C. John Curley went to Whitman High School on the Yankee side of the river.
*Dulli on his playing in the South:
I always, every time we play Atlanta since the beginning, and everybody’s always ready for me to do it, I always ask them how they like General Sherman’s redecoration job. Makes me the most popular guy in town.
*Dulli on hometown hero and Black Cat patron Dave Grohl:
Dave worked on some demos with me on [Afghan Whigs album] “Black Love.” I played guitar on a song on that first Foo Fighters record; I was the only other guy in there. We did the Beatles thing together. I saw Dave last winter at the Queens of the Stone Age show at the Palladium.
*Dulli on Fugazi:
I like Fugazi, I saw them play four or five times. I like “Rites of Spring”…I tended to like Guy’s voice a little better, it was a little more emotional, it had a little bit of shade to it. I have nothing but the highest respect for Ian McKaye. What he’s done is ununbelievable. I was never really a hard core punk rocker though. I always liked black music too much to get that pissed off.
*Dulli on the pitfalls of conformity:
Non-conformity inevitably becomes conformity…you know you are a Catch-22 victim as soon as you start siding up with that stuff. That’s like when my friends got into punk rock. They just completely denied that they ever had any kind of musical love pre-punk rock. I would ask them “what do you mean you don’t like Earth Wind and Fire…we went and saw them together?” and they were like, “Aww no dude, no I didn’t, I hate that shit.” That’s just silly….it’s insular, it’s intolerant, it’s provincial, it’s small minded. I’m not casting that on D.C., I’m casting that on any sort of clique that fosters that sort of idealism. You like what you like.
*Dulli on being honest with yourself:
God help me, I was driving one time from the airport to Cincinnati in my rent-a-car and I was listening to this song, I’m totally digging it and tapping my foot and kind of like singing along to the end of it and at the end of the song the DJ says, “and that was the Dave Matthews band,” and I was like “NOOOOO!!!!!!” [laughing] It was like, “I hate that!”, but my brain was like “no you don’t, you were tapping your foot to it.” Thank God there was nobody else in the car with me. I didn’t go out and buy that album or anything but for three minutes that dude turned me on. That hip-hoppy Jewel song that’s out now, I like it, I can’t stand that I do but I do.
*Dulli on “Appetite for Destruction”:
I love “Appetite,” I can’t stand “Paradise City” and I can’t stand “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” I love all their other songs. Those two songs get on my motherf’n nerves. I never liked them. Tell me how “Paradise City” became huge? That song is just bad from jump street. I love “Nightrain” and “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone.” I love “Welcome to the Jungle” still. More “My Michelle” and less “Paradise City.”
*Dulli on what is spinning on the jukebox at the Shortstop (the bar he owns in L.A.) and his favorite record of the year:
We got Coltrane, Atmosphere, Pasty Cline…it’s all over the map. There’s some jazz, there’s some country, some punk rock. “We Sold our Souls” by Black Sabbath, “Ride the Lightning” by Metallica is on there. The new Outkast, it’s all over the place. I have to get in there and tweak it because a couple of my favorite records lately aren’t in there right now. There is one record that is out, well more than one, but the one I’m obsessing on right now is this lady named Martina Topley-Bird. She was the singer on “Maxinquaye,” that first Tricky record. She has a solo record out that is my favorite record of the year; it’s blowing my mind. I love it, I listen to it every day. It’s awesome, it’s so good…it’s one of those eclectic records which works. Being eclectic is cool but you have to have some cohesion to it. You know, like [the Beatles’] “Revolver”— “Revolver” is all over the place but it still all comes together.
*Dulli on his love for the Beatles and playing in the Backbeat Band:
We played in Liverpool with the Whigs….it was great. The first time I went to Liverpool I was like…[ sighs] “Ok, here it is.” Same thing the first time I went to Hamburg. It’s funny, I even talked to Dave [Grohl] about that when we did that Beatles thing (the “Backbeat” band) I’m like, “I gotta tell you dude, you should try not to play so well because Pete Best sucked as a drummer. You need to start sucking a little bit…maybe it will sound a little better.” But it was hard for him to do….he’s Dave Grohl.
*Dulli needs more of:
*Dulli needs less of:
Bitches be gettin’ up in my shit.
*Dulli on how the world can be a better place, the state of our world, Arnold Schwarzenegger and things in general:
I think everybody needs to stop talking so f’ing much. I think people talk too much and I don’t think they do enough. I think it’s just bitch, bitch, bitch and complain. I don’t think people lift up their brothers enough and their sisters enough. I don’t want to get all hippie on you but you know the more we let things go on in Africa whether it’s Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, any of those places that don’t have any natural resources that we can scam…we pretty much, by turning our backs, are enabling genocide and borderline new holocausts. What happened in Rwanda made me sick. A friend of mine is actually doing a movie for HBO about the Tutsi-Hutu massacre action in Rwanda. If you read a book called We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, as a human being you will be ashamed. It’s so powerful, talking about this stuff…I work with a couple groups, donating money, passing the word. I do what I can. We need to get pro-active.
I live in a state with the Governator [Arnold Schwarzenegger]. I’ll tell you what; it’s revolution time! They just cheat, it’s just cheating. You think that Arnold Schwarzenegger shit wasn’t fixed? Now it’s fixing…anybody who says that boxing is the last bastion of dirty tricks is crazy; it’s politics.
*Dulli on not always making it the first time around:
I moved to L.A. in 1984 to be a movie star, I went to film school in Cincinnati. I came back… I drove a cab, I roofed houses, I did whatever it takes to put food in my belly and a roof over my head. Ain’t too proud to beg, as they say.
*Dulli on this interview:
That was fun, I think we did good.
Check out the Twilight Singers at Black Cat on the 14th of November (1811 14th St., NW, 202-667-7960, www.blackcatdc.com) or visit the band’s website: www.thetwilightsingers.com.
Steve Bowes is the lead singer and guitarist of the Pharmacy Prophets. Catch them at Iota Club and Cafe on November 20th with Rotoscope and Mike Holden.