Plan B Magazine
Sobering sunlight blasts in through the windows of the Columbia Hotel and something is wrong with this picture. As the infamous Columbia is London’s prime den of Rock n Roll iniquity we’ve got the location right, at least. Across the table, his back to the outside world, partly silhouetted by the glare, Twilight Singer Greg Dulli exhales smoke in a measured, almost effete pout and rattles the ice around his glass of Coca-Cola.
“Shoving it up somebody’s ass is a way to stop them from OD’ing,” he nods after a moments pause. “Yeah. Shocks the system. Never had to do it myself,” Dulli sounds almost surprised as we are. “I was at a party where somebody OD’d and died though. That was pretty… crappy.”
Halfway through over an hour of conversation a chance remark over ice is the first real glimpse we have of that Greg Dulli. The narcotic-veined narcissist that fronted nineties Seattle icons the Afghan Whigs, with whom he penned darkly voyeuristic diaries detailing how to unravel one’s prey through desire and diseased love. The black-eyed soul boy loaded with a lascivious purr of a voice that could strip away your knickers thread by thread, all the while telling you that he is just really no good. Throughout that decade of grunge decadence Dulli’s rapacious appetite for the finer things in life – sex, food, alcohol, heroin and candy – painted him as an aesthete of abandon, a Hollywood Vampire who seemed to exist almost purely in the night time hours.
It’s no wonder that in person, in daylight, you’d barely recognise him at all. A huge, craggy-faced bear of a man with a potentially limb-damaging handshake, he greets me warmly and enthusiastically even though it’s the first time we’ve met. He even wilfully bursts his own bubble of cool instantly by hyperventilating over my work, graciously offering me, the starstruck fanboy, the opportunity to recline in an assumed air of cool impassivity; the upper hand. And all before I even have the chance to gush about how “Blackberry Belle”, the latest album from his post-Whigs solo project, The Twilight Singers, is the musical highlight of the past year.
Written and recorded amidst the debris of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and the smog and tequila of after-sunset Los Angeles, “Blackberry Belle” is an electric rush of polished midnight pop and elegant faux-soul. It establishes night time as an unreal place where unreal things happen. Abandoning the blood and guilt of his Whigs persona, Dulli constructs a mood-driven diorama, populated by shadow people, where plays of morality and mortality are acted out in a reckoning on the nature of death and the speed of life.
“Strange people stay hidden in the day,” mutters Greg, darkly. And looking at him I fear that if he stepped outside the sanctum of the Columbia, where he holds court, he’d turn right to dust. “Like snakes. Y’know? I work best well after midnight. When everybody’s asleep and it kind of feels like I appropriate the world,” he catches himself. “I live a very fictional life.”
When Dulli croons the ominous, spine-tingling opening line to the album, “Black out the windows… it’s party time”, you know something ecstatic, bad and life-changing is coming.
“Black out the windows. It’s actually a term I heard from speed-freaks, of which I am not one. But, uh, ‘black out the windows’ that means ‘let’s make it night time for two weeks’. It’s nice to know that I can still have my blood chilled by a statement. When that person said that to me I felt my blood go cold. It’s like ‘Wow, that is fuckin’ nasty. I think I’ll steal that,’” Dulli laughs; a gentle, nicotine-charred cackle. “So I stole it.”
“I have voyages of discovery,” Dulli explains of the nocturnal ‘deviant behaviour’ he observes and participates in to fuel his creativity. “A song to me is a reflection of a life lived. So I’ll live a life. Live the life.” With 2000’s “Twilite As Performed By…” album these voyages of discovery took him to such far away fields as Goole, a grotty East Yorkshire market town near producers’ Fila Brazilia’s hometown of Hull, just so he could say he slept with “a girl from Goole”, and a costly taxi drive from Sweden to the North Pole just “so that I could cross over that circle. Listenin’ to hip hop and smokin’ heroin. By myself. I do weird shit like that.” “Blackberry Belle”, meanwhile, rides in on the weird kind of vampiric energy you get from a week of not sleeping, and it comes as little surprise to discover that sleep deprivation was a prominent feature of its creation.
“We were recording in New Orleans and from the moment Mardi Gras started til it was finished I did not sleep. By the third day people would offer me drugs and I’m like ‘You’re wastin’ ‘em on me, man. I’ve already gone past drugs and alcohol.’ I’m into sleep deprivation now and that’s the weirdest high you can get. Y’know, a little caffeine, some chocolate; that’s all I needed. At that point drugs do nothing. They’re a waste of your energy, they’re a waste of somebody else’s money. A sleep deprivation high is the highest I’ve ever been.”
It’s an act, of course. It’s bullshit. That’s what you’re thinking, and it’s what was preying on my mind as I stumbled, blinking, into the too-bright Hyde Park sun, post-interview. I’d been suckered, seduced. Played like a goddamned violin. From the moment Dulli sized me up in the hotel foyer he disarmed me and castrated my critical faculties. Oh boy, I was his bitch but he treated me like a princess. Greg Dulli in person doesn’t quite resemble the noir-cloaked Dean Martin – chain-smoking, hard-drinking, wise-cracking; playing to the audience at every turn – of his live performances. But he’s a gentleman, and sly enough with his tongue to sell you whatever it is you came here to buy. Myths, soundbites, antediluvian anecdotes – how about a whole new kind of cool? It’s all a sham, a gorgeous sham.
Critiques of The Twilight Singers have had them slated as ‘fake soul’. They’re missing the point. It’s presented the way that it is, utterly MOR, because everything here has to be hyper-contrived. Authenticity is a by-word for lack of imagination, or lack of fire, and “Blackberry Belle” is made like a movie. Painstakingly pre-empted, edited with the finest razors cocaine can buy, shot on film – grainy and beautiful and better-looking than real life. Britney would understand.
“So, like, fake soul, meaning like Simply Red or somethin’ like that?” Dulli snorts, he’s not playing along. “Jamiroquai? Take That? Most likely these journalists are white and soul music is not a colour thing, it’s not a gender thing. I’m pretty certain that I have my requisite 21 grams that will leave my body when I die. So fuck them.”
I don’t think fake soul is an inappropriate reference point, actually. Soul is the closest you can get, without being hip hop, to a supercharged music that is a pure fucking wall of invulnerability. Even at its most tender, it is aspirational and hopeful. One of rock’s defining characteristics is its glowering capacity for self-destruction. There’s an ugly, stillborn glamour attached to burning out. Soul is about surviving, burning brighter, shadow-boxing your demons into submission. In calculating a formula for a super-invulnerable music that wasn’t hip hop, you would invoke the dignified, smouldering fervour of soul and the swagger of rock n roll, but produced like a pop record to nullify the atavism of either, because pop is the only genuinely rootless music.
“Well, first of all, pop would mean popular. And I don’t think this record is super-popular. I’d be loathe to call it anything except for, y’know, shadow music. Y’know? Played in an extremely noirish, cinematic style.”
Ok, so “Blackberry Belle” is a film, a sort of Sunset Boulevard in structure. The main character, which is you, dies at a party at the mansion before the beginning of the film and at the end the perspective shifts to another character, the true hero of the film, who offers you redemption, and on the record is voiced by Mark Lanegan, in the closing death ballad duet “Number Nine”.
“Or… Mark dies at the beginning of the record,” the soul man grins. “And I’m the devil.”
Did you conceive the album as a meditation on death?
“Yes. And only because my best friend died,” Greg is talking of Teddy Demme, the film maker to whom “Blackberry Belle” is dedicated. “He died in a here today, gone tomorrow way. I had dinner with him on the Friday. He died on Sunday afternoon. Playing basketball. Had a heart attack.” By this point the second Twilight Singers album had been completed and was awaiting release, but on a whim Dulli ditched the entire effort. With his worldview rattled he picked up an acoustic guitar and began writing what eventually became “Blackberry Belle”. “Records to me – I have to look back and go ‘This is who I was then’. And all of a sudden, in that one second, that wasn’t who I was. And the fact that he was a movie director definitely influenced what we just talked about.”
If “Blackberry Belle” is a meditation on death it is only because the conclusion its own circular logic arrives at is to celebrate life. It seems to make demands to the effect that the most important thing we can do as human beings is to live each second of our lives like it’s the second before the car goes over the cliff
“Nietzche said ‘Live dangerously’. Y’know. It was really the only advice I needed. ‘Live dangerously’ to me is Nietsche’s carpe diem.”
That quote from Jack London on the album sleeve, ‘And at that instance….’
“‘…He knew he ceased to know.’ That is: you don’t know shit, til you die. There’s another quote in the book that I love just as much, and it’s ‘Society and possession are death’s horses. They run in span.’ The moment you become satisfied, y’know, literally or figuratively, is the moment of your death. So… I try to stay distinctly unsatisfied.
“People ask if the record’s about me or if it’s about Ted, but I think it’s about me reacting to life without Ted. Because Ted had such an incredible light inside him that everything went incredibly dim for me,” Greg fixes me in the eye. “Especially when I saw him on that slab. Um, touched him. And he wasn’t him anymore. You know? The light snuffed. He was such like my big brother type person, for a long, long time. I hadn’t really begun to factor how much he meant to me. And, uh, his light – I think I might have leeched off his light a little bit, instead of burning my own. So, uh, I had to come to grips with that. And light a bonfire in my cold little heart.”
Had you reasoned any of this before you started writing about it?
“No. that’s the voyage of discovery. Y’know. The things you find out about yourself when you write about are not always, uh, complimentary. I mean, when I listened to “Gentlemen” after it was done I didn’t sound like a very nice person. I didn’t sound like somebody I would let my daughter go on a date with, or even let my son be friends with.”
You were a cunt.
“Yeah, but that was me. That was me and I had to find out who I was. And it’s not always pleasant. And it certainly wasn’t pleasant this time. It’s rarely pleasant. The me that I would like to get to know from any record is the me from “1965”.”
You can hear it in your voice. It’s all about the moves you make. You might detail the other party’s actions but what the listener is drawn to is the way you respond to it. You never surrender control, not for a second. If you’re a voyeur then you’re like Patrick Batemen in American Psycho, hi-fiving yourself in the mirrored ceiling as you take your muse in the ass.
Was it a character? I assumed it was a character.
“It was me and a character. It’s not all me cos no one’s life is that interesting. Cos you have to start drawing things in but it’s almost all me. It really is. I was a fucken piece of shit.”
You’re playing the cunt and I don’t think it’s because you’re really like that. I think its because you’re either trying to impress the listener, or more likely, yourself. You’re making Greg Dulli a fictional character, like Bateman. You’re using your art to write a new you into existence, growing a second self, either as a defence mechanism or just out of pure fucking vanity. If there are two of you then it’s harder for the original to be killed, and all the better for one to admire oneself – like Simone de Beauvoir in All Men Are Mortal.
“I wish. I was trying to reinvent myself by letting the Emperor know that he was naked. The Emperor’s New Clothes? The Emperor walks around naked but no one will tell him cos he’s the Emperor? I was the Emperor. And I was also the one who informed the world that I was naked. I was unafraid of the consequences that would come. I was the bravest man in the whole wide world,” he hovers to monitor my reaction before collapsing into roaring, mocking laughter. “At least I thought I was then.”
Have you written any love songs lately, Greg?
“They’re all love songs, Dave,” the man purrs, one leg dangling ostentatiously over the arm of his pressured looking bar seat, bellyful of love and chocolate pushed proudly out, cigarette smoke haloing those swollen Grecian features. Truly he carries the part of the self-disgracing Emperor with panache. “‘I love me. I wish I loved me. I wish I loved her. I think I do love her. I don’t love her anymore. I want to love her. I want to love me.’”
Nick Cave has claimed that he suffers from erotographomania, which is a maniacal compulsion to write love letters. The reason he was addicted to writing love songs was because it was a way for him to master control over his subject. He could pick a victim – PJ Harvey, or whoever – and write the relationship into reality and make it as beautifully fucked up and pointlessly tragic as he’d always dreamed. I think you suffer from erotographomania too, but the love letters you write are all to yourself.
“Well, I tell ya what. I think what Nick Cave was probably talking about was idealisation. I think in his tragic and doomed scenarios – in his case probably shows you his propensity for, uh, trying to absorb Flannery O’Connor’s DNA. From beyond. Or William Faulkner, who is the most boring fucken writer I’ve ever read. But, uh… no I’ve written love songs to girls. And the girls know who they are when they’re written. “Decauter St.”, the character’s certainly out on the call for pussy. That is a fact. “Teenage Wristband” is some sort of, y’know, underage girl fantasy. I’m pretty certain. There’s a coupla girls that I met that show up in “Blackberry Belle”. And specific girls. Living, sentient women.”
So what’s the story with Apollonia, huh?
“Met her at a party. Very flirty,” Greg recounts of the former Prince protégé and lover, who contributes backing vocals to the album. “The fact that she was flirting with me? Shocking! But fucken top, y’know? I mean, enough so that, like, I said I was going to the bathroom and went and called some of my friends out in Ohio on the cellphone, y’know, ‘Guess who I just made out with!!’ So I’m not that cool, man. You know what I mean?”
If you were to construct an “Addicted To Love”-esque, all-female Twilight Singers who would be in the band?
“Who would they be? Selma Hyak. Audrey Hepburn. Gina Lollabridge and Racquel Welch. Eva Gardner. Patricia Neal. Eartha Kitt. Lauryn Hill. Pam Grier. I’d put Grace Jones in there too. What’s she doin’? Let’s get her in there. Let’s get her in my band.”
What were you like before you started singing?
When did you find out you could sing?
“I still haven’t found that out yet! [laughs] Uhmm… I actually started playing drums in a blues band when I was 13. Um, I played sports, sold drugs, did low-rent arson for the local Family – Familia. Um… not a lot to do in my town, so I filled myself with lots of things to do, y’know. I was making good money at 14. Real good.”
What did you want to achieve?
“Get laaaid. Get loaded. Get out of my head. Y’know, be different from somebody for an hour. Y’know? No spectacular world domination plan. Just lived in a tired town. Wanted to wake it up a little bit.”
Did you do that?
“Yah. Indeed. Scared the fuck outta them!” Greg Dulli walks me to the door of the Columbia, hanging back in the shaded porch as I stumble, blinking, into the too-bright Hyde Park sun. From the shadows comes a mischievous, nicotine-charred cackle. “They won’t forget me, I tell ya that.”