Back in Black
Former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli enters his ‘Twilight’ years
Interview By Sean Rhiney
“Is this for Cincinnati?” Greg Dulli asks as I ring him for our interview. “Just fucking make it up,” he laughs. “There are two kinds of people in Cincinnati. They either love me or they hate my guts.”
Whether revered or reviled in his hometown, Dulli’s reputation has exceeded boundaries and borders ever since his music made him equally famous as his reputation has infamous. He lives in L.A., hangs with Rock stars, produces soundtracks, appears in movies and even voiced John Lennon, singing the late Beatle’s parts in the Stu Sutcliffe biopic, Backbeat.
Not bad for a self-described “trailer park kid” from Ross, Ohio. But love him or not, the former frontman for the Afghan Whigs has undeniably made some of the most critically applauded music of the last 10 years, first with the beloved Whigs, and now with his rotating Soul/Rock/Hop collective, The Twilight Singers.
So why would anybody bother dissing this homeboy?
“Because I’m a candid and direct person. And always have been,” he says. “Everybody thinks ‘Oh, he turned that way when he got on SubPop’ or ‘Oh, he turned that way when he got on Elektra.’ You know what? I came that way out of my mom’s womb. If I was a janitor, I would be the cockiest fucking janitor you ever met.”
Dulli has logged plenty of musical mileage out of his directness on the Whig’s seven discs and his Twilight Singers’ debut, Twilight As Played By The Twilight Singers, released in 2000 as a side project that synthesized the Whig’s Pop Rock and the sensual, groove-oriented Soul and Trip Hop that Dulli was currently digging.
While working on their follow-up to 1965, the Whigs surprised everyone in February 2001 with the sudden announcement of their amicable split, citing distance as the main reason — guitarist Rick McCollum lived in Minneapolis, bassist John Curley resided in Cincinnati and Dulli had recently made his fourth move back to Los Angeles. After 11 years, was it hard to walk away from the Whigs?
“You know what,” he recalls. “It was sad as fuck, and I was the saddest. Of the Whigs, I was the emotional one.”
“We got together and started working on some stuff. Some sounded good, but it didn’t have that ‘boom’ that it always had,” he recalls. “And we said when we were kids, when it’s not fun anymore, we’ll stop. And we sat down at the table and I said, ‘You know what, guys? I don’t know about you, but this isn’t fun for me.’ And every other guy said it, too. I didn’t break up the band. Everybody just said it’s over, had some drinks, played poker — I took all the money like I always did — and we split. And they’re still my boys.”
Closing the chapter on the Whigs allowed Dulli to focus his undivided attention on the next Twilight Singer’s project, Blackberry Belle. He began recording in Los Angeles on his own dime, just as he had with 1965 and the Twilight debut, without involving a major label until completion.
“Steve Malkmus from Pavement taught me that trick,” he says. “He made his own record. Granted he’s a trust fund, and I’m a fucking trailer park kid, but he said to the labels, ‘Listen, I made this, here you go, do with it what you will but if this thing sells, I want half of the money.'”
Shortly after completing the new tracks, Dulli was shocked by the fatal heart attack of his friend, 38-year-old filmmaker Ted Demme (Blow, Beautiful Girls). He scrapped the completed album and spent some time away from music, including a stint as a bar owner, before deciding to make a new disc more akin with how he felt following Demme’s death.
Dividing his time equally between Los Angeles and New Orleans, Dulli reconstructed a new album with co-producers Mathias Schneeberger and Mike Napolitano (Blind Melon, Squirrel Nut Zippers) using a more homegrown studio approach to complete Belle.
“With technology the way it is, I didn’t need to go into a studio for this album,” he recalls. “We did it in living rooms, bedrooms, foyers, hallways, outside, patios, cars, wherever.”
Released in October, Belle has an all-star cast of contributors, including former Screaming Trees’ vocalist Mark Lanegan, who adds a croaking, eerie vocal to closer “Number Nine” (Dulli returns the favor on Lanegan’s upcoming solo disc). Dulli even enlists the cooing vocals of former Purple Rain ingénue, Apollonia Kotero, whom he met through Whigs back-up vocalist Steve Meyers. So how did the prince of debonair get on with Prince’s former consort?
“Does she even know the Afghan Whigs? Shit, no,” he laughs. “She was like, ‘You look like Elvis.’ And I’m like, ‘I can act like Elvis all you want — you want to dance?’ ”
Dulli’s touring Twilight Singers, which includes guitarist Jon Skibic (Gigolo Aunts), bassist Scott Ford, drummer Bobby McIntyre and keyboardist/co-producer Schneeberger, hit the road this fall including this Tuesday’s stop at the Southgate House. The show is a reunion of sorts with opening act, The Staggering Statistics, featuring former Whigs bandmate, John Curley, whom Dulli calls “my favorite guy on the planet.” Of course, in characteristic style, he pulls no punches when offering his opinion on his buddy’s new band.
“Terrible name,” he laughs. “Let me put it to you this way: John Curley named the Whigs, too, and he’s two for two on shitty names. I’m just going to sit in front and throw shit at that boy. He’s done so much mean shit to me in 15 years, I’m getting him back.”