Tales from the Dark Side

The Event Guide (Ireland)
Promo for the Jan 30 2004 Dublin Show

For more than ten years the Afghan Whigs was one of the most highly respected and popular independently minded rock bands in the USA. After numerous album releases, including the powerful ‘Gentlemen’, released in 1993 on Elektra Records, lead singer Greg Dulli broke up the band and went to ground. Several years later he re-emerged in the guise of The Twilight Singers, releasing the debut album ‘Twilight’ and following it some time later with an EP that featured his arrangement of ‘Black Is The Colour of My True Love’s Hair’. Last year, the band unleashed their dark and brooding classic, ‘Blackberry Belle’, a record filled with some rather large amounts of anxiety and despair. Prior to the band’s upcoming visit to Dublin, Dulli spoke to The Event Guide about life, death, and a few fairly weird places in between.

Following a lengthy absence from the live stage, how are things looking for your upcoming European tour?

Great. We’ve played twenty-five shows in America already, to great reaction, so we’re ready.

Were the US shows played to a lusting Afghan Whigs audience, or to new fans?

Sort of a combination of the two. But let me just warn you now that anyone who sits out there and screams out for Whigs songs during a Twilight show is going to be docked. This is a totally different affair. You can scream it all you want, but if you can say it in English then you can understand me back in English….although fuck off translates into just about every other language. That said, for an audience who comes and listens to the last two records I’ve done, they’ll be well rewarded with, eh let’s say, gifts from the past. When we played in America, aside from two nights when people were just fucking cunts, we played Whigs songs every night. If you don’t ask, you shall receive.

‘Blackberry Belle’ is a very dark record, but fabulous none the less. I know you are doing something with Mark Lanegan (of Queens of the Stone Age) and there seems to be a similar psychic energy there, an equally disturbing one in a way.

We just recorded ten songs in ten days. Three days after the Twilight tour, I went out as the keyboard player in his band, which was interesting on a couple of levels, because it had been the first time since I was thirteen that I sat in the back of a band. I fucking loved it…no pressure. No one was paying any attention, so I could do all kinds of shit.

How did that invitation come about?

I will tell you the story and this is an exclusive, OK. I had been diagnosed and treated for anxiety attacks and I had a really bad one, one night, where it felt like I had vertigo. I was walking to my kitchen and I fell, but it felt like I kept on falling. It was a pretty terrifying thing, which I had never experienced before. A friend of mine was over here and I was like “Call Lanegan!!”. He’s a friggin’ drug store. I needed some Valium, or something, which I knew he had. He came over, gave me two Valium, put a cold rag on my head, and sat with me for a while. Now I know this will devastate anybody who thinks that Mark doesn’t have a heart, but he is one of the sweetest people I know. I woke up the next morning and made an appointment with a psychiatrist to get dealt with. A little after that I get an email from his management office that was detailing my flight information to Vancouver. I was like “what the fuck is that? I’m not going to Vancouver.” So I call my friend and asked him if, when Lanegan came over, did he ask me anything, and he goes “You mean about being his keyboard player?” I asked him if I had said yes, and he said “Sure, right before you passed out!.” I’m thinking that’s like date rape, man. I called Mark on the phone and he laughed at me for five minutes until I hung up…and then I went to Vancouver.

Had you liked his ‘Here Comes That Weird Chill’ album? Was it easy to fit in to what he was doing?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a self-taught musician, so following somebody is real easy. I had heard the songs before but when I got to Vancouver I remembered he was my roommate. I got to the room and he had just come off tour with the Queens, and he goes (Dulli drops his tonal rage about seventeen floors) “How was your flight? Ya didn’t learn the songs, did ya.” “No”, I said. “Ya didn’t even listen to them, did ya?” “No”, I said again. And he goes “Well, ya better just sit back there and look pretty.” Those shows were great. Mark had refused to do any Screaming Trees songs, he just won’t do them. We were playing in Seattle and he started scrapping with somebody and I’m like “Call Van Conner, I want to hear ‘Dollar Bill’ tonight.” And he’s like “I ain’t calling him, and I ain’t doing ‘Dollar Bill’.” I said “Well I’ll goddam do it, and when I get up there and all the girls come after me for doing it…I’ll call Van Conner myself.” So he called Van and Van came, and Ben Shepard from Soundgarden came, and Mike Johnson, his old partner, came, and together we did ‘Dollar Bill’. It was like The Last Waltz. I looked out into the audience and there was 500 people weeping. It was gorgeous and it’s such a beautiful song…”Torn like an old dollar bill”.

The subsequent recording, done under the name of The Gutter Twins, was done in incredibly quick time.

Well, we toured for eleven days with his band, and on the twelfth day we were in the studio at noon and just put the songs down. We want to have it out by the fall. When the record comes out we will probably put together a band that would play The Gutter Twins and songs of each of ours. It will be a very, very big show.

You have been out of the limelight for some time now. Was the intervening period, from the demise of the Whigs to the start of The Twilight Singers, a good or a bad time?

It’s just been time, you know. In the old saying that ‘life is a wheel’, when you’re sitting on a good time the wheel is spinning a bad time right around the corner, and visa versa. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to just wait for the wheel. I think that I do what I do, and I do it to the best of my ability. I did one last record for Elektra and then did two for Columbia and then, when I broke up the band, I just needed to not do it for while. I had done it and done it and done it. Mark and others tried to get me to do stuff and I just wouldn’t.

Where did you go and what did you do?

I moved back to Los Angeles and bought a bar. I was running a bar, bar tending. I owned it, I managed it, I tended bar, I sat in my office, smoked cigarettes and made liquor orders.

You had been very quite for a number of years before ‘Black Is The Colour…” came out.

Well I did a track on the Low Fi Allstars record and on the Mugs record. I would do things for certain friends that were outside the rock and roll world. I always loved the Low Fidelity Allstars, so when they asked me to do something I was in. Then I got a call from Mugs, which I thought at first was a prank, ’cause why would the guy from Cypress Hill be calling me. He came over to my house, took me out to a show, introduced me to Snoop Dog, and I’m like I’ll do a song with you.

Was the ‘Black Is The Colour…” E.P. the first official return?

Yeah, it was. I’ve always loved that song. I was sitting on my porch one day, with my cat by my side and a summer breeze blowing and there it came. I thought how about that, look at me, I’m a singer again.

Did that E.P. ignite your interest again in recording and performing?

I had a record done a couple of years ago, which was like the Barkays meets My Bloody Valentine. But then my best friend died, and I was devastated and I scrapped that record. That’s when I began to work on ‘Blackberry Belle’.

Are the songs on Blackberry Belle the outcome of a long gestation period or did they come very quickly?

Basically, what I need to do is to be put in a room with a bunch of instruments where I can’t avoid things. If I’m left to my own devices I’ll read, or ride my bike or play basketball. But stick me in a studio, where there are drums and basses and keyboards and guitars, and I’ll walk around and it won’t take me long to get going. It’s all about putting me in the right environment. The songs on the album pretty much came in a rush after Teddy (Demme, the film director) died (in January 2002). I had twelve done that no one has ever heard. For about a month after he died I couldn’t even tie my shoes. Then I thought I had to make sense of this. I needed a catharsis. I had a dusty old studio in my spare room, and I went in and pulled the covers off and set up instruments all over my house so that when I woke up in the morning I would bump into a keyboard or a guitar. So there it was. I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I took to it with great abandon.

While the music on ‘Blackberry Belle’ is very dark, there is also an interesting graphic dimension to that sense of darkness. The shots of the idealised blue skies of California are all in black and white. Is there a reason for this?

To me it relates to the great West Coast writers like Raymond Chandler and James Elroy. The cover and the lyrics were very, very influenced by noir writers. Jack London has been a favourite of mine for ever and when Ted died my friend Dave gave me a copy of ‘Martin Eden’, which I had not read yet. When I read it, and particularly the last few pages where he decides to commit suicide, and that suicide is so clearly described, I was very moved. Those last pages are on my web site. The language in that book was the most sad and poetic description of sorrow that I had ever read, without being self-pitying. I did not feel sorry for this man, but found myself rooting for him. Do it, do it, do it. The final line of the book is the line that I pulled out and put on the sleeve (“…and at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.”). That, to me, is probably when you see the light.

Is the link on the website to www.lucifer.com a bit a fun, or is there some serious sign-posting going on here?

The thing I liked about that site is the argument suggesting that Lucifer was the first real rebel, the first to dissent, the first to ask the question “why?”. But it’s the Tertullian quote that got me the most. I thought “Jesus Christ, we are just conditioned as a race to swallow this”. I was raised a Roman Catholic, and was an alter boy, and my mother is still very religious, but I see how religion really is the opiate of the masses.

The first word of the last song on the album, Number Nine, is the word Devil, and the song also contains the line “Blackberry Belle of The Ball”. How are those two ideas related? Should listeners be trying to follow specific threads of ideas through the sequence of songs?

‘Blackberry Belle of the Ball’ is the Devil, and of course there are threads. Any album that begins with a suicide should give people some indication as to where this is going. The rest of the album is a flashback, until you get to Number Nine, where you find what led the gentleman to his suicide. It is conceptual in my way, though interpreting a record for others I would never do. I can only give guide-posts. The fact that someone can be so sad as to kill themselves became very immediate for me when my friend Elliott Smith killed himself. He was a customer in my bar, and we used to lock ourselves in after closing time and listen to The Beatles, The Hollies and The Zombies. We would talk for hours. I miss him desperately.

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