Greg Dulli returns with a new Twilight Singers line-up and a new album
by Stephen Slaybaugh
Perhaps best knownóespecially around these partsóas the tortured lead singer of the Afghan Whigs, who sprung from Cincinnati in the early í90s to offer a soulful antigen to its grunge brethren (the Whigs were initially signed to penultimate label of the era, Sub Pop), Greg Dulli has since ventured down a new gravel road with the Twilight Singers.
A loose conglomerate of musical partnerings, the Singers began as a side project to the Whigs when Dulli recorded the bandís debut record, Twilight As Sung by the Twilight Singers, with Shawn Smith (of Satchel, among others) and Columbus resident Harold ďHappyĒ Chichester in 2000. After the albumís release, the ďbandĒ remained dormant, while in the interim the Afghan Whigs dissolved.
Dulli and a new cast of Twilight Singers resurfaced last year with Blackberry Belle. Featuring Mark Lanegan and Apollonia Kotero (yeah, the Apollonia) among others, the record is a return of sorts to the soaring dynamics and soul-seeped revelations of the Whigs while also incorporating elements of hip-hop and a broader palette of sounds. Dulli still sings from the gutter of heartbreak and over-indulgenceómixing come-ons with self-loathingóbut here the music swings more wildly with his varied moods.
Dulli and a selection of Twilight Singers are currently on tour in support of Blackberry Belle. I caught up with him via telephone from Chapel Hill, where he was looking forward to playing Little Brotherís for the first time after spending so much time at its Stacheís antecedent.
Youíve never played Little Brotherís before?
Iíve never even been in the room.
Itís quite a bit different. Itís not as comfy as Stacheís.
Stacheís was like playing someoneís basement. It had ďhouse partyĒ written all over it. I saw a million shows up there. I played there about 10 times. I saw everyone play at Stacheís because bands would play Columbus before theyíd play Cincinnati, so Iíd have to hoof it up there. Iím looking forward to seeing my old buddy Dan Dougan again.
Will you have Happy join you while youíre here?
I donít know. I havenít talked to Happy in awhile so I kind of doubt it.
People are comparing this new record to the Whigs more than the last one. Was your approach to it more like making a Whigs record?
There was a Whigs when I made the last Twilight record so I was probably trying to do something as different from the Whigs as I could. The fact that we all walked away [from the band] led me to re-explore that sound.
This thing is always described as a collective. How exactly does it work?
I write songs by myself mostly. I split my time between New Orleans and Los Angeles and Iíve got a lot of musician friends in each town so Iím able to use people for their strengths. This is a band in theory only. To paraphrase Mark E. Smith [of the Fall], if itís me and your grandma playing bongos, itís the Twilight Singers.
Are you the type of person whoís constantly working on songs or do you tend to go through short spurts?
I used to go through short spurts. But the last three years, Iíve probably written more songs than the entire 15 years I was with the Afghan Whigs. Itís weird.
Do you see yourself continuing to be so prolific?
I must be. Iím making a record with Mark Lanegan as the Gutter Twins, and we have 12 songs already. I wrote one three days ago that weíre already playing.
Did you know Mark back in the grunge days?
Yeah, I did. I met him in í89. We reconnected in L.A. about five years ago. I ran into him at a show, and then we started playing together. Then he joined [Queens of the Stone Age] and that stopped us from working together. He came back to do a Queens show and asked me about a certain song that we had been working on before he joined the Queens. That was ďNumber Nine,Ē and he came in and sang it in about an hour then went back and played with the Queens that night.
You also worked with Apollonia on the record. I know youíre a big Prince fan so that must have been pretty cool.
Thrilling. Iím constantly pinching myself. The fact that she is still a great singer, and even more so, her beauty as a person is unparalleled. Sheís one of the nicest people Iíve ever met.
One thing I notice with your songwriting is that you often address a second person ďyou.Ē Do you usually have someone specific in mind or is it more of a figurative thing?
Sometimes that ďyouĒ is me, sometimes Iím talking to myself. Other times Iím being figurative or literal. When Iím being literal, the person Iím singing about knows who it is.
When youíre singing to yourself, what are your aims?
Itís like an inner dialogue, or at least trying to break some schizophrenic cycle. If Iím coming down on myself, thatís probably the hardest person I have to deal withómyself. Usually, Iím lecturing myself or giving myself a tour that the real me doesnít want to look at.
Do you separate the person thatís the voice in your songs from Greg Dulli the person?
When Iím in that state, I donít even acknowledge Greg Dulli. At that point, thatís my conscious and my subconscious speaking. I donít mean to sound hippie, but itís some sort of spiritual dialogue that could be going on with any person. Itís not even me anymore. Itís like transcendence.
I read somewhere that you had become acquainted with Elliott Smith before his death.
I actually knew Elliott 13 or 14 years ago when the Whigs had played with Heatmiser a few times in Portland. But when I bought a bar in Los Angeles, I was bartending and co-managing it when we first opened. If I was bartending on a Monday night and there wasnít a lot of people there, thatís when Elliott would come in. We remembered each other from Portland and still had a lot of friends and music in common. Iím not going to tell you we were best buddies because that wouldnít be the truth. But for about a year, he would stay after the bar closed and weíd listen to the Beatles and the Hollies on the jukebox, and Iíd be able to pick out everything he was stealing. Beautiful man, though.
I told somebody that the thing I felt the worst about it was not that he did it or not that I wasnít going to get to talk to him anymore, but that I had thought about the five minutes before the act, and I think thatís probably the absolute pit of loneliness and despair.