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Narcotic-veined narcissist

The Twilight Singers
Twilight’s Greg Dulli; the narcotic-veined narcissist

07 May 2004

LOGO Magazine: New Music Features

David McNamee

Sobering sunlight blasts in through the windows of the Columbia Hotel, yet something is wrong with this picture. As the 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 and 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 moment’s pause. “Yeah. Shocks the system. Never had to do it myself,” Dulli adds, sounding almost as surprised as we are. “I was at a party where somebody OD’d and died though. That was pretty… crappy.”

Halfway through more than an hour of conversation a chance remark over ice is the first real glimpse we have of that Greg Dulli; the narcotic-veined narcissist who fronted Seattle icons the Afghan Whigs, with whom he penned darkly voyeuristic diaries detailing how to unravel one’s prey through desire and diseased love. 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 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 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’ offers an electric rush of polished midnight pop and elegant faux-soul. It establishes the night as an unreal place where unreal things happen. Abandoning the blood and guilt of his Whigs persona, Dulli constructs a mood-driven reckoning on the nature of death and the speed of life.

“Strange people stay hidden in the day,” mutters Dulli, darkly. And looking at him I fear that if he stepped outside the sanctum of the Columbia he’d turn to dust. “Like snakes. Y’know?” he explains. “I work best well after midnight. I have voyages of discovery. A song to me is a reflection of a life lived. So I’ll live a life. Live the life.”

Did you conceive the album as a meditation on death? “Yes. And only because my best friend died,” Dulli is talking of Teddy Demme, the film maker to whom the album is dedicated. “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,” Dulli fixes me in the eye. “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. The things you find out about yourself when you write are not always, uh, complimentary. I mean, when I listened to ‘Gentlemen’ [the Afghan Whigs’ devastated 1993 breakthrough] 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.”

What, like you were an arsehole? “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.”

I had always assumed it was a character, was it a character? “I wish. I was trying to reinvent myself by letting the Emperor know that he 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.”

Dulli is ridiculously easy to talk too, alternately purring and roaring his answers with 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. Ask him when he discovered he could sing and he invents a mythical past that includes “low-rent arson for the local Family”, one hopes it’s a myth anyway. Ask what he aimed to achieve, he barks “Get laaaid. Get loaded. Get out of my head. Be different from somebody for an hour.” There was, he claims, no spectacular plan for world domination. He just lived in a tired town and he wanted to wake it up a little bit. Did he achieve that? “Yah! Indeed. Scared the fuck outta them!” From the back of his throat comes a mischievous, nicotine-charred cackle.

“They won’t forget me, I tell ya that.”

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