God of the Twilights

FROM THE BIG TAKEOVER, ISSUE 54, VOLUME XXV NO. 1

GREG DULLI
God of the Twilights

by Dave Schulps

GREG DULLI IS A LIGHTNING ROD AND PROBABLY WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY
OTHER WAY.

For everyone who buys into the former Afghan Whigs frontman’s nakedly
honest, emotionally-charged tales fo no-holds-barred romantic give-and-take, there’s someone repulsed by this deceitful charlatan’s pompous, egotistical, misogynistic badass shtick. So, yeah, Dulli’s has just about had every extreme adjective in the book hurled his way since the band emerged from Cincinnati in th elate’80s with a genre-defy-self-released (Ultrasuede Records) 1988 demo/debut, Big Top Halloween. Signing thereafter to Sub Pop Records, 1990’s Up In It (their first real LP) was a punk-inspired romp and a good one, but on 1992’s Congregation they found their groove and rode it through 1994’s Gentlemen, which chronicles the mind games of a dysfunctional and disintegrating relationship and is roundly acknowledged as their pinnacle; 1996’s Black Love, film noir set to music; and 1998’s major label debut on Columbia, 1965, named after and influenced by the year Dulli and fellow Whig John Curley were born. Along the way, there were also a few cool Eps and singles, rife with the Whigs’ distinct covers of ‘60s soul hits and obscurities.

It was live, though, that the Whigs’ greatness was undeniable. The band could both rock and groove like nobody’s business, so regardless of your feelings about the albums or the frontman, you could not help hipswaying and bootyshaking. Around the time of Gentlemen it was like seeing an explosive big rock show in venues too small to contain all the energy; later, things moved into the realm of a rock ‘n’ soul revue, with more folks on stage, and an even more extreme Dulli to contend with.

The Twilight Singers date back to 1996 when Dulli, then living in New Orleans, began working on what was first going to be a vocal trio with friends Harold Chichester (Howlin’ Maggie) and Shawn Smith (Brad, Satchel, Pigeonhed). By the time Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers appeared on Columbia in 2001, just months before the Whigs called it a day, the initial concept had mostly been abandoned. What was used from those sessions was integrated with tracks Dulli subsequently recorded in Hull, England with British
electronic duo Fila Brazilia. While it’s unlikely Dulli recorded the LP thinking he’d be coming back to the Whigs [whose more-or-less amicable break-up was attributed to “geographical differences” that supposedly made recording the seventh album just too difficult to pull off], and used it as an outlet for material they might not have been up their alley, by the time their most recent Blackberry Belle appeared on indie One Little Indian U.S. last year (in the
interim he’d recorded and scrapped another complete album, to have been titled Amber Headlights), he’d assembled a five-piece Twilight Singers and was moving from the more ambient sounds toward a rock-soul mix Whigs fans could easily pick up on. He’d also moved to L.A., [for the second time] and opened the Short Stop, a bar located on Sunset Boulevard just down the hill from Dodger Stadium [if you like baseball too, it’s probably your kind of place]. Most of this interview took place in a private room there, with a National League Championship playoff game silently playing on a widescreen TV. And whatever his reputation, he was totally cool, nice and as friendly as could be. Wouldn’t want to cross him, though!

DS: Since there were no Afghan Whigs this time, since the band was over—did that affect the making of this album at all?

GD: As it became more evident that it was time for The Whigs to be done, I really didn’t think about it much. We broke up and I came out here and I bought this place and I started working here. Not for any conscious reason, but I didn’t play music. I didn’t even play it
around the house. I listened to it, but was kind of away from it. Then all of a sudden I started writing songs, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I used to do this.”

DS: Were you actually thinking about getting an album out?

GD: I atually completed a record two years ago. It was done pretty much, but the sound didn t reflect who I was any more and I ditched it. I saved one song,  Papillon, which was the first song I wrote after everything that went down. But I quickly got a pulse on what I wanted to do and it started to fall together. I recorded about 40 or 50 songs in the interim; a lot for me because I m a pretty lazy guy.

DS: Did you work all on your own?

GD: No, always with other people. I did half of it here in L.A. with a German guy named Matthias Schneeberger and half in New Orleans with Mike Napolitano. Had I been Japanese, we would have called ourselves The Axis. [laughs]

DS: You ve said that your friend [film director of movies like Blow and Subway Stories] Ted Demme dying changed how you saw yourself [and the LP].

GD: He was a year older. He was one of the greatest humans I ve ever had the privilege to keep company with. The lights got a lot dimmer after that, and I forgot all about having a record in the can. I did it on my own. I hadn t stopped it or anything yet, and I went back and listened to a couple of songs and it wasn t like  I hate this. This is bad. It just wasn t me anymore. Some of the songs are popping up on B-sides, but I needed some way to mark this time in my life and I think I did it.

DS: After listening to the album, it sounds like that time was spent in flux.

GD: Sure, I grew up with the Afghan Whigs. We were a band for 15 years. We were 21 when we all hooked up. And it s weird, for someone who s accused a lot of being commitment-phobic, I ve got a 15-year relationship that s documented. But when it was gone, I felt a little unmoored, untethered, and didn t really know what I wanted to do and even if I wanted to do anything. You think about a lot of stuff. I m older; I know the game inside out. I had to really make sure I wanted to keep on doing it. There s [the bar]; there s
other things I can do. But once I got going on it I m relatively sure I still like doing it.

DS: Is there a theme to the album? You start out with  Martin Eden, which obviously has something to do with a suicide.

GD: Martin Eden is a [1913 semi-autobiographical] book by Jack London. I ve been reading Jack London since I was a kid, but as I got older I started reading some of his more  adult books. A friend gave me Martin Eden right after Teddy died. I didn t do anything for a couple of months. I was just kind of shell-shocked. But finally I read it and it was such a great comfort to me, his writing. It was the most poetic and eloquent description of sorrow I had ever rode along with, as far as a story, and I was really moved to honor Jack London for
comforting me. There was nothing else that song could have been called. When you open your record with a song about a guy killing himself, there s only one way to go, and that s up. I think there re a lot of different moods and timbres on the record, but ultimately, the last song s pretty crushing, too. It starts with a waltz and ends with a waltz.

DS: Why is that?

GD: Probably because I m an old man. [In old man s voice] Get your dancing shoes, honey!

DS: After  Martin Eden, phone ringing starts and it lasts all the way through  Esta Noche and into  Teenage Wristband. What s that about?

GD: I think I d been watching The Wall [Pink Floyd, 1979] on DVD and my manager is from England, and whenever I d call him, I d get that doot-doot ring. The funny thing about that is that we laid it right in there and never had to change the speed or the key. It was exactly what it needed to be and that meant that it wanted to be there and was destined to be there. And you can t go wrong nicking the Floyd, man.

DS: And the next song,  Teenage Wristband, is a play on The Who s  Baba O Riley [1971 Who s Next]

GD: Nice. Somebody finally got it. I ve had people ask, What is it?  Well, it s in your fuckin head, dude. If I need to tell you, what are you doing?

DS: You sort of deconstruct the song, but it s the same chords, the same piano part. Why though?

GD: Well, when you re jamming a song and it s sounding good, it s only after you get kind of serious about it that you begin to [question what it might sound like]. Actually, it is in a different key and it does have different chords, but it s the opening that does it. We joked about it. It wasn t even supposed to be called that, it was the working title, but when it came time to rename it, I thought,  I can t rename this. Why would you, especially now? What kid knows  Baba O Riley unless he goes to the planetarium or something like that?

DS: A lot of kids now are really into that stuff. I ve got a 12-year-old nephew who s hitting me up for every classic rock album he can get his hands on. You grew up, obviously liking The Who and David Bowie and all that classic kind of stuff. Did you rebel against it at any point?

GD: No. I never did. It was funny, when I got into college and everybody lined up punk-rock style and rejected their past, I was like,  I m sorry, man. I m not wearing that goofy-looking hair-do and I m not gonna talk shit on Earth, Wind and Fire, so fuck you. And then when the whole indie label thing came out, I m like  What? Patsy Cline and Miles Davis suck because they weren t on an indie label? Fuck you.

DS: So was this a sore point at Sub Pop?

GD: Nah, I mean, the Whigs were always outsiders. I always said this about the Whigs and I think it will end up true for The Twilight Singers. Our blessing and our curse was that we don t sound like anybody else. That didn t help us in the marketing department.

DS: Although the first time I saw the Whigs live, you reminded me a lot of The Who in some ways. [a huge-sounding rock rhythm section with soul-and-R&B-influenced guitar.]

GD: I gotta tell you, no offense to homeboy, but I m a way better singer than [Roger] Daltrey. But I love The Who, I do. I have the Lifehouse demos and they re awesome. I love hearing [Pete] Townshend play drums. I love hearing Townshend try to play like Keith Moon. A couple of times he sounds like he falls off the fuckin stool. But great band.

DS: Moon was like from some other world I was just reading this book his roadie did on him, mostly pictures [Keith Moon: A Personal Portrait by Peter  Dougal Butler] and nobody ever saw the guy practice drums. Ever.

GD: I think he kind of came complete by the time they found him. Rick McCollum from the Whigs was like that. I bet nobody ever knew they went to school with him, high school or junior high, because that kid had a guitar when he was nine and to this day is one of the best guitar players I ve ever heard. That comes from being a blanketed little geek. And thank God. I always thought Rick was more like Jimmy Page. He had a huge Jimmy Page fetish and would do his moves and stuff. Onstage, I d look over there sometimes and I
started requesting things. Like, do that  All Seer thing from Song Remains te Same and he would do it occasionally, and I d be like  Wow, that s so cool. People used to came to our sound checks because we could do a four-hour long cover set and not repeat any songs, from OutKast to The Pretty Things.

DS: It seems like at a time when no one in indie rock would have touched a Motown song, you put out Uptown Avondale [The Whigs 1992 Sub Pop EP of mostly soul covers, like Freda Payne s 1970 #3  Band of Gold, Percy Sledge s  True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, The Supremes 1964 #1  Come See About Me and Al Green s  Beware. ]

GD: In retrospect, it ended up being a pretty good move,  cause they loved it in England. It wasn t calculated. We were the only band [on Sub Pop] not from Seattle. [Well, Washington ed.] We weren t grunge. Every movement like that, it runs its course. Right now, garage is the new grunge. Jack White is the new Kurt Cobain. It all does its thing, then something else will pop up and that ll be the cat s ass, and I think it s great. Like a lot of new bands and young bands, I m all for it. That s what music is keep handing it over. What you should do when you start making records is try to leave rock  n roll better than
you found it. You have that responsibility. I take that responsibility very seriously. That said, I will light my amp on fire and whip out my dick and piss on it to put it out!

DS: Do you think you re at your peak now creatively?

GD: I don t know how anyone can know that. I do my best every time. I faithfully try not to repeat myself. The album that no one s ever heard, the one I dumped, was a 180 from Blackberry Belle, which is a 180 from 1965. I ve got to say, in all modesty, I think pretty highly of myself. I think I m riding a lifetime peak. If I make it to 90, I ll be pimpin .

DS: I would think that if you didn t think that it would be hard to keep going.

GD: What the fuck are you going to do it for? People say  ego out of control blah, blah, blah. Art is ego. Art is  I think this is good therefore I m going to present it to you. That is ego. That is the id. If I don t walk out on stage thinking I m the baddest motherfucker of all time, then I m a charlatan. And whether you think I am, or he thinks I am, or she thinks I am, fuck you all, man. I don t give a fuck what you think. You re in or you re out and I m playing
to the in.

DS: Was that the attitude you needed to get yourself to do this in the first place?

GD: That was the attitude I needed to get myself off to fuckin kindergarten. Here I come. What s your deal? Check me out. I ll see you at tetherball and I ll fuckin plant your face on that shit. Can you believe that nasty language I m using? I am a potty mouth and it s lazy and…but it s kind of sexy.

DS: Sex is a big part of your music and always has bene.

GD: It s a big part of my life. I gotta tell you, man, there ain t nothing wrong with sex. Anything that feels that good can t be bad. It s the greatest.

DS: This is a bad time for promiscuity, you ve got to admit.

GD: Slap a jimmy hat on it, or go suicide commando, man. I don t know. Whatever your deal is. But ain t nobody gonna stop fucking and that is a fact. I ain t. I love it. Pretty good at it, too.

DS: More of that ego on display.

GD: Why would I be sitting here being interviewed by somebody if I weren t some sort of like, curiosity. He s back. I ve been gone for three years. I always tell people I m not a rock star, I m a rock comet. Fuck stars. Check me out.

DS: So back to Blackberry Belle. Is there a theme to it?

GD: Yeah, all my records are kind of conceptual. I sequence them so that they flow. I ain t trying to tell anybody what that record s about. What it s about to me, it s about to me. I m not going to impose my will on you. I m done with it. It s yours now. You make it what it is to you. I mean, [1975’s] Blood on the Tracks is mine. What Bob Dylan meant really doesn t matter because I paid my 14 dollars and now it s mine.

DS: So what does Blood on the Tracks mean to you?

GD: It s my favorite Dylan album. It s one of my favorite albums of all time. It is the spiritual godfather fo Gentlemen, at least outside of  Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which I fuckin hate. But, he was getting something out and I think it s beautiful. Bob Dylan, historically a kind of guarded fella, lets you behind the curtain for 40 minutes. I m really grateful he did.

DS: So you literally had that in mind when you were writing Gentlemen?

GD: No, Gentlemen was…I write about what s going on in my life. I had an emotional devastation going on. I was 25-26 years old and I got my heart stomped on. I ve had knee injuries, skull fractures, all kinds of stuff, and nothing compares to having your heart stomped on or somebody you love not loving you the way you love them. Blood on the Tracks, a bunch of R&B records, they were my friends. Music is cathartic for the artist and reason why it s the most popular art form is because someone has felt that way and you
have articulated it for them. You know you re not alone. I listen to Blood on the Tracks and I m like wow, Bob Dylan s been in my shoes. Astral Weeks [Van Morrison, 1969] was also a big record for me around that time in that, hey man, that was their life right then. I mean, I don t have a deaf, dumb and blind pinball guy, it s just here s my story and here s how I wanted you to hear it, and I hope you like it. I haven t played Gentlemen in a while, but it s 10 years old and it s clearly made by a pissed-off kid in his 20s trying to figure it all out.

DS: So by Blackberry Belle have you figured it all out?

GD: No. I never will. Aristotle said,  All that I know is that I know nothing. I know enough things, but Jack London said in Martin Eden,  Satiety and possession are death s horses. The day you get satisfied and happy is the day that someone comes up from behind you and chops your fuckin legs off. Stay alert, it s a long road. I m looking for snipers and monsters and those trees in Oz that throw apples at you and talk shit.

DS: Sounds a bit edge-of-paranoia.

GD: Am I paranoid if I think the clouds are spying on me?  Cause they are. I m just keeping my edge; paranoia does not consume me. Unless I go on a drug binge or something like that, and then it s sort of funny. And I ve usually got some sort of smartass Laszlo to keep my Hunter S. Thompson in check.

DS: So, who are The Twilight Singers on the road?

GD: Mattias Schneeberger, John Skibic, Scott Ford, Bobby McIntyre and myself. I can t tell you why, but that is exactly who should be playing this stuff. I didn t play a show for two- and-a-half years and we played a couple of shows back in late August [2003] and it was a gas. When I got done with the Whigs and played that Twilight tour, I d been on the road since I was 16. I had played probably around 1400-1500 shows. It s not like I m flying Whigforce One or something filming [Rolling Stones infamous] Cocksucker Blues on my plane. Here s what I always said about touring: You don t get paid for the show, you get paid for the 22 hours of fucking around you gotta do waiting for that show. Having stayed away for it for awhile, though, I m actually excited about it now. I guarantee that I will walk out there prepared to devastate you, lift you, piss you off, make you feel something. And you will feel something.

DS: Do you ever get a crowd that is, for whatever reason, just out of it?

GD: What? Like Night of the Living Dead? Sure. But I have never met a crowd I couldn t do something to. If they get like that you just go out of your way to piss them off. And then you get a little battle going and then after they re pissed off you have their attention and then you win them back.

DS: And you re willing to put your life on the line to do it, right?

GD: Sure. My mode of exit has always been predicted as someone s going to murder me. I just hope it s a clean head shot that I don t see coming.

DS: You had a rough one in New Orleans at one point.

GD: Austin, Texas, actually. I don t really remember it. I walked out of the bathroom and woke up two days later in the hospital. I think it was a baseball bat or a two-by-four. I m talking murder, though. I m talking a scope rifle or a 9[mm] and I don t know it s coming. Don t maim me, it sucks for everybody involved. Doctor…perpetrator…victim. Keep it tight. You want me dead, do it,  cause if you don t kill me, I will fuckin come back and get you.

DS: What would you miss the most?

GD: In life? Who knows if what comes next isn t super badass and this was just an appetizer? Could be the next thing s a non-stop, roller-coaster Caligulan orgy with an eight- ball.

DS: And what will be missing by losing you?

GD: I want to put out the follow-up to Blackberry Belle in 2004. I want to keep it rolling now. I m really liking music again. It lifts me.

DS: Did you stop liking music at one time?

GD: There was a point, not ever during recording, but in the touring. Toward the end of the Whigs it started to feel I was in a cover band covering myself. The last big tour the Whigs did we opened for Aerosmith, which was a thrill, and I remember talking to Steven Tyler all the time. I don t think I ve ever met a nicer band ever. You see all these prick indie rock bands out there [with attitude] and who s the coolest band I ever toured with, Aerosmith. They came into our dressing room after the first show we played with them, all five of them, and introduced themselves like we didn t know who they were. Like, dude, I had your poster on my wall in sixth grade.

DS: Will you be doing any Whigs songs with The Twilight Singers?

GD: I haven t decided. If I don t, it s not going to be a fuck you to it or anything. I probably will. I m not interested in going out and doing a nostalgia show, but I will acknowledge that people know me from that and I m super proud of it. But it s always about the new thing. If you don t want to hear the new thing, don t come. I m gonna do my thing, you do yours. I ain t the boss of nobody.

DS: Maybe, but I was wondering, since this is obviously your project, why you use a band name rather than just going out as Greg Dulli.

GD: What I did realize about Blackberry Belle and the way it got put togethe, and now that I ve been playing a lot with these guys, is that I really wanted to get a band vibe. Greg Dulli doesn t have a ring like Nick Cave, Axl Rose or Beyoncé.

DS: The Whigs used soul and funk as the basis of a lot of your music. Do you think you stood out from other bands of the time particularly American by doing so and maybe had more in common with some British bands, like, say, Happy Mondays?

GD: I think we stood away from them in that we were less flashy with our Stooges and [Black] Sabbath collections. That seemed the au courant of the day and we were a band who liked both Sabbath and the Stooges. I think a big deal was made of us mixing R&B with rock, but it wasn t nothin The Rolling Stones didn t do 30 years ago.

DS: But it was more than it was an anomaly when you did it than that it hadn t been done before.

GD: That s true. I ll give you that. I think when we recorded  My Word Is Empty Without You that people said,  Jesus Christ, what s going on here?

DS: The Whigs self-produced debut album, Big Top Halloween, is a rare collector s item
these days.

GD: If you get one, my suggestion is that you leave it in the plastic. It s a fuckin terrible album. Terrible.

DS: Did you remix the three tracks from it you put on Up In It?

GD: I had nothing to do with picking those tracks. I don t like any of them. To me it diluted Up In It, which was the first good record we made. I consider Up In It our first record. Big Top Halloween was a demo pressed by John Curley, who ran the band more than I did, I ll tell you that much. They just brought me in for writing songs and my never-ending charisma. I was a tool used by John Curley.

DS: Do you feel you made a quantum leap from Up In It to Congregation? That album seemed to be the blueprint for all that came after.

GD: I think, honestly, we tried to slightly fit in to the Sub Pop sound on Up In It. I think we peer-pressured ourselves and made what is not a dishonest record I’m actually being honest to you right now but I think Congregation was the first time the world heard us as us.

DS: I think that s apparent from listening to it.

GD: I liked a lot of songs on Up In It. I stayed with some friends of mine in Sicily on the [Twilight Singers recent European] tour and they had all the vinyl and I thought  Good Lord, look at that. We listened to it on vinyl and they sound awesome. They ve got the warmth that you hear in the studio. There s five great songs on Up In It, I think, but Congregation was the beginning of the Whigs sound. That was when we full-on let the R&B come on in. Turn on the Water, especially. That s the first ultimate great Whigs track.

DS: You said on Up In It you may have been trying to fit into the Sub Pop sound, but there s also a lot of Replacements in there.

GD: They were an influence on me, but Hüsker Dü was bigger. Hüsker Dü s New Day Rising and Zen Arcade tours were my baptism into punk rock. Had I any doubt where I was going in my life, [Bob] Mould, [Grant] Hart, and [Greg] Norton kind of helped light my way. I saw Hüsker Dü five times and the only bad show was the fifth one and that was because you could tell they were going to break up. I saw the Replacements five times and they were good only once. They were infinitely more interested in fucking off. I don t mean that in any
kind of bad way,  cause they made great records. I just always wanted to hear them play their own songs instead of a bad version of a Styx song or something.

DS: Within a single show they may have been the best band I ever saw and the worst band I ever saw.

GD: Yeah. They could be both bands at once. There was one show in Columbus, OH where they were finally what I knew they could be. They were mindblowingly good. And they made some of the best records I ever heard, but if I had to pick between the two bands I d pick Hüsker Dü especially as an influence on me.

DS: I think your voice on Up In It sounds a bit more like Paul s than Bob s though.

GD: Well, Bob never smoked and Paul sure did and I sure did, too. I have nothing but the highest respect for Paul Westerberg.

DS: Are there any plans for any Whigs archive releases any time soon, either a
compilation which there hasn t been as yet or live or unreleased material?

GD: Not at this time. The Whigs put out what we wanted people to hear, and that was the six records that we made.

DS: Did the Whigs end with a bang or a whimper?

GD: We played a great concert. Our last official gig was a sold out show in Cincinnati, so I would consider that a bang.

DS: Would you consider working with Rick, John or…

GD: Fill in the drummer…Paul [Buchignani], Steve [Earl] or Michael [Horrigan]. Rick McCollum, John Curley and I are The Afghan Whigs. Will we record or play under that name again? No. Will I work with those guys again in the future? Yes.

Thanks to Angel for the transcription

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