The Twilight Singers’ Greg Dulli discusses the art of singing someone else’s tune.
Maxim Online, December 2004
By David Peisner
Some artists see cover songs as an easy way of connecting with an audience (read: getting on the radio). Not Greg Dulli. From his days as frontman for the critically lauded, commercially underachieving Afghan Whigs to his present-day gig as the leader of the Twilight Singers, Dulli has taken pride in his reinventions of other artists’ songs. On the Twilight Singers’ recent release, She Loves You—the first in a trilogy of cover albums Dulli has planned—he and his bandmates tackle classics and obscurities by Billie Holiday, Björk, John Coltrane, Mary J. Blige, Fleetwood Mac, and Marvin Gaye, among others, often discovering something in the tunes that not even their authors knew was there. Here’s how he did it.
What makes a song ripe for a cover in your mind?
I have to love it. I have to be able to do something different to it. And I have to feel like I can play it live. Those are the three things. You can cover anything. For me and my guys to do [John Coltrane’s] “A Love Supreme”—none of us play horns, none of us are jazz guys, but it’s still a beautiful song. What we do is interpret more than cover.
Often, the only thing these songs seem to have in common with the originals is some of the lyrics.
Yeah. Mark Lanegan actually told me that I had to stop doing covers because I kind of rewrite the music every time. He told me that I’m fucking myself publishingwise. [laughs]
What are some of your favorite cover songs done by other artists?
“All Along the Watchtower,” the Hendrix version. Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out.” Gram Parsons and Emmylou’s version of “Love Hurts.” It’ll break your fuckin’ heart. I like Radiohead’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It’s amazing and strange. I love the White Stripes’ version of “Jolene.” Earth, Wind & Fire’s version of “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I’m gonna stop on that.
Have there ever been songs you wanted to cover but just couldn’t make it work?
Oh boy, fuck yeah. I really wanted to cover this song called “Morning Theft” by Jeff Buckley. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet, but I guarantee I will. I refuse to be bamboozled by a song. It took me 17 years to figure out how to cover “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
With a lot of the Motown stuff you covered with the Whigs, you seemed to want to point out how dark those cheery pop songs actually were when examined closely.
That’s absolutely true. The thing I noticed about a lot of those Motown words is that they were fucking tragic when you wrote them down. So I tried to make the music more empathetic to the lyrics. Especially [Freda Payne’s] “Band of Gold.” I mean, I had no idea it was a song about a guy who wouldn’t fuck his wife on their wedding day. I can tell you why that probably happened, but hopefully she figured it out.
Are there any songs that you consider untouchable, that you wouldn’t dare mess with?