The Same Old Swagger
By Connell Burton McDaniel
Throughout the ‘90s, Greg Dulli proved himself to be one of music’s most entertaining and emotionally charged writers. Leading the Afghan Whigs, whose white boy soul style of rock ’n’ roll never got the mainstream recognition it deserved, Dulli created albums such as Congregation, Gentlemen and Black Love that teemed with drama and rocked with a street born sense of cool. Gentlemen in particular conveyed all the heart crushing emotion of a relationship ending fight with a lover.
With the members of the Whigs, who originally met in a jail cell, having gone their separate ways at the end of that grungy decade, Dulli is crafting a more varied style of music with the Twilight Singers. Their third album, She Loves You, consists entirely of covers. The Synthesis spoke with Dulli about songwriting, collaborations, and, surprisingly, getting freaky at a bar just blocks away from the Synthesis offices.
Since Dulli paints a rather confident, sometimes swaggering, picture of himself in his songs, I wondered how much ego might be coming from the other end of the phone line. To my surprise, this cool cat proved very cordial, actually caring about pronouncing and spelling my name correctly, which was most appreciated considering the trouble I’ve had with people butchering my moniker.
This mixture of machismo and sensitivity results in songs that tell grandly emotional stories. So, I was curious as to whether the lyrics or music came first in his songwriting process.
“Usually, I write the music first and then I feel out phonetically what I’m going to sing, melody-wise,” says Dulli. Once these key components are in place he begins writing the actual lyrics for the song which “can be a painstaking month long process.”
Though his songs are still written in the same way, the results with the Twilight Singers differ greatly from that of his past music with the Afghan Whigs. Twilight has a broader rock sound, incorporating elements of various musical styles like the blues and even electronica. The answer to where this different sound comes from lies with Dulli and his record collection.
“The Whigs were a rock band,” he answers, “and we were very much a rock band. Out of all the guys in that band, I probably was more interested in other sounds. I think I took it to another level when I worked with Fila Brazillia back in 2000 [on the first Twilight Singers album] and that was my first foray into electronica. But other than that, it probably comes from my record collection. I have kind of eclectic tastes,” he says slyly. However, he is not leaving all of his past tricks behind.
Most of his albums with his former band are lyrically conceptual, with Congregation and Gentlemen both having short opening tracks that work as preludes, setting the tone and establishing the themes of the records. A youth spent making 8mm movies and a year-and-a-half in film school is what Dulli credits as attributing to his strongly thematic songs.
“Writing screenplays always kind of helped me with my linear thinking,” he explains. “I’m kind of always interested in telling some kind of story, even if I’m the only person who understands what the story is.” Listeners who noticed the absence of this approach to songwriting on the first two Twilight Singers releases will be pleased to hear Dulli is currently returning to a more conceptual style with the next album. “I’m working on the next Twilight record right now and [the songs] all tie together, even to the point of borrowing lyrics from previous songs.” He enthuses that the tunes are feeding into each other at an earlier stage of development than any Whigs albums ever did, so the result should be an even more conceptually tight album.
Dulli continues to show his uniqueness as a rocker from the grunge decade when asked about who he would like to collaborate with. “Prince, but I think he’d be too big of a freak. So, I’d like to work with Jimmy Page. I want to find out how he gets that drum sound.” Then Dulli is quick to add “Oh, and Beyonce, for obvious reasons.”
His love of African-American musicians and their music has been evident throughout his career, but reaches a peak on his version of the classic song of sorrowful racist brutality “Strange Fruit” [originally performed by Billie Holliday]. Also found on She Loves You is a cover of Björk’s “Hyperballad.” Björk being another artist with which he would like to work, Dulli was pleased that his cover got the Icelandic singer’s attention. “She heard it and loved it. That’s the highest complement I could get,” he says happily.
A collaboration that actually is occurring is Dulli with former Screaming Trees / Queens of the Stone Age vocalist Mark Lanegan, as the Gutter Twins. Unfortunately, this long-awaited album won’t be out for at least a year due to Lanegan’s solo project. However, “once we actually get it out our plan is to go out and tour it for six months,” says Dulli excitedly.
When the Synthesis spoke with Dulli, the Twilight Singers had gone through some membership changes and were readying to hit the road in support of She Loves You. I asked him how he was feeling about the current lineup of his band.
“I’ve had the drummer and the lead guitar player the entire time and they’re fantastic. They’re kind of my lynchpins. I’ve had two bass players, they’re both great,” he compliments. Dulli also feels confident about the band’s fourth and newest keyboardist. “He’s as good or better than the rest of them.” With the talk of touring the country, the subject of my location comes up.
“Are you in San Francisco?” the Twilight Singer asks.
I tell him that we’re actually located in a town further north and east called Chico.
“Oh, I know Chico. The Burro Room!” says Dulli, bringing up the name of a now defunct local bar. He is sadly surprised when I inform him of the establishment’s closing. I, however, am simply surprised when he tells me of his activities there. “I had sex in the Burro Room.”
Well, I had heard many great stories about the musicians I admired that played in the Burro Room before I was old enough go see them, but this was my first time hearing about one of them fucking there. Greg Dulli ¾ as entertaining to talk to, as his music is to listen to.