Not content with having unleashed the fabulous "Blackberry Belle" on the world earlier this year, GREG DULLI'S back in our orbit with another new TWILIGHT SINGERS album, though this time it's a record strictly of covers called "She Loves You". Despite the title and John Lennon's ghost hovering around a couple of the tracks, it's no Beatles homage and - typically - there are darker undercurrents. W&H couldn't wait to have another chat with the great man and this time discussed everything from sex to death and the Mafia to Aleister Crowley....you know, the usual kinda thing on a Wednesday morning.
Greg takes our call earlier than you might expect, but - while initially sounding a little disoriented - soon resembles his usual effusive self. Good to talk to you again, Greg. Even though the tunes on "She Loves You" aren't your own, you've obviously invested serious emotion in them all. I was blown away to discover the opening tune "Feeling Of Gaze" (written by Hope Sandoval) was the song you were listening to on the way to your best friend's funeral....
"Yeah," sighs Greg. "I got the record ("Bavarian Fruit Bread") right before Christmas and I loved it. Then my best friend died on January 13th, and I clearly remember listening to that song on the way to the funeral."
He pauses, regrouping.
"But, I tried to change the song when I covered it. See, in the past I've often made upbeat songs sound desolate if they're someone else's, but this time I tried to take a real downbeat song and make it sound a little more up. It was a way of trying to reverse the process and making sense of my friend's death in as good a way I could."
The Twilights' version of "Feeling Of Gaze" is still pretty stark, actually, though Dulli's even braver to take on Billie Holliday's stone-cold classic "Strange Fruit". In his hands it's epic and real angry...
"Yeah, well I can't help getting angry when I sing it," says Greg openly.
"There was a lynching in Georgia last November, the KKK's still as strong as ever, so by covering "Strange Fruit" I was trying to point out that these things still happen."
It's chilling to think nothing seems to have changed in the supposedly 'enlightened' 21st Century, isn't it? What do you think will happen in the forthcoming US elections?
"Negative campaigning's reaching a pitch, I feel" replies Greg.
"I mean, John Kerry's a decorated war veteran, but Bush is just a Momma's boy who was shuttled away from any kind of crisis and military action himself. He's a pussy and a disgrace," he finishes, spitting out the words.
"But y'know - the whole situation has long ceased being about politics. It's just corporate activity. People are of no consequence anymore."
I'd love to disagree with this, but there are times when it's impossible to do so. But let's get back to "Strange Fruit." I like your version because it's the polar opposite of Robert Wyatt's dignified, gentle take on the song. Have you heard his version, Greg?
"Yeah, of course," says Greg. "And of course Nina Simone's covered it and hers was kinda inbetween mine and Wyatt's. Then there's Patti Waters' version...that's really fuckin' scary. That's one you need to hear."
I shall be searching. But tell us more about the album's title "She Loves You." It's not a direct Beatles reference, is it?
"No, although there are links because the guitar riff I used in "Strange Fruit" is lifted from The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" cackles Greg, "so it does tie in in some ways."
"But, no "She Loves You" doesn't mean love me. It's more about lost love. Breaking up with my girlfriend probably influenced the feel of it all and I was trying to focus on the lyrics a lot. I dunno if you noticed, but there are songs in there taken from each decade past going back to the 1930s."
Must confess I hadn't.
"Neither had I until the other day, bro'," laughs Greg. "But if you go back to "Strange Fruit" and Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor" there are songs dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. It wasn't intentional to do that at all."
Talking of "Hard Time Killing Floor", a certain Mark Lanegan features on this one, and it's surely the most memorable of his guest appearances on the record. I know of Lanegan's penchant for Leadbelly, but do you have a favourite blues singer Greg?
"Loads of them," replies Dulli.
"Skip James is one of them, sure, but I also l've got Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson - who'll always be the king of the Delta blues - Son House, Leadbelly...the list goes on. Mark (Lanegan) and I were room mates for a while and we used to play Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor" late at night, just lying in the dark, smoking cigarettes."
"It may not surprise you to hear we cut our version at 5 in the morning," he continues proudly.
Wow. I remember when we were talking the last time you mentioned The Gutter Twins record you were making with Mark. What's happening with that project now?
"It's been put back a bit because Mark's new album "Bubblegum" has taken off so much," reveals Greg.
"He's gonna be out touring that until December, and I'm 6 or 7 songs into the next Twilight Singers record already, and it'll be February next year before Mark and I have downtime to finish the Gutter Twins."
He barely misses a beat and continues.
"I gotta say I totally love Mark's "Bubblegum" album. It's a marked departure from his previous formula and while some of the credit for that must go to Josh Homme and Alain Johannnes, most of it stems from Mark himself. He's a complex person and really amazing. I don't wanna give away too much about The Gutter Twins record, but I will say two of the songs we have done for it are among my favourite songs ever. It doesn't sound like we usually do separately. We light a different fire together."
Sounds spectacular. But coming back to "She Loves You", you've also covered John Coltrane's immortal "A Love Supreme" and got away with it, not least because of some deft interplay within the Twilight Singers. I take it the line-up one the record is the core of the live band, but do you feel you're hitting the heights you did with The Afghan Whigs?
"Yeah, we're starting to play almost psychically," replies Greg.
"It's a situation now where there's no need to look at the other guys. It's all laid back, heads back, blow it outta the speakers, y'know. We've played almost 100 gigs together now and during that time, believe me, ya get real tight together," he finishes, with that familar whiff of danger tangible in the air.
OK, well we touched on Nina Simone a little earlier, but I believe you got he idea for covering the traditional tune "Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair" (made famous by Simone) after a night when you couldn't sleep. Where were you when you this all came together?
"Out on my front porch last summer," says Greg.
"I have no air conditioning in my house and I was lying there in bed and it was so fuckin' hot I was sweatin' through the mattress, so I got up at about 6AM and found some cool outside on the porch, it was the only comfortable place."
"At the time," he recalls, "I really needed a companion, and y'know, music's always been there for me. So I sat there with my old 1964 Martin acoustic and my cat and the song came. That was it. Very spontaneous."
"But y'know," he continues, "The whole "She Loves You" project has come together in a very spontaneous way. During my recent tours, I've gradually introduced these songs into my live set. Firstly, I had Bjork's "Hyperballad", then "Strange Fruit" and so on. I just was keen to do 'em. I only formulated the idea to lay these songs down in March."
OK, well the album draws to a dignified close with your version of Gershwin's "Summertime", which you copped from the Sam Cooke version. Though I believe you recorded the song in Sicily after hearing Angelo Badalementi's "Twin Peaks" soundtrack, which - to me anyway - has definitely influenced the sound of your version...
"Sure, sure," agrees Greg.
"I only played keyboards and that crazy little melodica bit on it instead of guitar and it DID come to me after hearing Badalamenti for the first time in fuckin' six years or something when I was lying on my hotel bed in Sicily. It's one of those kismet things, but it came to me to cut the song from there and you don't question those sort of things."
"It was kinda like....Sam Cooke inseminated it through Angelo Badalamenti and I was the midwife, hurgh hurgh!" he finishes, laughing that instantly recognisable filthy laugh.
"But deciding on "Feeling Of Gaze" and "Summertime" as the bookends to the record was the most impostant thing to me. I guess that's my screenwriting days coming through, but I favour that approach. Once ya got the bookends, the rest soon falls into place."
Cool, but tell us more about Sicily. Is it as beautiful as we're lead to believe and is everything controlled by The Mob there?
"Oh yeah, it's so, so beautiful, you'd hardly take it in," enthuses Greg.
"I was there back in June to produce this band called After Hours, who are really good. Tomorrow I go back to Milan to mix their record, but yeah... about Sicily, The Mob are real palpable, it's kinda hard to ignore their interest there."
"I mean, when I was playing with After Hours they told me the legend of The White Widow..."
Yeah, what's that about?
"The White Widow is a Mafia wife whose husband has been caught and put in jail. From that time on, she's not allowed with another man at all. She's then effectively sexually dead."
Jeez. Not sure I'd wanna come into contact with that kinda thing...
"I nearly did, man!" exclaims Greg.
"There was a White Widow living above the studio in Sicily and she was just so beautiful, about 32, Oh man, you'd have wanted her so bad...but the boys in the band were saying "No, man, you don't go near her"....and then you'd see these sharp guys with black suits on comin' up to her with money and food. You ain't seen anything like it."
"Yeah, I mean, I've just read this book "The Honourable Society" about the Sicilian Mafia and it's just fascinating, but it's not something you could comprehend...unless you were born into it, I guess."
At a separate, equally chilling tangent, didn't the notorious Aleister Crowley build a temple to the Black Arts in Sicily?
"Yeah, he built a temple in Messina," confirms Greg.
"But he got everywhere, did Homeboy. Went to LA, too, met up with L.Ron Hubbard, who was also a practitioner of Magick. Their whole thing was to find The Scarlet Lady who'd birth the Anti-Christ. When he was in LA, Crowley also got together with Jack Parsons and they wanted to get Nazi money involved. It's real far-reachin, scary shit, huh? Jimmy Page got to Sicily earlier, though, didn't he?"
Yeah, before Zeppelin made "Presence". Some people say it was his dabbling with Crowley that put a hex on Zep's career.
"Yeah, you can't beat a hoodoo, huh?" cackles Greg.
Well, d'you know, man, you can affect people strongly too as well. Did you know W&H spotted a couple gettin' it on strong INSIDE the venue when you'd finished your set at the Scala in London recently?
"Really? Wow....that's always good," leers Greg. "That's real special. That was a good night. Hell, what else would you want, right?"
Really can't imagine, Greg. You keep on keepin' on, y'hear.
("She Loves You" is out September 6th on One Little Indian)