It’s one of those old music industry clichés that you’re supposed to do your best work at the beginning of your career, when you’re still young, hungry and allegedly principled. Clearly, though, everyone was too scared to tell GREG DULLI, because the former Afghan Whigs frontman and now TWILIGHT SINGERS’ prime mover just gets better and better.
Greg’s new album, the cauterising “Powder Burns” (out in May 2006 on One Little Indian) is yet another smouldering meisterwork full of both vicious guitars and Dulli’s widescreen narrative ambition. As always, it’s as compelling as hell, as well as being visceral and tender in roughly equal measures and is already gearing up as one of this year’s must-hear records. With this in mind, W&H were delighted to place a call to London’s Copthorne Tara Hotel, where the great man had installed himself for a promotional tour of the UK.
Greg, a lot of ‘stuff’ has gone down since we last spoke to you, around the time your covers album “She Loves You” was released. For example, you’ve been working with another perennial W&H favourite Jeff Klein. You produced his recent album, an atmospheric marvel called “The Hustler” and Jeff spoke very highly of you when I was in conversation with him of late. How did you get to hook up with him?
“Well, initially it was convenience because we’re on the same label,” says Greg, matter-of-factly.
“He was around LA while I was playing there and our label asked me to add him to the bill. I couldn’t really concentrate on him as much as I would have liked because I was pre-occupied with playing the shows myself, but I heard things I liked for sure. Anyway, after that Jeff personally wrote me the most sincere e-mail and asked me flat out to produce his album.”
“Yeah, well I said send me some things and I’ll check them out,” continues Greg.
“I really connected with his songs and I was totally into doing it. Jeff’s just a beautiful human being and I’m truly proud to say he’s my friend.”
Of course “The Hustler” was made – I think – before the Hurricane hit New Orleans. Have you been to N’Awlins since, Greg? Although I try to keep abreast of what’s been happening over there, from this part of the world it’s hard to imagine the enormity of the whole situation really…
“Well, actually, we started on “The Hustler” before the disaster,” corrects Greg, rather taking the legs from under me too.
“I’d gone on tour with After Hours (Italian band Greg was previously producing) when the disaster struck, but we went back to complete the record afterwards.”
My God, I can’t take that in at all.
“Well, it’s certainly true that it affected the mood of the record,” says Greg quietly.
“It was…surreal. I wrote lyrics after the levee broke and we finished the record in a city literally on its’ knees, in a state of curfews and martial law. It was a solemn and very, very sobering experience.”
I daren’t speak a word as Greg recounts this, but then – in typical Dulli fashion – he drags himself back to positivity.
“But y’know, I’m a firm believer that something positive will come out of it yet. It’ll make New Orleans stronger somehow. I’ve always been a hopeful cynic!”
Not such a bad thing to be Greg. But how did all this affect the feel and mood of “Powder Burns” itself? You recorded parts of it elsewhere (LA, New York, Milan, Catania) of course, but I assume the shadow of N’Awlins still looms large?
“Yeah, that’s true enough,” Greg considers.
“I mean, in some ways the other locations were more hit and run things. For example, I did the pre-production in LA because I live there a lot of the time these days and I went to New York City because there was a drummer I wanted to record there, and I’d been in Italy with After Hours. For me, I’m the kinda guy who finds that when inspiration hits, you gotta grab it there and then you know?”
Sure. But another thing about Greg Dulli is that he’s one of the best-connected people out there. Jeff Klein told me it’s amazing how many talented people who you and can get hold of. “Powder Burns” makes this clear as you have a whole load of high-profile star turns, such as Ani Di Franco for example. She’s quite a talent, isn’t she?
“She sure is and a beautiful human being,” says Greg, with feeling.
“I think it has surprised a lot of people that Ani and I can sing so well together,” he continues, “because a lot of people naturally assume we would be oil and water, you know? But then, I think people tend to base these opinions purely on an artist’s recognised public persona.”
I would agree with that, but I gotta say it Greg: a lot of people would always assume you’re always the sinister, dark guy. Is there really any truth in this perception of you?
“Well, let’s put it this way Tim,” considers Greg, “nobody’s gonna come creeping up on the dark guy, right?”
Greg says this with a real frisson, though he doesn’t indulge in a Machiavellian laugh as such.
“I’m a private person, that’s true,” he continues quietly.
“I can be very friendly, but I’m a private person and I can be guarded in certain circumstances. I’m candid and direct as a rule, though, and as you probably know, that can have a habit of scaring people off.”
Indeed it can, though I should say at this stage that Greg is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to interview and a real craftsman too. And, as we said before, he is mightily impressive at surrounding himself with talented folk. Hell, Joseph Arthur’s on “Powder Burns” too. I assume he’s doing the high vocal on both “There’s Been An Accident” and “Forty Dollars” ? What do you make of his current live show: doing paintings between songs is pretty cool and pretty far-out, right?
“Yeah, hurgh hurgh,” cackles Greg.
“Basically Joseph is a freak, a freak of nature. He’s one of the most individual talents in existence. He’s the kind of guy who can pull diamonds out of mid-air, y’know? We are friends, but it’s true to say he’s a real mercurial character. Believe me, I’ve seen him at both poles of that spectrum, but he’s some guy. Phrases like ‘remarkable’ just don’t even begin to contain him.”
Closer to home of course, one tune on the new record (“Candy Cane Crawl”) re-unites Greg with ex-Afghan Whigs cohort, bassist John Curley. What’s John doing these days, aside guesting with you, that is?
“Well, we only worked together passing the song over the internet,” notes Greg.
“I saw John briefly last September, but we got the song together via the phone and computers. The thing is, John’s one of the most in-demand guys out there, one of the busiest guys alive. He’s a photographer everyone wants and he’s got two kids as well, so trying to find windows in his schedule is tough these days. “Candy Cane Crawl” has actually been kicking around for a while, it’s about two years old and one of the oldest things on the new record.”
As the conversation’s briefly gravitated to the Afghan Whigs, what do you feel about the band’s back catalogue these days? For me, I feel it’s an awesome body of work, but do you feel it will be re-evaluated critically in ten years time? When the world finally catches up?
“Probably,” says Greg, mulling it over.
“I knew at the time that The Whigs were ahead of their time. I mean that as objectively and realistically as I can too. I mean, we were an infinitely strange band, very peculiar, but I feel the music does have a certain timelessness to it and now of course I’m at a stage when young kids come up to me who were barely born at the time and they’re enthusing about the songs, which is hugely gratifying. So yeah, I can see it being re-evaluated and seen as influential, and I don’t mean that in a boastful way at all.”
Absolutely, but let’s shoot back into the present again. “Powder Burns” touches on a lot of familiar Greg Dulli themes: lust, desire, regret, temptation…and the lure of oblivion is never very far away. Without wanting to get too personal, how autobiographical is this one?
“Well, all my records are…kind of,” he replies enigmatically.
“To me, there are 4 characters on this record. 2 are me, 2 are very specifically composites of a variety of individuals I know. Ultimately, I make this music very much for me before anyone else, and as an eternal film student, I’m still making movies really. And, as I’m sure you’re about to mention, this record’s very cinematic.”
Well, yeah, it did cross my mind Greg. The thing is: will you ever make a movie, do you think?
“Maybe, yeah,” he says. “I’m actually writing a screenplay, I have been on and off for about 2-3 years, so when the time’s right, you never know.”
Of course, the other Greg Dulli watchword we haven’t really touched on as yet is Soul, but typically “Powder Burns” has its’ fair quotient of soulful songs such as “Candy Cane Crawl” and the closing “I Wish I Was”. This latter has a beautiful crescendo and might just be one of the best things Mr. D has done to date. How did that one come about?
“That actually came real quickly,” replies Greg.
“My bassist Scott (Ford) was playing the melody from that and just goofing around. I heard it, loved it, got hold of it and basically wrote the song on the spot. We were in New Orleans in the middle of all that had happened and that song is, in effect, my love letter to New Orleans, trying to sing to her as though she was a woman. I can only say that I was really, really affected by what had happened and couldn’t really articulate it before.”
“Then it all came out in a rush in that song. It’s sad, it’s mad, it’s me in love with her…it all crystallised it for me, especially the way we layered the music around it. There’s like a 100 female voices in there, you know, it sounds like another instrument. It was that 10CC thing, with the layered voices.”
“I’m Not In Love”? Except that really Greg Dulli is, although he’s still very much in touch with that ‘Dark Guy’ we spoke of earlier. In the evocative “There’s Been An Accident” he sings: “I don’t sleep here no more, my shadow walks in place of me”. Whenever I hear it, that line gives me the chills. As a listener, was that the desired effect?
“Oh yeah,” says Greg. “After all, when you flirt with disaster, ultimately disaster will court you, right?”
This time he DOES allow himself that Machiavellian chuckle. Would we really have Mr. Enigma any other way?