Greg Dulli: “We tried to make a record without Lanegan. In the end I just could not do it"

Chief Twilight Singer <b>Greg Dulli</b> tells of breaking old habits, freestyling in the studio, and what price for an Afghan Whigs reunion

Feature by Paul Neeson | 04 Mar 2011

“I think sometimes my duality will tilt one way or the other. It seems that it might be tilting a little brighter these days.” This is as far as the Twilight Singers’ front-man and ambassador of sexed-up rock n’ soul, Greg Dulli, will initially admits to the notion that his latest long-player, Dynamite Steps, may reflect a somewhat more optimistic artist at work.

The suggestion, of course, isn’t that Dulli has created an album lacking in emotional sustenance; rather that in the grand scheme of the Grunge-era Godfather's long and illustrious career – strewn with personal tragedy, including the death of close friends Ted Demme and Elliott Smith, and a once crippling cocaine habit – it seems he might be in the sway of a subtle transition.

“The title Dynamite Steps for me is very positive," he offers under further coercion. “I came up with the title almost fifteen years ago. It’s been sitting in a drawer waiting for the moment it was ready to be used. I never forgot about it.” That it’s taken the prolific Dulli a decade and a half to find a sufficiently positive point in his life to employ a simple album title is indicative of the often ominously dark path that the singer has walked.

It also signifies a switch from Dynamite Steps' predecessor, Powder Burns: an album crafted and released over six years ago, amidst the social rubble of the New Orleans-levelling Hurricane Katrina. Whilst Powder Burns was an album on which time and place left an indelible mark, Dynamite Steps is driven more by an introspective mood.

Despite being billed and sold on the slant of being recorded on location – the album is split between the disparate bases of Los Angeles, New Orleans and Joshua Tree – Dulli doesn't attach much importance to place. "Sometimes a song will surprise you; it will sound like the place it was written. Although on this album it depends where I’m at with myself, rather than where I’m at geographically. The song Waves – which is one of the hardest sounding songs I’ve ever written – was the product of LA, and a very stressful week where I think I needed to get some poison out of me, so to speak,” he tellingly adds. “By the same token, Be Invited – which is slower and dreamy – was also written in LA."

On the question of Dynamite Steps’ defining themes, Dulli offers some priceless insight to his creative process. “I freestyle in front of the mic – it’s very phonetic. I then try to find sense in the phonetics and kind of freestyle it again – I freestyle again and again until it catches. It’s kinda hard for me to know what I’ve said because it’s not written down.”

Given the lucidity of his raw cuts of lyrical introspection, can it really be the case that Dulli’s confessionals are something of a subconscious outpouring? “To be honest, I don’t really know what a lot of my songs are about until months later,” he admits. “They’re kinda like abstract paintings for me that will come in to focus at the strangest times – driving the car, taking a walk, being on stage, singing the words and having a eureka moment.”

What he was conscious about when making the album was its duration, setting a very specific target of between 35 to 38 minutes. The thinking behind this simply seemed to be for the songwriter to set a fresh challenge. “If you get too stuck in your ways you can set parameters for yourself. If you do not bend you will break. I’ve always thought that about life,” Dulli elaborates. Although, at just over 43 minutes in duration, it seems that he failed? “I wanted to bring it in under 40 minutes, and then that damn title track got in the way,” he shrugs. “It came along and defied. It was a nice parameter to set for myself. That’s a good thing, even if you miss it.”

When we ask whether this truncated approach to his craft signals a conscious move away from his past, in particular the sometimes sprawling epics spawned by the Afghan Whigs – the band that made him famous – Dulli is quick to point out that he’s no longer at odds with the omnipresence of the cult heroes’ legacy. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I was in the Whigs. I used to consciously walk away from it. Rather than take comparisons as a slight, I tend to celebrate it more these days. People will say to me, ‘That Twilight Singers song reminds me of the Whigs’. Now I just say, ‘Well coincidentally, I used to be in the Afghan Whigs and wrote all of their songs.”

Sensing the inevitable question, he gets straight to the point. "If someone offered me a trillion dollars to reunite the Whigs I would probably give everyone a call. Other than that...” he trails off. “I’ve set one trillion dollars as the price,” adding wryly, “for one show only.”

“We played our last show twelve years ago,” he reminds us, “I’ve now been a Twilight longer than an Afghan.” Shifting the conversation back to the evolution of Twilight Singers’ rotating cast, Dulli feels strongly that there’s now a small, bona fide nucleus at his band’s core. “What started as a collective with Blackberry Belle which had 25 players… well, I’ve slimmed it down considerably.”

Though Dynamite Steps is propped up by an inspired cast – from Ani DiFranco through Nick McCabe – he cites long-term associates Dave Rosser and Scott Ford as vital participants in the project now. “I like playing with people who understand me and jive with me emotionally as well as musically. Those two in particular – their contributions to the Twilight Singers sound are incalculable.”

But no post-millennial Dulli album would feel quite right without the presence of one particular player, as our maestro concedes. “We were going to try and make a record without Lanegan on it. In the end I just could not do it. He was the perfect guy for his part [on Be Invited, which also features McCabe, and later on Blackbird And The Fox] ... I suppose I could’ve called Leonard Cohen.”

The Twilight Singers play The Arches, Glasgow on 19 Mar

Dynamite Steps is out now via Sub Pop