There is an almost unearthly calm as Greg Dulli speaks. It's reminiscent of the deathly silence that comes moments before a tornado heedlessly levels everything in its erratic path, not because it wants to, but because that is its nature. In the past, Dulli had more in common with tornadic demolition than the uncharacteristic peace that precedes it, but times have changed.
"About two years ago, I had a major awakening/lifestyle change, and with that change I decided to take a glimpse back on the scorched earth policy I had been endeavoring to put upon the nation," Dulli reports from his Los Angeles home. "I was 38 years old and I had to decide whether I wanted to stick around or jump off a cliff. I think I had been a passenger in my own Cadillac and I decided to take the wheel finally. I was headed for Hank Williams."
If it's hard to imagine a serene Greg Dulli, witnessing a current Twilight Singers show isn't likely to make the imagining easier. Dulli is every bit the swaggering, boisterous frontman of old, approaching the Singers' material with the same ferocity that made the Afghan Whigs a viscerally compelling live force. Even in his quietest onstage moments, Dulli is like a truck spring that's been coiled a couple turns too many.
He was and is intensity personified.
Back in 2001, the Singers were still Dulli's side project and the geographical distance that had grown between Whigs members was taking its toll. With Dulli in Seattle (and L.A. and New Orleans), bassist John Curley and drummer Michael Horrigan in Cincinnati and guitarist Rick McCollum in Minneapolis, the band decided the Whigs were done.
"The logistics became intolerable," says Dulli. "Had we attempted to continue it, we would have done permanent damage to our friendship. That we had the foresight to know when to walk away with grace is something I will always be proud of. I see people who were in bands together and they fucking hate each other and that would break my heart. We all sensed that it had reached its logical conclusion. Don't get me wrong; tears were shed. It was not an emotionless experience, it was heavy."
Dulli had already begun writing songs for a new Whigs record so he simply adjusted his mindset to the Singers and continued. He was well into his sophomore Singers album, Blackberry Belle, when good friend and director Ted Demme died of a heart attack during a pick-up basketball game. Dulli scrapped much of what he had already done and began working on a darker, more reflective set of songs. The resulting album was a departure from the arc Dulli had originally intended, and it could be conjectured that the Twilight Singers' singular album-by-album approach had its start here. But Dulli is quick to note that he has a long history of not repeating himself.
"Every Whigs record had a different personality," says Dulli. "The idea of making the same record twice does not appeal to me. The only people who should make consistently similar records are The Ramones and AC/DC. Once you have a formula like that, you're an idiot to ditch it."
In a sense, Dulli's refusal to duplicate himself across even a pair of albums is his formula, and it has served him well. Even the Singers themselves do not adhere to the rules of Rock band membership, as Dulli assembles musicians the way Jim Phelps used to put together a strike force on Mission: Impossible — on an individual, as-needed, as-available basis. All of the Singers' albums, including their debut, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle, the unpredictably diverse covers album She Loves You and Dulli's perceived fresh masterwork, Powder Burns, have been constructed in this manner. (Amber Headlights, a collection of tracks recorded around the time of the first Singers album and the Whigs break-up, is credited to Dulli rather than the Singers.)
"I write a lot, actually more so now than when I was in the Whigs," says Dulli. "Sometimes I'll do it just to keep the sword sharp. Once I grasp some sort of thematic thread, that's when I start to put a record together in earnest. To wit, the oldest songs on Powder Burns are 'Dead to Rights' and 'Forty Dollars,' and they were just songs that I liked. I didn't know what would happen with them. Then when I wrote 'I'm Ready' and 'There's Been an Accident,' I saw those four as kind of a foundation for what I wanted to do."
Powder Burns might not be an epic concept album but it is certainly one of most powerful musical statements that Dulli has offered in either of his acclaimed band entities. His Soul and Punk skills have rarely been melded into such an effective hybrid, like a genetic jumble of Paul Westerberg and Marvin Gaye where neither takes precedence and yet are both in glorious evidence. From the Replacements-channel-the-Stooges bluster of "I'm Ready" to the jazzily cinematic swell of the album's closing track, "I Wish I Was," Dulli revisits familiar themes like lust and love, regret and pride, cynicism and hope.
Powder Burns was recorded in a number of locales in the U.S. and Italy, primarily in Dulli's beloved and ruined New Orleans, before and after Katrina's devastation. In a brilliant burst of irony, the very distance that spelled the end of the Whigs five years ago is eliminated through the use of technology that allows Dulli to treat the Singers' material like a musical jigsaw puzzle with a malleable picture. One track of particular interest to longtime fans is "Candy Cane Crawl," which features Whigs bassist John Curley and guerilla folker Ani DiFranco, who was recording her new album in New Orleans as Dulli was working on Powder Burns.
"Candy Cane Crawl' was written as a ballad and then changed to a rather visceral Rock song," says Dulli. "On the She Loves You tour, we previewed it as a Rock song. When I was putting the record together, I had plenty of up-tempo numbers and needed another ballad so I switched it back to its original arrangement. I was alone at that point in New Orleans, it was just me and (musician/engineer) Mike (Napolitano), and we recorded the track to a drum loop, then it was the magic of the Internet. I sent the files to New York for my friend Wiz (Greg Wieczorek) to play drums on, I sent the files to Cincinnati for (Curley) to play bass on, I sent the files to Los Angeles for Scott Bennett to do the Beach Boys vocals on. They sent them back the next day. The bass is vintage John Curley ... he laid down the track, I called him and tweaked it a little bit and he got it in the second take. He's my favorite bass player, I ain't gonna lie. And he's my best friend. Ani DiFranco lived in the house with Mike and I, and she came in and added her part last, and it was done. That song was done in 48 hours in four different cities without me ever leaving the house."
Powder Burns possesses all of the qualities that have infused the best work from both the Whigs and the Twilight Singers — a bruised but unapologetic romanticism, a visceral Rock foundation and a funky soulfulness that hasn't been this evident since the Whigs' triumphant Black Love.
At the center of it all, the Hamilton, Ohio, native has grown from small-town bad boy to one of the best-connected musicians in the business. After nearly 20 years of work, Dulli is in the position of having his catalog evaluated for posterity and it holds up pretty well. He understands the increased interest in the Afghan Whigs, as he remains a fan of his bandmates to this day; Curley's Staggering Statistics and McCollum's Moon Maan have both opened for the Twilight Singers and have even joined Dulli on stage for impromptu one-night semi-Whigs reunions.
"I was a fan, too," he says with a wry laugh. "My favorite groups had their run, then they laid it down and never came back. Right now, at the core of the Whigs — me, John and Rick — I see three happy guys doing their own thing now who still have a friendship. We're all supportive of each other. The Afghan Whigs made six records and did 2000 shows and if you heard those songs and liked them and saw one of those shows, and it rocked you, fuck, man, there you go."
The Twilight Singers are perhaps harder to quantify, since Dulli is still in the midst of creating their legacy. The difference in Powder Burns is clearly the difference in Greg Dulli. Even if his lyrics remain as guarded and cryptic as ever, there is a clarity of purpose in these songs that emanates from their singer.
"I'm not going to say I wasn't present for the other records, but none so much as this one," says Dulli honestly. "This one is about as clear as I've ever been. It was interesting that it was written in a clear way but completely about the unclear way. I think I needed to make peace with certain things in my past in order to be able to move on. I think this album is intrinsically transitional and what happens next will be a completely liberated record. The one that happens next is the one I'm looking forward to."
THE TWILIGHT SINGERS play Saturday at the Southgate House with Staggering Statistics and Afterhours.