A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a guy I'd traveled to New Orleans with in '99 to catch what turned out to be one of the final Southeastern shows by one of that decade's most cult-beloved yet widely underappreciated rock bands, Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs. My buddy called because he'd heard that the Twilight Singers, the project singer-songwriter Greg Dulli has fronted since the Whigs disbanded in 2001, was coming to town, and he wanted confirmation.
I gave it.
He then asked if I thought the show was worth attending. An ardent fan of the Whigs' inimitable mix of post-rock dissonance, lyrical noir and tortured, hooky blue-eyed soul, he'd been turned off by the "new" group's trip-hoppy turn-of-the-millennium debut, Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers, and hadn't heard anything subsequently.
More than a few diehard Whigs lovers have, like my friend, drifted away from Dulli's work. It's more than a bit of a shame, because Dulli never really left behind the soulful, visceral, first-person catharses that made his former band so compelling. And the alternately jagged and melodic guitars, pained howls and grittily cinematic soul-baring with which so many found resonance has been creeping into The Twilight Singers' more ambient, widescreen style over time, first in '03's gorgeous Blackberry Belle, and most prominently and recently in this year's Powder Burns.
"I think on this record, yes," says Dulli. "But I think that influence came from kind of a strange place. I joined an Italian band for a while, After Hours, and they're a pretty Whigs-y, guitar sort of band. I produced and played guitar in that band, and I had such a blast playing loud electric guitar, so that more than anything influenced [Powder Burns].
"But I also think I've reconciled the fact that I was in the Whigs, I wrote those songs, and if it kind of sounds like that, then OK."
It took him a while to reach that reconciliation, though.
"Oh yeah, sure," he says. "That's why the first Twilight album is a 180 from the Whigs. And the next one is kind of straddling that line. And [the '04 Twilight Singers covers collection] She Loves You was sort of like [Afghan Whigs' 1992 covers collection] Uptown Avondale. And this one is what it is."
If the loops and atmosphere of Twilight as Played by were the sound of Dulli stepping away from his late band's identity, the Twilight Singers' working process finds him leaving the traditional band format as a whole. He's the only person to have played on every Twilight Singers release to date. Famous musicians and obscure friends float in and out of the lineup; Powder Burns features the contributions of punk-folk icon Ani DiFranco and singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur; vocalist Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) is a member of the current touring ensemble.
"Sometimes it's as easy as, 'Wow, Ani's upstairs cooking food; I'm gonna ask her to come down and sing,' or 'Joe Arthur's been sleeping on my couch for two days,'" says Dulli. "It's sorta like that ... Mark Lanegan's been my friend for, Jesus, 20-plus years, so it's never too hard to get him on the phone. But the other guys, I have musicians here in L.A. and I have a group of musicians in New Orleans, and whichever town I'm in, they're the guys I use. And sometimes they end up cross-pollinating, and that's sort of what the band is now."
Dulli is where the material originates, however, and Dulli is, well — he's Greg Dulli, the unflinching self-examiner for whom personal demons, passions and mistakes, and those long, dark, drugged-up nights of the soul, have always made rich fodder. When Powder Burns dropped back in May, critics immediately hailed it as his most autobiographical album to date, an alternately harrowing and redemptive diary of the artist's (latest) struggle to get clean.
But Dulli's always been adept at blurring the line between the man and the myth, the journal and the screenplay.
"No one person's life is so interesting that it can't use some license and particularly the first syllable of license, to help you out," he says. "I think that I have a vivid imagination. Some say abundantly so, but those are usually girls I used to go out with. Any writer, of any medium, is going to plumb the depths of their own psyche, see what's in there. Once you've decided to do something bigger than that, you've gotta let some observation in there, let some influence in there.
"I feel like a bird making a nest, and I'm not making it of all my own stuff," he adds with a laugh. "I'm a magpie."
As far as the album being a document of kicking drugs goes, Dulli confirms it to a degree, saying that he found inspiring similarities between the destruction of his beloved New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina (the album was written and recorded immediately post-Katrina, with the aid of candlelight and generators) and his own devastation.
"My experiences with drugs allowed me to ... I kinda got flattened by them. And I think New Orleans getting flattened and me sort of watching what was going down there, I started to notice parallels in my own life and the life of the city in that incarnation, and it began to point me in the direction I ultimately ended up going in. The city has always been a big inspiration, and she became an even stronger one, based on her hardships."
The Crescent City and Dulli both seem to have emerged from that particularly difficult time in their respective, intertwined lives and are in the process of picking up the pieces. New Orleans will never be the same. Dulli might not either, but then again, The Twilight Singers has never been an outfit to look back, perceived similarities to The Afghan Whigs be damned. A new EP, A Stitch in Time, hints at yet another stylistic evolution for the project, though right now Dulli's not exactly sure what will result.
"I have no idea what the next [album] will be like," he says. "It'll be me and Mark [Lanegan], so if people like it, I'll get half the credit, and if people hate it, I'll blame it on him."