The Twilight Singers: Living The Movie, As Sound
"When I choose to do something, it's a free-fall," Greg Dulli confesses. "I have a deeply addictive personality: God forbid I like something, because if it's bad for me, I'm in trouble. But it's always been the most interesting and unpredictable way to live."
Greg Dulli, of course, remains one of the most interesting and unpredictable figures loitering at the razor's edge of pop culture. In his manifestations as leader/frontman of acclaimed groups the Twilight Singers and, previously, the Afghan Whigs, he's proven to be one of popular music's most enduring iconoclasts. Justifiably controversial, provocative, literary and utterly compelling as a performer as well as a songwriter (and vice versa), Dulli has never shied away from putting his demons on display. And on Dulli's latest effort—the Twilight Singers undeniably cathartic, brilliantly hallucinatory new album Powder Burns, to be released May 16, 2006 on One Little Indian, he continues this precarious pattern—if only to subtly twist it and subvert expectations.
Indeed, Powder Burns vitally explores Dulli's classically maximal obsessions—the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll (and let's not forget the guilt)—yet shoots them through new prisms. For one, the album was largely produced (or, in characteristic Dulli liner-note parlance, "shot on location") in New Orleans shortly after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, recorded in ramshackle studio conditions where generators were necessary to provide power and lyrics were written at night by candlelight. As well, Powder Burns is not just the first record of all new Twilight Singers material since 2003's critical smash Blackberry Belle (both SPIN and Entertainment Weekly gave the album A- reviews). The new Powder Burns also features a new array of virtuoso Twilight collaborators: there's acclaimed singer-songwriters Ani Di Franco and Joseph Arthur and Brian Wilson's musical director Scott Bennett rubbing up alongside Dulli's longtime usual suspects like Mark Lanegan (who shows up in spirit via a sample of "Methamphetamine Blues" on "Candy Cane Crawl").
Most of all, the Twilight Singers' fourth full-length album finds Dulli not just wrestling with his infamous demons, but for the first time maybe really trying to put them to rest. "I started on this album two years ago," Dulli recalls. "Up to that point, I had lived in a fucking drug haze for seven years. The two oldest songs on the record, ‘Forty Dollars' and ‘Dead To Rights,' were written in a complete fog of everyday drug abuse—to the point where I don't really even remember writing or playing them. I could probably never write those songs ever again. During most of the writing of this record, I was straightening myself out, getting my shit together, learning how to live unclouded."
Unflinchingly, Powder Burns documents this journey, from its songs of rage, despair and ultimately hope down to cover art depicting a dusty trail of decadence, with maps spanning Peru to Bogota, Colombia through, of course, the Big Easy itself. But unlike, say, the bogus revelations at the core of James Frey's Million Little Pieces, from jump Powder Burns aspires to be not so much memoir as an evocative fiction cut from the transparent cloth of truth. Some of the names and details have been changed, sure, but the stories ring true to anyone who's been there. "I had begun having inner monologues for three years—literally conversations with my conscience," Dulli explains. "After so many of those, I started seeing the squalid, aimless life I was doomed to. It was literally like a precipice moment: jump, or find a more accessible trail to get what you need."
In forensic science, "powder burns" are analyzed to determine the distance between a victim and the weapon that killed him; from the evidence available, Dulli was clearly getting closer to the smoking gun all the time. Dulli had already missed one big fucking wake-up call: In 1998, he was put into a life-threatening coma after a bouncer fractured Dulli's skull in an assault following a contentious Afghan Whigs show in Austin, Texas. Then, in early 2002, his closest friend, film director Ted Demme, died tragically from a heart attack linked to narcotics abuse. "Blackberry Belle was my requiem for Ted Demme," he says in hindsight. "When someone that close to you dies, something dies with them. The circumstances under which Teddy died could've taken me one of two ways. It could've cleaned me up and straightened me out, or it could've sent me deeper into the abyss, which is exactly where I went. I had a degree of guilt for living when someone else did not. Perhaps I wanted to see how much it would take for that to happen to me—to see if I was indestructible. I have that kind of ego."
In the wake of this tragedy, Dulli found his self-esteem subsequently frayed. "When you get to the point where you're doing lines off your amp while the guitar player plays a solo and there's a thousand people behind you wondering what the fuck you're doing, it becomes clear you're living a caricature existence," he admits. "I got to the point where I was downright embalmed." To begin the painful process of shedding that cartoon skin, Dulli threw himself into his work. With the Twilight Singers, he released 2004's She Loves You: a collection of radically re-interpreted covers ranging from the likes of everyone spanning Bjork and Fleetwood Mac through Mary J. Blige, George Gershwin, and John Coltrane, She Loves You garnered a four-star review from MOJO, among other raves. "She Loves You kind of straddled the fence," Dulli explains, "as some of those songs are clean, and some of them are not." The Twilight Singers ended playing over 100 shows in support of She Loves You. "That was the most I'd played since 1999," Dulli claims. "By that time, I was done. It was kind of like, ‘What do I do next?'"
The solution: rack focus from foreground to background. Here, Dulli entered a new career as sideman and producer, playing piano throughout 2003-2004 in Mark Lanegan's touring band. During 2005 he spent a quarter of the year in Italy, producing in the studio and performing 50-plus concerts with Italian superstar gruppo Afterhours. "I was definitely never completely present on my tours—I was there, but not always there," Dulli says. "Touring with Afterhours, I got back to being ‘there.' I was playing music that I enjoyed for the sheer act of it, that my persona wasn't all wrapped up in. I was tending to my humility: I loved being backup, just a dude in the band. It helped me rekindle my interest in doing it myself." That interest led to Dulli composing some 30 songs, of which 12 made Powder Burns' final cut. In the course of whittling down, Dulli discovered he'd created a concept album. "Powder Burns captures a day in an untethered person's life—a person who has left this plane and doesn't particularly know his way back but always gets there," he explains. "It goes minute to minute in its approach, from the first high, to the inevitable comedown, to the coming back up."
On the one hand, Dulli calls Powder Burns "extremely autobiographical." "'Candy Cane Crawl' was the first song that I wrote after I got clean," he states. "It's the moment of clarity, my diagnosis of the situation I'm in. The first line is ‘Call up that feeling you get when you're stealing': it's all about the visceral high that comes along with tasting forbidden fruit, like how the hottest sex is usually preceded by the words ‘We shouldn't be doing this.'" At the same time, Powder Burns reveals Dulli's most abstract, impressionistic, literary lyrics yet. On past Twilight Singers and Afghan Whigs efforts, Dulli has reveled in the song as mini-narrative: like a shotgun wedding of John Lennon, James Ellroy and Raymond Carver, Dulli's lyrics evoke classic film noirs as much as they do pop song tradition. But on Powder Burns, Dulli found himself gravitating more towards "meditations than stories: these are the most different songs I've ever written, especially lyrically. I had to be more abstract to deal with the topics: I wanted to project my experiences onto someone else I invented so I could look at them as an outsider. In each song, I adopt a unique persona—even to the point of giving each song its own vocal sound so I sound like a different person each time."
Amidst the tainted confessionals, however, Dulli discovered the universal nature of Powder Burns' themes. "It's not just about drug addiction per se; like the devil, addiction comes in many forms," he clarifies. "One can be addicted to manipulation, sex, abusive emotional relationships, working out, religion, television, the Internet—however you choose to numb your mundane existence. It's an escape, but some escapes are more palpably destructive than others." Despite the abstraction involved, some tracks, like the wrenchingly epic comedown rocker "Bonnie Brae," remain based on very real people going through very traumatic moments; in "Bonnie Brae," it's the possibility that Dulli might lose yet another close friend to narcotics—or himself. "'Bonnie Brae' describes a specific event I observed that I'll never forget," he says. "I was cleansing myself of the badness, but was in close proximity to someone who was deep in it. That brought things into real focus: what happened to them could've very easily happened me. That was my first real meditation on the life I had been living."
That meditative quality extended to Powder Burns' sonics as well, which mirror the kaleidoscopic mental landscape of its protagonist. "It's unusually lush in scope and conceptual in its theory," Dulli says of the album. "It's a widescreen narrative, super cinematic." As well, Powder Burns feels even more under the sway of the Power Of Rock than past Twilight Singers releases. In particular, the band's first LP, 2000's Twilight As Played By The Twilight Singers, established an easily-copied template: co-produced by U.K. downtempo dons Fila Brazillia, it innovatively soldered atmospheric electronica and blue-eyed gutter soul with indie aesthetics long before the Postal Service scored an episode of The O.C. "While I enjoyed the cold and synthetic stainless-steel sound of the first Twilight album, I still enjoyed playing rock music," Dulli says. "I wanted to merge those styles even further." 2003's Blackberry Belle upped the guitar ante even further in this fusion on massive fist-pumping tracks like "Teenage Wristband," but Powder Burns reflects Twilight's hardest-rocking moments yet. "In spite of myself, I love anthemic rock songs," Dulli concurs. "I wanted songs for the stadium in my mind."
Indeed, Powder Burns is an album for the headphones like those huge ear-covering bitches one might find in a ‘70s stereo enthusiast mag, not those dinky MP3-player in-ear joints. The big-rock vibe is apparent from the brutally carnal album opener "I'm Ready." A true fucking song, "I'm Ready" approximates an insistent mattress creaking via the lysergic chug of Primal Scream fused with Death From Above 1979's precision sludge attack. "I wanted it to be a headrush—your receptors being hammered," Dulli says of "I'm Ready." "That set the tone for the record."
In fact, Powder Burns proffers an evocatively motley stew of styles, from the piano-driven drug-dealer lament "Forty Dollars" ("Mangy dog without a collar/Buy me love for forty dollars/I got love for sale—come on, get some before it gets stale") to the seductive hot-buttered soul of "Candy Cane Crawl." "The Conversation," meanwhile, is inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's paranoid-masterpiece film of the same name; then there's the "lighter-waver" sprawl of the title track. "The duel between dark and light on 'Powder Burns' is clearly influenced by ‘Comfortably Numb' from Pink Floyd's The Wall," Dulli explains. "And Neil Young is always floating around there. When I start writing records, I'll go to touchstones to turn me on, but I recede mostly from listening to current music. I try to open myself up to what I want to hear as opposed to what the world wants to hear, then I take everything into the cave with me."
Some caves are more easily accessed than others, as Dulli found out when he decided to complete Powder Burns in post-Katrina New Orleans, whose reconstruction provided an unfortunate, unexpected metaphor for Dulli's own rebirth. "Lyrically, the album gets a little bit elegiac at times, for a reason," he explains, adding Powder's closer "I Wish I Was" is meant to be "sung to New Orleans as if she were a woman—which I think she is. It's hard to see something that epochal and not be affected by it and have your work influenced by it. It was like going to visit a friend in the hospital—that's why I had to complete Powder Burns there."
From Louis Armstrong to James Booker, Allen Toussaint to Ernie K-Doe, Dr. John to the Meters, Lee Dorsey to Juvenile, Dulli has always been passionate about N'awlins music. He first visited New Orleans on Halloween in 1987; since then, he'd maintained a home in the French Quarter and regularly spent 3-4 months there annually, having recorded much of Blackberry Belle and She Loves You in NOLA, as well as 1965 by the Afghan Whigs. Quickly he became part of the city's extended musical tapestry, playing with members of Rebirth Brass Band and other local legends ranging to Kermit Ruffin and Roderick Paulin to Henry Butler and even reclusive Box Tops/Big Star icon Alex Chilton (who sings harmony on "Crazy" off the Whigs' 1965). He did not recognize, however, what he found upon his return: "It was not unlike hallucinating or being high—seeing New Orleans on her fucking knees was the most surreal experience in my recent memory. I mean, for once the French Quarter actually had a curfew! To see the most otherworldly, original American city as a ghost town patrolled by police and National Guard was like a Bunuel movie. It was such a desperate kind of time down there, but the best of people definitely outshone the worst: the milk of human kindness was flowing in multitudes. I had started recording the album there, and it was my goal to finish it there, which I mostly did."
It wasn't easy going back to the Big Easy, however. Katrina touched down on August 29th, while Dulli was still on tour in Italy, changing his life forever. On September 11, 2005, Dulli found himself playing to 8,000 fans at an Afterhours gig in a Roman amphitheater. That night Dulli debuted the Gutter Twins, his ongoing collaborative project with Mark Lanegan, onstage for the first time, climaxing explosively with a Lanegan-sung encore of Primal Scream's "Deep Hit of Morning Sun." The next day, he left Europe on a pilgrimage back to the Crescent City. To make sense of his loss, he'd decided to face Katrina on her home turf and finish Powder Burns there, in New Orleans, where the recordings had begun. He joined his regular co-producers Mike Napolitano and Mathias Schneeberger in Napolitano's studio above Checkpoint Charlie's at the corner of Esplanade and Decatur Streets in the barely-there French Quarter—the same studio which Ani Di Franco also uses as her home base.
"Napolitano left the city the day before Katrina hit and went to Lafayette," Dulli recalls. "Then when the levees broke, all bets were off. My tapes and Ani's tapes were in his house, so the day after they snuck in past the road blocks and sentry points and went in, Mission:Impossible style, to get the tapes out. Mike said it was like Night of the Living Dead anarchy—real Armageddon time: gunshots going off everywhere, fires burning, people still stuck on roofs, boats in the streets. It was like pictures I'd seen of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—abject destruction of the highest order. So when we started recording again, we had to run generators when the power went out." Dulli found that the hard-knock environment of military-enforced curfews, cold showers and teeth brushed with bottled water "gave me discipline to finish the record—there were no distractions. New Orleans is like a dear, dear friend to me, and if you're only going to hang out with your friends during the good times, you're not a true friend. I went to New Orleans when she needed friends the most."
Dulli got through the Powder Burns sessions—which also touched down in Italy and Los Angeles—with a little help from his friends as well: the rotating cast of players that make up Twilight Singers' collective family circus, which has included everyone from Prince's Purple Rain protégée Apollonia to vocal dynamo Petra Haden over the years. "I play bass, guitar, drums—whatever I need to play," he explains. "Then I bring in talented people to bolster that up. They leave their mark." Both Twilight's current touring guitarist Dave Rosser and its former one, Jon Skibic, contribute mightily to Powder Burns, as do standbys like drummer Greg Wiezorek, bassist Scott Ford and madcap drummer Bobby McIntyre, who literally does wear mad caps onstage. "Bobby McIntyre has such a fuckin' zest for life and it comes out in his drumming," Dulli says. "Onstage I'll watch people looking past me and I won't know why; then I'll remember ‘Oh, I forgot—Bobby's playing drums.'"
In addition, Dave Catching, formerly of Queens of the Stone Age and currently of Eagles of Death Metal, also appears on the album; meanwhile, John Curley, Dulli's former partner in crime in the Afghan Whigs, shows up for a bass part on "Candy Cane Crawl," while Scott Bennett of Brian Wilson's band takes care of the harmony. As well, acclaimed singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur can be heard on "There's Been An Accident," "Forty Dollars," and "The Conversation." "Joe's one of the best songwriters working today—innately honest," Dulli says. Ani Di Franco, meanwhile, provides an ethereal, essential, knowing female Greek chorus on "Bonnie Brae," "Candy Cane Crawl," and "Powder Burns." More than anything, Di Franco provides a crucial female counterpoint to Dulli's id gone wild.
"For Ani, I had enough of a reputation that she was initially trepidacious just to be around me, let alone collaborate with me," Dulli explains. "Once we hung out, though, we genuinely liked each other. I love the way our voices sound together: she helped co-pilot the songs with her vocals and took them to other places." Afterhours' frontman Manuel Agnelli co-wrote two of Powder's songs, creating the vocal melody to "The Conversation" and co-writing lyrics on "My Time Has Come."
"Other than with Mark Lanegan, that is the only song I've ever done where I've collaborated on the lyrics," Dulli claims. "Manuel is one of the best rock writers I've ever heard: when he's translates his songs to me from Italian into English, I'm always blown away." Powder Burns' breadth of collaboration often meant for complicated tri-coastal recording arrangements: "For ‘Candy Cane Crawl,' I played my part to a drum loop on electric piano in New Orleans, sent the track to New York so Greg Wiz could be on it playing drums, then to Cincinnati so Curley could do his bass, then to L.A. so Bennett could do vocals. When they all sent their tracks back, Ani put her harmony on it, and then it was done. I love the Internet."
Powder Burns represents the 11th full-length record spearheaded by Greg Dulli. It's a long way from rural Hamilton, Ohio, the inauspicious hamlet where he grew up. "Blue Velvet could've almost been a documentary about where I grew up," he says of the town that still produced its share of cult pop eccentrics. "Scott Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio; Roger Troutman is from Hamilton, too," Dulli explains. "Somewhere between Scott Walker and Roger Troutman lies… me." From Hamilton, Dulli made his way to Ohio's closest big city, Cincinnati, where he marinated amidst the Buckeye State's rock royalty, rubbing shoulders with local heroes like Guided By Voice's Bob Pollard, Breeders' Kim and Kelly Deal, and white funksters the Royal Crescent Mob. In Cincy, Dulli started the notably infamous local rock bands the Black Republicans and later, in 1986, the Afghan Whigs.
After releasing some self-released material, in 1989 the Whigs earned the distinction of being the first non-Seattle band to sign to Sub Pop Records, releasing two albums, 1990's Up In It and 1992's Congregation, along with numerous singles and e.p.s, on the seminal proto-grunge label. In 1993, the Whigs released their major-label debut, Gentlemen. A soul-powered, stylistically varied masterpiece that simultaneously veered between the erotic and the disturbing, all while avoiding grunge stereotyping, Gentlemen established the Afghan Whigs as one of the most revered, significant bands of the early ‘90s rock explosion (SPIN placed Gentlemen at number 99 in its list of the top 100 albums in recent memory, while The New Rolling Stone Record Guide pegged it at four and a half stars). After two more successful, acclaimed albums, 1996's Black Love and 1998's 1965, the Afghan Whigs broke up in the wake of Dulli releasing the first Twilight Singers album in 2000.
In addition to Powder Burns, Greg Dulli remains as typically prolific as ever. His Gutter Twins project with Mark Lanegan will most likely touch down sometime in 2007. Dulli also contributes vocals to Intramural, a collective electronic project spearheaded by Denver Dalley of Desaparecidos/Bright Eyes/Statistics infamy, and to the debut album of NearLY from former Nine Inch Nails member Jerome Dillon (on a cover of the Whigs' classic "Step Into The Light" no less). Dulli's also been stepping outside of music of late: a sometime actor (he made his thespian debut in Ted Demme's Boston crime drama Monument Avenue, whose soundtrack album he also exec produced), Dulli has a recurring role on the FX Network's hit show Rescue Me. Not surprisingly the Twilight Singers' music is ubiquitous on the show as well: already, Twilight tracks like "Pussywillow" and "Get The Wheel" have appeared on the show's soundtrack, with Powder Burns' "Bonnie Brae" and "Forty Dollars" slated for inclusion in the current season. It's all an auspicious, prosperous end to the first phase's tendency towards decadent self-destruction.
"I had gotten fucked up all my life onstage," Dulli claims. "It is a terrifying experience for me, so I anesthetized myself to do what I had to do. But I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that addiction was my only problem; it masked something much deeper. I always felt I was going to live forever and stay at age 25—it was almost a Peter Pan complex. But then I started taking self-loathing to symphonic heights, despite a deep self-love. They are constantly at war: getting them to enjoy commerce between each other is what I'm trying to do in my life, and if that becomes reflected in something I've done musically, it's just another entry in my lifelong diary. My records provide a good glimpse of what I would become, and Powder Burns is part 11 of my evolution: this is life as a movie, starring… me."
So welcome back, friends, to Dulli's show that never ends—to Powder Burns by The Twilight Singers. Remember, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…