Music Reviews

posted: February 6, 2011

Greg Dulli Interview

Greg Dulli Interview

Standalone Motherfucker:
A Conversation With Twilight Singers Leader Greg Dulli

By Bob Gendron

As soon as I learned what ten-digit phone number to dial—the three middle figures were “666”—I knew the call with Greg Dulli would be a doozy. Not that there was ever a doubt. Conversations with the globetrotting Twilight Singers vocalist/guitarist are always refreshingly humorous, unsparingly honest, revealingly unpredictable, and full of awakening pop-culture references.

Reached at his home in Los Angeles three weeks before the release of his group’s excellent Dynamite Steps, the provocative frontman talked about subjects ranging from photography to the Polar Bear Club to performing, songwriting, traveling, and smoking. The new Sub Pop set represents Dulli’s first new record since he co-helmed the Gutter Twins’ opus Saturnalia, and the talk was our first since we met in the summer of 2007 in New Orleans while I was working on my 33 1/3 series book Gentlemen.

B: Alright, I have to ask: Is this your personal cell phone number?

G: No, it’s my landline. My father arranged it for me. Guess who my father is?

B: Yep, I noticed the 666. Satan.

G: [Laughs] That’s my real father.

B: Talking to you already reminds me that I need to go back to the Royal Street Inn & The R Bar [Dulli’s bar/inn in New Orleans] now that you’ve got everything completed.

G: We finally finished it. Being a first-time innkeeper, the one thing that I had never seen is that with people constantly being there, they beat everything down. Just three and a half years in, we’ve already had to swap furniture because it’s constantly used. At my houses, because I live in two different towns, I get more wear out of things because I’m only home for certain amounts of time. In some of the more popular inn rooms, we’ve already swapped out coffee tables twice. I’m like, ‘What the fuck is going on in here?’ I’m not part of the cleaning crew, but I always ask: ‘What did you find?’ [Laughs]

B: And?

G: Blood, ropes, handcuffs, bindles [small envelopes used for powdered drugs], including people flat out forgetting large amounts of whatever they bought and all that stuff. God, wow. I’m glad I’ve moved past all that. I’d be following the maid: ‘What did you find? What did you find?’

B: Sounds like everything is going well.

G: Oh, it’s going great. The only sad thing is that I used to come into town, and I have a great house, but I always liked to stay in the big room—the big rock and roll room. I used to stay there for two or three days upon arrival and it would be my home vacation. But I can never stay in that room now. It’s always sold-out. I haven’t stayed in it in six months.

B: Do you still have the same house at which I visited you in New Orleans?

G: No. I moved to a much nicer house. And I didn’t really like that other one. That was my business partner’s house, and it wasn’t for me. I’m not a duplex-y guy. I don’t need to hear the fighting or the fucking going on on the other side of the wall. I’m a standalone motherfucker. [Laughs]

B: Is the new house the one portrayed in the “blue picture” that’s in the booklet of Dynamite Steps?

G: That’s my house in LA. We had a bunch of recording happen in that room. [Guitarist] Dave Rosser took that picture. Do you have a final copy of the record? I don’t have it.

B: Yes. It arrived a few days ago.

G: With the artwork and shit? Fuck man, I don’t have that! How come I don’t have that? And furthermore, [Sub Pop owner] Jonathan [Poneman] and Megan were in my fucking house yesterday. Goddammit. [Laughs] Well, I took the rest of the photos in there.

B: I’ve also taken a look at your photos on Facebook. In addition to barkeeping and innkeeping, are you furthering your pursuit of amateur photography?

G: Amateur photography and now, for the first time since I’m a teenager, I’ve begun to paint. I’m following along a long line of old farts that start painting again.

B: You mentioned you recorded several tracks for Dynamite Steps in LA. But when we talked in New Orleans, in August 2007, you were working on material in a studio there as well. Was that for Twilight Singers?

G: Yeah, maybe, but I think was still pretty deep in the Gutter Twins. I can tell you that I recorded the last songs of August 2010. That means that I must have begun in the fall of 2008. Eighteen or twenty months of songwriting, whipping things up, tossing them away. Two of the songs were at one point ditched because I couldn’t unlock what needed to be unlocked on the songs. I brought them to a certain point and just got frustrated and quit. It was always a person who had heard the song and said, ‘Dude, what happened to “Get Lucky?”’ And I said, ‘“Get Lucky.” I got frustrated with “Get Lucky.”’ And they’d say, ‘You should go back to it. That was a good one.’ And then I’d go back. “Get Lucky” sat around for six months unfinished, because I didn’t know how to finish it. It was someone else’s enthusiasm for the song that made me want to complete it. “Last Night In Town” was the same kind of thing. I couldn’t figure out how to finish that one either. There was a chorus of people who were all over that one. So I had to really grind on those two. Certain songs were really easy and written in a day. Like “Never Seen No Devil.” “She Was Stolen” was written in an afternoon. Certain songs write themselves and they’re ready to go. They are as is; some songs you have to sweat for a little bit.

B: Dynamite Steps has that trademark Greg Dulli atmospheric feel. And there’s a nasty streak running through some of the material that evokes your famously provocative personality. Does any of the vengeance relate to circumstances that were happening in your life?

G: [Pauses] Anything kind of vitriolic, it had a target. Once I completed it, I called it even with the target. [Laughs] That said, there are parts of this record in particular that I think are optimistic and even transcendent. But I had a couple of things to work out. And I worked them out. And I will repeat that I’m going to call it square with the targets now.

B: You mention transcendence. Some of the music, especially the scope and sweep of the symphonic arrangements, sounds like you recorded the album to be played back on a big film screen in a movie theater. Was this intentional?

G: Yes. It also helps that I had great musicians. Amy Farris came in to play violin and cello; Petra Haden played violin. I have timpani and strings, because upon hearing it, I decided some songs needed strings. Some of the music just builds and builds. And Dave Rosser is fucking great on guitar. He’s one of my favorite musicians I’ve ever worked with.

B: The sequencing also seems deliberate. Dynamite Steps sounds like it’s meant to be heard from start to finish.

G: Yeah, I designed it that way. But I also kept playing with the song order. It’s not meant as a story, but the songs have a flow, beginning with the slow entrance of “Last Night In Town” and finishing with the grandness of “Dynamite Steps.”

B: Given the theatrical trajectory, are you considering playing the entire record live?

G: I don’t know yet. I’m thinking about it. But I’m actually really excited about all of the other stuff I get to play. We’ve got five albums now, and there are a lot of songs I haven’t played in nearly five years. I went on tour with the Gutter Twins in 2008 and 2009. And I just finished my solo tour. So I’m ready to go back to Twilight Singers material. Besides, I haven’t played with a full band in more than two years. It was just Lanegan and I in 2009. Playing with him really taught me a lot about singing, and how to blend voices.

B: Did you learn anything new from playing the acoustic solo tour last fall?

G: To be honest with you, man, I never thought I’d want to do anything like that. For years, people kept telling me I should do it, and I’m like, ‘No, that isn’t for me.’ But it ended up being great. Still, I never would want to go up there [onstage] alone. [Rosser and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson joined Dulli.] And it was great to play those shows with [former Afghan Whigs bassist] John Curley. And you know, I didn’t play anywhere big, but we sold-out the whole tour.

B: Anything happen that surprised you?

G: I played “Let Me Lie To You” on a couple of dates, and the first time I did it, I started thinking that I wrote that like, what, when I was only 26 years old? And I’m like, ‘this is a really good song.’ So it was cool to realize that the material held up well.

B: Compared to 1992, your voice still sounds tremendous and unaffected by age. Your falsetto and range on Dynamite Steps are as good as they’ve ever been. Are you doing anything to keep your voice in shape?

G: I quit smoking a few years ago.

B: I heard you quit because you got to smoke in an elevator and didn’t think you could ever top that.

G: Yeah, I was in Turkey. Everybody smokes there. There’s a reason cigarette packages say “Turkish Blend.” And I’m in an elevator. And they fucking have ashtrays in the elevator. I’m like, ‘Man, I reached the peak of smoking.’ What more could I do?

B: So you’re feeling the benefits of quitting?

G: Oh yeah. All the time. I feel it when I go up the steps. And when I sing. But there are times that I really miss it. Sometimes I’ll see someone with a cigarette and it’s like seeing your ex-girlfriend with another guy. And when I’m having a drink. They go hand in hand. People think I quit drinking, too. I’ve read a few times where people said, ‘Oh, I saw him with a drink.’ And they’re shocked. I haven’t quit. If I quit, I’d sell the bars [Dulli owns three bars]. What would be the point of having them?

B: Speaking of drinking, since your prototypical onstage persona involved smoking, boozing, and a debonair stance, are you enjoying Mad Men?

G: You know what? I have watched only one episode but I can tell you this: Whenever I do bus tours, that’s when I stockpile those shows. I watched four seasons of Lost and all five seasons of The Wire on the Gutter Twins tour. Which is great for me because of my television-watching habits. The only shows that I’m hooked on right now, and that I wait for from week to week, are Breaking Bad—a masterpiece of a show—and Bored to Death on HBO. I think it’s amazing; Ted Danson in particular is fucking hilarious. Eastbound and Down, I like it, but I want to like it more. The shows I’m going to watch on the upcoming tour are Mad Men, Deadwood, and my friend Donal [Logue]’s show that got cancelled, Terriers.

B: I haven’t seen Terriers but I’ve heard it’s excellent.

G: Donal is my old roommate and one of my best friends of all time. I remember when he told me the name of the show. And he asked me what I thought. And I said, ‘Well, as long as you don’t mind alienating the 18- to 50-year-old fan base that you’re going to alienate with that title, you should be fine.’ The advertising they did for it told you nothing about what the show was about. I watched the first episode and it was great. The performances were great, Donal was great, the other dude was great. But the creator could not be swayed on the title. It’s what happens when you call something a weird name. Trust me: Afghan Whigs, if I had that one to do all over again, I would have. But that’s [former Afghan Whigs bassist] John Curley. That’s not mine. I had Twilight Singers and then that fucking vampire bitch came along. What could I do? Gun in my mouth. [Laughs]

B: Regarding the Whigs, I just want to say congratulations for spurning the 90s alt-rock nostalgia reunion wave that’s claimed almost every other period band. Thank you.

G: You’re welcome. You can thank Bob Mould [Husker Du], Paul Westerberg [Replacements], and the late Joe Strummer, too.

B: Rather than spend your time on a reunion jaunt, you spoke to me last time about wanting to eventually hang out in and play at a piano bar in Hawaii. Is that still the plan?

G: I sort of still have visions on it. But now I’m kind of digging the Mexican coast. I’ve been frequently hanging out on the West coast of Mexico on the beach. That is ripe for the get-down down there too. One way or the other, I’ll be an old beach dude.

B: Your houses, bars, and the inn are in warm weather cities.

G: I don’t like cold weather. Our record comes out February 15, and they’re like, alright, you’re going on tour then. And I’m like, ‘In South America?’ And they’re like, ‘No, Europe.’ And I said, ‘Fuck that, man. Hell no.’ I’ll go in March. And that’ll be bad enough. It’s cold, but at least I’ll get to wear some of my good clothes, which I never get to wear. But February? I cannot do that. I have to stay in my zones. Norway is not one of my February zones. But I tell you what. I am masochistic enough to Polar Bear Club. If I was around, and it was going down, I bet you I’d do it. They used to do it in the Ohio River on New Year’s Day in Cincinnati. But they did it on January 1st at 9 in the morning, and I would’ve just passed out an hour before that. I don’t know if they would’ve wanted to pull my corpse out of the water after it having gone into shock from all the booze that was in me the night before. [Former Minutemen leader and current Stooges bassist] Mike Watt does it every year in San Pedro. I’m on his email list. He was in Japan this last New Year’s and regretted that he could not show his Polar Bear Club shirt. But I’m like, ‘Dude, you Polar Beared in California. Why don’t you Polar Bear in Minnesota?’ They do Polar Bear Club in International Falls. That’s the coldest place in America. And that’s where if you leave your car there all year and it still starts, hell yeah! Remember that battery commercial that used to be on TV in the old days? When they showed pictures of the battery, I was like, ‘I’m going to get that brand for my car.’

B: So you’re not going to recreate the White Stripes’ tour of outpost Canadian towns?

G: Dude, I don’t think we’re playing Canada, period. [Laughs] Canada makes it a big-ass hassle to get there. They want to go through your shit and ask you a bunch of questions. And I’m like, ‘What the fuck? We’re your neighbors. Let me in. Run my fingerprints. I’m fine. I’m not taking my pants off for you. N. O.’ Mexico doesn’t make me take my pants down, you know? Canada is just kind of a hassle. Until they drop the hassle, I’m going to pass. I like Canada. Once you’re in, it’s great. Toronto? Beautiful. Montreal? Beautiful. Calgary? Beautiful. Ottawa is pretty good too. But it’s getting in there that’s the bummer. I’ll put it to you this way: I’m going to cruise around Europe, 16 countries, and where they used to have checkpoints back in the old days, it still wasn’t that big of a hassle. Except for France, who are total bitches. Now, I’m going from Belgium into Holland, Holland into Germany, Germany into Denmark, they’re not fucking Canada-ing me. Here’s the deal: I will give you my passport, I will you give you my fingerprints, you can do a fucking retina scan. I don’t give a fuck. I did nothing wrong. Either let me in or I just won’t be in to coming back here.

B: Last question. In Chicago, you played at Metro with the Gutter Twins and went onstage at around 1:30am. Then you returned and played in the afternoon daylight at Lollapalooza. An enormous contrast. Seems that meeting in the middle would be best.

G: To be honest with you, if you play at 1am in New Orleans, that’s normal. If you play at 1am in Madrid, that’s normal too. You play 1am anywhere else, and it’s a bummer for people, even if it’s a weekend. Especially if it’s on a Friday night. People that come to your gig had to be at work at 8:30 or 9am. They’ve been up since 6:30am. And unless you’re jacking yourself full of Red Bull or unmentionables, fuck that. 11 o’clock is time to rock. And I even like 10 o’clock. I even like 9pm. It’s just got to be dark out. 1 o’clock in the morning is New Orleans or Madrid, the two places you can pull that off. Because the Spanish love it really late; they’re just getting going then. And in New Orleans you take naps, probably against your will. You know what? I have never been into super-late shows. Whenever I see it, I’m like ‘fuck, really?’ It happened with Twilight Singers in Chicago in the wintertime, so it’s freezing outside. People are waiting in line and they’re tired and cold. That doesn’t make for a good time, so fuck that. And I tell you what: We’re very excited about the particular show that we’re going to be playing. It will be a triumphant evening.

–Bob Gendron