Greg Dulli has always seemed more confident and in control than most of his peers, but the 41-year-old leader of the '90s alt-rock underdog The Afghan Whigs and the mastermind of The Twilight Singers isn't a stranger to setbacks, including depression, heroin use, a club fight that resulted in a fractured skull, a meltdown in an airport that sent him to the hospital and put him in restraints, and the cocaine-related death of his good friend Ted Demme. With his new Twilight Singers record, however, Dulli is finally attempting to match his onstage persona and his personal one by ditching the hard life and lining up a less traumatic future. Recorded around the world and completed in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, Powder Burns finds Dulli near the top of his post-Whigs game, effortlessly delivering big rock and bigger hooks with the kind of panache typically found on bigger stages. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Dulli to talk about friends in low places, returning to New Orleans, and why he's finally stepped into the light.
The A.V. Club: In addition to Los Angeles and New Orleans, you've spent a lot of time in Italy over the past few years. What attracted you?
Greg Dulli: I've always loved going there. When the Whigs started playing there, we actually did really well, and then when I started The Twilight Singers, we played there with this group, Afterhours, who are one of the biggest rock bands in Italy, if not the biggest. I became really good friends with them. They asked me to produce their record, so I did, and then I ended up joining their live band, so I just kind of moved over there for a while. Playing with them and being a side guy in their band was probably one of the more liberating moments I've had in music.
AVC: Why's that?
GD: Because I didn't have to be the guy, you know? I didn't have to be the focus guy, and by concentrating on playing, I think I upped my guitar skills considerably by just playing the shredder role. I played guitar and I sang and I played piano. They would push me out there at the end of the night, and I would sing a song in Italian.
AVC: Your bio mentions that when you started the new Twilight Singers record two years ago, you'd been in a "drug haze" for seven years, but when we spoke in 2000, it seemed like you had just been through a drug haze and were pretty clean. Was there some sort of relapse?
GD: I think what happened was the tour that I did on the first Twilight record. I hated it. I'm an enormously oversensitive person, and I just kind of stopped playing music after that tour. I stopped playing music for about a year and a half, and then when I started playing again, a very dear friend of mine passed away, and I just probably excused myself into oblivion after that. Whether it was a relapse or just a continuation of the self-destructive streak that I've had running through me since I was a boy, I don't know. A couple of the songs on this record are from that era, and then I stopped. And I've been clean for two years now.
AVC: So when we talked on that tour, were you clean?
GD: No. And if I told you I was, I was lying to you.
AVC: It was obvious that you had passed through a dark period in your life, and things seemed a bit more celebratory for you, especially around the time you made 1965 with the Whigs.
GD: They were. And honestly, I'm not going to portray my years of drug use as all darkness, because they weren't. In particular, that 1965 period was fun. It was like the Stones' 1972 tour. It wasn't like, "Oh, I've gotta do drugs to kill my pain." It was, "I want to do drugs so I can stay up and see every fun thing I can possibly see." I had to, at some point, kind of reconcile why I was doing drugs, and why I did them all day long, and for days on end, and it became kind of sad to me. I felt terrible and I looked terrible. I was probably gonna die if I didn't stop. I'm not in a program or anything like that. I'm a very strong-willed person once I decide something, so I decided to get on with my life without a crutch. And once I made that decision, life got a little easier for me. I'm always gonna have some fucking demon crawling up the back of my leg, but I've gotten to the point where I'm firm in the decision to not let outside influences take me down. Outside or inside, for that matter. I want to play music probably more than I ever have wanted to, and the best way for me to do that is to live an honest life. Not like being honest with you, being honest with myself. So I'd be shocked if I ever went back to that, because I think there's really only one way for me to go. I clearly am not a moderate person, so I have to learn what's good and what's bad. You know, I still have a couple drinks. I smoke a doobie now and again. But the Class A's, they had to go.
AVC: Many people around you have had drug problems—why are you attracted to those kinds of people?
GD: I'll put it to you this way: When I was a kid, and when I started to read William Burroughs or Hunter Thompson or listen to the Velvets or the Stones and read Creem magazine about Keith Richards and shit like that, I couldn't wait to do drugs, and I couldn't wait to do all of them. And then I went and did it. I started doing drugs when I was 14. I'm thinking it's probably been some sort of warped fascination for me from an early age, and I don't think I'm the first or last person to have that warped fascination. And it would stand to reason that I'm probably going to come across other people who have a similar fascination. Especially in the line of work that I'm in, it's a common travail. I think you do what you do and you like who you like, and then at some point in your life, you have decisions to make. I'm not an anti-drug person, and I would never tell anyone not to take drugs. I don't tell anybody not to do anything. Don't fuck children, don't murder people, and don't illegally invade Iraq—those are some of the things off the top of my head that I would say "Don't do." But the rest is up to the individual to choose to experience or not experience. I've been asked before if I have regrets—I have none. I did what I did, and now I do what I do, and it's really that simple.
AVC: What happened on that initial Twilight Singers tour that made you stop playing music?
GD: It was a thrown-together band, and outside of Michael Horrigan, who I played with in the Whigs, it was an unpleasant experience with people that I didn't know very well. Strange egos emerging that I'm like, "Where the fuck are you coming from?" I've always said about bands: You've gotta have a leader, but everyone has to be in for the experience, and you have to let yourself go with that. There were members of that party that were not allowing that to happen, and it just broke my heart, and I wanted nothing to do with that again. So when I decided to play again, I played around L.A. and New Orleans, and just did it casually. I jammed with people with no expectations, until I got around people that I could trust. And when I had built a record and was ready to tour it, I knew exactly who to go to, and I knew that I would get along with those people, and I was correct.
AVC: So who exactly is in The Twilight Singers?
GD: I saw this quote by Mark E. Smith years ago where somebody was asking him about The Fall, and who was The Fall, and who was in The Fall. And he said, "If it's me and your grandma playing bongos, it's The Fall." And I thought that was the greatest thing I ever saw. So, to paraphrase Mark E. Smith, "If it's me and your grandma playing bongos, it's The Twilight Singers."
AVC: The lineup shifts with each record.
GD: They do shift, but if someone drew something up, at least as far as the players go, it's probably like a 10-person pool that I use. There are commonalities on the last three records: Blackberry Belle, She Loves You, and Powder Burns. If you were to look at who played on those three records, it's about 10 guys, and they all know each other, and I know them. I've had to swap guys out based on their availability and shit like that, but for the most part, everybody knows the deal. The Afghan Whigs, we met when we were teenagers, and when you're a teenager, you have that kind of gang mentality when you get together. I mean, I was with John and Rick for 15 years. As you move on in life, you're probably not gonna have that same sort of connection with people, you know? I'm amazed at how Nick Cave has been able to keep a band for as long as he has, even though now he's started to swap guys out, and Blixa [Bargeld]'s not in the band any more. Things happen in life that, as you get older, you have to get a little bit more real. Especially in L.A., there's a lot of mercenary musicians who are just sort of like, "What can you do for me? What do I get out of this?" And I'm like, "You know what you get, dude? You get the door."
AVC: When the Whigs broke up following that Twilight Singers tour, it seemed safe to assume that you had decided to concentrate on the Singers, but it sounds like you weren't really interested in doing music at all.
GD: You're the first person I've ever told this, but The Afghan Whigs broke up before that Twilight tour. The three of us decided not to say anything so that I wouldn't have to go answering questions while I was out on that tour.
So as soon as that tour was over, that's when we said it. But we had actually ended it in October and then announced it in February.
AVC: On the last Whigs record, it sounded like you guys were still pretty inspired, which made the breakup surprising.
GD: For 1965, we got together in New Orleans—it was like the first time since probably Congregation that we actually sat in the room and hammered it all out together as a unit, rather than people flying in and rehearsing for a week and then leaving. It was a really organic situation. We all lived in a house together, and it was very family-like. After that tour, John had a kid, Rick moved to Minneapolis with his girlfriend, and I stayed in New Orleans. When it came time to work on a record again, John didn't want to split from his family, so Rick and I were obliged to come to Cincinnati, which we had both left. Nothing against the town, but we didn't want to live there. And we were put in a situation where we had to go there and act like we wanted to be there for a long period of time, and we didn't. That made it really hard to let go and make a record. There's four or five songs that we cut that have never come out, and two of them are great. At that point, everybody kind of just wanted to do their own thing. We have such a great love and respect for each other that it probably started a conversation between me and John—like John saying, "Hey, how you doing? Are you comfortable?" And I was like, "Not really." [Laughs.] And then it just got really honest really fast, and it became easy to make that decision at that point. You had to look at the long term, and if it wasn't gonna go for 10 more years, then it should probably end now.
AVC: Powder Burns is the first record you've made while clean. What was that like?
GD: A very pleasant experience. It's just anther signpost down the road I continue to walk down. I'm proud of all the records I've done. Some more proud than others, but it's just a new record in a new day, and it's a reaction to whatever I'm experiencing at the time. At this particular time, I'm experiencing clarity and lucidity, and I like it. One day I won't have to talk about this any more. It'll just be something that I did and don't do any more.
AVC: As usual, the new album is autobiographical, but this time things seem a bit more abstract.
GD: It's actually extremely abstract—it was a nice way to write instead of "I, me, mine," you know what I mean? I could invent personas and travel through different psyches. The people singing in all those songs, they're not all me. Sometimes I'm singing in character, and I've sang in character on Black Love, I sang in character on Gentlemen, I sang in character on Blackberry Belle. The ones where I end and the other guy begins, I can't exactly tell you that, and if I did know, I still wouldn't tell you, because that's cheating the listener of the mystery and magic of music, which is the most special thing of all to me. The abstraction is purposeful, and it allows me to stand back and have some perspective from myself, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. "Forty Dollars"—that's not me. That's a combination of a couple people I know that I pushed together and made into this crazy character with a crazy voice. I've never sung in that particular voice before, and by doing that, I was like, "Wow, who's that guy?" And then I could see who it was based on words I used and some flat-out stolen phrases that I remember them saying. So that was liberating.
AVC: What is that song about?
GD: It's a New Orleans thing. There's a couple dealers down there, and because of the undercover cops that run the nighttime bars, code words are used. "Love" is cocaine. "Love" costs $40. And "She loves you," "Love is all you need," that's all code.
AVC: What are some of Powder Burns' general themes?
GD: Alienation and reconciliation are two of the things that come up—until I finished it, I didn't really put together the fact that I was probably paralleling my personal experience with what happened after the levees broke in New Orleans. I think that's the reconciliation. There's a parallel between destruction and redemption, and a renaissance of sorts. It is my belief that I am experiencing one. Not a musical one as much as a personal one. I think the city of New Orleans is in a similar situation.
AVC: You made a point of going back to New Orleans after the hurricane to complete Powder Burns. If, at the time, you didn't know you were drawing a parallel, why did you feel compelled to finish it there?
GD: New Orleans has given me so much as a person and as an artist that she deserves my loyalty in her time of need. I was on the first plane that they let back into the airport. By that time, the hurricane had been relegated to the back pages and it was being swept under the rug, and I was not going to allow that to happen. I wanted to see what happened, and I wanted to see if I could help in any way, and believe me, I had brooms and chainsaws and fuckin' whatever it took in my hands to help other people out. It needed life. It needed people to help it along. If your friend gets knocked down, you help him or her up, and New Orleans got knocked down. It was not even a question for me whether I was gonna be there. I was going to be there. I knew I was gonna be there, and it was not the easiest of conditions to finish: a 24-hour city relegated to a 2 a.m. curfew with the National Guard patrolling and police bored, looking for people to pick on. No hot water. It was horrible, but there was something really beautiful about the community that came together underneath those conditions, and I ended up getting lifted up by the beauty of it. The final song that we did is the final song on the record, and not to give anything away, but that song is clearly about New Orleans, and it is sung to New Orleans. Even some of the sonics—the scratching at the end before the explosion happens, I remember we were talking about what it sounded like when the levees broke, and I think I was trying to conjure that.