Greg Dulli is alt-rock’s suave raconteur — and he has plenty real-life stories for fodder.
He rose to fame during the grunge era as the frontman of Afghan Whigs, the first non-Northwest band to sign to Sub Pop; he was the singing voice of John Lennon in the 1994 film Backbeat, recording classic rock’n’roll songs in a band with Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl, and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, among others; he was nearly beaten to death after a show in Austin, TX, in 1998, when two men took a baseball bat to his skull; he battled, then conquered, a debilitating addiction to cocaine; he lived in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina, one of the few residents remaining amidst Wild West-style looting and shootouts, but one who reinvested in the city’s future.
Conversely, he’s also key in the hipster gentrification of Los Angeles’ eastside Echo Park ‘hood (his second home base), where he was an early investor in a down-and-out bar where he shot pool (he now owns three in the area, plus one in NOLA).
Dulli, now 45, has certainly experienced a lot over his 20-year-plus career. And on Dynamite Steps (out February 15), his fifth album under as the Twilight Singers, the project he started after the Whigs’ 2001 split, his life has taken on a cinematic feel: “My lyrics are very impressionistic and [my] songs sound like a movie. When I hear them, I think, ‘Wow, I don’t know what’s going on or what that’s about, but I’d like to be a part of it!'” (Hear a song from the new album.)
Here, Dulli talks about Dynamite Steps; his other project with his longtime pal Mark Lanegan, the Gutter Twins; Twitter; Kanye West; and two of his favorite hobbies: playing basketball and watching movies.
You’re a big basketball fan. Where do you play?
I play pick-up games at the YMCA. I was in a league for a couple years until I started getting worked over by the kids [laughs]. Actually, I went to the Clippers vs. Timberwolves game the other night with Mark Lanegan. We sat next to Donald Sterling, the owner of the Clippers who is this maligned guy in L.A. He’s known as the worst owner in sports — all sports [laughs]. We talked to him all night.
About what a rip off [point guard] Baron Davis is [laughs]. He’s lazy! He signed this big contract but never came to play! We also talked about how special [21-year-old power forward] Blake Griffin and [22-year-old shooting guard] Eric Gordon are now, and are going to continue to be. The Clippers will probably get a good draft pick again this year and then they’ll have an excellent, young core. We were brutally honest with him. I’ve been a frustrated Clippers fan for over a decade and I let him know all my problems. But I forgot to get his number and so he could get us floor seats!
So, the new Twilight Singers album — what sets this release apart from the rest of your catalogue?
It has more of a full band feel than the other Twilight Singers records. I’d have to go back 11 or 12 years to my former band Afghan Whigs to have a remotely comparable situation. [Bassist] Scott Ford and [guitarist] Dave Rosser are both on almost every song and were with me in the studio recording. I’ve been going it alone for most of the decade. But this time it’s a consistent group of people and that lends the music a sense of cohesion.
The album features lots of guest collaborators…
Yeah. It’s my rogue gallery of go-to people — Ani DiFranco, Joseph Arthur, Petra Haden, Mark Lanegan. The only person I haven’t played with before is Nick McCabe [guitarist for the Verve], who I still haven’t met in person. We’ve spoken on the phone numerous times, though.
Artists collaborate via email all the time. But does that make writing and recording music, which is usually intimate process, less so?
No. Yesterday I rehearsed on Skype! I’m working on a new song and the string player is in New Orleans. I played piano in Los Angeles and he played violin in New Orleans. We did our business for an hour, hung up, and that cost us exactly zero dollars. In the past, I’d have to fly out there. Or fly over to England and drive to Nick McCabe’s house to do the song. Nick was great. I gave him absolutely no direction. I’m not going to tell Nick McCabe what to do; as a fan of his I know what Nick McCabe can do. He fucking nailed it. I think he’s one of the best guitar players. Who wouldn’t want that?
Your lyrics are very impressionistic.
With the songs I’m writing now, unless there was some event in my life that loomed over the proceedings, I go for the abstract. It’s like this smash-and-grab style. If I see some words in a window, I break the window, take them, and move on down the street to continue taking things out of people’s houses and cars [laughs].
And do you write these words and phrases down immediately?
No. I’m like Jay-Z in my approach — I’m big on the flow. I come up with a melody and then I freestyle in front of the mic. Then I think about what I sang and see what works. I don’t write much down. I keep it rolling around in my noggin. My songs, now more than ever, are evolving rapidly. One of the songs from this record, “Never Seen No Devil,” I had played on a solo tour, but it’s completely changed now. I turned it inside out.
What’s up with the Gutter Twins? Are you guys recording between basketball games?
Mark is working on a solo record right now. But we’re supposed to record early in the new year.
What are you looking forward to in 2011?
The new season of Breaking Bad. It was one of my favorite things of 2010. That was the best season so far and I can’t wait to see the new season. Other than that I don’t know what’s coming up. I like to be surprised. I had no idea about Animal Kingdom until four months ago. Have you seen that movie?
No. Enlighten me.
Seek it out, man. It wasn’t only one of the best movies I’ve seen of 2010 — it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen ever. It’s a gangster film. It’s a fucking masterpiece. It’s as good as Goodfellas. Jacki Weaver, who plays the mother of the gangsters, is nominated for a Golden Globe. She should get nominated for an Oscar. When you see Jacki Weaver chew out Guy Pearce, she just fucking destroys him. It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on film.
What have you been listening to lately? Any new albums you’re lovin’?
I really love this instrumental record by Mark McGuire, who plays in the band Emeralds. I loved the new Groove Armada record. I loved the new James Blackshaw record. The Gil Scot-Heron record and Budos Band and Massive Attack records. Grinderman too. I really like parts of that Kanye record.
What do you think about Kanye as a person?
He’s a talented dude. I would prefer that he comported himself with a bit more elegance. He’s a fucking train wreck and everybody likes to watch a train wreck. But when he nails a tune, he fucking nails one. That song “All of the Lights” is a masterpiece.
Do you read his Twitter? It’s hilarious.
I don’t do Twitter but I do read Dlisted. That dude keeps an eye on Kanye and tells me all I need to know. A couple of my friends and I have an email chain going about Dlisted. That guy is a phenomenal writer. His mastery of creating a visual is way off the fucking charts.
So, you’ll have a Skype jam session but not use Twitter?
Skype is private. It’s between me and the other person. I’m not involving anyone else in my shit. I’m a private dude. I’ll save my thoughts for the stage. I’m not anti-Twitter, I’m just anti-Twitter for me. You see people Twittering their whole fucking lives, including couples that Tweet at each other while they’re at the restaurant together. I’m like, “Arghh.” It’s a bunch of people staring at piece of plastic and moving their thumbs. Nobody talks to each other anymore.
More Greg Dulli on SPIN.com:
SNEAK PEEK: New Twilight Singers Track >>
REVIEW: The Twilight Singers, ‘Blackberry Belle’ >>