Greg Dulli Looks Back On His Days As a Twilight Singer

The consummate frontman helps celebrate the release of a new boxed set compiling the work of his genre fluid project, the Twilight Singers.

Music Features The Twilight Singers
Greg Dulli Looks Back On His Days As a Twilight Singer

When Greg Dulli started making music on his own, it was meant solely as a way to scratch his continued creative itches while his main gig fronting the Afghan Whigs was on pause, stuck as they were in a dispute with their then-record label. That work got put to the side when the conflict subsided and the Whigs were able to release the album 1965. And when that group decided to part ways at the start of the new millennium, Dulli was able to pick up right where he left off, taking his nascent solo material to the studio of British electronic duo Fila Brazillia and emerging with an album of firelit torch songs that allowed the songwriter to sink his claws even more firmly into his soul / R&B influences.

Thus began the 11 year odyssey Dulli undertook as the leader of the Twilight Singers, a fluid ensemble with an ever-changing lineup that released five full-length albums of mood music that followed no set pathway nor confined itself to any single genre. If it felt right, the band was going to do it, and do it well. In that same manner, the group ballooned and shrunk as necessary. Guests like Ani DiFranco, Joseph Arthur, the late Mark Lanegan, former Prince protege Apollonia and saxophonist Kamasi Washington were invited into the party, sticking around for either one drink or, in the case of Lanegan who was a vital presence throughout the group’s discography and touring history, closing the bar down.

The work that the Twilight Singers imparted upon the world has now been collected in one place, a new boxed set entitled Black Out the Windows/Ladies and Gentlemen, the Twilight Singers. The 13-disc vinyl collection includes remastered editions of the group’s albums and a bonus disc that includes some rarer material like the Singers’ covers of “When Doves Cry” (which features some fantastic guest vocals from Apollonia) and “Paper Thin Hotel,” a track originally recorded by Leonard Cohen for his wild Phil Spector-produced album Death of a Ladies Man. With these records comes a wonderful booklet in which collaborators and fans like Lanegan, producer Dave Katznelson, Duff McKagan and Scott Ford extol the virtues of the music while also providing a rough history of the group’s inception and weaving trajectory through the world.

In advance of this set’s release, I caught up with Dulli as he traversed the streets of L.A. on the way to Pilates class to discuss the development of the Singers, the “uneasy period” that resulted in one of the group’s strongest albums and his love of Leonard Cohen. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Paste: How does it feel to have this one corner of your career anthologized like this?

Greg Dulli: It’s one of my favorite projects that I’ve never done. Christopher {Friedman], my design partner, and I put a lot of work into making it look special. We remastered all the records and found a bunch of rarities. There’s probably four never heard before songs on there. So it’s got everything.

It seems like this was a long time coming. The blurb in the set from Mark Lanegan is from three years ago.

We were working on it, and then recording work would start up and it would get out of line. I was working on probably a Whigs record or my solo record, and whenever I get into that mode, stuff gets put by the wayside. So when I finished the last Whigs tour, that’s when I made sure I cleared the decks to get it done. I did not know I would be saving one for Mark, as it were.

When the Twilight Singers started, it sounds like you were almost kind of starting from scratch in a way. Touring in vans and playing in smaller venues. Was that an exciting place to return to at that time?

Well, I wouldn’t say exciting, but I would say bracing and humbling and “How bad do you want to do this?” Then I found out I did want to do it very badly. So much so that I built it up into its own thing with its own box set. [laughs]

According to the essay from Dave Katznelson in this set, at the time the Singers got underway you were “living a crazed Los Angeles lifestyle” at the time. Do you confirm or deny that?

It depends on your definition of crazy. I was a bon vivant as they say in France.

At the beginning you brought in a lot of great L.A. session players and friends you’ve known for a long time. Did you always envision this becoming a steady band with a regular lineup or did you want it to be more free-flowing so people could come and go as they pleased?

I liked that it could take on a different personality based on the personalities involved. But obviously when you want to play shows, it helps that you get a steady or semi-steady band if only so you don’t have to keep fucking re-learning the songs to play them live. I gotta tell you, not in any kind of present situation, but I have kept people out of sheer laziness.

I asked that because I wonder if there was any frustration with people simply referring to it as a “side project” of yours?

I mean, it’s interesting because it started out as a side project and then the project that made it the side project disappeared, turning it into the main project. It was done because I wanted to try a different style of music and play with different people. I still enjoyed playing with my band. But that band only lasted one more record and then we were done. At least for a dozen years or so.

As the project began, the first Singers record was produced by Fila Brazillia. How did you get to know those guys and work with them?

I was doing a movie called Monument Avenue and Jason Barry, an actor in the movie, was an Irish guy and he was playing a lot of European dance music. I heard this song called “Subtle Body,” which I really loved. Then I heard the rest of their music and I just found their number and called them. They said, “Come on over.”

As the story goes, you were working on the album that would become your solo album Amber Headlights, and you set that aside following the death of your friend Ted Demme. Why did you feel that it was necessary to put those songs aside and start over? Was it simply to give yourself time to process the loss?

They were kind of party songs, probably a product of the “crazed L.A. lifestyle,” and it felt inappropriate to me at the time to be putting out a party record when I felt anything less than a party. Which is interesting because the first line of the record that came out [2003’s Blackberry Belle] is, “Black out the windows / it’s party time.” I was commenting on the situation right off the bat.

It’s also notable that you got Apollonia to add her voice to a couple of songs. Being such a huge Prince fan, how was it to work with someone who was part of his circle?

It was thrilling. She was a trooper. My friend Steve Myers met her at a party and said, “You gotta meet my friend Greg,” and I got her number. I knew what songs to put her on. She was such a champ that we later did a cover of “When Doves Cry” together.

When it comes to what was essentially the third Singers record, She Loves You, the covers album, I feel like a lot of artists who get to that point go back to the songs that influenced them as they were coming up, but you took a much different approach covering songs that were much more recent. Was that a deliberate move or were you just capturing what was moving you at the time?

I was capturing what was moving me at the time. The first cover that I did with that version of Twilight Singers was “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” You probably couldn’t find an older song, but I had been trying to figure out how to play that song since the ’90s. And I finally unlocked it and got it done. So that song we were playing on that tour, and some songs were just what I was listening to. I really loved the Martina Topley-Bird song, in particular. That one became a main song for us. I think by doing that one, that kind of became the lead dog, if you know what I mean. And I loved the Hope Sandoval song. So it was definitely “What I am listening to now.” The Mary J. Blige song was not that old. We were playing most of them live, too, so it was pretty organic.

Jumping to the next record, Powder Burns, there were some press notes for this one that talked about you coming out of a long stretch of drug abuse and you trying to, as you put it, “get your shit together.” Is this period as hazy as it sounds?

I have kind of a really scary memory. I’ve been able to remember way back into my childhood even. So Powder Burns was not the hazy period. Powder Burns was the uneasy period. It was a comment on the hazy period. Powder Burns was very clean and attentive. It’s the observational album. The look back and the look forward as it were.

Between the last two Twilight Singers albums, there was a bit of a long stretch of time. I know that was taken up with you traveling a lot, working with Mark on the Gutter Twins and some solo work. But did you always have it in mind to return to the Singers?

Yeah, I mean that was my gig. That’s what I liked. Mark joined the Twilight Singers for the Powder Burns album and did almost all the shows. So the Gutter Twins was Mark’s version of the Twilight Singers. Because the Twilight Singers were the backing band pretty much. I just look at it as a continuation with a different name. And, obviously, a much more even Steven creative approach with Mark, which was always thrilling for me.

You’ve always seemed like someone who follows where the muse leads. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of deliberation on your part.

I just kind of react to the moment. For instance, when I did the solo album a couple of years ago, I had no plans to do a solo album. I love being in a band and playing with the band. But everybody else had something to do, so I was like, “I’ll do my own thing, too.” I love to play with my friends, and I love it when I get a hot band. When you got one, you hold on as long as you can. Surf the wave as long as you can, and if something in the wave changes, you react to that.

Going through the set, you included a cover of one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs from one of his most maligned albums, Death of a Ladies Man. In my mind, it makes perfect sense that you would like that song as it feels like you could really relate to where Leonard’s head was when he was making that record.

I mean, I’m a huge fan of Leonard Cohen. Many people don’t know this, but I actually wrote the one-sheet for his album The Future. Columbia or Sony got a bunch of artists to cover Leonard’s songs in the lead up to one of his later records. When they asked me, I was like, “Absolutely, and I know exactly what song I want to do.” I love the words to that song. They’re so Leonard, but they’re so relatable. If you’ve ever been in love, or any kind of unrequited love, it just bathes it in light, you know?

It’s been a few years since the Singers were a going concern, and you’ve been busy with the Whigs again and solo material. Is this a project you ever see yourself returning to at some point? Or do you feel like this set puts a period at the end of that sentence?

I never want to say anything… I did that a long time ago, saying “That’s that.” I don’t have any immediate plans for it, but never say never, right? But I will say that it’s one of my favorite creative projects I’ve ever done. I loved it with all my heart. I met so many cool people who are still my friends. That project changed my life for the better.

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