Former Afghan Whigs front man and part-time New Orleanian Greg Dulli is one whose heyday shined so brightly that the rest of his life’s output might inevitably seem less important. Dulli may not produce as many perfect songs as back when Sub Pop Records signed the Afghan Whigs as the label’s first non-Seattle band—his masterpiece remains his simultaneously tender and macho major-label debut, Gentlemen. But the new Powder Burns, by his Twilight Singers, features some of Dulli’s strongest successes.
Powder Burns’ slamdunks don’t come during the Whigs-ish, bashing rock crescendos. Dulli’s trademark vocal strain (courtesy of Camel cigarettes) now seems to symbolize tough emotion. Calm, melodic vocals, mysterious ambient sound and far away breakbeats (courtesy of New Orleans producer Mic Napolitano) elevate Dulli’s familiar lyrical fixations to fresh greatness. When he finally ditches the guitar and his rasp altogether for “Candy Cane Crawl,” and fellow semi-New Orleanian Ani DiFranco layers softly bizarre backing vox, Dulli finds a whole new perfection. On Powder Burns, the less Dulli sounds like the Whigs, the stronger his creativity and emotional impact are.
OffBeat spoke with Greg Dulli about Powder Burns, curfew dodging and “class A’s” in New Orleans, and the Twilight Singers’ upcoming performance at One Eyed Jacks on June 7.
How did you compose the new songs? It doesn’t sound like you sat down with a guitar.
I usually start with a beat. I’d start on the Rhodes with a loop. Mic [Napolitano] is really, really good at making loops. This is my third, maybe fourth record with Mic. But this is different than Blackberry Belle, which was also done in New Orleans. That one was just me and Mic in a room, then we would call in other guys once we’d built a skeleton of a track. This one was a little more live. There was a rhythm section there with me in an apartment above Checkpoint Charlie’s, where you have to watch out for the bleed from the, uh, magnificent music coming from underneath.
Going into the album, did you intend to make different music? Do you care about mining yourself for ideas?
I do. But it happens accidentally. On [Powder Burns’ lead track, ‘I’m Ready’] in particular, I wrote and laid down the guitar, drum machine and synth in Italy after listening to Evil Heat by Primal Scream for about a month solid. The guitar sounds cold. I wanted the song to sound kind of detached, kind of like how you are when you’re, uh…doing Class A drugs. I loved that sound. I’d stumbled onto some kind of fresh sound for me. Trying to reproduce or re-record it in New Orleans and make it sound warmer would’ve defeated the purpose. I make records in New Orleans, but not New Orleans-sounding records.
Your press kit says that while your music evolves, lyrically you’re still exploring themes of self-loathing, self-love and guilt. Are you actually “exploring the same themes” or just making the same decisions and mistakes, and having the same life regrets?
I don’t think any of that is true. I’m a constant, yet slowly evolving individual. Am I the same guy I was when I was 27? No. And I don’t think I sound like that guy either. This record in particular, I’ve certainly come to some conclusions in my life and am passing them on.The last thing I’m going to do is preach. And if I had learned to moderate and behave myself a little more, I might not be in the position I am now; but I will say that New Orleans hastened my way down that road.
When did you first move here?
1997. I rented Peter Buck’s house in the Marigny.
Why did you first move here? Was it just a great tour stop?
I’ll say this. New Orleans was not the greatest tour stop at first. Ask any New Orleans rock band, they’re all up against it, with the tourist industry. Everybody wants to hear brass, and there’s just so much going on down there.
But I willed it to be a good tour stop. I came there the first time in ’88, then around ’90 I hooked up with a girl down there. So I started going there all the time. She worked at The Dungeon and, uh, [laughs] that was kind of my hang for a while.
I heard you initially moved away because New Orleans had its way with you? How do you pull off living here now? Please advise the thousands of New Orleanians who haven’t figured that trick out.
Well, what I had to do was to, well…uh…cut out some of the more damaging aspects of my…uh…extracurricular life.
You mean certain drugs.
The Class A’s were the first to go. That allowed me to keep drinking and smoking weed. Once I cut out the Class A’s—it financially killed a couple guys, but…(laughs) I’m a much more happier, wealthier and well-rested human being. Scully [from Morning Forty Federation, whose recent liner notes Dulli penned] asked me “When do you know when you’re ready to quit?” I told him, “Dude, you know. Because there’s nowhere else to go. It’s going to be a painful and dark, scary place when that day comes, and I feel for you when you get there. Just start swimming upward immediately.”
And New Orleans right now is the worst place in the world to be if you’re in a position to be asking yourself whether you should quit hard drugs.
Yeah, I’ve talked to a few people down there—it’s become a culture in itself. And I don’t want to say where exactly it goes down. I don’t want to be outing any establishments but…let’s just say that when I walk home through the Quarter, if I’m a little too, uh, tempted, I take Chartres Street. (laughs) I do Royal.
You split your time now between here and the other LA.
I usually come to New Orleans in the summer.
In black long sleeves and all…
I have short black sleeves [laughsAnd Halloween ending at 2 a.m.!
Not since the Civil War! But I still got home at 5 a.m. on Halloween. I just said fuck it, I didn’t care. Corey [from One Eyed Jacks] and I went out to Metairie, which didn’t have a curfew. But then we had to come back into New Orleans the back way, through St Bernard. We had to kill the headlights a couple times so the cops wouldn’t see us. They were the last people we wanted to talk to, coming home at 6 a.m. But I drank with some of the National Guard though, at One Eyed Jacks. They would come down to the after hours jams we were having at One Eyed Jacks.
Last time y’all played at One Eyed Jacks, I don’t remember any electronics at all.
The live band covers my material. Using electronics live gets too tricky for me, or I’m just too lazy. We actually did have programming on the first record and brought that with us on tour, a lot of triggers and MIDI action. But to me, it was holding back the surge that you want to have live. When you’re locked in with a machine, you can’t go anywhere, so that’s why I, uh…kicked the drum machine out of the live band. But not the studio band.
Do you bring lots of singers with you to replicate the layers?
Everyone in the band sings, but they’re having to cover the Joe Arthur parts. We spent two days with the live band just nailing the Joe Arthur parts. Hopefully Ani DiFranco will get up and sing with us in New Orleans, so we’ll dodge that bullet.
We’re also going to shoot the show. Rio [Hackford, One Eyed Jacks co-owner, and son of Oscar-winning director, Taylor Hackford] is directing it. I know he’s done all the Supagroup videos, and a couple other ones, but I think this is the first show he’s directing. I can only hope it’s good.
So, you’re known to slip a lot of, not really covers but musical appropriations into your live shows.
So, I’m just guessing: you’re gonna learn that Gnarls Barkley song, aren’t you?
You know I am dude! [laughs] We got it down and it’s already in the show! You’re the only one to ask me that, Michael!