Greg Dulli has a reputation that makes men want to fight him and women want to express their devotion, sometimes with such single-mindedness that he’s had to call the police. By translating his romantic bravado into dark tales of dissolution and passion, crooned with sexy verve over tough guitars and R&B flashes, Dulli helped his former band, the Afghan Whigs, become the alt-rock darlings of the mid-’90s. But he had his share of detractors, too, thanks to an unapologetic lifestyle steeped in heavy drinking, drug addiction, bar fights, and a tendency to speak his mind.
“I’m kind of a polarizing figure,” Dulli says by phone, his deep voice roughened by a cold during a Chicago tour stop with his new project, the Twilight Singers. “There’s really not a whole lot of middle ground.”
Worn down by the time the band split amicably in 2000, Dulli was sick of traveling and tired of feeling as if he were public property. He retreated to Los Angeles, bought a bar, and served drinks for two years without looking back. “I had begun to dread [performing],” he said. “That’s no way to be to yourself, or to the people who pay to see you play. I’m nothing if not sincere. I can’t go up and fake it.”
Dulli is certainly not faking anything on his new album, “Blackberry Belle,” written after film producer/director Ted Demme, a close friend, died suddenly last year. After receiving the news, Dulli shelved a completed album, also recorded with the Twilight Singers, and set out to express his loss. He thinks he has succeeded. The album is moody and beautiful yet tough, with Dulli’s raw vocals brooding over swooning strings, elegiac organ, and strutting guitar. “[Demme] was a fan of my cinematic style of songwriting and album-making,” Dulli said. “I think I gave him a widescreen version of what I felt he meant to me in my life, and what his loss meant to me. And it was devastating.”
Although Dulli suggests that some people may be surprised to hear him express his sensitive side, his emotions are tempered with a bold confidence, and the battle between the two fuels his music.
For longtime associate and friend David Katznelson, who co-released “Blackberry Belle” on his independent label Birdman Records, it is Dulli’s vivid evocation of lust for living that makes his music so beguiling.
“It hits people so hard because its coming from a pure place and from a person who loves living life,” Katznelson said.
Dulli, who has a survivor’s pride in the armor that has protected him personally and publicly, has been thinking recently about the suicide of songwriter Elliott Smith, a former customer at Dulli’s bar. It’s the five minutes before the act of suicide that haunts Dulli, which he imagines as “the absolute depth of loneliness.” More than armor, Dulli has found his protection against the pressures of demons and expectations in the people who surround him. Dulli’s army consists of his musical collaborators, most recently close friend and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, with whom he sings “Number Nine” on the new album. The creeping ballad, which Dulli describes as the country gothic equivalent of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” finds his soul-singer wail encircling Lanegan’s foggy baritone.
Plus, there are the good friends who comprise the Twilight Singers, particularly guitarist/bassist/producer Mike Napolitano and guitarist/organist Mathias Schneeberger, who is part of the stripped-down, five-piece version of the band that plays T. T. the Bear’s tonight.
Dulli is not trying to translate the album’s lush, layered sound live, but is aiming for a new take on the songs. “I’m more in line with the Miles Davis school of you make the record you make in the studio, and you do the show you do onstage,” he says.
Since returning from his two-year break, Dulli has been writing steadily. He has many songs from the album before “Blackberry Belle” that haven’t been released and songs left over from this project, but he makes no promises he’ll revisit them on his next album. “I tend to like the girl that I meet tomorrow,” he says, “better than the one I knew a month ago.”