|Photo by Chris Cuffaro|
“The pre-production for Blackberry Belle was basically digging myself out of . . .” Greg Dulli stammers, trailing off. “I was really, really, really sad. And it was probably an exploration of my sadness.”
The former Afghan Whigs front man is talking about the third sort-of-solo album he’s made with a transient group of enablers he calls the Twilight Singers. The first, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, came out in September of 2000. Dulli recorded it in New Orleans during the protracted late-’90s dissolution of the Whigs, a Cincinnati-based outfit who over six albums methodically sexed up lily-white American college-rock by swirling in Motor City trash-pop licks and foregrounding Dulli’s louche loverman shtick. When he finished tracking Twilight’s tunes, Dulli gave the tapes to English hard-drive maestros Fila Brazillia to fuck with, which resulted in a clammy lounge-soul elegance that still sounds unique today. “I wanted cold stainless-steel precision,” Dulli says of F.B.’s involvement, “the kind of shit that I hear on rap records. I think I needed to temper some of my mania with the HAL 9000.”
Dulli recorded Blackberry Belle last October at studios in New Orleans, Memphis and L.A. — where he currently rents a Silver Lake apartment, and where he picked up current collaborators like ex–That Dog violinist Petra Haden and former Prince princess Apollonia Kotero. Belle is less svelte than the debut, more crusted with the Whigs’ cranky morning-after blues; if Twilight scored a thousand lowly lit after-
parties, Belle soundtracks the lonely drive from the after-party to anywhere-but-home.
The Singers’ second record is called Amber Headlights, but I’ve never heard it, and unless you’re tight with the singer, you probably haven’t either: Culled from a burst of writing Dulli says he experienced after moving from Seattle to L.A. in 1999 — the sun shook him out of a cloud-covered funk, he figures — Amber is “a complete 12-song full-on rock record” he was readying for release when his close friend Ted Demme died unexpectedly during a 2002 charity basketball game here.
“My life kind of changed after he died,” Dulli explains, “and I couldn’t put out Amber Headlights saying, ‘This is me, this is how I’m feeling now.’ So I scrapped it and started from scratch. I didn’t keep one song.”
Sadness unquestionably flavors Blackberry Belle’s juice. It’s familiar emotional territory, since what redeemed Dulli’s Lothario act as a Whig was his thirst for self-flagellation: “Tonight I go to hell for what I’ve done to you,” he growled in “Debonair,” a cut from the band’s ’93 disc, Gentlemen. Unlike most of his college-rock contemporaries, Dulli didn’t present himself as a respite from Me Generation abuse; he just promised to show up on your lawn the next day in tears and without a shirt. Belle opens as forbiddingly, Dulli instructing, “Black out the windows, it’s party time” over a downward
spiral of after-hours piano and pins-and-needles guitar. Then he gives in to rivers as dark as night, bleary-eyed dusk-to-dawn drives, and
car wrecks where it looks fun to die. Yet as bleak as this stuff gets, Dulli keeps his bad trip compelling by resisting an easy nihilism — even when he catches “a fever, a holy fire” in “The Killer,” he can’t stop looking for a way out of the pain. It’s an exit that the music’s blasted
lost-highway beauty keeps tantalizingly
How does Amber Headlights compare to Blackberry Belle in terms of Dulli’s signature melancholy? “It was emotional in a kind of sexual way,” he says, “but it was more of a horndogger, as they say.” He laughs. As to Belle, “I can tell you this: I certainly have written about heartbreak, but this was not about a girl, you know? I mean, this was one of my best friends, and that’s sort of a different kind of heartbreak. Girls come and go, but your friends are always there, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t there; part of my heart will always be broken about that. But it was kind of like, ‘Wow, I need to honor him and figure out what this loss is to me and what it’s done to me.’”
The Twilight Singers play the Troubadour on Wednesday, April 14.