It’s only fitting that it has started to rain as I motor east on Sunset through Echo Park to meet Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan. The two renowned troubadours of heartache and hedonistic self-destruction have recently teamed up as the Gutter Twins for an anticipated new disc called Saturnalia. I have met Dulli once before. A year ago, the two of us spent a lazy afternoon eating sloppy Joes, watching baseball and discussing the drug-fueled madness that had inspired his cathartic “cocaine symphony,” Powder Burns.
I have never met Lanegan before. My only glimpse of the man was years back on the very same stretch of Sunset near the corner of Alvarado. It was late at night when a friend gestured out my car window and spoke the singer’s name. I looked out and saw a tall and gaunt homeless-looking figure walking alone in a long coat, his head bowed.
“A great singer,” my friend said. “But he’s gonna die.”
But then Lanegan survived, flourished in fact. Both men have.
The three of us have arranged to meet at an Eastside watering hole called the Short Stop, which Dulli owns with some friends, near Dodger Stadium. Until they purchased the establishment six years back, the Shortstop was a long-standing hangout. The gun lockers are still there.
“The place is doing great,” Dulli says, as we make our way inside. “I have a new place in New Orleans too. My family owned bars back in Ohio, so this is actually a logical thing for me. My uncle Bud told me, ‘Just keep it dark so everyone looks good.’ ”
And Dulli looks good, in a sort of old-world European way — a few extra pounds, nice black suit and sharp haircut. He seems a man unapologetically in love with all that the world has to offer. We enter a private lounge that he says used to be a bail bondsmen’s office. Lanegan is there, and he is tall, with the slightly roughneck appearance of a man who might operate a carnival ride. He is also quiet, not hostile but definitely cagey. When he does speak, it’s in a raspy, cigarette-burnt whisper.
Both Dulli and Lanegan initially tasted success in the Seattle music scene of the early ’90s, alongside bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Dulli fronted an outfit called the Afghan Whigs, whose major-label debut, Gentlemen, was a pounding, soul-influenced rock album drenched with anguish and frustration. Lanegan was the brooding singer for the Screaming Trees, whose sound mixed psychedelic dirge with feedback-laden Creedence Clearwater–style rock & roll.
“We’ve played in one another’s bands and on each other’s records for a while now,” Lanegan says. “So the Gutter Twins just seemed like a natural progression.”
“I think our being friends over such a long period of time lends a degree of trust that came out in the songs,” Dulli adds. “This record really comes from our friendship as much as anything.”
After their mutual successes in the ’90s, both Dulli and Lanegan respectively self-destructed, and then resurrected themselves as, arguably, far more intriguing solo artists. Dulli has released a number of records as the Twilight Singers, including 2003’s Blackberry Belle, a brooding album inspired by the drug-related death of his close friend, the film director Ted Demme. Lanegan’s solo work has explored a stark country- and blues-infused terrain similar to that of artists like Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. His other collaborations, with a host of musicians and in a wide variety of styles, include a stint with metal pioneers Queens of the Stone Age and a record with Scottish singer Isobel Campbell of indie-rock darlings Belle and Sebastian.
“I really like working with different people,” Lanegan explains. “I’ve been blessed because they’ve all been people where I truly love what they do. Basically, it’s a great way to keep interested in music after 20-some years.”
“After you’ve done this so long, you have your way,” Dulli adds. “And unless someone comes along and challenges that way, you run the risk of being static. I think Mark made me a far better songwriter doing this record. It forced me out of the box that I might have unwittingly built for myself and helped me evolve as an artist.”
Saturnalia is undoubtedly an evolution for the two artists, though a subtle and nuanced one. Elements from each artist’s solo work remain, and to good effect. Lanegan’s brutal confessionals merge well with Dulli’s operatic and cinematic soundscapes. In the past, they have referred to themselves as the “satanic Everly Brothers,” and it’s not that far off. The pervasive moodiness is counterbalanced by a surprising amount of heartfelt vocal harmonies. Dulli also plays a lot of Fender Rhodes (think Stevie Wonder) and Mellotron (think “Strawberry Fields”), lending the affair an intriguing post-punk gospel feel. Thematically, Saturnalia talks a lot about sin, redemption and an uncertain notion of hope, which makes perfect sense given the tumultuous arc of the duo’s pasts. In the end, the sound on Saturnalia is a sort of modern soul music, albeit for very dark souls.
“This record is kind of our Once Upon a Time in America,” Dulli says. “Maybe that’s what we should have called it. I mean, it has no overarching theme, no deaf, dumb and blind kid getting thrown in baked beans by Ann-Margret. But these songs are definitely a document of our lives.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the two veteran performers are eager to start touring and playing the songs live. The band is primarily Dulli’s Twilight Singers with a few new additions. Dulli and Lanegan, both unabashed sports fans, say they have made prior arrangements to catch NBA games in every city possible.
“The two of us have done this collectively for 40 years, so you learn what works for you,” Dulli says. “We’ve already been on tour together and been roommates. So we know we can co-exist. But then there’s still a whole lot I don’t know about Mark and probably at least five or six deep, dark secrets he still doesn’t know about me.”
Lanegan shakes his head. “From everything I do know about him, I’m not sure I want to know the rest,” he says.
When asked whether they think their followings mix well, they glance at each other. “I think we have similar audiences,” Lanegan says. “I haven’t taken a poll, but I think there’s a certain connectivity. His fans might dress a little better, though.”
“Your fans are probably more glowering and somber,” Dulli says with a grin. The two of them definitely seem to complement one another as friends and collaborators. It’s an artistic pairing that makes sense in theory and even more so on record. So much that one hopes they will do it again at some point.
“I think we’ll both make our own records after this,” Dulli says. “But the Gutter Twins is not a one-off project. As long as we’re friends and enjoy writing together, then we’ll be Poncho and Lefty. Neither one of us has been a star or a superstar, but we’ve both quietly done our things for 20 years.” He smiles. “And now we have come to proclaim our eminence.”
The Gutter Twins perform at Avalon on Wed., April 2.