Greg Dulli: A rock survivor

Shootings, drug dealers and Hurricane Katrina could not stop Greg Dulli, former front man of the cult grunge band The Afghan Whigs, completing his new album. David Sinclair meets him
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Greg Dulli has survived some extreme experiences. He was once beaten to within an inch of his life by some thugs who jumped him in the men's room at a gig in Austin, Texas, where he was playing with his band, The Afghan Whigs. A couple of years later, when he went on tour with his new group, the Twilight Singers, his agent booked him into venues in Houston and Dallas. "Why aren't we playing Austin?" Dulli asked. "I didn't think you'd want to go back there," his agent replied. "Book me a show in Austin," Dulli said. "I'm not a coward."

Now 41, and putting on a bit of weight, the maverick rock star from Ohio, who rose up during the grunge era without ever quite belonging to it, exudes an unmistakable gravitas. It is late afternoon and he downs a succession of triple sambucas on the rocks and smokes heavily throughout the conversation. He is an affable companion, although you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him. "I'm a prickly pear," he admits.

But even Dulli realised he was out of his depth when he saw a man shot dead in New Orleans last year. "I was writing a script about drug dealers in New Orleans and Los Angeles," Dulli explains. "So, by way of researching the subject, I started to run with a gang of dealers, and at a certain point the line between observation and participation became dangerously blurred. I found that I liked them quite a bit, although some of the ancillary characters were not so good."

All his newfound "friends" carried guns, as did Dulli. "I pulled one a couple of times, but I never used it," Dulli says. "But I saw a guy get killed. I did not shed a tear over his passing. He raped a woman and stole money from somebody that my allegiance was clearly with. I'm not necessarily proud of it, but the right thing was done. He deserved to die."

The man who meted out the rough justice has since died, aged 56, of a heart attack. "I was hungry for a front-row view of a shadow life," Dulli says. "But that was as far as I wanted to go. That was the end of the road for me. I can tell you this because there were 400 murders in New Orleans last year, and I'm not saying which one it was."

As well as providing a fund of information for the script he was writing, Dulli's experiences at that time proved central to the making of Powder Burns, the incendiary new album by the Twilight Singers, which he is in London to talk up. "The record is told from the point of view of day three of a four-day binge," Dulli explains. "The song 'Forty Dollars' was sung almost verbatim from the dialogue that I was hearing in the group I was running with. I hope no one comes sniffing up my tree for a co-writing credit. I didn't say a lot of those things, I just wrote them down."

Another number, a ferocious rocker called "My Time (Has Come)", captures the sinister mood of "rhapsodic braggadocio", as Dulli describes it, that comes with a lifestyle where violent death is always on the cards, but the use of drugs, especially cocaine, boosts confidence to an artificial high: "Now I know that my time has run/ Yet I know that my time goes on and on/ C'mon baby let me set you free/ If you're up for it now we'll go rolling through the scenery."

As if there was not already enough drama attached to the making of the album, Dulli recorded much of it in New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina. Dulli has many ties to the city. It was where he recorded the last Afghan Whigs album and two of the previous Twilight Singers albums. And it is where the singer Mark Lanegan lives, with whom Dulli also records and performs under the name the Gutter Twins.

"I lived there for two years," Dulli says. "And it's a rich musical place for me. I write a lot of my best stuff there, and there is a gang of musicians that I can get to easily. Obviously, we talked about whether we should go back there after the hurricane, and it became pretty obvious that, even though there were obstacles, we needed to finish the album where we started it. New Orleans is near and dear to me, and to abandon a friend in her hour of need was unconscionable."

Returning to work there a month after the hurricane struck, Dulli found conditions trying, to put it mildly. With a succession of rolling blackouts, no hot water and no gas, he wrote a lot of the lyrics by candlelight and spent time hand-cranking back-up generators to get the electricity on for recording sessions to continue. Meanwhile, out on the streets, one of the most infamous, anything-goes 24-hour cities had turned into a virtual police state.

"It was the most surreal thing I've seen," Dulli says. "There was a curfew. Restaurants weren't open. You had to eat whatever was there. Gunshots going off every night. Fires starting. It was like the Wild West. It was bedlam. And yet, what I saw in terms of the resilience of the human spirit and people helping each other... New Orleans is a city of about half a million. While we were there, it was down to about 90,000 people, mostly out-of-towners, clean-up people, national guard. But there was a small network of people helping people. You had cell-phone lookouts: 'Don't go down this street.' It was almost like the pirates. And the 12-year-old boy in me found that very exciting. I felt like Huckleberry Finn."

What influence did all this turmoil have on the artistic direction of the record? "Strangely, the biggest influence it had was the hopefulness that permeates the second half of the record. The first half is claustrophobic and isolationist, but the second half veers towards the hopeful, especially the last couple of songs. In my own weird way, they are about as hopeful as I can get."

While Dulli has an advanced appetite for adventure, there is another side of him that is surprisingly responsible. Despite maintaining a successful career in the music business for 20 years, he has never made the kind of breakthrough that means he will never have to work again. And six years ago, during a lull in his musical activities, he opened a bar called The Short Stop in LA.

"For a couple of years, I devoted myself to getting my business off the ground," he says. "I was the manager and the head bartender. I did the inventory, I ordered the liquor. I packed my lunch and went to work every day. It was good for me. I liked the routine."

Dulli now owns three bars in LA and is in negotiations to buy another in New Orleans. The result is a reliable revenue stream independent of the music business. "Should I have children, they won't want for anything," he says. "And it means I don't have to pander to anyone with my music. I've never lost a record company any money or a promoter. But I certainly don't have to think about demographics or units shifted."

Dulli's freedom to cast himself so recklessly adrift, combined with his willingness to explore such extremes of the human condition has undoubtedly helped to make Powder Burns an exceptionally powerful statement.

"In terms of the arc of my recording career, this album is the strangest journey I've been on," he says. "When I listen to it, it sounds like someone else's life. I seem to have always lived a complicated life and I got to underline it multiple times in this particular case."

Did he worry that in living "someone else's life", the original Greg Dulli would disappear for ever? "I think I've lost myself a couple of times. But I think, as I sit here right now, I'm as clear as I've been about who I am and what I want to do. I never knew the original Greg Dulli. The original Greg Dulli is a myth. He's someone only my mother knows." And how would she describe him? "Very curious. A 12-year-old boy who is curious to the point of self-destructive."