The new Twilight Singers album Dynamite Steps, their first in five years is an extraordinarily cohesive album in every aspect: from production to the vocals (Dulli’s own of course and also Mark Lanegan and Ani Difranco on two separate tracks), the masterful songwriting to the clever sequencing. It starts off with a sinister piano melody that morphs into a swirl of throbbing synthesier and drums. From there grunge guitar workouts (“Waves”) give way to piano balladry (“Get Lucky”), Shoegaze meets folk (“The Beginning of the End”) and punchy rock (“On the Corner”). These are all anchored of course by that remarkable voice which ranges from ragged roar to velvety tenor to strained falsetto singing of love, libido, mortality and the devil. A couple of weeks before the release I talked to Greg, a man who has seen more than his share of highs and lows in his twenty odd year career, clearly relaxed and affable, about all things dynamite and twilight, from the gutter to the (guest) stars.
Is there a narrative thread to the album, the first song is “Last Night in Town” and the penultimate song is “The Beginning of the End” and the record as a whole has quite a cinematic quality?
Well I think “The Beginning of the End” being the second to last song is a bit cheeky actually, in a good way. I looked at “Last Night in Town” as a flashback starting a movie with something that happened in the past and the second song begins in real time. I’m always loath to say what I think songs are about because whatever a record is about I like to decide what it’s about as the listener but I realise that I’m anachronistic in a hit and run world.
Ir seems to me a lot of effort went into the selection of songs and the track order for the album.
Yeah, absolutely. The sequencing was kind of key, but I had begun to sequence it as I went. By the end I knew I needed three positions filled. I needed track two (“Be Invited”), three (“Waves”) and ten (“The Beginning of the End”), so those were the last three songs that were written.
Does it bother you that in this digital age people will listen to it out of sequence?
Sure, people will just cherry pick something. I make these things for myself first with the express hope that someone else shares my enthusiasm for what I’ve done. Once it’s finished it’s out of my hands and it’s not mine anymore. I’ve had my time with it and I’ve already begun another record so I’ve kind of moved on now, but I am looking forward to playing the songs live.
So you’re not the kind of artist that gets nervous about what sort of reaction an album will get from the press and the fans.
I think this is my thirteenth record, so I’ve been lifted up and put down and everything in between. So bring it on, whatever the reaction is. I’m hoping of course that people like it and I’ve already seen some early things where people do like it but life goes on either way Caleb!
You’ve said that you’d like to be able to play all of these new songs in concert but apparently there was one song that you didn’t think you would be able to pull off.
I have yet to put the title track on the set list yet because I need to see what we can do with the other songs first so I’ll hold off on that one and see if we can pull that off. I also wonder if we can do the “Beginning of the End” that one is very produced, but it’s not out of the question. The other nine are go. They’re all on the play list.
That must be hefty list that you’ve got now?
Yes, this is our fifth record and combined with the four EPs that we’ve done and the various covers that I’ve got planned this round, there’s a wealth of material. There’s a forty song set list that I’m staring at right now. I’m not going to play forty songs every night but I’ll know forty.
So how do you select the songs? Do you have a dart board lined with song titles and throw darts?
It’s usually me and Scott Ford (bass). We sit down and we go through them and he’ll continually throw songs at me that I don’t really like and I’m like “No!”. He’s a contentious fellow, Scott is, but he keeps me honest. If I was left to my own devices, I always seem to like the songs that people don’t like as much, I like the weirder songs and I love the sad ones too.
I take it there’s no room for any Whigs songs on the set list.
I just did a six week acoustic tour and a third of the set was Whigs songs and it was really fun. That was Greg Dulli. Greg Dulli wrote all those songs — I hate that just spoke in the third person, it just made me throw up in my mouth! — Well I tell you if Scott Ford had his way we would be doing Whigs songs, but that’s just not where I’m at. Those songs get older by the day.
I’m not even going to ask about the reunion because I’ve seen your last couple of answers to that question.
(laughs) There you go.
I want to talk about two musical relationships that have lasted for quite a number of years. First of all Mr Mark Lanegan. How far back does that friendship go?
The friendship itself is probably about twelve years old, but I’ve known him for twenty-two years. We met in 1989 and then we played a couple of gigs together with our former bands, but we both ended up in Los Angeles at the same time and that’s where we started to hang out and play music together. We would just get together and play country songs and blues songs, other people’s songs, and then we wrote a couple of things together. We sing well together, and we’re really good friends. He’s one of my favourite people that I’ve ever met and one of my favourite singers that I’ve ever heard in my life.
He sings on the song “Be Invited” on the new album was that written while on tour with The Gutter Twins or afterwards?
Actually I wrote that alone and I’m playing everything except for what Mark played and what Nick McCabe (The Verve) and Rick Nelson played. I built and sang the song and then first I gave it to Nick, then Mark and then Rick Nelson who put the “Kasmir” strings on it. Then it was done. But it was originally Tommaso Colliva, a friend of mine from Italy who I worked with years ago who over in LA working with Muse and he had some time off and we went into a studio and cut that song in thirty-six hours. Then I farmed out the parts, but on the chorus I needed to bring some weight to it and there was only one person that I knew I was going to ask to bring that weight. That was Mark.
I’m assuming that at some point in the future there will be another Gutter Twins album.
Absolutely. I don’t know when it will be, Mark is making a solo record now and Mark hasn’t made a solo record in a really long time and I think me just as a fan of his I want to hear his thing, and I’ve heard a little bit of what he’s working on and it’s fucking amazing! That dude’s got the Midas touch.
You and Mark are also like minded artists in that you continually collaborate with not only each other but other musicians constantly.
I’ve met so many amazing musicians in my years of doing this and that I have the ability to go to Ani Difranco and Nick McCabe or Petra Haden or Joseph Arthur or Corina Round or Mark Lanegan or any of the people that I have played with it just speaks for my good taste and my good fortune. I sort of imagined The Twilight Singers as me and other singers that I admired and I’ve kept with that all along.
The second musical collaboration is with the label Sub Pop who were obviously important for The Afghan Whigs and you returned to them for The Gutter Twins record and now Dynamite Steps. What makes them a label you keep returning to?
They’re my friends A. B they know me and C they’re extremely good at what they do. Watching them adapt to change over the last twenty-two years has been amazing. From Nirvana to Fleet Foxes, their two biggest bands, who could not be more opposite on the spectrum except they do share great song writers, amazing songs and performances. So I think they (Sub Pop) have excellent taste. They’re really good at what they do and they love me and take care of me. For me to have come back from the wilderness and they open the door and have me come sit in the living room with them.
Returning to Dynamite Steps, “The Beginning of the End” has got this great My Bloody Valentine guitar effect in the intro and chorus. Where you a fan of that band and the shoegaze genre as a whole?
Yeah, I loved them. I loved Slowdive and Ride, I loved that whole sound, the shimmering but heavy weight. To me, that song was like a Loveless wave smashing into “Major Tom” by David Bowie. That was the sort of juxtaposition that I was looking for.
It’s a beautiful contrast, the noise and then the acoustic guitar.
And, after the acoustic, it goes into an almost Curtis Mayfield soul song. That track is extremely schizophrenic and I don’t know where it came from but it was a fun one to do. It was also the final song that I did for the record.
I know you don’t like talking about song themes but with “Never See No Devil”, Greg of all people I would have thought you may have actually seen the devil.
(laughs) Well if you listen, I clearly have seen the devil. There’s no irony going on there!
That song wrote itself, I was just a vessel. There have only been five songs in my entire life that I’ve written all at once: That one (“Never See No Devil”), “Front Street” by The Gutter Twins, “Tonight” by The Afghan Whigs, “What Jail is Like” by the The Whigs and “Love” by The Twilight Singers being the others.
You’ve already announced European tour dates but of course there’s a lot of fans waiting for American dates. Is there any chance of an Australian tour?
American tour dates will be announced this week. I know what those are. Australian tour dates I don’t know, I hope so. I want to come there.
You were last out here for Splendour in the Grass with The Gutter Twins in July 2009.
Right, but we played acoustically. For me to bring the big band over I have to pay. It costs so much to come over there or I can come over and play acoustic style or whatever. I love Australia, in fact the second time I came I loved it even more than the first time. The first time I was there it was raining the whole time so I didn’t really feel like I saw it.
Oh yeah, Australia can do that to you.
Well if you go anywhere and it’s just raining all the time what do you see but rain? When I came for Splendour and the sideshows it was incredibly beautiful and I had a great time in all three places.
Dynamite Steps is out now through Sup Pop (via Inertia in Australia).