LA Weekly, http://www.laweekly.com/2008-03-27/music/once-upon-a-time-in-l-a/
26 March, 2008
Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan: Once Upon A Time IN L.A.
By: John Albert
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
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
“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.”