This fall marks a series of noteworthy anniversaries for Greg Dulli, iconic lead singer of the Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers, and the Gutter Twins. Two of Afghan Whigs’ most heralded releases, Gentlemen and 1965, turned 30 and 25, respectively. In addition, Twilight Singers’ fan favorite, Blackberry Belle, turns 20. That’s three masterful and distinct records over ten years. “I stand that run up to anyone else’s, and Black Love is in there, too,” he said.
That combination of confidence and candor has captivated fans for over three decades. Where countless buzzy bands from the 1990s are barely remembered, the Afghan Whigs are still making records that earn raves from fans and critics and playing live to a consistent, devoted audience. The key to this is that Dulli’s writing is so compelling that you’re drawn in even without the personal experience to relate. The 17-year-old who bought Gentlemen back in 1993 discovers another dimension of its power as life experiences accrue (that 17-year-old is me).
The culmination of this noteworthy season is the recent release of Black Out the Windows/Ladies and Gentlemen, The Twilight Singers, an all-encompassing deluxe box set containing newly remastered vinyl versions of all the bands’ studio releases and a bonus album called Et Cetera, that collects rarities and unreleased songs, including sought-after recordings of the covers of Leonard Cohen‘s “Paper Thin Hotel” and Prince‘s “When Doves Cry”.
“The time was right. The Twilight Singers’ arc is complete, and I wanted to document those years of my life from start to finish and share it with the fans,” Dulli said. He oversaw every detail of the box set, from the remastering to the gorgeous monochromatic reimagining of the album covers to the 56-page book with photographs and essays from the late Mark Lanegan, Duff McKagan, and many others who were part of the Twilight Singers story. “It was important to deliver the greatest home listening experience possible, and it’s also an art project. It’s beautiful, and I love it.”
Fans have been clamoring for a Twilight Singers box set for years, and on the Congregation, the Facebook fan page, they lovingly abbreviated their request to MFTSBS (“motherfucking Twilight Singers box set”). Judging by the reactions on the Congregation, the people are ecstatic. Fans have been posting unboxing videos and sharing reactions, thrilled to have physical copies of these heralded records, with some even confessing that they bought record players so that they could listen to the box set.
The Twilight Singers were originally going to be a side project alongside the Afghan Whigs, started between Black Love and 1965. Dulli had been working with Satchel’s Shawn Smith and Harold “Happy” Chichester of the criminally underrated Howlin’ Maggie. An early taste of the project was heard in the late Ted Demme’s film Monument Ave., where “Black Love” plays over the end credits. It would be retitled “Love” and appear in a much different version on the Twilight Singers’ debut album.
When the demos leaked, he collaborated with English producers Fila Brazilia and transformed the sound dramatically. Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers was released after the Afghan Whigs broke up. As with all of his work, his auteur’s stamp is all over it, but the sound is much different from the guitar-based soul of the Whigs. “It was an exciting opportunity to work with a different type of producer,” he said. Bringing in collaborators became a key distinguishing feature of Twilight Singers. Appearances by Lanegan and Ani DiFranco are highlights of the discography, and Dulli’s collaboration with Lanegan as the Gutter Twins are an exploration of even darker shades than his other work.
After touring for Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers, Dulli took a break from music. “I bought a bar and started working on that,” he said. “I didn’t play or record for a year. Then I wrote ‘Papillon,’ and it reminded me that I like to write songs.” That sparked him to work on a series of songs that hewed closer to the 1965 sound and would be released later as Amber Headlights. These songs were initially shelved because Demme died unexpectedly during a charity basketball game. “After Ted died, the party vibe didn’t fit with my state of mind,” he said.
In Demme, the film community lost an exciting and adventurous talent. His work on Yo! MTV Raps played a major role in the explosion of hip-hop as the dominant cultural force. He also directed several feature films, including The Ref, Beautiful Girls, Blow, Monument Ave., and Who’s the Man? In addition to critical acclaim, he was known in the industry for his kindness on set. “Once you worked with him, never missed a chance to do it again. He always knew everyone’s names–drivers, craft services, hair and makeup. Everyone who worked with him would do anything for him because of their love and respect for him,” Dulli said. “Ted was one of my favorite people I have ever known. We are all here to love and be loved. What else is there? His influence on me continues to this day.”
Demme’s early passing inspired what many fans consider the best Twilight Singers record, Blackberry Belle. Its opening line, “Black out the windows / It’s party time”, sets the tone for a record that wrestles with grief in unexpected ways. Rather than songs focusing explicitly on Demme and his passing, lines threaded throughout the songs point to Dulli’s reckoning with the loss. The record has a cinematic quality, as much of his work does. It feels like a eulogy that walks us through a friendship, but it also pulses with the noir energy that came to fruition on Black Love.
It also contains the most anthemic song in the Dulli canon, ‘”Teenage Wristband”. Like many of his best songs, it is a celebration wrapped in darkness. There’s joy and desperation in the chorus: “She said ‘You wanna go for a ride? I got no more money to burn, and I’m gonna stay up all night.'” Few songs have made the transition to the Whigs’ live shows, but this and “The Killer”, another anthem that explodes with a huge chorus, have made the cut. The back half of Blackberry Belle drips with atmosphere on tracks like “Decatur St.”, “Fat City (Slight Return)”, and “Feathers”, is one of Dulli’s catchiest songs that recalls the Whigs classic “66.” Closer “Number Nine” continues in a long line of stunning final tracks from Dulli as he seeks to start the process of carrying on with an assist from Lanegan.
Blackberry Belle is an excellent collection of songs from a singular talent, elevated because Dulli understands the recursive nature of grief. It pops up in expected and unexpected times, in unwelcome moments. It brings smiles and tears. And it never fully releases us; we just learn to live with it.
“That record did so much to help me heal, to learn to navigate loss, and to maintain the memory of my beautiful friend. The two are inexorably connected. Teddy was born in October, and the record came out that month, too,” Dulli said.
Where the Afghan Whigs released several memorable music videos, Twilight Singers only have one official music video for “On the Corner” from 2011’s Dynamite Steps. In the 1990s, it was a perennial rumor that Dulli wanted to direct a film, but it never came to fruition. “The movie business is brutal, even more than music. I don’t have the heart for it. And for Twilight, music videos were no longer necessary. They became immaterial, just something to say, ‘We have an album out.’ I wanted to see what life was like without them,” he said.
Sadly, the Twilight Singers will not be playing live shows to commemorate the box set release and Blackberry Belle’s birthday. “We thought about doing some shows with the last version of the band people saw, with Christopher Thorn in for Dave [Rosser, who passed away from cancer in 2017], but Scott Ford is in a place where he can’t take a few weeks off from work, and I wouldn’t do it without him,” Dulli said. If you want to see Dulli perform more Twilight Singers songs, be sure to catch him on solo dates, where he draws from his full songbook.
Where many of their peers burned out quickly and are mostly forgotten, Dulli’s bands and their catalogs have endured, influencing waves of other noteworthy bands. A song such as 1965 gem “66” seems like it could be a radio hit now. In addition, Dulli isn’t content to repeat victory laps. His 2020 solo album, Random Desire, shows off his ability to seamlessly integrate contemporary influences into his signatures.
Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers shows have always featured expertly chosen covers, and many of those have been documented in the studio as well, from the Whigs’ Uptown Avondale EP to She Loves You, a covers album from the Twilight Singers featuring interpretations of artists such as Mary J. Blige, Bjork, and Martina Topley-Bird.
A few artists have tackled Dulli’s work, too. “Duff [McKagan] and Mark [Lanegan] both have covers of ‘Deepest Shade’, which is an outtake from the first Twilight sessions and is making its recorded debut in the box set. Har Mar’s cover of ‘Demon in Profile’ is great, too. I think I might be hard to cover. I would love to see someone take a shot at ‘Faded’, though,” he said.
Next up for Dulli is more music from the Afghan Whigs. “We are working on a new record. The band we have right now is just phenomenal. John [Curley, Whigs’ bassist] is one of my best friends. Such a great and talented person to collaborate with. I’ve known Patrick [Keeler, drummer] since he was a teenager.” Dulli and Thorn worked on the band’s last record, 2022’s How Do You Burn? during quarantine, with the rest of the band collaborating from remote locations, when Dulli was forced to cancel his 2020 solo tour for Random Desire.
Dulli doesn’t engage on social media platforms outside of following sports rumors on Twitter, but he is well aware of the devoted fan base that has been on this more than 30-year journey with him. “The people I meet who like my music are people I like. Whigs and Twilight fans…99% of them I’d have lunch with and have a great time. I could imagine being friends with them.” It’s mutual, Greg.