Are you just up?
“Nah, I’ve been up for a while.”
DiS fills another agonising silence by suggesting Mark Lanegan’s monosyllabic reticence might be down to something other than an indifferent disposition. Consciously or not, his distance puts the kibosh on the zillionth attempt to demystify some small part of his growling, gothic lexicon.
The ‘Fire and Ice’ analogy torn straight out of a James Ellroy novel by Lanegan's tag team buddy Greg Dulli to describe the bluesy duo's yin-yang leaves nobody guessing who’s who. One of their chests audibly heaves with copious chuckling as he doles out more tales per breath than a Jackanory special, while the other was once quoted as deadpanning: “Comedy is for pussies.”
It may come as some surprise then, to learn that the origin of the duo’s new band lies with a prank executed by Lanegan four years ago. The man Dulli takes up the story…
Dulli: My first recollection is of an Italian journalist calling to ask me about the Gutter Twins and I replied with "What’s the Gutter Twins?" He told me that it was me and Mark Lanegan and I was like "Well, sounds interesting." I called Mark later and he tells me, "Oh yeah, we’re forming a band." I said "Okay, let me know when we’re gonna do that."
Lanegan: I was kidding around, but it became serious. We’re just really good friends who have similar musical tastes. We’d worked on each others records before, played in each other’s bands, so it seemed like a logical thing.
Video: The Gutter Twins, 'Idle Hands’ (live)
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When did your friendship spark up?
Dulli: We first met around 19 years ago, but I’d say we’ve been close friends for the last nine or ten. It sparked up when we ran into each other in Los Angeles where we were both living at the time. We got together, had lunch and I think I showed him my house. We both have extensive record collections so we started looking through ‘em, playing some, then we picked up the guitar. When we started singing together it was probably ‘99 and it was like that style of porch singing, y’know, sitting on the porch, smoking cigarettes, drinking ice tea and trying it out. That was just for fun; we were really just passing the time. When I wrote the song [‘Number Nine’] for Mark to sing, I think that was the first time we recorded together. That was Blackberry Belle, we did that sometime in 2003 and by the end of that year we were doing songs that are on the Gutter Twins record. ‘All Misery’is the first one we did.
This collaboration makes for a fairly attractive proposition on paper, but in the past you’ve both expressed that you’re principally solitary songwriters, Greg even went so far as to say "I make most of my records rather selfishly; they’re done for me by me. That someone else would like it is just a bonus,” the last time we talked…
Dulli: Hahaha, did I say that?
You did, sir…
Did that mentality make co-writing at all difficult, or territorial?
Dulli: It had to be that way, in the respect that along the way I would tell Mark that I’d heard him do that before, or he’d tell me "You’ve done this already." We kept each other honest as far as returning to a comfort zone and pulling out an old trick goes, it became a left brain / right brain kind of thing.
Looking back at your collective repertoire – Gentlemen, 1965, Blackberry Belle, Dust, Scraps At Midnight, Songs for the Deaf, we could be here all day – you could probably both have laid claim to a certain Midas touch in your writing at times. Was there any sense of pressure in combining those songwriting strengths, or was this just a loose situation where two mates made a record?
Lanegan: Songwriting is sort of intuitive between us. The only pressure we imposed on ourselves was that we wanted to separate it from anything we’ve done before. I think we’ve achieved that.
So where did you turn to in order to find the musical and lyrical impetus to create something that sounded original to the pair of you?
Dulli: We turned to each other. In respect to Mark, some of the people that he’s worked with in the past would be - off the top of my head – Mike Johnson, the Conner brothers, Josh Homme, Rich from Soulsavers, Isobel [Campbell]. He’s played and written with a lot of talented people...
So have you, though… [Thurston Moore, Mike Mills and Muggs spring to mind, for starters]
Dulli: I became his foil in this respect. But these people I mention are all disparate to one another, and the common connector to all of them is Mark. So we each brought our own experience and individuality to the project, but it was most definitively collaborative.
You mention Mike Johnson [one time Dinosaur Jr. bassist and longtime Lanegan guitarist], was there any desire to bring in a familiar player of that calibre to embellish the sound?
Dulli: I think if Mike had lived in the United States, he’d be on this record. We would have loved to have had him but it was rendered geographically impossible at the time. But I’ll bet you if anything we’ll play with him in the future.
Video: Mark Lanegan feat. Mike Johnson & Ben Shepherd, 'Hotel’ (live)
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Did you tap the skills of any of those past associates?
Dulli: It’s kind of like…whoever’s around, for instance with the early songs Mark brought in Troy Van Leeuwen from the Queens, he was the logical guitar player to go to at that moment. Later on, we were in New Orleans and brought in Dave Rosser [Twilight Singers guitarist], who lives there. I guess it was dictated by geography, necessity and availability.
Saturnalia sees a return to the Sub Pop label where you released quite pivotal recordings early on in your respective careers [Dulli with the Afghan Whigs’ ‘Retarded’ single and Lanegan with the Screaming Trees’ Change Has Come EP]. Was there something poetic about going back there?
Lanegan: We looked at a couple of different labels, but Sub Pop made the most sense.
Dulli: I think, in retrospect, it was the only place we could do it. I’m really proud to see what they’ve done in recent years; like a great band does, they’ve reinvented themselves. I couldn’t be happier to be working with them again, Megan [Jasper, who famously duped the New York Times with 'Grunge Slang' that transpired to be a load of cobblers] and Jonathan [Poneman, Sub Pop co-founder] who were there when we were still there, that was the poetic part.
Do you feel any more productive now than you did in those days?
Dulli:I do. I’ve made more records in the last five years than I did in the first ten. I don’t know what happened…
Would you blame any of it on your past excesses?
Dulli: I’ll start by saying that I regret nothing and I’ll say that sowing my wild oats probably got in the way of productivity. But it was fun! I think what happened with the Whigs was that by the third record we had scattered to the four winds. When you’re a democracy, trying to get four guys in the same place for any length of time becomes more of a challenge and it actually began to hinder the creative and productive process. By the time we tried to mount it again it was just strange and unnatural. Something that had been like waking up in the morning and drinking a glass of water had become like algebra. That was when it was time for me to leave. We all left as friends and we still are. Then I worked on the first Twilight Record and laid low for a while, that’s when I bought my first bar. So I was running that and enjoying leading a structured life for the first time. For almost two years I was kind of afraid to write songs because writing songs would eventually mean I’d have to go on tour and I really didn’t want to.
Lanegan: Nah, I don’t have any regrets, man.
Greg, you recently reconvened the Whigs to put a retrospective compilation together, how did that go? Was there a need to bookend things there?
Dulli: Yeah and it was fun, but it was really done with the knowledge that was that. We were doing a favour for our friend who works at Rhino, he especially asked us to do two new songs. One of those songs was an older tune that we just fixed; it was from the aborted final album sessions. But we did one from the ground up and it was good fun. They’re like my family, so we got together for one week and in that one week we whipped up the tunes, played them, got drunk a couple of times, played cards and then got on four different planes and went to four different places. It was vintage Whigs.
Video: Afghan Whigs, 'Gentlemen’
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Also vintage are the styles that you've often both incorporated into your records throughout the years - be it the blues, soul, psychedelia or whatever. Saturnalia appears no different in that respect. But I’m interested to know what your take is on more contemporary music. Has anything blown you away lately? I don’t suppose you’re much for new rave and that?
Dulli: I like the Black Lips. I also like the new Edwyn Collins record a lot…I’ve been a fan of his since Orange Juice and was shocked to see what happened to him but really psyched to hear him flip off his situation and make a great record. Other than 'A Girl Like You he’s not known [in America], I don’t think he ever really toured over here, but I’ve always dug him. He’s a feisty fucker and I like people like that. I’m looking forward to hearing the new Martina [Topley Bird] record too, she’s one of my favourite singers.
Lanegan: I like Animal Collective, Band of Horses, Battles, you know, there’s a lot of stuff I really enjoy, liked the last Caribou record, the Grizzly Bear record and the new Six Organs of Admittance record. I like Teenage Fanclub and also - fuck - Mogwai, quite a bit. I was way into Belle and Sebastian too…
So was it a nice surprise when Isobel Campbell asked you to record a few songs with her?
Lanegan: Yeah, I was a fan, and I was into what Isobel did outside of the band, I liked those Gentle Waves records… so it was a pleasant surprise. I have another record with Isobel coming out in the spring.
And what’s next for Greg?
Dulli: Taking the Twins out on the road and seeing what that can do. My favourite part of touring is watching the songs evolve and stretch out, watching the new arrivals come in…the songs that haven’t been written yet.
Last time we talked you were working on a graphic novel too, Domino and Jimmy’s reason to Live Lounge. What became of that?
Dulli: Still workin’ on it! Me and my friend Charles - AKA Jimmy - we’re talking to another friend of ours to see if we can animate it. It’ll probably be a short at first, but the scope of the book could certainly fit a movie. Since I’ve been out of commission Charles has really picked up the slack. He sent me some things a week ago that blew my mind, I’m very excited. Jesse Garron - Elvis’s stillborn twin - features heavily in the latest stuff. It’s fuckin’ twisted - a twisted, crazy thing.
I’d expect nothing less, I'll look forward to seeing it some day, Gutter Twins live too... all the best with the album and tour.
Dulli: Nice talking to you Dave, bye.
The Gutter Twins are on MySpace here. Saturnalia is released on March 3 via Sub Pop.
Forthcoming UK tour dates:
6 Limelight Belfast
7 Oran Mor Glasgow
8 Academy Manchester
9 Glee Birmingham