Bad news boys
Tattoos, drugs, beatings, stalkers, prison, betrayal and years of
making great music - could Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan be any more
rock'n'roll? They talk to Paul Lester
Friday December 8, 2006
Mark Lanegan can make the most benign enquiry sound like a veiled
threat. We're backstage at Koko in Camden, north London, waiting for
Greg Dulli to finish soundchecking for tonight's Twilight Singers
performance, and for some reason the conversation has turned towards
the prissy journalist's preference for Diet Coke over the regular
"Did you like the taste right off the bat?" wonders the tall and rangy
singer, a former member of Queens Of The Stone Age and recent Mercury
Prize nominee (for his unlikely collaboration with Isobel Campbell).
He squints at me through the smoke of his Marlboro with the mannered
menace of an old Hollywood bad guy. "You got hooked on it, huh?" he
asks. His voice and intonation are pure Jack Palance.
With his heavily tattooed hands and aura of simmering blue-collar
rage, Lanegan really is quite intimidating, even if he is wearing a
cheap, nerdy, black anorak that looks like a present an elderly
relative bought him from Walmart. He's impossibly guarded, parrying
even the gentlest question with sighs, longueurs and barely concealed
At best, he is laconic, ironic considering the emotionally wrenching
nature of his recordings: "Youthful indiscretion," he replies when I
ask what the tattoos of stars all over his hands mean. At worst, you
suspect he'd like to wring your neck.
Luckily, he has just joined a band, Twilight Singers, fronted by
Dulli, a candid and garrulous interviewee. He takes delight in
articulating, even poeticising, his partner's monosyllabic grunts.
"I think I had sex in there once," Dulli, the fabled lothario of
grunge, nonchalantly informs me, pointing towards a toilet as we
negotiate the maze of steps that lead away from the stage area to a
quiet dressing room upstairs.
Dulli explains why he and Lanegan will be doing the interview
together. "Because if I'm not there to smooth things over," he says,
by way of reassurance, "he will eat you alive."
Despite their differences, the pair - who have begun recording
together as The Gutter Twins, with a debut album due next year - have
much in common. Both were born into dysfunctional working-class
families: Lanegan in Ellensburg, Washington, in 1964; Dulli in
Hamilton, Ohio, a year later. Both spent the 80s and 90s on the
fringes of the Seattle grunge scene with, respectively, Screaming
Trees and Afghan Whigs. Both have seen good friends take their lives,
unable to cope with fame: Lanegan lost Kurt Cobain in 1994; in 2003
Dulli lost Elliot Smith. Both have suffered life-threatening drug
addictions, Lanegan to crack and heroin, Dulli to cocaine. And both
have a jaundiced view of love they've spent years expressing in their
music, stretching back almost to the moment they met.
"We met at a party in 1989," recalls Dulli, "and it was just, 'Hi, how
you doing?' There were no other pleasantries exchanged. Soon after, we
had a strange disagreement that kept us ... not friendly for many
years. It concerned a young lady. She later confessed that she'd duped
us and set us against each other, for her own gain." But what did she
hope to gain? "Both of us, probably."
Despite that, they became close. In the past decade and a half, they
have shared cities - New Orleans, around the time of Hurricane Katrina
- and even a home, in Silverlake, California.
"We lived together for about a year and a half," says Dulli. "We
rarely saw each other, though. Everyone assumed we were drug buddies,
but we never did drugs together. You can't with heroin and cocaine -
you're going to two different places. It's a fork in the road. One guy
goes left, the other goes right."
After they moved out, about three years ago, Dulli hit rock bottom. It
was Lanegan who saved him.
"It was Mark who prevented my self-destructive tendencies from
completing their mission," says Dulli of the time he was trying to
finish The Twilight Singers' second album, Blackberry Belle, which
came out in 2003. It's a period that informs the murderously intense
material on their third, this year's Powder Burns.
"He'd come to record something," Dulli remembers, "and I'd refuse to
leave the house till I had some cocaine. I'd lock myself in. Finally,
I did go out and record some songs, but two months later, when I heard
them, I had no memory of who they were by, who played them or who
"I've always suffered from depression, and I think I'd embraced
nihilism to the point where I wanted to, you know, take it home to the
chariot in the sky. But there came a point - and I'm not ashamed to
admit this - where I got scared, and I decided I wanted to get off the
horse. It was a nasty episode, but he was the one I called, and he
came over and helped me through it. He was a true friend in my hour of
Did Lanegan ever make a similar phonecall to Dulli? "I definitely had
my ups and downs with addiction over the years, and towards the end
Greg was always there, when I was at my lowest," he admits, open for
Did Lanegan ever wonder why he chose heroin while Dulli picked
cocaine? What did those choices say about them?
"We're fire and ice," Dulli answers for him. "He's the more outgoing
one," responds Lanegan. "That's the false promise of cocaine," adds
Dulli. "You can power through a couple of dark days and be right back
on top of the mountain again. I don't think I even realised I had a
These days, they own separate homes in Los Angeles, but speak,
according to Dulli, "at least three or four times a week." Without
their friendship, things would have been different.
"Definitely," growls Lanegan. "Greg's been there for me in some of my
hardest times. He's my best friend." The same goes for Dulli. "I would
not be sitting here with you right now," he says, "if it hadn't been
for my friendship with Mark Lanegan."
Dulli couldn't be a shoulder for Lanegan to cry on during his first
series of scrapes, simply because they hadn't yet met. Lanegan spent
his teenage years in and out of jail for petty thieving and drug
offences before nearly dying, aged 20, following road accident
involving a tractor. Does he still bear the scars? "I never think
about it," he replies, "until somebody brings it up."
Dulli does think about his own, more recent, brush with mortality. In
1998, two nightclub bouncers in Austin, Texas, almost beat him to
"There were two black gentlemen in our entourage who these two
bouncers referred to repeatedly as 'niggers', and that set me off," he
tells me. "I had them pinned down, then asked for them to be ejected
from the club. As it turned out, the manager was one of the bouncers'
cousin, so he let them back in and they waited for me in the dark.
When I came out of the bathroom, they took turns at kicking my ribs in
and took a baseball bat to the back of my head. I woke up two days
later in the hospital. I'd been in a coma."
Trouble seems to follow Lanegan and Dulli wherever they go. Both, for
example, casually drop into the conversation that they have stalkers.
Dulli has a restraining order on two over-obsessive female fans.
Lanegan has stalkers of both sexes. He's cool about it, though.
"Anybody who makes records, regardless of how well-known they are, can
have somebody get attached to them like that," he says. What is it
about him that attracts such delusional characters? "I have no idea. I
think when people hear your music sometimes they get deeply attached
to it and think they know something about you, that you're kindred
spirits or something. When they're listening to your music all the
time, you become part of their life, and some people get obsessed."
Dulli believes the star-fan barrier should remain intact. "I've never
really wanted to meet my heroes. I've had opportunities to meet Dylan,
Van Morrison and the Stones and I passed on all three, because I'd
rather leave them in the imagination."
I ask Lanegan, who has written a song for the Gutter Twins called All
Misery, how he imagines he might have dealt with the pressures of fame
that destroyed Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains.
"That's retarded, man," he says, unimpressed. You think? "Yeah." Why?
"Because it's conjecture. That's for you to do. I don't do that. I
just see what's in front of me. That's what I'm happy with." Are you
happy that you never achieved the sort of super-sized celebrity that
Kurt experienced? There is a painfully long pause. "Yup, I'm
definitely happy that I'm not super-size."
Perhaps it's their cultish fame that's kept them alive. "I think it's,
er, largely due to luck," decides Lanegan, standing up to shake my
hand just in case I was intending to stick around. "But it's also
about having a drive, or will, to live as well. I think we both have
that." Do you have to work at that, or is it in your DNA? "I think
it's part of your DNA," he growls his last. "I mean, we definitely
don't want to die, you know?"
· The Twilight Singers' A Stitch in Time EP, featuring Mark Lanegan,
is out now on One Little Indian. The Gutter Twins will issue their
debut album in 2007.