Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 7:49 AM
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”—Oscar Wilde
“Heaven, it’s quite a climb…”—The Gutter Twins, “Seven Stories Underground”
“It started pretty innocently,” Mark Lanegan claims of the genesis behind Saturnalia, the much-anticipated first album from The Gutter Twins, the collaboration forged by him and fellow maverick singer-songwriter Greg Dulli. Innocent, however, seems an odd word to lash to anything involving this near-mythic duo, comprised of what Pitchfork proclaimed “two of alt-rock’s greatest front-men.” And its darkest. Saturnalia, however, finds the axis Dulli nicknamed “the Satanic Everly Brothers” going even deeper into the shadows than ever before. Mystical, unpredictable, ultimately masterful, Saturnalia both embodies and defies any expectations suggested by the principals’ individual notoriety. Featuring a caravan of all-star guests giving dimension to its rawly confessional, ambitious themes, The Gutter Twins’ debut ascends to a new, surprising place in both artists’ canon. “As much as I find it spiritual, it’s very much of the flesh,” Dulli says of Saturnalia. “The flesh suffers and exults, and it transgresses and transcends.”
Transgression, transcendence, sin (in original form and otherwise): Saturnalia personifies all that, and more. The clue to The Gutter Twins’ distinctively ominous, searching mood lies in the band’s visceral moniker. “It seemed appropriate, especially considering the shape we were in when we started,” Lanegan recalls of the confrontational name. “The early songs reflected the place we were at in the beginning, but the vibe ended up at a very different place.” The pull towards the darkness isn’t surprising considering the duo’s individual personas. Lanegan rose to fame as singer for the Screaming Trees, one of the most beloved outfits to come out of the 20th century explosion of loud, strange bands from the Pacific Northwest that begat the likes of Nirvana and Mudhoney, amongst others. Greg Dulli intersected with Lanegan first as the magnetic leader of the Afghan Whigs, another shining (black) light from the ‘90s rock renaissance. Not only were the Whigs the first non-Northwestern band to sign to Sub Pop Records, they also proved to be one of the most revered bands of the era (SPIN placed the Whigs’ breakthrough album Gentlemen at number 99 in its list of the top 100 albums in recent memory). In many ways, the heavy psychedelic roar of the Trees and the messianic, psychosexual soul-rock of the Whigs proved different yet oddly parallel: both groups epitomized the times, yet went beyond them in their idiosyncrasy, as did their distinctive front-men in later efforts.
Both the Whigs and Screaming Trees had split by the end of the ‘90s, yet on their own Lanegan and Dulli went on to achieve significant notice. Lanegan continued to put out successful solo albums, as well as create vivid partnerships with the likes of Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell (on the Mercury Prize-nominated 2005 album Ballad of the Broken Seas) and Queens of the Stone Age (whose leader Josh Homme had been Lanegan’s bandmate in the late-period Screaming Trees). Dulli, meanwhile, innovatively fused indie, soul and electronic sounds fronting his first post-Whigs effort, The Twilight Singers, who released their first album, Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers, in 2000; the most recent Twilight effort, 2006’s Powder Burns, proved a crowning achievement, landing on many year-end best lists. Along the way, the pair had become collaborators while gaining infamy as saviors of misbehavior. Both onstage and in song, Dulli and Lanegan’s personas began to epitomize a bird’s eye view into decadence, excess, betrayal and mortality. In rock’s film noir division, Lanegan and Dulli were always the names on the marquee—and the first ones to have the epitaphs prepared. “We had to become The Gutter Twins, because that’s how we were perceived,” Dulli says with a laugh.
Saturnalia doesn’t revel in Dulli and Lanegan’s tendency towards the macabre so much as reflect on it, however. “I hate to say this but, for lack of of a better term, there’s a more spiritual nature than usual,” Lanegan says. “Then again, Greg was an altar boy.” From the hauntingly intense folk-blues of opener “The Stations” to songs like “God’s Children” and “Who Will Lead Us?,” cosmic concerns of mortality, penance and salvation loom over the proceedings like sacraments. “Whenever one starts writing a record, thematic signposts reveal themselves, pointing you down certain roads,” Dulli explains. “There’s usually an overarching theme in anything I’ve done, whether palpable or abstract. I couldn’t tell you what Saturnalia‘s theme is, because it’s open to interpretation, but there’s a seeking of transcendence that’s new. I have never written songs like this before. Lyrically, there’s no obvious protagonist or antagonist; spirituality is there, however, both musically and lyrically. It’s a foreign land—a different temple I’m visiting.” That feeling extends to the album’s title, which comes from a week-long ancient Roman festival which climaxes its revelry by having the slaves trade places with their masters. “The conclusion of slaves becoming masters and masters becoming slaves carried a lot of weight to us,” Dulli notes. Indeed, The Gutter Twins’ debut effort proves that Lanegan and Dulli, in these reunion-obsessed times, aren’t slaves to nostalgia. Saturnalia pointedly doesn’t rest on the sonic laurels of Lanegan and Dulli’s previous successes. Instead, Saturnalia proves rootsy but baroque, handmade yet modernist, teeming with siren melodies that don’t resolve.
Produced by Dulli and Lanegan along with the band’s unofficial third member Mathias Schneeberger, Saturnalia‘s eerie modal swirls trap the listener in each song’s atmosphere, never letting go. The circular drones evoke everything from Indian sitars to Appalachian folk and Delta grit, creating inadvertently narcotic hooks in the process. Spartan electronica indelibly collides with spooky space blues on “Who Will Lead Us?”; “Idle Hands” fuses Middle Eastern exoticism with shocking guitar riffs that shoot AC/DC boogie into another fucking galaxy. “I Was in Love with You” evocatively hybrids smoky, old-school soul with shimmering modern soundscapes and Petra Haden’s gossamer violin. On “All Misery,” meanwhile, Lanegan’s relentless vocal pulses with a new tribal syncopation, splitting the difference between Kurt Weill’s whiskey bars, Eminem’s flow, and associative Dylanesque wordplay. Saturnalia ultimately becomes an unsafe emotional dystopia, a place where “Circle The Fringes”’ brutal staccato guitar stabs co-exist paradoxically alongside ruminative psychedelic hymns like “The Body.” The cumulative effect ultimately proves internal yet epic: the netherworld symphonics of Mogwai, Sigur Ros and Bohren und der Club of Gore are touchstones, alongside the sprawling emotions of Pink Floyd, the melodically catchy paranoia of the Beach Boys, the primal confessionals of John Lennon. Still, what Dulli and Lanegan achieve here ultimately feels like the determinedly individual product of two auteurs coming together. When Lanegan’s ghostly baritone fuses into Dulli’s world-weary rasp, the spine-tingling fusion proves unforgettably uncanny. “The album definitely has its own universe,” Lanegan says. “I don’t know what I would really compare it to—it’s totally different musically, but there’s always something about it that reminds me of There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” “It’s very intuitive and trance-like, changing when it wants to,” Dulli adds. “I tried to shake off any kind of Western song structure. We were comfortable riding the groove and letting it take us where it needed to go; sometimes just one single riff will crest and fall, the only change occurring in the vocal melody. More than ever, my impetus to write songs was to satisfy my id’s need to hear something we’d never heard before.” Largely co-written, from its inception Saturnalia was jointly intended as a leap into the unknown. “When we actually decided to make a record, we agreed that it should be different from anything we’ve done before,” Lanegan explains. “If something sounded like anything we’d ever done, it was rejected,” Dulli continues. “Mark was a sentinel for me if I tried to return to my comfort zone—and he was likewise denied by me. That forced us into making a new sound.”
For both Dulli and Lanegan, collaboration remains a crucial aspect of what they do. In addition to Queens and Isobel Campbell, Lanegan’s history of alliances defies genre categories—he’s worked with everyone from PJ Harvey and Kurt Cobain to electronic producers Soulsavers to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin. “Collaborating for me is what keeps me interested in music,” says Lanegan. “Left to my own devices I might just do the same thing over and over again.” Dulli as well has a large string of collaborations to his credit, from producing and co-writing a smash album for Italian superstar rock group Afterhours to working with the likes of British dance-music producers Lo-Fidelity All-Stars. In 2007 alone, Dulli performed onstage with Lucinda Williams and contributed the title track to Intramural’s debut album, This Is a Landslide, the acclaimed indie-electronic project spearheaded by Denver Dalley (Desperacidos/Statistics). Dulli also conceived The Twilight Singers as a shifting collective able to encompass disparate musical souls ranging from U.K. downtempo mavens Fila Brazilia to former Prince protégée Apollonia. As such, Lanegan and Dulli’s shared collaborative nature extends to their Gutter Twins partnership, as Saturnalia‘s guest contributions end up indelibly crucial, from loyal bandmates from their respective bands (Twilight’s guitar virtuoso Dave Rosser co-produced “Seven Stories Underground”) as well as new friends. Here, The Gutter Twins are supported by longtime associates like Troy Van Leeuwen (QOTSA, A Perfect Circle, Failure), madcap troubadour Joseph Arthur, and “Desert Sessions” regular Dave Catching alongside fresh faces like iconoclastic New Orleans music legend Quintron and Fountains of Wayne drummer Brian Young. As well, master duo Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider (Eleven, QOTSA) make a memorable appearance on “Each To Each.” “Working with Alain and Natasha was especially exciting,” Dulli says, as was a session with legendary desert stoner-rock icon Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson/QOTSA). “Having Mario Lalli come in and play was a real thrill for me, as I’m a big fan of his,” Lanegan says. “When Mario was playing his part, we were staring through the window jumping up and down like little boys,” Dulli adds. Martina Topley-Bird also had a transformative impact with her spectral vocal contribution to “The Body.” “If you took Martina’s phrasing out, it would be a different song,” Dulli says. “She made it three dimensional.”
It was Lanegan’s increasing collaborations with The Twilight Singers, in fact, that paved the way for The Gutter Twins’ unlikely beginnings. “In 2003, I got a call from an Italian journalist that I knew, asking me about The Gutter Twins,” Dulli recalls. “I said, ’What’s ‘Gutter Twins’? He said, ‘a group with you and Mark Lanegan.’ And I said, ‘I did not know that—it sounds interesting!’” In fact, Mark himself had spread this rumor: “I called him and he said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna make a record, and that’s what it’s going to be called.’” Lanegan and Dulli had re-connected in Los Angeles at the eve of the millennium, but didn’t record together until late 2002, when Lanegan recorded a part for “Number Nine,” the intense album closer on The Twilight Singers’ 2003 album Blackberry Belle. After that, Dulli returned the favor, hitting the road with Lanegan’s band as piano player and performing on two songs off his much-praised 2004 solo album Bubblegum. Lanegan as well became increasingly visible both as a touring and recording member of The Twilight Singers, peaking with his jaw-dropping performance on a cover of Massive Attack’s “Live With Me” off the band’s A Stitch in Time EP. The Gutter Twins would go on to make their live debut at a Rome concert on September 11, 2005; however, it was in the studio that these two fiercely individual, personal songwriters collaborated like never before. “For most of the record, we wrote the lyrics together, and that was pretty unique,” Lanegan says. “I’ve only done it a few times, like with Josh [Homme]. There’s a similarity between working with Greg and Josh: we laugh and fuck around a lot until we come up with something serious.” “Half the album was written by him or me, the other half by both of us,” Dulli says. “My songwriting changed largely because of Mark’s presence. He’s more minimalist and I’m more maximalist, and both tendencies are present throughout the record. Where I begin and Mark ends doesn’t really matter.”
The Gutter Twins’ mutual chemistry was cemented by the evolution of “Front Street,” Saturnalia‘s trenchant closing epic that’s one of Dulli’s most intimately raw, confessional performances. The pair came together on that song following a Twilight Singers appearance on the legendary radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic on L.A. radio station KCRW, repairing afterwards to Dulli’s house for an impromptu recording session. “I began to write in front of him almost as an audience member,” Dulli recalls. “I’d never written a song that complete, or that personal, in front of someone ever before. In that feral state, we finished it in less than an hour. At the end, he sat there and said, ‘The song is great as is, but I’ve come up with two more verses.’ He showed me the words he’d written, and they were phenomenal; then he taught me how to sing it. Mark’s a very giving performer: he’s there for the song, not for him.” Finding such kinship in a collaborator provided the bedrock that made Saturnalia‘s compelling catharsis possible for both parties. “Everybody has their own demons—their own willful purging,” Dulli explains. "But when two people form a common thread, it merges two disparate personalities into one. That we were able to do so collectively made it unique to both of us: as such, this album truthfully captures where we started, and where we’ve ended up."
“If you could hear me, love/I’d tell you my story/So that you might save me.”—The Gutter Twins, “All Misery/Flowers”
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