There were a few phrases I promised myself I wouldn’t utter when sitting three feet from Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan, two of ’90s alt-rock’s most worshipped frontmen. Alt-rock, for example. Flannel shirts. Heroin. Reunions.
I succeeded in avoiding those first three. But in a fit of stammering, passive-aggressive non-rage, I let it slip: “With everyone hopping on the reunion bandwagon, you guys seem to keep pushing forward.”
Lanegan, who was the life of the consistently ignored garage/grunge Seattle act Screaming Trees, just starts shaking his head, back and forth, back and forth. Before he can breathe any sort of fire toward me, Dulli, who led the guitar-sleazy Afghan Whigs, chimes in as if he’s been waiting for this moment. “We’ve both been asked numerous times to re-form, and have been thrown large sums of money to do so, but I’m of the opinion that bands have a finite lifespan,” he says. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke exhale from both their mouths. “If you stay a band forever, great. If the end comes, then it came for a reason. It’s like any relationship—it has done what it needed to do.”
Lanegan is much more direct, though he’s looking off in the distance. “I have absolutely zero interest,” he declares in his low, gravelly voice. (He looks and sounds more like Tom Waits by the day.) “I want to stay in here, now.”
The place and time he speaks of has been a productive time for them both. Lanegan’s been a touring member of Queens of the Stone Age, while cutting several solo albums of brooding, moody lo-fi rock and a duets-style record with Isobel Campbell. Dulli’s been mostly consumed with his swamp-rock soul band the Twilight Singers. Both command dedicated cult followings, while other grunge-era artists have simply drifted off to the bargain bins and county fairs, content with regurgitating that song, whatever it might be, for those who still wish to remember.
Their respective successes aside, this is an odd pairing. Dulli is vivacious and chatty; Lanegan is reserved, introspective, and intimidating. Dulli wants to chat about current bands like Yeasayer and MGMT; Lanegan stays solemn. Recent press tends to revel in their prior drug habits and petty skirmishes with the law, mythologizing them to a certain extent, relegating them to that Singles part of our collective memory. But they’ve moved on. Trust me.
They just move slowly. A little over four years ago, Dulli and Lanegan began work on Saturnalia, their debut as the Gutter Twins. It’s finally done. And the result’s a bit grungy, sure—but there’s also an undercurrent of dark, sinister country and blues that suggests they’re not just rehashing old times. String arrangements pop up here and there. As do mandolins. Loss, death, religion, and faith are recurring themes, swiftly dealt with. The first track they cut together, “All Misery/Flowers,” has Lanegan and Dulli singing softly in unison, while Dulli plays with some eerie high-pitched wailing sounds over a prominent drumbeat. Most of the album is like this: Lanegan’s deep voice hovering over Dulli’s controlled whine as they toy around with various mood enhancers, aural and otherwise.
“I was happy with it,” Lanegan allows cautiously. “Proud of the way it turned out. Which is saying a lot.” Dulli, naturally, is much more excited, praising the record’s eclecticism, but Lanegans’s growl takes hold. “Obviously, there are elements of what people have done before—because to make something completely different, we’d have to make a classical record or something,” he says, half-snarling. Dulli lightens the mood: “Or a reggae album, which we discussed.” In a rare outburst, Lanegan chuckles for a brief moment before retreating back down below.
The Gutter Twins play Webster Hall March 19, websterhall.com.