For a man who has written so compellingly about the darker sides of human desire and the fights inside his own head, it seems fitting that the phone number Greg Dulli is on has a '666' in it. And when he's reminded about the description he gave a journalist of the new Twilight Singers album 'Dynamite Steps' when he was working on it in February 2010, the line to Los Angeles comes alive with a suitably diabolical yet very endearing chuckle.
Back then, Dulli said the record sounded like "Seventies AM radio". Copy was filed, links were emailed, those who have followed Dulli's work since his legendary band The Afghan Whigs became even more intrigued than usual and he went back to The Twilight Singers' revolving roster of players in the studio.
"I lie all the time!" Dulli says by way of defence of his spinning skills and determination to keep some mystery about his work. "When someone asks me [about an album] that far in advance... I got a call and the label was like, 'Will you talk to this person?' And I'm like, 'About what?! I'd be speaking in the abstract!' No disrespect to the person I talked to, but I was probably just having a good time. I mean, I could've said I was playing variations of Norwegian reggae as well!"
'Dynamite Steps', it transpires, doesn't capture the spirit of Seventies AM radio, and Norwegian reggae hasn't found a new champion, but even after a two-week listen it sounds like the best collection of Dulli's Twilight Singers career to date - this after the genius of 2006's broody, New Orleans-made 'Powder Burns'. As far back as The Afghan Whigs' third album 'Congregation' in 1992, Dulli was turning songs into movies; 'Dynamite Steps' has 12 Oscar winners. They're either tender or tough and reveal new depths to Dulli's singing, more electronic influences and, most surprisingly of all, a more upbeat feel. While thoroughly happy with the results, Dulli says it wasn't a priority to make some songs that people could listen to during daylight.
"I think it's just the way it came out," he explains. "There are a couple of downbeat moments on 'Dynamite Steps', but there is a heretofore unseen optimism a bit more present this time around. Why? Because I think I discovered a heretofore unseen sense of optimism! You go through different waves in your life; 'Powder Burns' was, y'know, heavy. There were just a lot of heavy times around it. I had been pretty sick; Hurricane Katrina had happened and there was just a lot of death. This particular set is a bit more abstract - a product of my fertile imagination."
That imagination has seen Dulli hailed as one of the best songwriters of his generation - a man who can excel at everything from acoustic ballads to soul to rock. His risk-taking has helped him, along with merciless quality control, to achieve an all-too-rare accolade: in three different decades, whether with The Afghan Whigs, The Twilight Singers or his Gutter Twins project alongside best friend Mark Lanegan, Dulli has never put out an album that isn't worth buying.
"There are records I like maybe a little more than others, but there is nothing in my past - save for the very first record that The Afghan Whigs made - which I absolutely can't listen to. The rest of them I have fond feelings for. I would never put something out with my name attached that I didn't believe in. You may not like it; you may love it, but it doesn't matter. What matters is I believed in it enough to let it out there. And I would never do that unless I felt 100% behind it. Even if someone doesn't like it you can be sure that I did. It may not be for you, but you can bet it's for me."
'Dynamite Steps' will, hopefully, be for more people, and give Dulli the bigger audience his Twilight Singers work deserves. At 45, his powers as a lyricist, composer and performer are growing stronger and the man who describes music as "all I've ever wanted to do since I was a kid" sounds like he's enjoying life. He is already working on two new projects: the follow-up to 'Dynamite Steps' and an all-instrumental record with a view to getting soundtrack work. He did, however, find the time one night to enjoy this job well done.
"One of my favourite things to do when a record is done - and I've done this since probably 'Congregation' - is get in the car and take a drive and watch the world go by while listening to the record," he reveals. "The drive that I took on this one, I went into Hollywood, up Laurel Canyon, through Mulholland Drive, back down the backside into Beverly Hills to Sunset Boulevard, down to the Pacific Coast highway and up to Malibu. At night. Three in the morning on a Monday. No traffic at all. I hit all the green lights and if I didn't hit the green lights I ran the red ones. It was amazing and when I got home that night I knew the record was done. Patting myself on the back? That's about as close as I get to it. This record made me feel really good. I liked it a lot and I look forward to playing it live."
And his first thoughts when the last song faded out?
"I wish I would've turned one of the vocals up louder!"
There's the laugh again.
'Dynamite Steps' is out now on Sub Pop.