'I don't think it could have worked out better. When someone who believed in you 20 years ago still believes in you 20 years later, there's something poetic about that," Dulli says.
Saturnalia was a long time coming in its realization, as the two worked on each other's projects, live and in the studio, on and off for several years. They toyed with the idea of going to Memphis to record with members of the Hi Records rhythm section and the legendary "60s soul producer Willie Mitchell. Other projects postponed that plan, however, and in 2006 by complete coincidence Chan Marshall of Cat Power released her own Hi-flavored soul record, The Greatest.
'And she did it so well that kind of scuppered those plans," Dulli says a bit ruefully. Meanwhile, the songs that would become Saturnalia were slowly getting written. Finally in January 2007, the pair met on tour in Australia, and Dulli told Lanegan to meet him in 30 days in New Orleans to finish the record.
'Thirty days later, I picked him up at the airport," he says.
The sonic flavors of Saturnalia reside in the same general, bleak neck of the woods as Nick Cave's gothic, moody reimaginings of American roots music. The songs layer distortion and electronic effects on top of a skeleton of hard, bare rural blues, creating a kind of parallel Americana where prog rock pollinated folk music. Like Sigur Ros had snuck into the crossroads myth to back up Robert Johnson.
'The first songs that we played together on my back porch were those blues songs we both loved Lightning Hopkins, Skip James, and Bobby "Blue" Bland," Dulli says. "His version of "St. James Infirmary' was one of the first songs we learned to play together." The spirit of those songs, even more than their structure, shores up the tracks on Saturnalia. It's as if the grim soul of a track like "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" were inhabiting the larger body of the record, making it move from somewhere deep inside.
You can hear traces of roots raw blues and R&B music in the core of both men's name-making projects, in the noirish soul that runs through the Afghan Whigs' material, and in the psychedelic, garage-y thrash of the Screaming Trees. More pointedly, Mark Lanegan's 2004 solo album Bubblegum sounds like a direct predecessor to Saturnalia, washing a spare blues structure and lyrics full of dirt-road realism with a wave of electronic space-fuzz and heavyweight grind. Dulli's recent Twilight Singers project is much lighter and more melodic so how did all these spooky thoughts get in his head? Actually, he lives in New Orleans and has for at least half of each calendar year since 1988.
'I was always fascinated with it," he says. "I'd always wanted to see where the Meters were from. And when I came here, I felt instantly comfortable, like I had been here before." Saturnalia, like his last six records, was recorded mostly in New Orleans at various studios, including one track with the local organist Mr. Quintron at the Truck Farm on St. Claude Avenue. Of course, the American South and its music are full of ghosts like the ones that swarm on Saturnalia named for the Roman festival when master and slave switched roles but New Orleans' spirits tend to insinuate themselves a little more strongly.
'I write very easily here," Dulli says. "It's strangely inspirational. I'd love to think some of the cultural fabric seeped in."