December 01, 2014

An Interview with Dwight Twilley

“That’s the story of my career,” says Dwight Twilley on the phone from his home in Tulsa, his hearty laugh and facetiousness belying the bane of what could’ve been: Mere weeks before his death in August 1977, Elvis Presley almost recorded one of Twilley’s songs. 

“It was being discussed with the publishers,” says Twilley of “TV,” two minutes, sixteen seconds of reverbed, shivering rockabilly in praise of the almighty boobtube. “If you think about it, that probably would’ve been a pretty damn good tune for him.” 

It would’ve been a pretty damn good time for Twilley to have caught a break, too.

“TV” originally appeared on Sincerely, the debut LP by the Dwight Twilley Band, which besides its principal singing and songwriting namesake boasted one-man rhythm section and erstwhile vocalist Phil Seymour and lead guitarist Bill Pitcock IV. Though it earned rave reviews upon its release in 1976 — Rolling Stone hailed it as “the best rock debut album of the year” — 
Sincerely was a commercial disappointment, due in part to disputes at the band’s label that, nearly a year after lead single “I’m On Fire” had entered and exited the Top 20, effectively squelched the band’s momentum. 

As Elvis himself had once famously bemoaned, “Who do you thank when you have such luck?”

Twilley’s troubles didn’t end there; in one way or another they’ve underscored most of his professional career. And yet from his formative days in the Dwight Twilley Band — the group broke up in 1978 following the lackluster sales of its sophomore LP, Twilley Don’t Mind — throughout such solo highlights as “Girls” (featuring former label mate Tom Petty) and “Why You Wanna Break My Heart,” Twilley hasn’t let his professional frustrations and misfortunes eclipse his musical enthusiasm. 

The latest installment of that enthusiasm is Always, Twilley’s third LP of original material in four years. Featuring such musical cohorts as Tommy Keene, Tractor’s Steve Ripley, and veteran session bassist Leland Sklar, the album boasts the sort of shimmering melodic pop and boisterous rock ‘n’ roll that longtime fans love. 

Sure, it’s familiar ground for Twilley, but few cover it so well. 

Always is your third studio album in four years. Are you a more prolific songwriter these days? Or have you always been prolific and you’re just now releasing more of what you write?

I was always very prolific, but I had so many problems in the music industry as a kid that, now that I’m self-contained and have my own studio and record company, it’s up to me when I want to record and how much. I never had that opportunity before. 

Is songwriting something you enjoy? Some artists like having written a song, but not sitting in a room with a pencil and a guitar trying to write one.

It’s a lonely feeling, because there’s nobody there to help you, usually. It just comes second nature with me. I’ve been doing it so long… The hardest part about it for me — it’s not the actual writing of the song because mechanically I just kind of do that second nature without really thinking about it — is the idea.

Coming up with the idea?

Yeah, coming up with the idea. “What am I writing about here? What am I trying to say?” Once I have that, I don’t have to think about it. The song just kind of appears.

To what length will you chase an idea or inspiration? Can it drive you nuts to the point where you just discard it altogether?

No. Sometimes if I don’t think about it, it works out better because those just come to me; and it’ll come to me at the strangest times. In fact, we’ve kind of promised ourselves that we’re going to stop recording for a while and do some other things — appear live more — and I have some other projects that I’m interested in doing. Even though you’ve promised yourself that you’re not going to write anymore or do anything else then you’ll come up with two or three good ideas.

You live and work in Tulsa, which isn’t exactly the center of the music universe.

No, but it is well known for some of the most talented musicians in the world. It’s not known just here. People around the world are very aware of Tulsa being a place for musicians that have thrived. I’ve always said part of the reason for that is this town just treats their musicians like shit. [Laughs] It’s why so many of them leave here and become big successes, because they certainly couldn’t do it here. If you want to be in the music business and you’re in Tulsa you better really love it or you better be really good.

Can you discern how recording and writing in Tulsa has influenced how your music comes out? In other words, does your environment affect how your music ultimately sounds?

I don’t think geographically it makes that big a difference to me. I think it’s just the whole freedom that I have, having my own studio that I’m in total control of. And it’s built onto my house so I can just walk out of here and be home, and I can stumble out of the house and be in here in my secret laboratory. Most of my life I had to get the big record company to pay the big dollars to be able to afford an album to record on X amount of days at X studio and be done that date, this whole big to-do.

[With] this, I just have the complete freedom to work at my own pace and not have to worry about being thrown out of the studio at midnight or something; or some other artist is coming in; or the record company thinks you’re going over budget. I just don’t have those worries anymore.... I kind of take more of an artistic freedom to go, “I don’t really care what other people think or how a record is supposed to be structured, what the rules are anymore.” There really isn’t much radio anymore and there isn’t much of a record business anymore. 

For a few years now I’ve sat back and thought about it and thought, I’m a recording artist. I’m an artist at recording. People will say, “You should’ve done that; it’d have been more cool if you did this or did that,” I think to myself, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want to do because I’m in control of my art. This is the way I want people to hear what I do, and so that’s what they get. There’s nobody at any record company who can tell me to do it different.

Does the home studio complement your creative drive or does it lead to obsession?

Sure, you can become obsessive. You can take a long time to work on one record just to get it exactly the way you want it. I can be that way from time to time, but the proof of my discipline is in my last three albums. That’s a short amount of time to release three all-new studio albums, and I’m very proud of all three of them. My fans seem to appreciate them. That gives you a good feeling knowing when you release a record there are people all around the world that it makes very happy. That makes me feel good. I kind of stand behind my work in that way. Sure, I could get really obsessive, but at the end of the day I’m a recording artist and so I want to make a good product, a good piece of work. 

When you’re in the studio do you ever tailor a song — how it sounds or how it feels — to what you think it’ll translate to on the stage?

No, not usually. I do sort of a different stage show. I like my stage show to be more of a rock ‘n’ roll event, where records to me are more artistic and, in a way, prettier. When I go out on stage I really like to scream my guts out, though I do a few songs in the course of the album that are definitely good screamers for the live show. But I prefer not to — in the middle of my rocking show — slow down and do acoustic things, which I think are real important to have and you want them on the record, but you don’t necessarily want to do them live that much. 

You can kill the momentum of a high-energy show if, four or five songs in, you say, “We’d like to slow it down a bit.”

Yeah, that’s kind of the way I feel about it. I don’t like my live shows to slow down at all. [Laughs]

Do you know anything about the status of the documentary [Why You Wanna Break My Heart: The Dwight Twilley Story] that was being made about you?

As far as I knew that all crashed and burned. And now some people are working on the concept of trying to breathe new life into it. A portion of it was filmed. We’ve talked to a few people, and are looking around for somebody who might want to take over the project and complete it. And I have some ideas of my own in that regard.

What gives you the biggest thrill in making music? Is it finishing a song? Is it getting an idea in the middle of the night that inspires you to write one?

I think the most satisfying moment I have is when I lay down a guitar or piano and I put the main vocal on it correctly — in other words, the right words in the right place — and the song sounds like what I’d wanted it to be. That’s my most exciting moment. From then on it’s just the mechanics of building it into a record, which is a fun process. Don’t misunderstand me, now. I enjoy that process, but there’s nothing more thrilling… Because you know what the best song always is? The new one. And there’s nothing like having a new one. After you have the new song you have that excitement for a while. Then it becomes something you’re working on. Then you just look forward to the next song.

Once you’ve reached that point where the song has achieved that basic shape of how you imagined it originally, is it instinct that then tells you when you’ve finally finished the song? Some artists have trouble putting things away.

This whole album was a little bit like that. One of the things about it — it was a hard record to make — was when towards the end of recording the last album, Soundtrack, my dear friend and companion and co-worker, Bill Pitcock IV, passed away. Bill had been with me since “I’m On Fire,” and the last ten years or so we really worked closely together in the studio, all the time. We’d just do things… I could just sing a note to him and he’d know exactly what I wanted. It was kind of one of those things where you barely needed to talk. My wife, who engineers the records, would say, “Pitcock speaks Twilley,” because we just had a way of communicating. 

We didn’t have Bill there every step of the way. We’d record some songs completely by ourselves and kind of feel proud of ourselves: “We didn’t even need Pitcock on that.” Now we don’t feel so proud. It doesn’t feel quite as good anymore, the feeling of knowing that he is just not here.

So it was suggested, “Why don’t you call on some of these friends who you’ve had through the years and get them to play on this record?” I thought that was kind of a good idea, but it kind of made it take longer waiting for the availability of different players and putting it together. There were times we called it “the record that wouldn’t die,” but eventually it did finish. 

But you can get caught up on a little tangent — and it’s a real thing — because you’ll hear the record and think, It’s all there but there’s some little thing missing. You just know there’s some little thing missing. Most of the time — if you rely on your instinct and don’t freak out on it — you just put that one little thing in there and it makes the record sit. It will settle down and say, “Okay, I’m fine now,” because usually the record will tell you what it wants.

Despite all the setbacks and frustrations that have occurred throughout your career, you must feel a sense of satisfaction that you’re still doing what you love exactly how you want to do it.

Very much. I would guess you would most likely be able to hear that in the album, Always