Interview: Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs


The Afghan Whigs (Photo by Sam Holden)

Though The Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli long denied that the powerful rock band would ever reunite in an official capacity, long time Whigs fans kept fingers crossed, holding out hope that Dulli’s occasional gigs with John Curley would spark a full blow reunion for the former-Cincinnati outfit.  What fans didn’t know, was that Dulli was bonding behind closed doors with Whigs guitarist Rick McCollum during the Twilight Singers 2011 spring tour, and that the seed of reuniting the band was taking roots.  In November 2011, the three convened for several days in New Orleans, conjuring an old black magic that had been kept under wraps for years.
Originally formed in Cincinnati in 1986 by the core trio of Curley, Dulli, and McCollum, the group combined sheer volume, audacious personality, gritty soul immediacy, and swinging musical chops; a sound that propelled them to the top tier of Cincinnati’s music scene almost immediately and later captured the attention of a small, fledgling label out of Seattle called Sub Pop. Sub Pop signed the Whigs in 1989, and the group commenced to rearrange the landscape of90s alternative rock (amidst contemporaries like Nirvana, Tad and Soundgarden) for years as one of indie rock’s juggernauts. 
The band’s landmark albums Gentlemen and Black Love (which were released by Elecktra) saw the band getting MTV airplay, they made appearances on network television, and the Whigs embarked on larger and larger tours.  The band’s sixth and final album, 1965, for Columbia would unfortunately prove to be the core trio’s final album together.  Although Dulli continued making music with The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins (alongside Mark Lanegan), and McCollum and Curley have remained forces in independent music in Minnesota and Cincinnati respectively, longtime fans of the cult band always felt like the Whigs story had a few additional chapters that were left unwritten. 
In December 2011 it finally happened – the band announced that they’d be doing appearances at All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in London in 2012.  Dulli also signed on as the curator for ATP’s stateside edition, which is scheduled for September 22 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.  Though this was exciting news for many fans, and the Whigs pacified us briefly with covers of Marie Lyons’ “See and Don’t See” and Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes, anticipation of a full blown U.S. tour kept diehards chomping at the bit. 
Well friends, the Whigs return to North American in September (dates below), and You Indie and Ghettoblaster Magazine somehow lucked into arranging a phone conversation with Dulli shortly before the run.  Here’s what he had to say about the band’s first meeting, performing cover songs, Nick Cave and white people…
Are you calling from Dayton, the Gem City Dayton?
Yes.  I think we actually have a friend in common in Rob Strong, who said he came and saw you in Chicago at Lollapalooza…

Yeah.  Always have a great time with him.  Love Rob Strong.  He’s one of my all time faves.
I imagine today that you are a little preoccupied with thinking about Hurricane Isaac coming towards New Orleans where you spend part of your time.  Are all your friends out of harm’s way?

They are actually all staying.  I think maybe if the strength changes, then there is still an out.  But a Category 1…I’ve locked down for some Category 1s and while they are scary, they’re doable.  We’ll see what happens.  That kind of thing is a fact of life in the gulf states.  Just like tornadoes in Dayton, ya know?

I recall that part of the Whigs mythology was that you guys met in a jail cell in Athens, Ohio during their annual Halloween celebration.  How true is that; is that how it really went down?

No.  We used to play Athens all the time and even played there on Halloween.  There was…parts of it are true.  Members of what became the group were incarcerated briefly, but our actual meeting happened at another location. 
Over the last couple decades I imagine you’ve seen more than a few people you may have at one time considered contemporaries have their trains jump the tracks in terms of their output losing focus or poignancy amidst their fanbases.  How have you managed to avoid these pitfalls?

Um…switching groups (laughter).  That is one way of doing it.  I like everybody else do what I do and try to believe in it to the best of my abilities.  Chances are if you are feeling something and you have a way of expressing yourself that folks have come to enjoy…I’ve never had a huge audience anyway.  But I’ve been very lucky in that this group of people have adopted me and taken me in as one of their own.  That is my fortunate lot in life.  And I’ve hopefully made music that they’ve enjoyed over the course of this long career I’ve been fortunate enough to have.

It seems like every time I get obsessed with a song or artist you emerge with a cover of that song or artist.  It happened in ‘94 when I saw you cover Prince at Hara Arena, with your Bjork cover, the Kanye cover, and again with the Frank Ocean cover.  Do you find that being a diehard music fan gives you an edge as you write your material or do you ever find those influences leaching in a bit too much?

I’ve always been able to…I cover songs that I genuinely like.  My kind of rule about a cover song is that I have to wish that I wrote it and then I have to act like I did.  I’ve managed to keep my original thoughts as separate as possible.  But I’m always influenced by what other people do.  Sometimes I have a reaction to something that I heard or I really like what somebody did and try a version of that and sometimes I appropriate it, and sometimes I cover it.  It is all grist for the mill.

When you get polarized by an artist do you get butterflies in your stomach or how do you know that this is something you have to do?

If I find myself thinking about something for more than a couple days…it is sort of like an attraction to a person or feeling.  I start to circle it like a shark.  And in a lot of ways for a cover song I can just smell that there’s blood in the water.  And I go towards the blood.  That is how I arrive there.  It chooses me and then I begin my move toward it.

I read in Rolling Stone that you were planning on catching M83 at Lollapalooza.  Any chance we could see a Whigs or Dulli M83 cover coming down the pipe?

Not yet.  I don’t know how I would do that.  Sometimes I just like a group and I don’t attempt to cover them.  But if you’re laying down the challenge maybe I’ll take a stab at it and see what I can do.

Absolutely.  Can you remember anything significant about the show you did with New Bomb Turks, Breeders and Guided By Voices at Hara Arena all those years ago?

I remember that I had a 102 temperature and that if we weren’t playing Hara Arena I would have been in the hospital.  I was wildly sick.  But I wanted to stand on the stage that I saw Judas Priest stand on so many times that I made myself go.

It didn’t show at all.

That’s great, but I remember feeling doubly sick because to play Hara Arena was a big deal for me.  Every bit as big a deal as when the Whigs played Madison Square Garden.  Maybe more personal for me because of how many concerts I’d seen at Hara.  I had a lot of amazing experiences at Hara Arena as a kid growing up. 

Do you get those kind of nerves these days?

The moment before the show is always…well sure.  I would hate to know what it was like not to get that feeling.  The anticipation is one of the great feelings in life.  I still get it every night.  It is a wonderful feeling and I think I’d be lost without it.

A lot of your songs center around a narrative writing style.  With folks like Nick Cave writing books and screen plays and that kind of thing have you ever thought that was something you’d like to try?

I’ve written a couple screen plays and I’ve written a couple short stories.  I’ve written things outside of the songwriting genre.  I’ve written magazine articles.  I’ve done interviews.  There are other things to be done.  It is a long life and I’m looking forward to seeing what else I can do.  I’m having a great time writing songs right now.  It is still a consuming passion of mine.  I love the immediacy of the song.  Nick Cave is amazingly disciplined and truly a renaissance type guy.  He’s not only writing books and screen plays, but he’s writing the soundtrack to the screenplay.  His finding a foil like Warren Ellis has been such a gear in his gear box that he didn’t have until he met him…I’m a huge Nick Cave fan and I’m looking forward to seeing the Lawless movie.  The composition and the soundtrack for the composition are great.  I’m keen to see Lawless.

You had mentioned that you’re writing songs.  Are those for the Whigs, Twilight Singers…

I don’t know yet.  I’m just writing songs and I’ll see who wants to play them with me.  They’re starting to pop now and I’m going to go off to Joshua Tree this weekend and write a couple things down.

When I caught you on the Evening with Greg Dulli tour John Curley joined for a bunch of Whigs songs.  That wasn’t the first time I’d seen him join you or the Twilight Singers either.  Why hadn’t this reunion occurred sooner?

Well, what happened on that tour was that he played Cincinnati, he came to Chicago and played, and then he came to the West Coast and did LA, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle with me.  I think going to Chicago, riding in the van, getting on the airplane to come west was the precursor to what is happening now.  It is all these years later…I’ve known John since I was 20.  Well over half my life.  He’s one of my closest and dearest friends so I tend to think that the experience back then was what allowed what is happening now to happen in its totality.

What have the highlights of this run been?  Have you connected with a lot of fans who said they missed you on the first go round?

Yeah I have.  I’ve met some teenagers.  There’s been old people, young people, black people, white people.  It’s been kind of like a Benetton-esque group of people who have been coming to watch us play.  In Europe at least.  In America we’ve only played a couple of shows so I’m not sure what to expect.

And it’s all white people?

Well I don’t know because I haven’t played yet.  But I’ll give you a census view from the stage when I get to Cincinnati.  I’ll say, “Tim, I’m seeing 96 percent white people.”  I’ll shout that out for you if you happen to be at the program.  I’ll try to remember that.

You recently lost a dear friend in Renee Maceo, and I’m really sorry for that.  What was her relationship to the Whigs/Twilight Singers landscape?

Renee was…I don’t do a lot of social networking, but Scott Ford, who is the bass player for Twilight Singers is an internet-y guy and developed a relationship with Renee.  She started a message board for Twilight Singers.  Then when we switched gears to the Gutter Twins she picked that up too.  She’s a big fan, not just of mine, but of a lot of things.  She ran a Pixies board, a Lanegan board.  She loved rock and roll and she loved people.  She was great at making people feel comfortable.  When I finally did meet her she charmed me up and down.  She was funny, really quick witted, extremely humble and modest, but mischievous.  Honestly, as an artist to meet someone like Renee made me proud that she was representative of someone who liked what I did.  She had a wit and sophistication that was pretty unparalleled.  She was a very passionate person and really cared and did whatever she could to get people out to my concerts, and not just mine, but everybody’s.  I met her three times and by the end I knew her well and liked to see her after the gig.  I’d amble up to her and we’d pick right up where we left off.  It is a tragic loss, and really sad.  I anticipate that I won’t stop being sad about Renee’s loss for quite some time.  She was a lovely human being.  I know that people are hurting pretty bad that she’s not around anymore and I’m one of them.

Do you have anything special planned for your upcoming Cincinnati stop?

Um, what do you mean like am I going to jump out of a cake and turn into a dragon at the end of the show?

No, I mean aside from shouting out to white people?

Well played dude (laughter)… 

You said in one of the articles that I read you’d been playing a lot of material from the last three Whigs albums and I imagine Cincinnati is an environment where people are really familiar with the entire catalog and rarities and stuff.  I was just wondering if there was anything you’d be trying that I could get people stoked about…

We’ve been playing songs from four records, and are now playing songs from five records.  But that’s so far away…I’m not even sure what I’m going to have for lunch today.  But I can assure you that Cincinnati is a very special place for us and I don’t doubt that something special will happen on that evening.

Do you ever think about moving back to Cincinnati?

I don’t like cold weather.  I live in tropical zones that keep it warm and sunny.  I am an Ohioan.  I was born and raised in southern Ohio and have a great affection for it.  But until they work out that winter thing I’m probably not coming back.

I saw some pictures from the current tour and you’re looking pretty sveldt like you’re at a real fighting weight.  John Curley’s looking slim and trim too.  Do you work out together?

We do.  John’s more of a runner than I am.  I like to read a book or put on a movie on a machine.  He likes to put on the headphones and go running Rocky-style through the streets.  That’s not my thing.  But we occasionally do work out together, and we support each other in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle.  I’m working out five days a week.  I think at this point in my life it provides me a clarity and peace.  You get some awful good brain chemicals coming off a workout.  Dopamine, and serotonin…those are positive ingredients to a happy lifestyle.
(Catch The Afghan Whigs at one of the following:
9/22 Asbury Park, NJ – I’ll Be Your Mirror
9/26 Boston, MA – House of Blues
9/27 Philadelphia – Electric Factory
9/28 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
9/29 Pittsburg, PA – Mr. Small’s Theatre
9/30 Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom
10/3 Toronto, ON – Phoenix Theatre
10/5 New York City, NY – Terminal 5
10/12-14 Austin, TX – Austin City Limits Fest
10/14 Dallas, TX – Granada Theater

10/19 New Orleans, LA – Tipitina’s
10/21 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
10/24 Detroit, MI – St. Andrew’s Hall
10/25 Cincinnati, OH – Bogart’s
10/26 Chicago, IL – Metro
10/27 Chicago, IL – Metro
10/28 Minneapolis, MN – Varsity Theatre
10/30 Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre
11/02 Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
11/03 Seattle, WA – Showbox
11/07 San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
11/08 San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
11/09 Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda
11/10 Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda)