Incendiary interview Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs

Once the decision was made to do it. You have to be fearless. You can’t go into it like a pussy.

Greg Dulli & The Afghan Whigs performing at Haldern pop Festival 2012

www.theafghanwhigs.com

I find Greg Dulli, eventually, in the corner of a rather posh fish and chip restaurant. It’s not exactly the kind of setting you’d expect to find one of America’s leading rock frontmen, but still, there he was. The restaurant itself is one of those converted, vast, former dock warehouses, located somewhere on the Northern side of the Ij in Amsterdam. I say somewhere because that, dear Incendiary heads, is the easiest way of describing the location to you. My route to it was, however, rather more complicated. To find it, your intrepid reporter had to make use of five methods of transport, (bus, bike, tram, train and ferry) an active GPS device and the rather bewildering directions of a couple of only-too-happy-to-hinder pensioners. I won’t tell you the name of the restaurant in case you feel the need to search it out. I simply don’t want to be responsible for a number of you being lost in parts of Amsterdam usually reserved for drug dealers and white van men. Still, the restaurant itself was rather nice and when eventually I took my seat, clicked all the relevant buttons on my recording device and took a large swig of the delicious Belgian beer I’d managed to get my hands on, the virtual tape began to roll…

IN: Welcome to the industrial areas of North Amsterdam.

GD: yeah cool.

IN: And of those old big warehouses. This is the first time I’ve been over here actually.

GD: I think it’s the first time anybody’s been over here.

IN: That’s probably true. It took me a while to find it, I must say and I’m actually quite worried about finding my way out but, yeah, the first thing I want to do actually is to apologise for something. A few years ago I was backstage at the Haldern festival - and I can’t remember if you were there with The Twilight Singers or The Gutter Twins - but there was a bunch of us backstage and we found a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Absinthe. Only to be reliably informed slightly later that at least one of those bottles was supposed to be for you, so I’d like to kick off by apologising for drinking your rider.

GD: (laughs) That’s alright. If you drank Jack Daniels it probably wasn’t mine, the Absinthe might have been mine. I hope you enjoyed it.

IN: We did. I don’t remember much of the end of the night, I’ll be honest, but up until that point it was pretty cool.

Well, let’s get at least semi-serious about this. I’ve been living with Do To The Beast for just over a week now and have been spinning it on heavy rotation just to get truly familiar with it but it did make me go back and listen to a lot of the early Afghan Whigs stuff, particularly Big Top Halloween. I had to dig out my old cassette tape version of it and actually go around to a friend’s house to listen to it as I no longer own a tape machine.

GD: Wow

IN: And what struck me was just how much fun Big Top is, and how funny it is. There’s a lot said about music from that period, the early Sub Pop stuff etc and that applies to you guys as well but nobody ever mentions the humour of it all. Big Top Halloween is a fun record. “You can kiss my lips or kiss my arse, it doesn’t matter which you kiss first.”

GD: Hey, even I don’t remember that.

IN: Well I just think that that whole ‘serious’ side to the music of that time didn’t come till later. You can hear on Big Top that you’re just in a room having a blast. It was fun to listen to again, and I haven’t listened to that album in, what, ten, fifteen years at least. It’s got a real youthful vibe to it but the reason I dug that out is because, nowadays, once a band passes the ten year mark, it almost seems as if they should be treated to some kind of testimonial. As if a decade is a sense of longevity. What I find interesting about you guys, The Afghan Whigs, is that you were essentially gone, out of the picture for more than a decade. So in the modern scheme of things, you’re a band that could well have been forgotten – or at least you maybe have to truly start again. That kind of hiatus can be too much of a gap for many.

Now you guys toured a few years ago and I can remember reading then that you’d said something along the lines of “We’re just having fun, we’re gonna tour and that’s about it.” And so this album kind of came out of the blue, for me at least. Tell me, how did the project actually come about?

GD: We finished playing our last show  on New Year's Eve, 12 into 13. And then we were done. I got a call, probably about this time last year, from Andy Cohn of Fader magazine asking if we’d play with Usher at SXSW. I told him to have Usher call me. He called me, it sounded cool. I called John and we were both…we decided to play the show but we both decided we were going to do the show without Rick McCollum.

I think once we’d played without Rick we realized that we wanted to play again, together. And to make a record together. So we decided to meet in California in May and start working on a  record. We got together in May, June, August and October and then I finished the vocals and the record was mixed and done by December.

IN: Cool. So that turned around pretty quickly then. Going back to the Usher thing, that’s the kind of thing that… I don’t know if it was Fader’s idea to put that together, but that’s one of those things that initially a lot of people will look at and say there’s a kind of interesting mix – throwing the rock and R&B stuff together. But there’s always been a hint of that soul, R&B sound in your work so I can kind of see the connection there.

GD: True.

IN: The idea of it alone probably makes a lot more sense if you actually think about it because I think there’s a lot of common ground there. Was that experience as exciting as the potential to which you thought it might have?

GD: Sure. You know what? When I’d spoken to him on the phone, he just…we talked about what we might do and we just wanted to have a good time. I’ve said this a couple of times before but it kind of like…We had two days to create a show so we sort of formed a band. We formed a band on Thursday and we had a show on Saturday. It reminded me of teenage life, a little bit. There was something exciting and by the seat of your pants, like, you know? We had Usher and his guitar player Johnny Natural and then there was five of us. So we put together a show in two days and we played the show on Saturday and it was phenomenal.

IN: I can imagine it’s one of those things where you can test it to a point, but you can never quite tell how it’s going to go on the night. If we mess up? Tough, let’s just go with it.

GD: Yeah.

IN: And that must be kind of liberating.

GD: It was totally liberating. It was totally liberating because, you know, Usher comes from a world where everything is kind of synchronized perfection. So you know he was throwing himself into it with that kind of seat of his pants enthusiasm. It was inspirational. And I really had a great time singing with him and watching him do his thing. I mean he’s a fucking phenomenal performer. And the girls went crazy.

IN: (both laugh) Never a bad thing.

GD: I mean I’d just never heard screaming like that before.

IN: Yeah, it’s not rock screaming is it?

GD: No.

 

IN: Well I was talking to my co-editor about this new album and I was saying that, in the past, if I were to describe The Afghan Whigs to somebody I’d have said for years that they were like listening to somebody try and tell a story in the middle of a battle. So you would have your voice as a central point and then it would sound like the band was literally pulling things left, right and centre around you.

GD: I like that.

IN: But for this new album I’d actually change that. Now, I’d probably describe this as like you’re just standing on a cliff, watching a storm come in. Especially as, I think it’s from about track five onwards, there’s just this, the whole thing just kind of builds and builds and builds.

GD: Yeah. Well you mention track five, Lost In The Woods. That’s probably, well I think it’s probably my favourite track on the record. There’s a lot going on in that song. There’s sex and despair and all the good stuff in there.

IN: It’s a great track, truly and I’m in love with the closer These Sticks. I can’t get enough of that. And there’s some incredible guitar work again throughout the record, where I think you can really hear the input of the new guys. I mean, you’ve got some quite fierce, sharp, staccato stuff on Matamoros that’s quite funky and then some almost New Order type sounds on The Lottery, there’s a real exciting mix to the record.

 

GD: And Johnny Natural does this fucking incredible part on It Kills, it sounds like a fucking bird or something. I heard him do this thing when we played with Usher and I just wanted to have him come in and put that on the album somewhere.

IN: And what I really like about the album as a whole is that, although at times the lyrics are quite angry and at times they’re quite menacing, the album never loses its temper at any point. So there’s never really any kind of angry yelling or thrashing around or anything. It just boils and boils and simmers and gets to a level before dropping off a little and then picking back up.

GD: Yeah.

IN: And it’s that tension, that atmosphere that it creates, that's what’s most exciting about it.

GD: Thank you.

IN: The album flits between two kind of mindsets. Either you think there’s a confrontation about to happen, or you’re listening to the comedown from one that happened last night. You don’t hear the argument, or fight itself, but rather you get swept up by all the pre-and post mix of emotions. It’s very clever writing and that’s what makes it seem like such a mature record – and I don’t mean that condescendingly, I mean it as a true compliment. I mean, I don’t think you could have written this album when you were younger. There’s a different, lived in, feel to it.

But again, there must have been some pressure, or you must have felt some pressure at the beginning where, when you were putting this together, was this project going to be The Afghan Whigs, or something else? Did you feel the pressure to put that coat on again? Is there a danger of sullying what we did before? Or was it just a case of, we know this feels good, we’re going to get something out of it?

GD: Once the decision was made to do it. You have to be fearless. You can’t go into it like a pussy. You know, we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna go all the way in. I mean, we’re very well aware of the legacy we’re engaging. We were part of building the legacy so, you know, I had no fear once we’d decided to do it. I used any kind of negative feelings that I would ever have to bolster myself. To do the best thing that we could. You know, when you’re playing music with someone you’ve known for over half your life, there’s a safety in that. And we’ve gone through a lot of shit together and, you know, what’s the worst that could happen?

IN: Yeah, you’ve already been down.

GD: Yeah, we’ve already done that, so like, let’s just, you know, we’re not curing cancer we’re making a rock and roll record. You know what I mean?

IN: Yeah.

GD: And, I think we made a great one.

IN: Well I described it in a tweet as a beautiful, throbbing, tender bruise of a record. I come out of it feeling that “I’m not quite sure how I’m meant to feel about all of this but I am a mixed bag of emotions right now.

GD: (Laughs heartily.)

IN: It is a cracking piece of work. I wish you a lot of success with it. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me.

GD: Thank you.

 

Do To The Beast is released in April and it’s an absolute belter. I suggest you check it out. The Afghan Whigs will also be performing across Europe in the summer, including a show at the Paradiso. I’ll see you all down the front.