While the Afghan Whigs are probably not the first band people think of when they think of the '90s, album for album, the band consistently put out quality material. The outfit's soul-inflected rock, which could just as easily be called power pop even though it packed a lot more punch than some of that music, can be heard in a lot of contemporary music being made, whether the acts know it or not. Greg Dulli's strongly evocative voice has always reverberated with a raw emotional honesty that remains undiminished to this day.
The Afghan Whigs first came to the attention of wider audiences with the release of its third album, 1992's Congregation. But it was the 1993 followup that rightfully garnered the band enduring fame. Gentlemen is truly one of the classic albums of the '90s, not just because the Whigs stood out from other artists hopping on the grunge bandwagon, but for the raw, poetic, emotional honesty of the lyrics. The group's strong songwriting established Dulli as a songwriter whose words possessed a literary quality bereft of pretension.
The Afghan Whigs released two more remarkable albums in the '90s with Black Love in 1996 and 1965 in 1998 before parting ways in 2001. In 2006, the Whigs re-formed temporarily, and in December 2011, the group announced it would get back together for that year's All Tomorrow's Parties. Earlier this year, the Whigs started recording new material for what will hopefully be a new record. We recently spoke with the charming, frank and insightful Dulli about Skip Spence, Dulli's brief tenure as a filmmaker, how his blue collar background has kept him surprisingly grounded and why he plays a Gibson 335 instead of a Fender Telecaster for this incarnation of the Whigs.
Westword: You recorded a cover of a Skip Spence song for a tribute album. How did you learn about his music, and in what way would you say it made an impact on you?
Greg Dulli: Well, I remember hearing Moby Grape when I was a kid and, you know, learning the legend of Skip Spence and his drumming and his sleeping with Grace Slick and his various incarnations in the San Francisco music scene. But to be honest with you, I had a vague recollection of Oar, and when the project came around, I was approached and offered that song, "Dixie Peach Promenade." It's a bizarre song in a series of bizarre songs.
I've done a few tribute records, and I'll tell you something, it's the one that I still listen to occasionally. I rarely listen to that stuff, but I thought everybody did such a cool version of the record, it got me to re-approximate the record and listen to it in the original form as well. So I know that record pretty well. Then I think Beck, Wilco and Feist did a version of it, too. Beck has his record club and people go and make a classic record in one day. Which was odd because Beck was on the More Oar project, as well.
My favorite version was "All Come to Meet Her," which I think was the perfect song on the record. The band, Diesel Park West, [sounded like] they were channeling the Byrds or something. But I love the Robert Plant, I love the Lanegan, I love the Alejandro Escovedo, and the Tom Waits version is great. There are many beautiful versions of those songs.
You've had a direct hand in the production on all of your albums. How did you get started with that?
Four trackin'. We started on four tracks, then eight tracks and then went into a real studio and watched the crazy guy in Kentucky, Wayne Hartman, do his thing. I think it came more from what you like and sounds that you like from records that you grew up with. Personal choice, I think, more than anything, in trying to create a universe that you could inhabit and invite other people inside with you.
Classic R&B seems to be very much part of your musical DNA. Who are some of the artists that still strongly inspire you today and why?
In terms of the Afghan Whigs, it was sort of a specific strain that we rallied around when we were twenty years old. The psychedelic Temptations, the Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, Temptations, were kind of our [inspiration]. "Psychedelic Shack" was one of the first songs we ever played. "Ball of Confusion." We played "Cloud Nine," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," those were all big influences on us. Lots of wah-wah, lots of four on the floor. Noisy and rock. They were using rock instruments and orchestration and stuff like that. In a specific way, that was the era that sort of defined a lot of the early Whigs sound.
I love anything with a great singer and a great melody. Marvin Gaye got into my head, and he's my favorite singer of all time. He really felt it. When he sings, it's like something is being set free inside me. Sam Cooke, too, Al Green, James Carr, William Bell. Lots of people, you know what I mean?
Why did you record Gentlemen at Ardent Studios, and how would you compare it to other studios in which you've worked in terms of vibe and the technology available?
Not only being a fan of Big Star, but actually my first notice of Ardent Studios did not come from Big Star, it came from ZZ Top, who I absolutely loved and still love. I remember meeting Jody Stephens in the early '90s, and he liked our band and came to watch us play. I remember when I met him I was like, "That's the drummer from Big Star. He's at our gig and he's inviting us to come to Memphis."
So it was Jody who invited us. He was working at Ardent and invited us down and made us feel at home. We met some lifelong friends down there, including Jeff Powell, who engineered our last three records, and his wife sang in our band. There's a big family style in the Memphis thing. At Ardent, we've recorded four of our records. I recorded some Twilight Singers stuff in Memphis, too. So it's kind of a go-to, spiritual well for us, Memphis, Tennessee.
Speaking of Big Star, for the 1965 album you worked with Alex Chilton a bit. How did that come about?
Alex knew Jeff [Powell], and Alex was living in New Orleans [where we were recording]. We had this song "Crazy" that I just thought, "Alex Chilton will know how to sing the harmony to this song." Jeff called Alex, and he came over. He listened to the song, put on headphones and did it. He instinctively knew exactly what to do. What he did was exactly what I heard in my mind. He just has that warm, mellifluous, beautiful voice. Not too much, not too little, he knew exactly what to do. That song is not that song without Alex Chilton's contribution.
Jonathan Poneman, in an interview, once talked about your videos and how great he thought they were. You were directly involved in making those videos. What got you into making films?
I took film classes in college, and before college, I was making eight millimeter movies with my neighborhood friends. We were mostly making slasher flicks. Just, you know, blood orgies. Horror movies, for lack of a better term. Buckets of blood, full grindhouse productions. That was sort of our style. Sometimes monsters, naked girls, bloody naked girls. I remember when I started seeing Dwarves albums, I thought, "I already did that." I did that as a teenager. I didn't have dwarves, so they added that, and it was a nice touch.
Have you made many films since?
No, I had a run of it and just sort of [stopped]. I've made a couple of Maya Deren type movies on my phone. Just spooky, silent, black and white stuff. I do stuff occasionally just really for my own amusement. Past that, I'm kind of out of the game. You never know when I'll come back and do that.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
On the experimental end, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Luis Buñuel and his collaborations with Dali were of course cool. I love Fellini, love David Lynch, love the Cohens, '70s Scorsese, Alan Pakula, William Friedkin. I could go on and on.
What are your favorite Friedkin films? He's done a pretty wide variety of films over the years.
French Connection I love. I love Sorceror, the Exorcist and To Live and Die in L.A.. There's four killer movies by one guy, and they're all very different from each other. I think there's something weirdly like, "This is actually happening" [to his films]. There's a realism going on that's almost docu-style. The hospital themes in The Exorcist...those were kind like, wow; I was young when I saw it, but I've been in a hospital and it looked plausible to me.
A lot of ambiguity in William Friedkin movies. The antagonist and the protagonist sometimes get blurred, especially in French Connection. Popeye Doyle is a dirty cop. I enjoy grey areas and the exploration of them. He was a big proponent of that, in portraying his characters evenly. I don't know what he's done lately, but I've actually watched a couple of interviews with William Friedkin, and he looks like someone I'd love to have dinner with.
You have often said in interviews that you're also inspired by books. Are there any authors you've read lately that struck you?
I have to tell you, I haven't really read a lot of books lately. I did read Nobody Move by Denis Johnson, which is a noir book that came out a couple of years ago. It's a killer story. It takes place in California, and it's a heist gone wrong. I love that stuff.
Like James Ellroy or Dashiell Hammett?
Kind of Ellroy-ish but it has more of a sense of humor than Ellroy does. Sometimes it gets a little claustrophobic in James Ellroy's world. This one has some funny moments. But I'm really a huge fan of the Breaking Bad television show. I love the Louis CK show as well. Those two shows in particular are my current viewing obsessions. [With Breaking Bad], not to spoil it for anybody, Walter White, the protagonist of that show, the evolution of that guy and what has happened in the last five seasons, which is probably still just a year in his life, is fabulous. Didn't really see it coming until I thought, "Wow, I don't necessarily agree with you anymore, and you're kind of a shit."
But I can dig it, and again, there's that ambiguity and the exploration of the grey area of the individual and one's ego in individual psyche and the portrayal of that guy and of Jesse, his sidekick. They really flesh out everybody: The cops are interesting, the dealers are interesting, the enforcers, the wives, the children. The situation is entirely compelling, and that's endlessly entertaining for me.
The Louis CK show, while vastly different, has that sense of ambiguity too.
He's sort of mining some Woody Allen stuff -- Chekhov a little bit, Bergman a little bit -- in the same way that Woody Allen did -- Kafka in ways, Richard Pryor in more abstract ways. There's this episode that happens in Miami this year that is...I cannot tell you except to just watch it. I'm like, "What the fuck?" But it's one of my favorite things that I've seen recently. Again, what did that mean? It's very open-ended, and he doesn't answer the question for you. If you have a question, you have to answer it yourself or you have to be satisfied with the fact that the question is unanswerable. I like someone who challenges their audience and he does that.
You did an interview on the Craig Kilborn show years ago, and he asked you about your Meat Loaf story, and you talked about how you worked in a club and you got chased by him. Is that true?
That is true.
When was that?
It was the late '80s, I think. He was having a bad day and yelling at people. I'm casting no judgment on Meat Loaf. I think he's a killer singer. I've had bad days too. What had happened is that we were poor kids working basically roadie jobs. Local crew. And whatever they had to eat or drink, we just took from the dressing room. It wasn't even stealing. It was just sort of like we were appropriating what you left behind.
I thought they were gone, and they came back, and I had this stuff. He was like, "What are you doing?" And I said, "I'm not going to get into this with you right now. I don't need to be answering to you, and you don't need this and I do, so I'm leaving. If you can catch me, you catch me, and if you can't, later." You know? I really doubt that he remembers that in the annals of his extremely illustrious life. I'm guessing that's barely a blip on his ocean radar.
Have you mostly played a Telecaster live?
I do not play Telecasters anymore. But I did for the entire lifetime of the Afghan Whigs up until 1999. Honestly, it was the first guitar I ever owned, and I just kept getting them. It wasn't really...I wish I could tell you that I liked the sound of the Telecaster. But I just got them, and I knew how to play them, and I just kept on getting them. Then I started playing Gibson 335s, which are semi-hollow bodies. I started playing those in 2006. When it came time to [play with the Afghan Whigs again], I was like, "Wow, do I gotta play Telecasters again?" And I'm like, "There's no rules in rock and roll, and I'm going to play what I like." So I'm playing 335s on this tour.
I'm not saying I can play any guitar in this band because I don't think that's true. I don't think I could play a Les Paul because that wouldn't work for this sound. But the 335 does. It's a very versatile instrument. It can do more things than a Telecaster can do and that's what I'm looking for -- the ability to play with power and play with subtlety and wocka-wocka-wocka kind of wah-wah stuff.
So it's an instrument that allows me to not have to be switching guitars in the middle of the show, which I don't like to do. I like to just play and play and play and play. I don't like to be changing guitars all the time. I don't even like watching it in the audience -- dude changing his fucking guitar after every song. Like, "Are you kidding me, dude? Really?" Unless you're like Chet Atkins or Django Reinhardt or Michael Schenker, you don't get to do it.
There was an interview you did for Dutch TV many years ago in which you gave one of the best, most thoughtful answers about a delicate subject that they grilled you on. You were cool and calm, which was impressive. They talked about the proper role models for people you told them about teachers and doctors. What has kept you so grounded over the years?
When people talk about hard work, I grew up in a blue collar environment. My dad worked for the railroad; my mom was a tax preparer. My relatives worked mostly factory jobs. The people that I always looked up to were people who stopped to teach me something or stopped to impart some sort of wisdom that I did not have or wasn't going to have. Like the medical arts. I'm not a doctor. Doctors help people, teachers help people and people who help people are kind of the people that I'm sort of attracted to energy-wise. That's probably why I gave that answer.
How did you get started playing music in a small town?
I started playing drums first, and I liked that. But when we started playing out, I saw people paying more attention to the singer. I kind of didn't really like that. Then I decided I was not going to play drums anymore. I still love to play drums, but I like to be in the front where the action is. So I started playing music when I was twelve and never stopped.
Probably around the time I was eighteen, that's when I started thinking that maybe I would keep on playing and see how far I could take it. That's when I started seriously writing songs, and I kept on from there. At a certain point it became the only thing that I wanted to do with any kind of continuity. It's the thing that made me feel the most alive and plugged into myself and challenged by and I still am to this day.
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