The Afghan Whigs were arguably one of the brightest and most innovative bands of the '90s alternative rock explosion, but despite achieving a pretty respectable level of success and critical acclaim, they never quite fit in with their Sub Pop label-mates and plaid-shirted peers. Singer and band leader Greg Dulli has spent the past decade or so with other projects including the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins (with Mark Lanegan) as well as contributing to several movie soundtracks including Backbeat and Beautiful Girls. We caught up with Greg Dulli recently from his home in Los Angeles to talk about the Whigs reforming, performing live, his influences and where next for the Whigs.
So, you're living in California these days?
I live in Los Angeles and also in New Orleans. I split my time between the two. Sometimes four months here, eight months there or six months and six months. Whatever works.
What drew you to New Orleans?
Well, I started going to New Orleans 25 years ago. It's one of the greatest cities in the world. It's warm, it's beautiful, it has great food. It's a small town with a lot of really cool people. Great architecture, great music scene. It's a fantastic place. I have a home there since 1997, so 15 years I've lived in both places.
I think I put on about five pounds in five days when I was there.
[Laughs] There's butter in the air! There's no question about that. If you don't keep an eye on it, it will take you down.
How's the tour going so far?
It's been fun. We did Lollapalooza in Chicago, Pukkelpop in Belgium. I'm having a great time. We've been welcomed back with open arms so it's been a good experience thus far.
Are you finding it's a slightly older crowd made up of fans from the '90s or also younger kids too?
I've met a lot of teenagers at the shows who came up and said their older brother or their dad has listened to the band so there's definitely been a migration of younger people into the shows.
You guys always stood out from the Sub Pop stable at the time and the whole grunge and alternative rock scene.
Well, we weren't from Seattle. We're from Cincinnati, Ohio so it's a different aesthetic I think. And we wore nicer clothes too. [Laughs]
There's more to it than where you come from though. You guys were mining a completely different vein, with the Motown influence and the themes in your music were quite different.
I think everyone mines their influences in a different way. As much as I loved soul music I also loved the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. I also loved country music and blues music and I can hear everything that I've ever listened to funnelled into my music. I'm pretty all over the place and it never ends when it comes to music.
Were the Replacements a big influence?
Yeah, I liked the Replacements but I really liked Hüsker Dü and they were a big influence on me. Their shows were a little more direct than the Replacements. I saw the Replacements four times and they were good once. [Laughs] The other three times they were wasted. Which is funny and all that but I don't go to a show to watch wasted people play cover songs. Hüsker Dü were a monster ― and I'm not putting down the Replacements because Paul Westerberg wrote some fantastic rock songs and the one time they were good they were unbelievable ― but I would put Hüsker Dü as a bigger influence as far Minneapolis rock bands. Amazing songs, amazing live band.
Do you still listen to them?
I'm still a huge fan. I was listening to them a few months ago and loving it. The Zen Arcade, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig trinity is one of the greatest album runs any band could ever have. They had two singers, two songwriters that wrote different kinds of songs but when they sang together they were really amazing. Their stuff still holds up for me. If you're on the fence I would recommend Flip Your Wig, it's Hüsker Dü in a nutshell. It's them at their absolute zenith.
Bob Mould has a great autobiography about the band and his difficulty in coming out.
Well, two-thirds of that band is gay. The drummer is gay too. I don't know who you'd be afraid to come out to. Maybe your audience? If two-thirds of the band is gay that is decidedly a majority. [Laughs] When they were coming up in a punk rock world that was probably a pretty terrifying thing but no less terrifying than Frank Ocean coming out as a hip hop/ R&B guy.
You guys cover a Frank Ocean tune, "Love Crimes." Why that particular track?
It's just one that I made work. When I cover a tune, I appropriate it. I make it my own and I just adapted that one. I actually truthfully like all of his songs and he's got two records and he does not have a bad song on his two records and that's pretty rare for me to say that about anybody. But that particular song, in a really concise way it creates a kind of dramatic episode. It's a story song in a way, it's very poetic, the lyrics are very deep and it's got a hook that I would kill for. That "murder, murder, murder" hook is amazing. I'm a huge fan of his but that was the song I felt like I could make my own, so I did.
You guys are known for your covers both as b-sides and in your live shows. Do you still play a lot of covers in your live sets?
It depends. Sometimes we've done shows where we play all covers because that's what we feel like doing that night. It's entirely possible that we've played half covers at any show at any time because we're kinda into that.
Are there any other covers we can look forward to on this tour?
We're still playing that Marie "Queenie" Lyons song "See And Don't See." That song is 40 years old. It came out in 1970. We cover Thin Lizzy occasionally. A song called "Little Darling" from the Gary Moore era. It was a b-side. A killer song. It's like two minutes and 40 seconds long. It's super-fun. We're all over the place with our covers.
Is it a different experience doing covers as opposed to performing your own material?
Well, I'm a singer and a songwriter and an interpreter. I'm out there to entertain myself as well as the audience. If I feel like that's the way to go, that's the move I'll make. The shows we're playing now are 95 percent original songs but I like to do covers. There are no rules in rock'n'roll. I do what I want but I love to interpret and I love to sing my own songs. I just love to sing.
It was the My World Is Empty Without You twelve-inch that really sealed my interest in the Afghan Whigs as I pretty much grew up on my mum's Motown and Stax collection and I felt like you guys were the only band really blending these two genres of alternative rock and soul.
[Laughs] Well, good! Actually, it also got my mother interested! It her was record collection that I was into. She was a teenage mother and that's what teenagers listened to when she was a kid. I inherited her record collection and her youthful spirit in regards to that. When I started to play music it wasn't hard for me to use that as a touchstone. It's what I grew up on. It's what I knew. There was a comfort and an ease in exploring that kinda stuff for me. It was very natural.
What inspired you guys to reform?
We disintegrated at the end of the '90s because we just flamed out. We played for 12 years. We were really crazy people on the road. We lived kinda wild lives and it became unhealthy at the end of that run. Everybody went off in their own direction and did their own thing. I did an acoustic tour a couple of years ago and [Whigs bassist] John [Curley], who's one of my best friends, came out and played five or six of those shows with me and I think that's when it got in the back of my mind that I really liked playing with him and I really liked playing the songs as I hadn't really done Whigs songs in years, especially the ones I was doing on that acoustic tour. After that I put out another Twilight [Singers] record and toured that and then I got approached by the ATP people. They had invited us before but this time I was a little more receptive because of that experience I'd had with John and probably because I felt like we as people were in the right headspace to do what we were being asked to do. And it seemed like a cool way to spend the summer. Now summer's turning into fall. We started out agreeing to two shows and by the time we're done we'll have done 60 [laughs] but that's cool. It's been fun to watch it evolve and really fun to do.
How long do you plan to keep playing together for?
I'm closing no doors. I'm surfing the wave right now. I'm having a wonderful time.
Going back to that concept of headspace you mentioned earlier, how does it feel now to be singing those tracks from Gentlemen for example?
Well, as soon as you do something, it's in the past. You go watch Nick Cave and he sings "Deanna" and he wrote that song 25 years ago or whatever and what does it mean now? It means what it meant ― it's a rock'n'roll song. You know what I mean? Any song that I don't wanna sing I don't sing. Any song I can't bring my full force behind I don't do and I've done that my whole life. I don't do songs in any obligatory way, I'm doing them because I feel like doing them and I'm going to sell the emotion the best I can. In whatever way I inhabit that character, that's on me.
I'm curious to how much you inhabit those characters, as with Gentlemen, there's clearly an element of theatre but it's also very uncomfortable to listen to at times.
Well Trout Mask Replica is not an easy listen either, for a different reason. [Laughs] But I hear what you're saying. It's the songs that I wrote that year. Every record I do is a marking of time in my life. I've written songs and albums every bit as emotionally challenging as Gentlemen. Not all the time but as recently as nine years ago I did a record that's every bit as harrowing, to me, as that one [referring to Blackberry Belle, a tribute to Dulli's friend, movie director Ted Demme, who died of a heart attack in January of the previous year] was so you just do it. I'm a singer. I sing the songs I wrote. Whatever songs I don't feel like singing off Gentlemen on a particular night I'll just leave off the set list.
You must be made of sterner stuff than me because sometimes I just can't play that album, despite it being my favourite of yours.
Well, good. I'll tell you something. There are records of favourite groups of mine that I find claustrophobic and listening to them make me tense and so I don't, but another record of theirs will make me feel really good. Radiohead would be a perfect example ― OK Computer kinda makes me uptight but Hail To The Thief or In Rainbows, it's a groove. It's something I can put on and relax to. OK Computer not so much. It makes me feel tense. Pink Floyd's Animals makes me feel the same way. That record is just unrelenting with its doom and gloom. I appreciate it. It's a great record. It's a work of art but I don't unwind to Animals, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It's a different headspace but when you get into a concert it is theatre, you know. Death Of A Salesman is a sad story but actors go out and play that role every night. And I'm not saying I'm acting but I have a job to do and if I have to feel that feeling again, well, there's a lot harder jobs than singing songs from Gentlemen.
With Black Love the theatre is more to the fore. It feels almost like a movie on an album.
I felt that way too and still feel that way. Some nights we play over half of Black Love and I feel the pageantry around those songs. One of the favourite things I've ever done is that record.
Do you have any plans to record new material?
I'm kinda leaving the door open to whatever's going to happen. I'm not making any grand pronouncements about this or that. We've already been playing a new song sometimes in the shows. Occasionally we'll throw it in. We haven't recorded it yet, we're just playing it and it changes every night. The words change, the arrangement changes but that's how we used to it in the old days ― you just keep playing something until it feels right. So, you know, the door is open and my answer is open to interpretation.