CD/Zine vol. 8
Greg Dulli is a passionate man. He’s lived, he’s loved; he’s fought- literally- for what he believes in, and he doesn’t like people who fuck him around.
Dulli doesn’t like music that fucks him around either. His battered but glowing Afghan Whigs are, after all, about honesty as much as anything else (tortured relationships, emotional violence, fleeting bursts of rapture and suchlike), so it’s not surprising when he grips his mineral water at London’s Columbia hotel and growls his hatred of what he considers false music- the soulless spew of no-talent fraudsters. In other words, stuff he thinks is shit.
“What music do I hate? Besides grunge?” Greg chuckles at the word, then gets serious.
“I hate the grunge imitators- the obvious imitators- and those who are so obvious they feel the need to whine about the fact they’re not getting any critical respect even though they’re pushing units. They know who they are. You don’t even have to say their names. (Pause…) Stone Temple Pilots. That kinda stuff makes me sick.”
And what stuff makes Greg swoon? Oh, everything from Diana Ross (his Tamla-worship is well-documented), to My Bloody Valentine (“One day they’ll be regarded as something very special and important”) and lots more besides. Anything real.
The Afghan Whigs were effectively born in a police cell in Athens, Ohio, after singer Greg and future guitarist Rick McCollum got nicked for hi-jinks (“I took a police officer’s hat off his head and put it on and ran down the street,” recalls Greg) at a Halloween party in 1986.
Upon discovering they both came from Cincinnati, the pair bonded over a game of cards, forming the Whigs a year later with fellow locals Steve Earle on drums and John Curley on bass.
Taking their somewhat strange name from a Florida-based white Muslim motorcycle gang notorious for “driving their bikes around and painting flowers everywhere”, The Afghan Whigs played stacks of gigs- belting out covers of the Stones’ ‘Cocksucker Blues’ and Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane’- and released the “quite forgettable” ‘Big Top Halloween’ album (which, apparently, no one can remember) in 1988.
And then the band got a call from Sub Pop, who released the stunning ‘Up In It’ album in 1990 and discovered that, yes, there was room in people’s hearts for a group who hammered electric guitars in order to make something bloody-nosed and beautiful and not purely as an excuse for kicking over the amps in a totally spontaneous display of rock’n'roll mayhem (trad) at the end of their set.
‘Up In It’ was gobbled up by all who heard it, ecstatic reviews and word-of-mouth ravings alike adding momentum to the Whigs’ snowballing popularity until, during a low-key UK tour early in ’91, a cold that Greg caught from spending night after freezing night on people’s floors refused to get better and finally became pneumonia.
A nightmare scenario followed, while band disputes exploded into fist-fights and Greg eventually buggering off to hospital for urgent medical care. The sickness freaked him out; he got paranoid and refused to leave his LA apartment, stayed in writing stories, a screenplay (filming starts soon) and an album’s worth of songs.
Despite lingering frictions, the band reconvened to produce last year’s brilliantly tense ‘Congregation’- a less guitar-rooted album than its predecessor, with sultry pianos and a cool female vocal from Ruby Belle adding further threads to the Whigs’ liberating musical patchwork: a classic record.
Greg’s personality falls halfway between that of a well-mannered dreamboy you’d happily take home to mom and pop, and the twitchy, battle-hardened street-brawler that’s become part of Whigs’ legend.
“I’d say that’s probably about right,” he laughs. “It’s the Marlon Brando in me. There’s nothin’ I can do about it. If you knew where I come from, that’s the way you settled arguments. It was a respect thing- that was the only way you got it.”
How did you get that nasty scar on your cheek?
“This one right here? This was Barcelona. Steve started kickin’ over his drums and I was walkin’ by when the cymbal came down and, KKKKHHH! It was like a mouth on the side of my face. Totally clean, but it cut the muscle and some tissue.”
So you can’t pretend you got it in some West Side Story-type gang fight?
“Oh, but I can. Or rather I can’t right now because he (Greg exchanges grins with John) knows the truth.”
Greg pauses, takes a gulp of water. “There are moments when we think we’re the greatest band in the fuckin’ world,” he says. “But you never know, especially in England, cos it’s so…”
Ah, but the Whigs’ popularity has developed without the usual hype and without being sucked into fleeting fashion trends. They stand alone, a rock band with the capacity to be both terrifying and tender, to simultaneously shred your heart to bits and set your foot tapping; you can even whistle the tunes.
It’s maddeningly hard to categorise this lot. As Greg puts it, they’re simply “the first Afghan Whigs”- attracting larger crowds with every album and seeming to have evaded all checkpoints set up by pop’s fashion police.
“It’s been like that here in the States. We sidestepped the Seattle thing, we sidestepped everything. We’re fuckin’ alone in the middle of the country, just sorta doin’ our own thing. We don’t hang out with other bands, not for kind of snobby reasons- we just don’t know ‘em.
“We’re not splashed all over magazines, or on the radio all the time. Maybe people sense we have respect for them, and we don’t underestimate their intelligence. I’d like to think that’s what it is.”
The cello-enhanced, potentially huge Whigs album for ’93 is ‘Gentlemen’. Dulli insists the title’s inspired by the omnipresence of public toilets (“it’s the door you [italics] go through [end italics],” he says meaningfully). And if its songs sound even more ravaged than those on ‘Congregation’, that’s because he wrote most of them after breaking up with his girlfriend.
“I got my stuff out of our apartment in California and kinda said goodbye. I came back to Cincinnati and the Whigs actually started playing together as a band again, rehearsing and hangin’ out, which we hadn’t done since we first met and started doin’ it.
“When we began working on ‘Gentlemen’ I started thinking the songs might be too personal- this might be my own trip, and I don’t wanna bring three of my friends into my own melodrama. So I said, Look let’s scrap this and I’ll clear my head out, we’ll go for something else, and they were like, No man, we’ll help you. For all the crap in the past, all the bickering and fighting, I found out why I loved these guys in the first place.
“Not to sound all maudlin or anything like that,” says Greg, clearly moved, “but we sort of became pals again. It’s cool.”