The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli makes Zoloft his drug of choice and soul-inspired rock the breakfast of champions.
Willamette Week | originally published December 9, 1998
BY CARYN BROOKS
There are certain elements of an Afghan Whigs recording that Moses should’ve hauled off the mountain. Things like the quick shot of friction you get in the first few seconds of one of their records, like the sound of match being struck on their latest release. There’s always a synthesized hand clap; the marrow-draining growls and howls of lead singer and star attraction Greg Dulli; the sheets of “American Woman” guitar that smack the accompanying piano, cello or cowbell right nicely. And there’s at least one song about fucked-up fucking on each album.
Yet many say the Whigs’ first album for Columbia, 1965, is a departure. Those who fear change shouldn’t be disenchanted, however. The latest release is the same juicy tenderloin as always, the same close-to-the-bone cut as 1993’s pulverized tumult, Gentlemen. The departure of 1965 is neither in the rock nor in the roll. The change is in the rock and roller.
Dulli, a fork-tongued provocateur of come and get it, admits that 1965, titled after the year he and two other bandmates were born, has a new gospel. “In a lot of ways, with the celebratory and almost joyous message on 1965, this could be termed our most perverse record to date,” he told WW during a tour-stop telephone interview from Minneapolis.
Previously, Dulli was known as the man who had the balls to admit he “had a dick for a brain,” as he did on Gentlemen. An exquisite rage-against-the-relationship record, it was the Whigs’ first major-label release and one of the more defining outbursts of the now-haloed period of early ’90s rock. 1996’s Black Love was even darker and more stabbing in tone, a collage of frustrations with a beat you could dance to. After making this record, Dulli found himself curled in the fetal position one too many times. He was admitted to the hospital after excruciating bouts of stomach pain and the after-effects of his own self-medication. “I was way past out-patient,” Dulli says. Depression was diagnosed and Zoloft prescribed, and he gleefully started bringing the Whigs into a brave new world where rump shaking was order No. 1.
However happy the Whigs’ ringleader might have been, a radical musical transformation was not part of the game plan. “We didn’t come out like the Chemical Brothers or something,” Dulli says.
Medication has made only a positive impact on his life, he says. Some artists fear that downing anti-depressants will sap their creativity; Dulli didn’t even consider it. “If the creativity was going to dry up to make me a happier person, well, so long, nice knowing you,” he says. “I was not going to live that way anymore.”
To record 1965, Dulli, bassist John Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Michael Horrigan–who all live in different parts of the country–set up camp in New Orleans. Dulli thrived there. Leaving his home in Seattle for the sleazy freedom of the Big Easy left an impression on Dulli that shows on the record. The Rufus and Chaka Khan moments he enacts with Susan Marshall, a singer he met in Memphis, are playful and buoyant.
On this album, Dulli is less combative lyrically–although lines such as “You can fuck my body, baby/But please, don’t fuck my mind” let us know that all of his angst hasn’t left the building. He spends most of his time persuading us to let him get us high and dance, little sister, dance.
Dulli doesn’t mask his affinity for black culture and the way it informs his work. On a deeper level, Black Love is more about tripping down the dark corridors of relationships than its surface veneer of hanging with the homeboys, but a gangsta cut called “Honky’s Ladder” epitomizes Dulli’s high-five with the brotherhood.
In a time when Spike Lee takes Quentin Tarantino to task for drinking from the wrong water fountain, Dulli risks getting his ass swacked by the PC police. He says he doesn’t give a shit. “I would gladly debate Spike Lee on black and white culture,” he says. “I’d gladly debate him unprepared. No problemo. I have a few things to say to that man anyway, like, ‘You should have graduated from film school–you might have learned a few things.'”
Since Puff Daddy swipes from Sting, and rapper Warren G. turns Michael McDonald into g-funk, it’s useless to try to pinpoint who’s zooming who. “There ain’t never been a black person giving me shit about getting into black music,” Dulli says. “But there’s always some white guy with a Powerbook waiting to take me down.”
When Dulli and company take the stage in Portland, it will be with a more fleshed-out and flashy ensemble than the outfit that traveled on the Black Love tour, which Dulli, in retrospect, calls “heavy, even a little dour.”
This time, Dulli says to expect backup singers, piano stomping and maybe even a costume change or two. And if you’re hoping Dulli will harass and harangue the audience as he is wont to do, don’t worry–his new Zoloft-infused sensibility won’t let you down. “Oh, I’m still a handful,” he says. “Just call up one of my bandmates and ask them.”