By Fred Mills
Greg Dulli is in a good—make that a great—mood. He’s in his favorite city, New Orleans, working on the debut from the Gutter Twins (his collaboration with Mark Lanegan), about which he enthuses, “I don’t know where it’s going yet; it’s schizophrenic. But I guarantee that if you like music at all, you are gonna love this.” And 2006’s Powder Burns, by his still-extant other project the Twilight Singers, appeared on scores of year-end critical best-ofs.
Dulli’s ebullient demeanor extends to a look at his Afghan Whigs back pages with Harp. Our conversation is occasioned by Rhino’s release of Unbreakable, an overview of the group’s 1986-2001 career that additionally includes two new songs the Whigs—vocalist Dulli, guitarist Rick McCollum, bassist John Curley, drummer Michael Horrigan— briefly reconvened for last year to record especially for the anthology. Unbreakable is sequenced thematically, not chronologically, because as Dulli explains, “I wanted to do it like a setlist, as if I were going to perform a show that night.”
Big Top Halloween (1988, Ultrasuede): The Afghan Whigs form in Cincinnati in ’86, quickly amassing a local following (thanks in part to a residency at a lesbian bar), and eventually garner national attention with their debut. “We didn’t pick anything from that [for Unbreakable] because it sucks! None of us like that. The scary part was actually going in a real studio and trying to recreate what we had been doing live. I think we were a little overwhelmed and weirded out and probably, ah, medicated too.”
Up In It (1990, Sub Pop): Sub Pop gets wind of the Whigs, does a Singles Club 45 with them, then puts them in the studio with grunge guru Jack Endino. “We went out and did that record in about six days, I think. [Endino was] a mad-scientist kind of guy but very kind and gentle, and he coaxed a good performance out of us. By that time we had done some gigs with Mudhoney, the Fluid, Tad, and I think in retrospect, if you listen to Big Top Halloween and then Up In It, it’s all of a sudden Black Sabbath and the Stooges became a big part of our thing! [laughs] I think we were unconsciously influenced by the fact that we were supposed to fit in with that gang.”
Congregation (1991, Sub Pop): Whigs tour Europe, break up, re-form, and record their third album; it features a controversial sleeve (a naked black woman clutching a white baby) and a controversial cover (“The Temple,” from Jesus Christ Superstar). “I felt like it was the first time I was excited over the possibilities of our band: ‘Okay, I’m gonna play a slow song now. I’m gonna play a pretty song, and I’m not going to be afraid to play it.’ And I think that came from doing a couple of the Euro tours. I felt I could be myself. I wasn’t worried about tags or anything.
“When we turned in the Jesus Christ Superstar song, those Sub Pop guys were like, ‘No fucking way!’ And we were like, ‘Then fuck you!’ That was sort of us starting to hold our ground: ‘Hey man, maybe we’re not part of the factory model.’”
Uptown Avondale EP (1992, Sub Pop): Five-song collection of soul covers, including Supremes, Al Green and Freda Payne. “We wanted to represent it [on Unbreakable] because in our opinion it was a transition point, as far as the style of music we were doing and kind of wearing our influences on our sleeves for the first time. We were always doing mash-ups and strange, rearranged cover songs in our live shows.”
Gentlemen (1993, Elektra): Elektra is victorious in a major-label bidding war and the Whigs, recording at Ardent Studios, deliver their masterpiece, alternately corrosive and lacerating, seductive and soulful. “Elektra had a legacy. At the time we signed they only had something like 25 acts and it was a boutique label. We liked the Cure, Metallica, Ween, Joni Mitchell, the Doors, Tom Waits—it had a cachet we liked.
“By then we were playing all the time; for Congregation, I’m relatively certain we played 220 live gigs. That was probably the only time in my life I wrote songs on the road, too. I’ll be living with that album until I’m dead—and I don’t mean that in a bad way either! I think the planets aligned for us on that one. And it was also the culmination of us playing together for five or six years so I think we knew what to do.”
Black Love (1996, Elektra): Following a grueling 1 1/2 year tour supporting Gentlemen, original Whigs drummer Steve Earle is shown the door while the other members wage their own battles with burnout. “I think Black Love is misunderstood, and I probably could have used a guiding hand on that because I kind of went a little nutty. I love the atmosphere of the record, the spookiness of it. We made it out in the woods in this little town called Woodinville, about 30 miles outside of Seattle, on a horse farm. There was lots of naked horse riding, mushroom taking, stuff like that.”
1965 (1998, Columbia): New label, new town, new attitude—the Whigs record their swansong in New Orleans and go out on top. “It’s my favorite Whigs album, almost hands down. I had a lot of issues with depression over the years and sort of, ah, fucked myself up a lot. And wrote about it a lot! I’d become an accomplished miserablist. So I think I kind of got myself together. I moved to New Orleans, and it was just magical. You start looking at the songs, and while there are moments of melancholy and blue, there’s fucking fire in that motherfucker too. It was a celebration. We were, for all intents and purposes, a live band, so I think that one captured it. There’s not a stinker on that record. I love every song.”