Going to Town
Request Magazine // David Sprague
Greg Dulli has just had a spiritual epiphany – of a sort. Less than five minutes after he’s finished firing off a few rounds of cannabis-fueled wisecracks about his Catholic-damaged childhood, the Afghan Whigs’ frontman is jolted out of his reverie by a huge crash just over his shoulder, the cause of which becomes clear when all eyes turn to the jagged outline of a shattered hotel-room window. As we manuever around the glass shards- and out of the way of the rain blowing in – Dulli has a sudden religious reflection.
“When I was an altar boy, I always wanted to learn the exorcism ritual, but my priest said he didn’t have the book.” He trails off, taking one more nerve-calming drag on a rapidly disappearing spliff. “Then I became this sort of fallen, god-and-the-devil-inside-us kind of guy. Maybe it’s time for me to go talk to the archbishop.”
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that some sort of hoodoo would follow Dulli around. After all, the singer has carved himself a niche as this decade’s ambassador of bad juju – a sneering, self-involved superstud with an impressive swagger that’s perfectly paired with one of the more (melo)dramatic voices this side of Jim Morrison – to an incredible extent on the last pair of Afghan Whigs albums. Both 1993′s Gentlemen and the just-released Black Love are overflowing with steamy songs that could be considered – depending on your point of view- either carnal calls to arms or misogynist throwbacks to a pre(sexual) revolutionary era when women were unsuspecting prey just waiting to fall victim to a rod-packin’ Romeo.
“I’m a confident person, confident in myself as a performer and as a person,” Dulli says.”I don’t think it’s arrogance, but once I get onstage, I feel I have to up the ante. I like to see a performance and I like to give a performance. It’s not as if I see myself as a macho sex god or anything like that.” You’d be hard-pressed to glean that modesty from a cursory listen to, well, any of the Cincinnati quartet’s five albums. Although its earliest recordings-1988′s self-released Big Top Halloween and 1990′s Up in It-toe the indie line in terms of sonics, quaffing deeply from the wellsprings of artists like the Replacements and Husker Du, even they had an edginess, a moral ambiguity, that was missing in the music of the Whigs’ peers. Dulli, who split his formative years between the small-town atmosphere of Hamilton, Ohio and the out-and-out backwoodsiness of Ripley, West Virginia – which he describes as a “holler. . . about 300 people at the most”-cites southern Ohio’s emphatically straight-laced nature as a catalyst for his personal quest for kicks.
“Once I moved to Cincinnati, it really struck me that just about everyone wants to have their fun, but wants to keep it secret, keep it out of sight,” says the singer, who moved to the Queen City in the mid-’80s. “For people there, it means crossing the Ohio River and going into Kentucky. When you wanted to really tie one on, there was definitely this sense of leaving it all behind, having no accountability for your actions.”
Bassist John Curley – who moved from Washington DC to the city with his parents as a teen- echoes that sentiment. “That’s right,” he says, his eyes belying a wistful reliving of the bad old days. “We’d have to either go to Newport, which was Sodom, or Lexington, which was Gomorrah.”
When drunken interstate binges lost their appeal-a condition Dulli concedes was hastened by the hounding of some particulary zealous Kentucky state troopers-he decided to expend his downtime in a slightly more socially acceptable fashion: As a result, in 1986, the Afghan Whigs were born. Since fate placed them smack in the middle of a geographical swatch generally bypassed by hipper touring acts, the foursome (Dulli, Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum, and drummer Steve Earle) spent a lot of time in Ultrasuede Studio, a concern that Curley had set up a year or two earlier.
“We were running through what were basicaly the first songs I’d ever written in order to do some demos, so we were playing really loose,” Dulli recalls. “And then all of a sudden, I found out John was having covers made.” Those sleeves (mighty ugly ones at that) ended up surrounding one of the more unjustly overlooked debuts of the post-jangle, pre-grunge era: Big Top Halloween. The band only pressed up a thousand copies of the LP (100 of which are still in its possession), but those that did managed to slither out left their mark, thanks to bleary, sneering songs like “Here Comes Jesus” and “Priscilla’s Wedding Day.” By the time they reappeared, nearly two years later, the Whigs had moved on to the greener pastures of Sub Pop, a label the nomadic Dulli had become acquainted with during one of his frequent cross-country moves. Although Up In It, their debut for that label, was when “Seattle” still signified little more than rainy weather and fine salmon fishing, the band still got caught up in the subsequent hype. “The people (at Sub Pop) were so great at manipulating that: It seemed like every week, they’d call and say, ‘We’ve got another article coming out on the Seattle sound, wanna be in it’” Dulli says. “And even though we’re not from there and we don’t sound like we’re from there, people lumped us in with it. The weirdest was this guy who called me in Cincinnati and asked, ‘So how are things there in Seattle?’ I was just, like, ‘Didn’t you check the area code, asshole?’”
Those phone calls became an everyday occurrence for the band members after 1991′s Congregation, the first album to be swathed in the flamboyantly inflated sound that’s come to be associated with the band. Just how grandiose was it? Grandiose enough to allow the inclusion of a poker-faced cover version of “39 Lashes” from Jesus Christ Superstar. “Not that we ever eschewed the indie scene, but we were indie in label only.” Dulli says. “We were actually encouraged by (Sub Pop’s) Jonathan (Poneman) and Bruce (Pavitt) to raise it up a notch. We would go out and ham it up just to annoy people who wanted grunge. That’s when, much to the chagrin of the mosh pit, we started dropping slow numbers in.”
As if being exposed to non-aggro numbers wasn’t enough of a shock to the system of John Q. Flannel, the Whigs insured a reaction by drawing most of their ballads from the lush tapestry of ’60s soul sources both prominent and obscure. it was a logical enough alternative for guys who were surrounded by the music of Cincy stalwarts like the Deele (Babyface’s first combo) and Midnight Star (of “No Parking on the Dance Floor” fame), but to an ivory-on ivory indie rock scene, the infusion of soul was puzzling, particularly on Uptown Avondale, an EP dotted with choice R&B obscurities like Percy Sledge’s “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road.”
“Soul music has a raw emotionalism that no other music has,” Curley says. “When someone is singing a soul song, you know how they feel. If they’re happy, you know it; if they’re pissed, you know it.” Although not entirely suffused with that sort of raw emotion, the Whigs’ chain of covers continues to this day, the most recent link being a version of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” which they play on screen (portraying a lounge act Curley refers to as Johnny Seizure and the Romans) in Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls.
Although free of covers, Black Love is perhaps more steeped in the R&B vibe than any of the Whigs’ previous albums, part of which can be attributed to the gritty-but-sweet production style employed by Curley (who has produced all of the band’s discs, as well as efforts by such bands as the Ass Ponys and Throneberry). More significantly, the album is riddled with songs imprinted with genre-specific attributes, from the falsetto harmonies (provided by Pigeonhed singer Shawn Smith) to the dopily affected lyric sheet, which registers the words to songs like “Honky’s Ladder” Prince-style, heavy on “2″ and “U” usage.
“Actually, we only do that on a couple of songs,” Dulli demurs. “It was a content-related decision. We thought we could use that on the songs Prince might like.” Although he’ll admit to a bit of scenery-chewing, Dulli bristles when it’s suggested that some might see his appropriation of such tricks as heavy-handed, minstrel-like at times. “I’ve never thought there were places I wasn’t allowed to go in terms of music,” he says with utter gravity. “I think that comes from the fact that there’s an openness in Cincinnati that’s really appealing. It’s very integrated as a community, to the point were you can go into a black record store and check out whatever is going on and there’s friendliness, no hostility.” And Dulli recognizes hostility when he sees it – after all, he’s seen plenty in recent years, ranging from the debilitating real-life love/hate relationship chronicled throughout Gentlemen to dealing with pundits who objected to the freewheeling way that album dealt with mutally abusive relationships (not to mention its double-entendre cover photo, which depicted two children in a soft-focus bedroom setting). “People who were disturbed by that would say, ‘Do you know what you’re suggesting here?’” he says evenly. “I’d always come back with, ‘What are you suggesting? I see two kids waking up from a nap, so whose mind is in the gutter?’” Black Love sidesteps the art issue by virtue of a sleeve picture that consists of little more than a wisp of smoke-which is actually pretty appropriate, given the wealth of transgressive, Mario Puzo/Nick Tosches-style imagery ingrained into songs like “Crime Scene Part One” and “My Enemy”. It is far more of an Afghan Whigs album than Gentlemen, on which the three instrumentalists seemed to be providing little more than window dressing for Dulli’s deeply twisted narrative of the portions of love where beauty meets abuse. Most of the album’s tracks, which are arranged in a sort of Quadrophenia meets What’s Goin’ On song cycle, seem to betray an almost Sicilian obsession with honor, family, and the like. “It’s still about love, but different kinds of love-friendship and motherly love as well as romantic love,” Dulli explains. “But on Gentlemen, I wore my heart on my sleeve, and I didn’t want that intrusion into my live this time.” “This is more about secrets,” he says. “The whole aspect of secrets and the gray areas between the truth and lies has always fascinated me. I’m very good at keeping secrets; I’m carrying mine and those of a hundred other people.” Dulli’s ability to play his cards close to his vest gives him to air of a politician at times. For instance, when asked about the 1994 departure of longtime drummer Earle (with whom he shared an apartment for quite a spell), Dulli hints at problems, but -even when prodded- won’t go into detail. “We had all seen the split coming, probably to the point where we avoided it for a long time,” he says. “Luckily for us (new drummer) Paul (Buchignani) had been a friend for a long time. He was around the studio a who lot when we made Gentlemen, so he knew those songs very well.” Does that mean the split was, to trot out as music-biz cliche, a strictly amicable one? “I certainly don’t have anything bad to say about Steve,” Dulli offers. “But on the other hand I don’t have anything all that good to say either.” In its combination of blitheness and honesty, that reply captures the essence of Dulli- or does it? He’s admitted that as a kid, he was more drawn to the worlds of film and fiction than to rock’n’roll-to the extent that he considers Martin Scorcese his first icon. When pressed about how much of the real Greg Dulli he’s willing to (so to speak) expose to public scrutiny, he defers to Curley for “a more objective answer.” The bassist looks up from his coffee with a thoughtful expression. “He’s worse in person,” he says, waiting a beat before guffawing. “Some of it is easy to see as reality, some is easy to see as dramatic device. None of us really saw the album as all that depressing or harsh. Maybe we’re just a weird group of people, but I like to feel a reaction and I definitely felt a reaction to those songs. If I want to mellow out, I’ll go get some Enya.” There’s precious little mellowness to be found in the interlocking karmic threads that comprise Black Love. Between the hellhound-baiting debauchery of “Going to Town” (one of two tracks where Dulli says he’d be wiling to cut a deal with Beelzebub himself) to the manic subterfuge of “Blame, Etc.,” the emotions are unflaggingly dark, a mood that’s heightened by the oversized grooves laid down by a combo augmented by strings, organ, and clavinet (the latter courtesy of Harold Chichester, late of Columbus, Ohio’s Royal Crescent Mob). “We wanted to go for a bigger sound this time,” Dulli deadpans. “You know what they say, big record, big. . . well, you fill in the rest.” He hints that, as farfetched as it might seem given the sonic overkill of the Whigs’ recent output, a harnessing of excess might not be too far down the road. Given his propensity for power, it wouldn’t be wise to bet on the appearance of an “unplugged” version of the band, but then again.. . “I know that people think of the Afghan Whigs as this huge thing,” he says, gesturing towards the drizzling sky for emphasis. “That’s because once you do something that’s a little bit out of the norm, people will seize on it and make a cartoon out of you, and that’s something I don’t intend to let happen to me.” To some extent, it already has, since the singer was “honored”-if that’s the right word-by the appearance of Fat Greg Dulli, an anti-fanzine of sorts that spent a fair amount of time charting the singer’s fluctuating weight patterns. Although he feigns utter lack of concern about the zine’s razzing, which was answered in kind by the more benevolent Dulli-Rama, he’s blunt when asked for his initial reaction to the soon-to-reappear periodical. “How do you think it made me feel?” he says incredulously . “It made me feel fat!” For those keeping track of such things, Dulli seems to be at about the midpoint of his heft-span, although a loose-fitting cardigan can hide myriad donuts. But even so, his pheromonal aura seems to bewitch, bother and bewilder a wide variety of otherwise implacable women, including a goodly array of jaded industry insiders. “The first time I saw the band,” reveals an employee of another record company, “I didn’t know what the big deal was, but then he lit up a cigarette and I felt. . . funny. I never wanted a carcinogen so bad!” Dulli laughs when apprised of the narcotic effect he seems to have on certain members of his audience, insisting he’s heard similar tales in the past and jokingly opining the degree to which his admirers choose to remain secret. “Even though the only thing I’ve ever been addicted to is nicotine, I can understand the idea of being addicted to other people,” he says. “It can be funny, or it can be sad. When I get my first real stalker, I’ll let you know which it is.”