Dirge Overkill

Guitar World
May 1996
By Charles M. Young

Originally Transcribed by the Fat Bon Jovi site at:
http://members.tripod.com/afghantab/articles/gwinterview.html

So that’s Greg Dulli’s Head you can see for about 15 seconds in the movie Beautiful Girls. It’s a good head, and a large one; not the usual rock and roll head. What makes rock and roll heads interesting most of the time is their ongoing transmogrification from Faces of Innocence to Faces of Experience – the beauty of childhood etched with the ravages of art and addiction. Dulli, despite an extended run at the rock and roll lifestyle, still has a Face of Innocence. Must be good chromosomes. But that FOI is topped off with a Nose of Experience, broken four times in sledding accidents and fights. You could liken Greg Dulli’s face to a photo of the early Keith Richards morphed with the mature Keith Richard’s nose.

Elektra records, the Afghan Whigs’ label, would like Beautiful Girls to do fro Greg Dulli and his band what Pulp Fiction did for Urge Overkill: vastly widen its audience. That would be just fitting, both bands being hard-working stalwarts of the Midwestern alternative to the Seattle alternative. Originally from Cincinnati, now from all over the place, the Whigs inspire reviewers-favourable reviewers-to phrases such as: “cheerless subject matter”, “self-loathing and recrimination”, “dirges drained of hope”, “overwrought misanthropic angst” and “wants to rip the cruelty from the weed-bed of romance and rub your faces in it.” Greg Dulli is therefore, according to many such sources, an “alternative sex symbol.” Which says a lot about sex in America today, or at least sex among rock critics.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say anything about sex in Beautiful Girls, and optimistic descendent of The Big Chill, in which nice people drink a lot of booze and then strangely arrive at mature and insightful decisions about their romantic problems while making witty remarks. It’s one of the few movies you’ll see this year with almost no Quentin Tarantino influence.
The Whigs play a bar band, in a bar, covering Barry White (“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe”) and Frederick Knight (“Be For Real”), but, unlike Urge Overkill covering Neil Diamond, it’s hard to tell what they’re singing. Fans of Beautiful Girls just aren’t going to be the same demographic for Black Love, the Whigs’ second album for Elektra, after three albums and one E.P. for Sub Pop. It will sink or swim on its own angst.

Much of Black Love can be taken as slightly veiled, satiric commentary on the O.J. Simpson soap opera. Every song is in the first person, and fans of satire might take all the sado-masochistic ruminating to be Dulli adopting O.J.’s persona at various points in the crime. Greg Dulli fans will recognise a career-long theme of how lies get us into trouble and how hard it is to discern lies from the truth, even (especially) in one’s own brain. But no one rends his mind with introspection like Dulli, so the album might be about him, too. Which is really odd, because he’s an outgoing, friendly sort of fellow, whose ample charm offsets (and is inseparable from) his tendency to be flip about everything. If this guy was a walrus, he’d be the Alpha male, siring children with 147 females on a rocky beach, while the Beta males honk their complaints out in the ocean. I suggest you listen to the Whigs now, because Dulli is going to be directing movies soon, then running a studio, then appointing himself dictator of some banana republic where he will check every citizen for bad haircuts and probably shut down the music stores (see below).

Like all the Whigs, Dulli grew up a Catholic. He has fond memories of the grand ceremony and music of the Mass when he was little, and unfond memories of attending catechism class for six hours on Saturday during his adolescence. His father works for Baltimore & Ohio railroad; his mom sells lingerie in a department store. The one subject he isn’t flip about is Fat Greg Dulli, and anti-fanzine that attacks him for being, well, fat. He isn’t. He’s more the size of a small-college linebacker. Big bones with some heft, falling short of gargantuan corpulosity. But the ‘zine still bothers him a little.

“I’ve never met the woman who puts it out, and she purports to be be give a shit about the band, but she’s devoted a large portion of her life to ripping it apart,” says Dulli with mournful wonder. “Her shtick is ‘This guy needs to be taken down a notch,’

“Taken down a notch? We didn’t sell 200,000 records last time. Somebody asked me how I felt about being called Fat Greg Dulli. How do you think it made me feel? It made me feel fat. It’s just being grade-school mean, calling somebody fatty on the playground. But why me? You’re automatically limiting the number of people you can sell to be making it about me. Fat Bon Jovi, I could understand. Or Fat Madonna. But most people are going to think. ‘Who’s that guy?'”

After the new album, Fat Greg Dulli should have an expanded market, though maybe not the size of Fat Bon Jovi’s. After all, Bon Jovi has never sung “dirge drained of all hope.” His dirges tend to be hopeful, and that’s how most Americans like their dirges. Some Americans may nonetheless like Black Love a lot, because of its hormonal guitar bashing. Greg and lead player Rick McCollum have been playing together since 1987, and the know each other’s moves, even if they don’t know anything about scales. They also have their dynamics nailed down, with some dramatic cello and chimey, semi-acoustic guitar on the quiet songs (especially “Night by Candlelight”), and a grooving clavinet on one of the louder songs (“Going to Town”). If you’re in the mood to kick out the jams over some sour relationship, this could be your dirge.

GUITAR WORLD: Please answer the equipment question first, if you will.

GREG DULLI: I play a rosewood Tele and a yellow marble Tele. It’s carved out of a marble tree. No, it’s maple, with a bowling-ball swirl finish. That’s an ’83 and the other one’s a ’92.

RICK MCCOLLUM: Two Jazzmasters, a purple and a brown. We both play through Mesa Dual Rectifiers. Those are the only amps, as far as I’m concerned.

DULLI: If this interview’s about technology, I’m fucked. I don’t know anything. When a guy comes up to me and wants to tell me about his pickups or something, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s great. Awesome.” And I can’t wait for someone to interrupt. I know nothing whatsoever about effects or theory

GW: Rick, you use effects. I’ve heard them.

MCCOLLUM: I have a Pro Co. Rat distortion pedal and three old Big Muffs, which are so delicate that I can’t use them much anymore. And a purple delay pedal. I don’t know what kind.

GW: In the studio, you don’t bring in 50 amps and 50 guitars and plug everything into everything else to see what it sounds like?

MCCOLLUM: WE use the same setup in the studio as we do for our live shows.

DULLI: We went for different sounds with the Mesa amps, but those are just amps, ’cause they’re pretty versatile. It went, like, “Hey turn that knob that way, make it sound more something or other.” That was the extent of the experimentation. Most of the other stuff was covered with strings and keyboards. That was where we got tricky. We ran a guitar through a Leslie speaker once to see what it sounded like. Pretty cool, but only if you were on mushrooms. The song didn’t make it onto the record.

GW: Who’s playing slide on “Honky’s Ladder?”

MCCOLLUM: That’s me. I’ve been playing slide for seven years

DULLI: If I may toot his horn for one second, I think Rick is the greatest slide player since Duane Allman.

GW: I hear a little Duane there.

MCCOLLUM: It’s strange, ’cause I wasn’t brought up with that stuff. You probably turned me onto the Allman Brothers.

DULLI: You like it now, don’t you?

MCCOLLUM: Yeah, but I don’t listen to it constantly. It’s just there. I like Roy Cooder a lot.

GW: So Roy Cooder inspired you to play slide?

MCCOLLUM: Nobody inspired me to do anything. I never thought about who I wanted to emulate.

DULLI: Why did you begin to play slide guitar?

MCCOLLUM: I don’t know. I just got bored with the fretboard and wanted to try something different. I like challenges.

DULLI: If I may interrupt for a moment and say, Rick will take something like a slide guitar or pedal steel and hook it up through a delay and even a wah pedal. That’s my favourite thing to watch Rick do, watching him commit blasphemy with this traditional country instrument.

MCCOLLUM: I can’t do anything traditional. I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. I just go with whatever connects to my own creative thread.

GW: So neither of you spent years in cover bands, learning how to play like everyone else? You learned to play your own way and stayed with it?

DULLI: My whole style of playing comes from cheating, from not knowing what I’m doing but getting something that sound kinda close.

MCCOLLUM: I don’t want to toot your horn, but I think Greg has progressed further on guitar than anyone I’ve seen. When the band started, he was just barely playing. He just adapted his style to the band.

DULLI: When the band started, I could only play G, C and D chords. Then I learnt E and A. A was totally exciting.

GW: Well if you learn any I-IV-V chord progression . . .

MCCOLLUM: You can play any Neil Young song.

DULLI: And any Ramones song. Any Velvet Underground song. All of AC/DC. And a whole bunch of Rolling Stones songs. It was my discovery of C# minor that truly liberated me, though. I’ve run that one into the ground.

GW: Where do you play it?

DULLI: Where do I play it?

MCCOLLUM: I don’t know.

DULLI: Be easier to show you than tell you [Greg gets his rosewood Telecaster out of the case .]

MCCOLLUM: Maybe it’s not even C# minor. You mean the “Purple Rain” chord?

DULLI: Yeah, that one. What if it isn’t C# minor. I’m completely embarrassing myself in Guitar World. [Greg starts to play. ]

MCCOLLUM: Okay. At least that’s a minor.

GW: Let it be noted for the record that the witness is barring at the fourth fret, root note on fifth string, and he’s hammering the second string between the fourth and fifth fret for some C# minor weirdness.

DULLI: This second string thing is a big part of what I like to do.

MCCOLLUM: He could take one note and write a whole album around it.

DULLI: I latch onto something I like, and then all the changes come from the other two guys. They do all the moving for me. The bridge has to be something simple so I can get into it while I’m singing.

MCCOLLUM: But he can pay “Hey Joe” behind his head while he’s singing.

DULLI: Nah. I need to see the dots. I don’t know anyone who can play without looking at the dots. I rarely play a solo, maybe one per album. I work it out, and then forget how to play it. I have to draw diagrams on the neck, little cheat sheets written all over my guitar.

GW: Why did you bother to learn it in the first place?

DULLI: I had this friend in high school who was an excellent guitarist, but he was so obsessed with being technically clean that he made it intimidating and not fun. His bookish approach made me shy away from it. Then I was singing with the Black Republicans, just singing, and I wasn’t getting along with the bass player or the guitar player. I was trying to write songs for them, and it was impossible. I finally thought, “If these morons can play guitar, I can too.” So I taught myself. Rick sat in for our last song at our last show, and that was the start of the Afghan Whigs.

GW: Rick, you met this guy who could play G, C and D and you wanted to be in a band with him? You must have sensed some greater potential there.

MCCOLLUM: I’d met our bass player [John Curley ] a year before I met Greg. I was just looking to get my own thing going. John and I needed a singer.

DULLI: He is asking you to compliment me.

MCCOLLUM: Well, it was like, um . . .

GW: Were you thinking, “This guy can write songs,” or what?

MCCOLLUM: I knew he had something, but at first you don’t know what it is.

DULLI: You’re not going to give me any compliments in Guitar World ? Thanks a lot. You’re the fourth best slide player I’ve heard.

MCCOLLUM: I gave you a compliment before. Remember? I interjected . . .

DULLI: Your interjections are too cryptic for my mortal mind. I want a full-on compliment here.

MCCOLLUM: I said you’d progressed a lot over a period of time.

DULLI: That’s boring! I called you the greatest slide player since Duane Allman, and all you can say about me is that I progressed!??! You make it sound like I’m cancer or something! Tumours progress! I’m your friend! Your singer! Your bandmate! Your co-guitar player! I want some damn respect!!!!

MCCOLLUM: That ever lived.

DULLI: That ever lived.

GW: Do you have “The Who” stencilled on your guitar case as a tribute to the other greatest rhythm guitarist that ever lived, Pete Townshend? Not to mention Keith Richards and Malcolm Young.

DULLI: I just wanted the extra respect factor. The baggage handler at the airport is going to know who The Who is, but probably not the Afghan Whigs. We’re from Cincinnati, so some people think its a reference to that show where those kids got trampled.

GW: Cincinnati’s a weird place for an obstreperous rock and roll band to be from. It’s dominated by Procter & Gamble, the most uptight corporation on the planet, and the city government is always trying to repel the First Amendment. It’s hard to imagine a worse place for you to go to film school Greg.

DULLI: The great thing about it was meeting my first roommate there. He was six years older than me and in grad school. It turned out that they had different film schools there, and artsy one and a more conventional one. I fortuitosly moved in with this guy who was making the craziest, most violent and sexually deviant films I’d ever seen. He completely won over my 18-year-old-brain, and pretty soon I was bringing my own sick films to class-people getting assassinated and stuff like that. The dean had a little talk with me, and we both decided that it would be better if I didn’t come back the following year. I was grossing people out, and all I wanted to do was impress my roommate who’s been booted out of film school for doing the same thing. Spike Lee also got booted from the NYU film school, and he’s made some great movies. In my case, I moved to California. I decided that if I was going to be a great director I had to understand actors. And to understand actors, I’d have to become one. I spent a year there, during which I decided to play guitar and be in a band.

GW: Let’s talk about the new album Black Love. It seems like most of the songs are about lying versus telling the truth in relationships.

DULLI: I think you’re reading it accurately. The music always comes first, the words always come last. Rick and the other guys are playing songs they don’t know the words to. I’d been talking to a lot of people about secrets, about how everybody’s got ’em, how they handle their secrets. So the truth/lie thing came out of the secret thing. And probably a little of my own paranoia. It became a thematic presence on the record.

MCCOLLUM: When he came up with some of the lyrics, it helped me on some of the overdubs.

GW: Has he ever come up with a lyric you can’t stand?

MCCOLLUM: No, I pretty much trust him. He’s a great lyricist, and that’s his job in the band.

DULLI: Would you say he’s the greatest lyricist of all time?

MCCOLLUM: Uh . . .

GW: On the last album you never thought, “Oh my god, I can’t play a song about having a dick for a brain?”

MCCOLLUM: No, but I tell you what I did worry about: How come all the songs that we co-write are the songs you put cuss words in? [pause ] But that’s not always true. The single coming up is yours, and that has a cuss word.

DULLI: Yeah, “Honky’s Ladder.” The fifth word is “motherfucker.” That’s shooting ourselves in the foot. But we’re doing an edit for radio.

GW: Back to the truth-versus-lies thing . . .

DULLI: What does that have to do with guitars?

GW: Fuck guitars. We’re talking about truth. When you’re in a state of having a dick for a brain, you don’t know when you’re telling the truth or lying, because you can convince yourself of anything to get laid.

DULLI: I took a lot of old maxims into account, like, “A good lie is based 90 percent in the truth.” It’s easier to remember, and easier to perpetuate. Watching bits and pieces of the O.J. trial, I felt like I was watching someone who had convinced himself that he didn’t do it. That kind of denial is completely fascinating to me.

GW: It is fascinating, because it means that one part of the brain is lying to another part of the brain, but one part of the brain still knows. The line “A lie, the truth/Which one shall I use?” occurs in two songs: “Crime Scene, Part One” and “Blame, Etc.” Do you aspire to tell the truth yourself?

DULLI: I do aspire to tell the truth. And I achieve it occasionally. I know perpetual liars. I know people who can’t help themselves. They lie about stuff they don’t even have to lie about. The lie sounds better and more exciting to them than what really going on. People ask me how much of my songs are autobiographical, and I say I don’t know. Enough so that I can write them down. But I can also look at a song and know its not about me.

GW: Even in the first person?

DULLI: I choose to use the first person because I feel it’s more intimate. The listener can think, “Okay, this is him.” But the him is not necessarily Greg Dulli.

GW: I’m a little surprised to find that you are as funny as you are, because your lyrics are so dark.

DULLI: Yeah, I don’t know why that is. Maybe Morrissey is as dour as his songs, although I’ve never met him. He could be a laugh riot, for all I know

MCCOLLUM: The music is how you relieve your moodiness.

DULLI: I think that’s probably it. You’re not happy a hundred percent of the time, but right now I’m happy. I’m also not writing a song right now. When I’m feeling great about myself, I’m doing happy stuff. It’s those times when I’m really thinking, when something is really bothering me, when something is really affecting my view of the world, those are the times I go to the piano or guitar. That’s when the songs come out of me. So my creativity stems from some dysfunctional aspect of my life, although I think that I’m pretty good at separating the dysfunctional aspect from the rest of my life. I’m pretty ok.

GW: It’s clear from your songs that you have a conscience. But you, or the character you’re singing about, might not live up to it.

DULLI: Yeah, I have an unrelenting conscience. If I’ve done somebody wrong, it’ll eat at me until it’s confronted. If I’ve hurt somebody, I’ll punch myself way worse than anybody else could do. I’ll beat the shit out of myself internally. My conscience is always there, but I don’t always live up to it. It’s probably the same for most people.

GW: It’s kinda odd hearing someone with your brain-rending introspection singing that Barry White song, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe” in the movie Beautiful Girls . His lyrics are pure seductive bullshit.

DULLI: I love Barry White. And the song was a direct challenge to us from the director, Ted Demme: “Are you guys man enough to do a Barry White song?” So we did. I do have that sensitive lover-man side to my personality. And it’s a rock song now. We put that malevolent snap on it. Put it in a minor key.

MCCOLLUM: The first thing we do is put everything in a minor key.

GW: How did you get involved in the movie?

DULLI: Ted Demme and I bought the film right to the book. We’re partners. When we began developing the project, he asked me if I wanted to act in it, then two days later he called back and said, “I’ve got some real movie stars. Tough shit.” Then he calls back and asks if we want to be the bar band. I said, “Thanks for the bone, Ted.” Then his wife Amanda asked I wanted to work on the soundtrack. I said, “How much money?”

GW: Nothing wrong with money. You certainly need it when you walk into a music store.

DULLI: I never go into music stores anymore. I used to, just ’cause I liked to look at the guitars. But now I can’t stand looking at the clerks. They’ve all got really bad haircuts, like they all just graduated from GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology ]. They know too much stuff and, consequently, they don’t know what makes exciting music exciting. It’s like, “Hey dude, it’s great you can play Crazy Train’ note for note, but I don’t care.” I don’t know why anyone would care, unless you’re in a circuit cover band that’s playing in Florida 360 nights a year. I have a big bag of strings at home that’ll probably last me the rest of my career, so I don’t have to go near a music store.

GW: You don’t have any endorsement deals?

DULLI: I don’t even know how that works. Do you go to them and say, “Hey, I’m in a band?”

GW: I’m surprised they haven’t come to you. I’ve been on the road with breaking bands, and the companies call up begging them to take their instruments before they go on MTV. It’s called “product placement” on Madison Avenue.

DULLI: Could you put in the article that we want some free stuff? I’ve been playing Fenders for years, and I want some damn respect! I’m going to switch to Gibson if I don’t get some free stuff soon.

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