AW Interview: Citysearch
By Lissa Townsend Rodgers
“I wonder why they’re not huge?” There are a number of bands one asks that question about and the Afghan Whigs are chief amongst them. A distinctive sound that mixes hooks with razor blades, a sweat-drenched juggernaut of a live show, and frontman Greg Dulli’s soulful growl and dissipated rake persona — hey, what’s not to like? But, as anyone who’ s played even a single hand of poker knows, holding all the cards doesn’t guarantee all the chips. And, after 1996’s searing “Black Love,” things looked dire: The band got thoroughly dicked around by their label, went on hiatus, and Dulli was diagnosed with clinical depression.
But it’s true what they say about that darkest hour showing up just before dawn because after two and a half years the Whigs have resurfaced with a new drummer, a new label, and a new album. “1965” is less abrasive than past records: The guitar maelstrom and agonized lyrics have made room for pianists, percussionists, backup singers, horn sections, string sections, smoking sections. The Afghan Whigs’ signature sound has always cut its essential Motown inspiration with rock and punk, but the new album serves up their purest batch of soul yet.
It took a bit of doing to corner the elusive Mr. Dulli, but I finally got an appointment for a telephone interview from the frozen wastelands of Detroit.
CitySearch: Regarding the new album, where did you find those other musicians?
Greg Dulli: Well, the horns came from New Orleans. The piano player came from New Orleans. The black guy singing backup is from New Orleans. The girl’s from Memphis. And the other guy is from Detroit.
CS: How’d you find them all?
GD: Mostly in New Orleans. The horn guys I had used on my solo record that I did last, uh, I guess it was almost a year and a half ago.
CS: And where’s that solo album? Will it ever see the light of day?
GD: Oh, yeah, it’s coming out in ’99. Columbia picked up the option on it.
CS: So, New Orleans — what drew you down there?
GD: Oh, I’ve been going down there for a while. I had a girlfriend down there a couple years ago and I would go spend two, three months with her, and she ended up moving out of New Orleans and I kept going. It’s strange, somebody asked me up in Seattle, when I was packing my stuff to move down to New Orleans, and they’re like, “Why do you want to go?” And the only thing I could come up with was, “Because I have to.” And sometimes you just listen to the little voice in your head that says, “Go do this, go do that,” you know? I’m sure it’s the same voice that tells people to kill their parents. Luckily, mine just said, “Go to New Orleans.”
CS: I guess that’s probably a good thing. How long did you live there?
GD: For a year and two months. After which I got a postcard from my liver saying, “Please move out of New Orleans.”
CS: There’s no last call here and I need a break!
GD: There is no last call in New Orleans.
CS: That’s the best and, eventually, the worst thing about the place.
GD: Well, yeah, for me, I love the city. It’s in my blood, it has been for years and now even more so. I’ll go back down there when I learn how to behave myself. And I don’t think that time is coming anytime soon.
CS: So you did “1965” in New Orleans? How did that impact the record?
GD: I think it impacted it, uh, pretty impactively. It’s not a word, but it is now.
GD: I think you can’t escape music in New Orleans. You really can’t escape anything there, you know, but then again, you can. It’s a place of extremes, it’s a paradox, it’s a microcosm, it’s, it’s? It’s hard to explain. But I have never been so surrounded by music in all my life. I lived in the (French) Quarter, so I was hearing music all day long, all night long. We’d go see ReBirth two times a week, go see Kermit Ruffins play twice a week. I’d see Henry Butler play twice a week, go see Snooks Eaglin play, Koko Robichaut. You know, there were so many great people to watch play at all times.
CS: So having music all around you kind of seeped in?
GD: Yeah, it was just kind of inspiring. And getting to know these guys and eventually playing with some of them, hanging out at their houses and listening to what they do. I mean, watching how a New Orleans jazz musician spends his day or days. I’d hang out with Roderick for three, fours days in a row. By the end, I’d be exhausted, but he showed me a side of life I’d never seen before and I felt really privileged to be let into that world.
CS: Wow. How does a New Orleans jazz musician spend his day?
GD: Well, they work all day long. When I started hanging with Roderick, I’d be like, “Let’s get some lunch,” and he’d be like, “I’ve got a lunch gig, why don’t you come meet me and we’ll eat, they’ll give us some food afterward.” So I’d go and he’d play. He’d be doing some cheesy lunch gig where he’d be playing, like, something from “Cats.” And I’d be sitting there in horror, but I’d see that big check he’d get at the end of it. And then we’d go eat lunch, and I’d be sitting there like, “What the fuck did you do?” And he goes, “Look at these numbers.” He’d show me the check, and I’d be like, “Goddamn! I guess I’d play ‘Cats’ for that much money.” And then there’d be a little time where we’d go hang out at his house and listen to some records or something — but he’d have a five o’clock gig and, depending on what that would be, the five o’clock gig would maybe be a little more of a trad jazz gig, New Orleans jazz, which was a little more up my alley. Then he’d go to practice with my band and rehearse songs, and then he’d roll uptown and go to a ReBirth gig, and that would go on all night long.
CS: And then he’d wake up and play lunch again?
GD: Well, he’d wake up and play lunch again, but he teaches school sometimes, too. He teaches band at a school down there, and he thinks I’m insane, so he brought me in to, uh…
CS: Do tricks and amuse the children?
GD: Yeah, yeah, exactly, come in and talk to the kids. And it’s great, I mean, just to watch — he’s got a saxophone on his desk, and when he needs to make a point, he picks it up and starts playing it for the kids and they all start clapping, and it’s just exciting, man.
CS: I take it school bands are probably more exciting down there than they are elsewhere.
GD: Oh, yeah. They’re those funky Southern bands that get out there and do, like, Jackson 5 moves out on the ballfield. Roderick’s got it. His school band always plays the Superdome each year and the Mardi Gras parade. I watched him drill his kids for a Mardi Gras parade. Watching the drum major was just killing me, ’cause the drum major is the bad ass dancer in the group, spinning that crazy stick. I was like, “Wow, man!” I was getting my mind blown every other day out there.
CS: Yeah, I can see how you might have to leave after 14 months of that.
GD: Yeah, I needed a little rest. Roderick doesn’t drink, that’s how he can do it. Roderick doesn’t drink or do drugs. Me, on the other hand, I’m not so lucky. So it’s a little harder for me to get up, and he’s like, “You wanna come do my class at 9am?” And I’m like, “If I’m still up.” He’s like “Don’t come in drunk again.”
CS: So how did that affect writing songs? Did stuff just come easier to you from being surrounded by music or was it harder to kind of filter all of that out?
GD: Oh, no. It was really pretty easy, you know, ’cause I’m hanging at bars at six in the morning, you know, and you’re seeing some freaky shit in there. There was freaky shit left and right.
CS: Like what?
GD: Well, number one, you’re drinking in a bar at six in the morning, you know, and all of a sudden it’s 10 in the morning. And it seems totally normal. ‘Cause it’s a port city and port cities are pretty much the domain of ne’er-do-wells. And if you’ve got a side that leans toward excess — welcome to town. There are a lot of kids who just come down there and live on the streets.
CS: Yeah, I know, I met a bunch of those kids once. One of them gave me a tattoo.
GD: So you’ve got that whole culture going on and you’re constantly running into them, and you’re running into these old jazz guys that have been playing all night and lookin’ to get high, maybe, and chasing pussy until five, six in the morning. So you’ve got that going on, then you’ve got the raving lunatics, you know, who the state has turned their back on and released them, and they all magnetize down to New Orleans. And then you’re hearing some crazy person put a curse on someone in the middle of the street or a bar or something. At all times, it was just like, “Oh my God!”
CS: Inspiration everywhere?
GD: Inspiration everywhere, and I got to foil a robbery one time in front of my house.
CS: How’d you do that?
GD: I just pretended I had a gun and chased the guy down. And, uh, I think I said, “Stop! Police!” and he stopped. And I was like, “Alright, man, it worked. Just like on TV.”
CS: Good job. OK, let’s see? What are you listening to now?
GD: Ahhh, lately I’ve been listening to that Jurassic Five EP, I love that. The Black Star record — it’s amazing.
CS: Is there anyone you’d like to work with that you haven’t, or are planning on working with?
GD: Oh, there’s a bunch of people I’d like to work with. I’d like to work with Nas. I’d like to work with Lauryn Hill. I’d love to work with Prince. I’d love to work with Roger Waters, I’d love to work with Jimmy Page. Those are a few.
CS: Well, I can’t think of anything else — well, I could, but I’ll let you go eat or do whatever it is you need to do in Detroit.
GD: God bless ya.