AW Interview: Well Rounded
Who Stole the Soul? Afghan Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli discusses his music’s evolution and his own lack of public relations skills.
Afghan Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli is feeling good these days. After spending the last three albums chronicling the downward spiral his life had taken, he has finally made the raucous party album that a few have guessed was always deep down in the Whigs arsenal. 1965, as it’s called, is the band’s most accessible record to date, melding Dulli’s innuendo-heavy, mojo-man singing with an increasingly dense mix of rock, soul, R&B, and funk. Gone is all the self-hate that consumed the band’s brilliant 1993 album, Gentlemen, as well as the bitterness that seethed from 1996’s Black Love. In it’s place is a festive atmosphere that breathes with the flavor of New Orleans (where it was recorded), with horns, cellos, drums and guitars all sidling up next to each other to dance. With a new record label, a new drummer, and a new attitude, Greg Dulli took some time out from their touring schedule to talk about his band, the music industry, and why he’d make a terrible A&R man.
What’s going on?
Right now I’m trying to get my room warm.
Where you at?
I’m from Detroit. I saw you guys there a long time ago when you played some modern-rock radio festival, a few years before modern-rock really existed.
Oh yeah, yeah. With Beck and… It was about five years ago. It was, “I’m a loser baby.”
I guess I should ask you some questions. Here’s an easy one: Were you disappointed with the way Black Love was received?
Received? No, I was not disappointed with how it was received. I’m never disappointed with how its received, I was disappointed with how it was promoted. People receive things how they are going to receive them, but if they don’t get a chance to receive them, then I got a problem (laughs).
So do you blame Elektra for the lack of commercial success it got, or the lack of notice anyhow?
No, I blame myself for that.
Cause I wrote it. But, there was plenty of blame to go around there. I’ll take the high road there.
What sort of happened with Elektra that resulted in you parting ways with them?
Oooooh boy, hmmm…..
“I can’t wait to go back to New Orleans and live, but I will only go back when I learn how to behave myself.”
Looking for a political way of putting it?
Yeah. Ummm, Well, the marriage was over. It was time for a divorce that’s all that I can think to say. There was nothing any good that was going to come out of that anymore.
Did the lack of commercial success that you had gotten with both Gentlemen and Black Love figure into it?
Gentlemen was fine. Cause it was a different regime at Elektra. By the time Black Love rolled around, we didn’t know anybody who works there anymore. I mean, the Elektra that we signed to, things went fine for us for Gentlemen. We knew the people we were working with, they told us the truth. We had no problems with them. It was the regime that came in when Elektra merged with EastWest and Atco and Sire and all that and they went from putting out 40 records a year to putting out 150 records a year. So that’s when our problem began.
Was it harrowing to be making the new album, not knowing where it was going to end up?
At times it was. But we had a bunch of interest and I was getting jocked pretty good. That made it less scary. There were at least four labels lined up ready to pay me back for it. It was still a little scary, believe me. I’ve never spent that much money on myself before. (Laughs)
Was it an option to sign to a new label before you started recording 1965?
No, because we were still technically signed to Elektra when we began recording the record.
Was there an idea when you were sitting down to make 1965, to make an album that had more commercial potential than you had in the past?
No. Actually, no. The thing that I wanted to do as the main songwriter was to try something new for myself. So, I’d been painting in black and white for a couple of records and I was ready to use some colors.
I think you had said earlier that the band hadn’t really collaborated in the truest sense of the word, since Congregation, until the new record…
…was it hard coming from your perspective to give up more control to the other band members on the new record?
It was actually the opposite. I had done a solo record right before 1965 where I kind of got to get a lot of that out of my system and I was eager to collaborate. So it wasn’t a problem at all.
What other things were you looking to do differently than you had done before?
Have fun. (Laughs) We wanted to let the record take its time to become what it wanted to become. So we all moved down to New Orleans, I was already living down there. The rest of the gang came down and we got a rehearsal space and we started to kind of rehearse like we did in `92. Five days a week. We all hung out with each other a lot. We hadn’t seen each other in a year and it was a refreshing change from our past recordings, especially Black Love which was done in a real isolated place in Seattle. You start to feel its isolation after a while.
How long had you been down in New Orleans when the other guys came down?
I’d been there six months.
Why’d you originally go down there?
To do the Twilight Singers record.
I’d read somewhere where you said during the making of that Twilight Singers record you were trying to drink and drug yourself to death. What pulled you out of that?
Anti-depressants. (Laughs a very hearty laugh). And that’s an honest answer.
This may sound strange, but were you concerned when you started feeling better that your writing and your music might actually suffer? I mean a lot of the stuff that has really hit people hard, especially on Gentlemen and Black Love were the neuroses and psychoses that came along with the music.
No. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t there, even better. (Laughs) There’s really only, there’s a couple ways you can go. You can keep on going down that road and who knows, maybe–I think the Twilight Singers record will satisfy those people in search of the psychotic and neurotic Greg Dulli. But as for me, that was a phase of my life that I was more than ready to end.
You worked with Shawn Smith (of Satchel, Brad, Pigeonhed) and Harold Chicester (of Howlin’ Maggie) on that record, were those pretty much all your songs?
We all co-wrote one song together. It was going to be much more collaborative and then those guys–it was pretty funny–they weren’t coming to the table with their A-list stuff. I think they were kind of saving their A-list stuff for their own bands. So I just sort of took it over, which I notice I will do in a situation like that. Then, as the thing started to swing heavily in my direction, I started to see some of their really good material come in. But by then, it was starting to get too late. I had begun to dominate the project by then.
Do you find it difficult now to kind of go back and play some of the stuff from Gentlemen and Black Love that was chronicling you at your lowest points, or at least to play it with the same kind of passion you were playing it with back then?
I have no problem tapping in to passion, ever. If I’ve ever felt it in my life I can feel it again. Those songs are deep, deep inside my body and all I have to do is begin to sing them to feel those feelings again. There are some songs off Gentlemen and Black Love that i’m not interested in singing anymore. But y’know other than that, the ones that I will, I give it everything I have.
For the ones that you’re not interested in singing anymore is that because you don’t want to tap into the emotions behind them?
It’s because I don’t feel that way anymore. And I’m not gonna fake it. I’m not gonna sing “I gotta dick for a brain,” if I don’t feel I’ve got a dick for a brain, now. (Laughs)
On Gentlemen you seemed to be directing a lot of anger in at yourself and then at Black Love it seemed like your anger was being directed more outward. Do you think you’ve found a new way to deal with anger that’s reflected on the new album?
I think so. I think there’s really–anger is pretty absent on this record. It sort of seethes a little bit, it’s bubbling underneath some of the songs. I would say, Gentlemen I was a 26-27 year-old fucked-up motherfucker. So I’m six years removed from that now. Plus I also hold an understanding of what I was going through at that time, that I did not have at the time. It was just scary and overwhelming to me then. Now I can somewhat understand it.
Did you actively try to be less introspective about relationships on the new album than you had been in the past?
There was no relationship to pick apart, Dave. This time I wrote these songs and recorded these songs as a single person. And I was involved in relationships on the past two albums. Relationship, relationship, no relationship. Write about what you know and what you’re going through at the time and as you can tell, it was a bit more of a celebratory time in my life this time.
Do you think that fact alone will make it a more universal album for people to latch on to?
Uhhh, I’m not too good at prognosticating. I’ll plead the fifth on that one.
The album obviously has that New Orleans, party flavor to it, but the city obviously has a pretty dark side that can suck you in…
…did you feel that you were sucked in by the seedier elements of New Orleans?
Yes. (Laughs) To the point where it was time for me to leave. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I can’t wait to go back to New Orleans and live but I will only go back when I learn how to behave myself. (Laughs)
When you left was there a big come-down?
Oh yeah, I went back to Seattle and slept for two weeks. (Laughs) And that’s the truth too. It kicked my ass man. It will kick your ass. Just when you think you’ve got New Orleans by the balls, you look down and it’s got you by the balls.
Over the last few years you’ve garnered an image–that I’m sure you’re aware of–but do you think this image, and also the band’s image as an extension of that, has caused people to overlook the music at all?
Ummm, I wouldn’t know. I see what you’re going for, but that’s sort of supposing and I’m sort of bad at that. I don’t know. I don’t know what people [think]. If people go “style over substance,” that’s too bad.
I remember when we talked last you said you weren’t sure how long the band would last after Black Love. Was there a thought after the album ran its course to just pack it in?
No, because the story wasn’t over yet. Y’know, John, Rick and I, as being the three guys that were in John’s living room that day 12 years ago, we have such a deep abiding love and respect for each other that that will be a three-man conversation when the end comes down. I’ll put it to you this way: we’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning. And y’know, I don’t know if it will be one more or two more, but the end is closer than the beginning.
What’ll you look to do then? You’ve talked before about your interest in film, is that a direction you’ll want to explore more once the Whigs are done?
There’s a whole lot of stuff I’d like to do. I’ve worked on screenplays, I mean hell, I’d like to write a book. There’s a whole lot of stuff that I can’t wait to do. I can’t wait to go to Hawaii and become a good surfer. There’s a lot of stuff that I want to do with my life that I haven’t even started doing yet. So this right now, we always said we didn’t want to be the Peter Pan band that would never grow up. One day we’ll grow up, we’re just still having a good time now. And I hope we end it still having a good time.
“I’m not gonna fake it. I’m not gonna sing `I gotta dick for a brain,’ if I don’t feel I’ve got a dick for a brain, now.”
I remember we also talked about some of the concessions that you end up making to places like MTV, just to get your stuff out there and give people the opportunity to hear it. MTV actually plays less videos now than when we had talked about that two or three years ago, do you still see it as a financially wise decision to even make a video?
Well, the one way you sort of pay for the video is that you know it’s going to be played in Europe. For us, that’s a big deal, because Europe is a place where we’ve done pretty well and have been able to support ourselves playing music from income from Europe since Congregation. So, if we were just making it for America, I would probably say no, we wouldn’t do one. But because it goes to Europe, that makes it worthwhile.
Do you enjoy making them, coming off your interest in film?
I’m probably more interested in it than the other guys in the band. Simply because I used to co-direct them in our early days. I co-directed our first six videos. I definitely have an interest in it and may do it again some day.
I also know you put together a couple soundtracks in the last couple of years. Now that soundtracks are big business, are you disappointed with the trend to use them as just a showcase for labels to package a bunch of acts they’re trying to push on to a compilation, which usually has nothing to do with the film?
What, like Batman?
Like Batman, like 90% of any big studios movies, especially if they’re god-forbid targeted at that elusive Generation X. But does that upset you, I mean having done the Beautiful Girls soundtrack which broke that mold, do you worry that you’d never have a chance to do something like that again?
Well, that was one that everybody watched. Everybody watched to see what it did, and well, you saw what it did. (Laughs) And I got a lot of shit for that, especially from Elektra, who bought the thing and they wanted to put some of their “hot” bands on the thing who I just didn’t…I had to kick and scream to get Ween on that fuckin’ record and Ween was on the label. But they wanted a more commercially viable band than Ween. So, I just said if you’re taking Ween off, than you’re taking me off too. And that got them on there. But I think if that were to happen today, they’d tell me to go fuck myself. And they’d put whoever they wanted on there. They would remove me.
So in the current climate would you ever see yourself being to do a soundtrack anymore, at least for a big-budget movie?
For a bigger movie, I’m probably not the guy. I’m not the guy because I just can’t, in good conscience, throw something on there. I’d be a terrible A&R guy, because I’d go see the shitty band that’s gonna sell five million records and I’d say they were no good and the competition would scoop them up and I’d get fired. (Laughs) I’d just be bad at that. I used to think I’d be good. I used to think I had an eye for a talent. And I think I do…
Unfortunately talent isn’t what you need an eye for in the music business anymore.
No, you just gotta see what can make money. It’s pretty gross really. It’s kind of disheartening, but at this stage, I’ve cast my lot now. I’m a musician. (Laughs) Ooops.
Along those same lines, do you take it to heart that your albums haven’t sold that well?
The way that I look at it is anything that I don’t have, I just don’t have. And that’s the best for me to deal with anything. Y’know, I live a pretty good life so for me to start complaining about my life would be ungrateful, for one. I get to play music with who I want to play with. I get final cut on my records. That’s all I really wanted. I mean, would I want to sell more records? I’d love to. Would I like to play big places and have lots of people come and see my band play, of course. You’re a liar if you say no. Would I trade the dignity of my group and what it’s meant to me for commercial success? No, never.
You’ve had a revolving door of drummers on the last three albums. What happened with Paul leaving and Michael coming in?
Y’see, we wanted to get Michael when Steve was out but Michael was playing with some friends of ours [in the band Throneberry] and we didn’t want to break up anybody’s band so we went with Paul who was free. And Paul we just didn’t know very well, and when you get someone you don’t know very well out on the road, you see what they’re made of, and Paul was made of marshmallows. Anytime the heat got close, he got crispy or melty. He just couldn’t handle it. (laughs)
The Twilight Singers record should come out next year some time. And I’d like to do another one. I definitely plan on doing another Whigs record. I’ve got lots of stuff to do coming up. I’m still a youngster.