Rock N Roll Stars?
SO THEY WANNA BE ROCK ‘N ROLL STARS?
With a new record and a new label, the Afghan Whigs are excited about the future, but leader Greg Dulli can’t forget the past
Sunday, October 4, 1998
BY LARRY NAGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Afghan Whigs are sweating it out at another hot, booty-shaking night at Sudsy Malone’s.
Several hundred fans are crammed from the back of the Corryville bar – laundry smack up to the stage, staring and grooving as the guys tear through a blistering, two-hour set.
But this is 1998, not 1989. The Cincinnati-born band has come a long way from its baby steps in the local alternative rock scene. It’s a journey that has taken the Whigs all over the world, through several drummers, a handful of record labels and countless magazine and newspaper articles touting them as rock’s “next big thing.”
In a few weeks, the pressures will be back. The band’s new album, 1965, arrives Oct. 27. It’s the Whigs’ debut for Columbia after an acrimonious parting from Elektra.
A lot is riding on the record, as the Whigs try for that elusive hit single to take them from cult heroes to mainstream rock stars. On this Wednesday night, though, the pressure’s off. Billed as Gato Negro (Spanish for “Black Cat”), all the band has to prove is that they can still rock hard. And they do.
He and the other Whigs — core members John Curley on bass and Rick McCollum on guitar, newest drummer Michael Horrigan, longtime sidemen Doug Falsetti on vocals and percussion and Harold “Happy” Chichester on vocals and keyboards — keep that momentum going, moving from 1965 songs to such Whig oldies as “Debonair” and “What Jail is Like.”
The Whigs’ notoriously moody front man is obviously having a great time at Sudsy’s, chain-smoking Camels and enjoying the attentions of the young women pressed against the stage.
“I dig that Catholic schoolgirl look,” Mr. Dulli leers at one fan in a short plaid skirt.
Most of all, he seems genuinely happy to be playing, back where it all began for him and his pals.
But even as he exults to the crowd, “You live in the most beautiful city in Ohio,” Mr. Dulli has mixed feelings about the Queen City.
“Cincinnati, your hometown, it’s a tough one,” he says thoughtfully, a few days before the Sudsy’s gig. He’s sitting with Mr. Curley in one of the control rooms at Ultrasuede Studios in Northside, ever-present Camel dangling from the corner of his mouth. Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly plays softly behind him.
“We traditionally don’t play Cincinnati very often,” he continues. “Even when no one came to see us, we were still bratty about it. I think that’s maybe why we were bratty about it.”
Raised in Sherman Park, a Hamilton suburb, Mr. Dulli grew up thinking of Cincinnati as Bright Lights, Big City. He still takes any rejection here very personally.
“We would probably play Cincinnati a lot more, and not to say it hasn’t been great for us,” he says. “But we’ve done some per-capita work with the major metropolitan areas in America. And Cincinnati . . . well, we’d like to thank the 1,500 people who come and see us every time we play, but where’s the rest of you all?
“We ain’t from Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle or New Orleans or New York or L.A. or Detroit, we’re not from any of those places, and the love is doled out in copious amounts there, y’know.”
Particularly, he adds, love in the form of record sales.
“It’s not good. It’s bad. It’s sad. Anybody who wonders why John Curley’s the only one who lives here anymore need look no further” than record sales, says Mr. Dulli, who lives in Seattle. Mr. McCollum makes his home in Minneapolis.
But Cincinnati still looms large in the Afghan Whigs’ identity. “Even though only one of us lives here now, you’re always from where you’re from,” says Mr. Dulli. “Wherever we play, in London, in Paris, in Amsterdam, in Copenhagen, in any exotic locale we’ve played in, it is on the posters: “From Cincinnati, Ohio, the Afghan Whigs.’ We’re emissaries.”
“And expatriates,” Mr. Curley adds.
Euclid Street roots
It was just a few years ago that Cincinnati was being touted in the national music press as the next Seattle or Athens, Ga., a regional center producing lots of major-label rock acts.
In the ’80s, it was Tristate R&B acts such as Midnight Star and the Deele who scored national hits. But a decade later, alternative rock came to the fore, with the hard-edged Whigs leading a wave of Cincinnati rockers that would include the ornery Ass Ponys, ethereal Over The Rhine, pop – soulsters Blessid Union of Souls and such indie-rock favorites as Throneberry.
“John and Rick and I started the band in John’s living room over on Euclid Street in the fall of ’86. I think I played drums that day,” Mr. Dulli recalls.
“And for like six weeks, it was just like the three of us. We got Steve (Earle, the band’s first in a series of drummers) much later on and then played our first gig, January of ’87 at the Jockey Club (in Newport).”
In 1988, the band released Big Top Halloween, recorded in Mr. Curley’s home studio in Camp Washington and released on his Ultrasuede label. (Back then, the self-described “technician with creative tendencies,” had a day job as an Enquirer photographer. Now he co-owns Ultrasuede Studios).
The disc drew the interest of Sub Pop, the Seattle label that encapsulated that city’s grunge scene as neatly as Sun did Memphis rockabilly and Chess did Chicago blues.
In 1990, The Whigs became the first non-Seattle act on Sub Pop, releasing Up In It, which featured a few tracks from Big Top Halloween. The group stayed with the label through Congregation (1992) and the 1993 EP of soul covers Uptown Avondale.
Along the way, the band’s R&B inflected modern rock was gaining a large and influential following.
Just as vital to the band’s success, Mr. Dulli was developing his persona — equal parts jaded, cocktail-sipping, alt-rock lounge lizard and Barry White-style, crushed-velvet sex machine.
Big Top Halloween (1988, Ultrasuede)
Up in It (1990, Sub Pop)
Congregation (1992, Sub Pop)
Uptown Avondale (1992, Sub Pop EP)
Gentlemen (1993, Elektra/Sub Pop)
What Jail is Like (1994, Elektra/Sub Pop EP)
Black Love (1996, Elektra/Sub Pop)
Honky’s Ladder (1996, Elektra/Sub Pop EP)
Bonnie & Clyde (1996, Elektra/Sub Pop EP)
1965 (1998, Columbia)
The buzz continued, resulting in a deal with Elektra Records that produced two albums, 1994’s Gentlemen and 1996’s Black Love. In 1996, everything seemed to be going the Whigs’ way. Mr. Dulli had earned rave reviews providing the singing voice for John Lennon in 1994’s BackBeat, a soundtrack that included contributions by R.E.M’s Mike Mills, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl.
Also that year, along with Black Love, the Whigs were prominently featured in Beautiful Girls, both onscreen and on the soundtrack, which was co-produced by Mr. Dulli.
Black Love was featured in the coveted lead-off spot in the record review section of the March 26, 1996, issue of Rolling Stone. The Whigs’ three-star review ran ahead of new discs by Sting and alt-rock icon Nick Cave, as well as the Fugees’ blockbuster, The Score.
All that potential came to nothing, as shake-ups and staff cutbacks at Elektra resulted in zero promotion for both Whigs projects.
“They bought the soundtrack to Beautiful Girls because I was doing it. I was stunned,” says a still-incredulous Mr. Dulli at the lack of Elektra’s support. “It was amateur hour all the way.”
“I just think that’s indicative of the short-sighted business strategy that they have,” Mr. Curley adds. “They put out 200 records and work the stuff that’s already selling on its own. And we needed some more support than that. It was promised to us, and we never got it.”
“All I can say is it got so completely intolerable over there,” Mr. Dulli says. “I could not understand why anyone who was not going to do anything with us as a recording entity would hang so desperately onto us. I got on my hands and knees and begged for them to let us go and they would not. I guess they thought they could make some money off of us on the back end. Which they did.”
When the Whigs were signing with Columbia, following a bidding war that included Interscope and Capitol, the label had to pay Elektra for the Whigs’ contract.
When Elektra was first refusing to release the Whigs, there was talk of breaking up the band and re-forming under a different name, just to get out of the contract.
“But that’s just like rolling over and we’re not going to do that,” Mr. Curley asserts.
“Yeah, we’ve never done that,” Mr. Dulli agrees. “That would be letting them win. They’d be taking our brand name away from us. And any capitalist worth their salt. . .”
“Would chafe at that idea,” Mr. Curley finishes.
The label change marks a new direction for the Whigs. The production of 1965 remains dense, with atmospheric trumpets, swirling strings and backup vocals recalling classic soul, particularly the work of Mr. Dulli’s idol, Curtis Mayfield. But the material itself is less complex.
“The songs are real simple,” Mr. Dulli says. “If you just sit down and play the songs, it’s a lot of verse-chorus-verse, which is unheard of from me as a songwriter. I’m usually way busier. I made a conscious effort to simplify it this time.”
He had several reasons, he says.
“… I always kind of hampered us commercially, I think, because I was throwing too much stuff at people, trying to find my voice as an artist, trying to be different than everyone else. I learned you could be different by making it simple and just adding instruments as you went along and then taking them away.”
And the usually ambivalent rocker couldn’t be more pleased. “I love it,” he says with a grin. “I love our new record a lot.”
It was produced in New Orleans in a 15-month period in which Mr. Dulli also recorded a side project with Mr. Chichester as the Twilight Singers, a CD that will come out on Columbia in 1999.
Along with conveying some of that city’s spookily dissipated atmosphere, 1965 features a long guest list of Crescent City residents, including jazz – blues pianist Henry Butler and, singing harmony on “Crazy,” longtime Dulli role model Alex Chilton. While the final cost of the project is not known, 1965 was mixed by top guns Dave Bianco and George Drakoulias, and that process alone often runs several hundred thousand dollars.
The album title, explains Mr. Curley, “comes from the fact that Greg and I were born in 1965. And Rick, having been born in ’64, it was the first time that all of us were together on the planet.” It was also a year rich in cultural and musical milestones, adds Mr. Dulli.
“The armies were gathering for the Summer of Love in 1965, man walked in space for the first time, King marched to Selma, Malcolm X got shot down by his own people. That was the rise of Stax, the rise of Motown, the rise of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who.” The opening track, “Somethin’ Hot,” is the first single. Soulfully slinky yet rocking, buoyed by the big voice of backup singer Susan Marshall, it sounds like the hit the band has long been waiting for, but the Whigs aren’t getting their hopes up.
“Who knows,” Mr. Dulli says. “Already, we’re hearing that rock radio won’t play anything with a female backup singer on it. So we already did another mix without her . . . I think rock radio is always gonna have an answer for the Afghan Whigs why they can’t play ’em.”
Life in music
Even without a hit record, Mr. Dulli has no plans to give up music.
“For me, I ended up being drawn to the art of it, the art of production, the art of writing songs, the art of moving myself first, trusting my own instincts enough that I could believe that it would move someone else later on. And I always took that seriously, whether I was going to be coming on aggressive, coming on contrite, coming on passionately, however I was gonna come on.
ON THE WEB
Check out the Afghan Whigs’ Web site at www.afghanwhigs.com
“We give the glib answer all the time that we got into the band to meet chicks and get free booze. And there’s a large amount of truth to that,” he says with a chuckle. “But at a certain point I was always just so fascinated (with) where records came from, and I would read everything and it became part of me.
“I thought I owed it some respect, to give back to something that gave me so much. I would have been like a million other kids, I would have been lost without music. It was the thing that kept me grounded.”
He’s no longer a kid at 33, but music remains his anchor.
“I tell you what, man, from here on out I might not make records with this kind of budget, this whole (major-label) thing. I don’t know how much longer I wanna put myself through that. I’d rather move into something where I can do soundtracks or something like that. I’ll get a job in music, don’t y’all worry about that. But I’ll keep it to something where I can feel good about myself.
One lesson he’s learned is that there’s no job security in the music business.
“George Jones got dropped from his record label. George Jones got dropped from his record label! They drop George Jones, I’m gone before you know it. Who’s Greg Dulli?”