Greg Dulli Sells His Soul

Greg Dulli Sells His Soul (Music, That Is)
CityBeat, Vol. 4, Issue 46; October 8-14, 1998

Frontman Greg Dulli discusses the troubled past, confident present and promising future of quasi-Cincinnati band The Afghan Whigs as the world awaits their new album

INTERVIEW BY DAVID SIMUTIS

The last time I saw Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli, he was pissing into a pint bottle of Jim Beam. We were in the men’s room of Clifton’s Modern Rock central, Sudsy Malone’s, and he made mention of how he was going to get somebody to drink it.

The bottle was obviously empty, because Dulli was full of it.

I watched him stumble out with a filled bottle. On my way out of the club, I saw the container on top of one of the dryers in the back. No deposit. No refill.

These kinds of Rock & Roll exploits have made the Whigs frontman revered and reviled, depending on who tells the story. Since the band’s beginning more than a decade ago, Dulli has taken it upon himself to be a lightning rod for opinions about its talent. Prone to onstage cigarette breaks – at one point during this interview he gloats, “I’m smoking right now” – and taunting crowd members, he can be alternately amusing and acerbic.

The Whigs’ career has labored under a duality as well. Always a critical favorite and a stunning live band, they’ve never been able to translate those qualities into large-scale sales. While they are now on an upward arc, circumstances and missteps have put the Whigs in a place where it’s time to put out or get out. Now on their third label home, Columbia, expectations are that the band’s latest album, 1965 (due Oct. 27), should be their best-selling release to date.

Songs of betrayal and examination of relationships gone sour have always filled the band’s landscape, starting with its self-released album Big Top Halloween, now a collector’s item. On the strength of that album, the Whigs were the first non-Seattle band signed to Grunge headquarters, SubPop Records.

For SubPop, the Whigs released a pair of albums, Up In It and Congregation, as well as the first blatant hint of reverence for old school R&B, Uptown Avondale, an EP of Soul covers.

The promise of the brass ring took the band to its first major label, Elektra Records, and the first release from that marriage, Gentlemen, was widely hailed by critics. But Top 10 lists don’t guarantee sales.

Still, the band was in place to capitalize on its success and break through to a larger audience with 1996’s Black Love. Unfortunately, the addition of strings and grandiose songs neither caught record buyers’ attention nor improved the relationship between the band and its label.

After finishing a tour with Neil Young, the Whigs took a hiatus of nearly a year while Dulli worked on a side project called The Twilight Singers.

‘You can fuck my body, baby/But don’t fuck my mind.’

– “Neglekted” (from 1965)

Local gossip had it that the Afghan Whigs were disappointed with the way Elektra worked Black Love. The album quickly dropped from Billboard’s Top 200 even though the first single, “Honky’s Ladder,” received a decent amount of MTV airings.

Dulli starts to describe the situation diplomatically enough, but the bitterness is still evident in his heated recounting of what led to the band’s departure from Elektra.

“No. 1, I’ll take the blame for picking ‘Honky’s Ladder’ as a single,” he says. “It’s not ever one person’s fault, but you have to factor in your own failings. I think a lot of people would laugh, and I would too, if someone said, ‘A record company, they lied to you? Big surprise.’ But these lies were so desperate, dastardly and therefore disreputable and unrespectable that we just couldn’t deal with it anymore. It was insidious. There wasn’t a motherfucker over there that we could trust anymore.”

A representative for Elektra had no comment regarding the parting of ways between the Whigs and the label.

The band takes a thinly veiled shot at Elektra on 1965. An advance cassette of the album has a song called “Sylvia,” but on the album itself the song has been titled “Neglekted.” Sylvia Rhone is Elektra’s president, and in industry circles the label has been derisively nicknamed “Neglektra” because of alleged inattention to its artist roster.

Asked about the song’s intent, Dulli answers, “I don’t think my attorney will let me comment on that.”

By taking such a public stance on past label problems, the Whigs are putting their cards on the table and their asses on the line. While Dulli accepts some of the blame, the band still must prove that it didn’t step up to the next level just because Elektra screwed up. Columbia must also justify paying the amount of money they did to get the band. This climate places more pressure than usual on the band to succeed, but 1965 is mostly upbeat, thanks to the horns and Dulli’s improved mood.

“This album definitely is a new (start),” the singer says. “Let’s just say that after the last record we did for Elektra it couldn’t get any darker. It was time to try something else.”

‘Whatever happened to your soul/I heard you sold it/Some old boy who lived uptown/Could afford it.’

– “Crazy” (from 1965)

The something else is Columbia, the record company that’s also home to Will Smith, Bob Dylan and Mariah Carey. The Whigs might have entered into their new pact with eyes wide open – Dulli financed the recording of 1965 himself – but Columbia is just as big a label as Elektra. How do they expect things to be better?

“I don’t know what they are going to do differently, except tell us the truth, even if the truth hurts,” Dulli says. “That’s what we’ve asked for. Even if you got bad news, you’ve got to tell us what’s going on at all times. As human beings, we deserve that.”

For the Whigs’ part, they’ve tried to deliver an album that’s less flamboyant and easier to swallow for the average consumer. Rather than string-laden epics or singles with the word “motherfucker” in it (such as the aforementioned “Honky’s Ladder”), 1965 is less highbrow.

“I think we have given (Columbia) songs that are definitely more accessible than our last record was,” says Dulli.

And he defends the band’s right to hope for better record sales.

“At a certain point, you get to what is known in the industry as ‘preaching to the converted,’ ” Dulli says. “We can book a show and have people come, but if a record company sees that new people aren’t coming in, I don’t really know what they can do. It’s such a business now. We’ve developed ourselves, and this is as far as we’ve been able to take it. Hopefully Columbia, with their infinite muscle, can push the door open a little bit further, and maybe we can take it a little bit further this time.

“The bottom line is, the state of radio these days is the worst I’ve ever heard it. If we don’t end up getting played on the radio, we don’t get played on MTV. And if you don’t get played on either of those, you don’t go gold.”

Pause for impending sarcasm.

“Unless you’re Korn.”

The Rebirth of Cool in the Big Easy

The Whigs have slowly evolved into the soulful incarnation that created 1965. Perhaps it was the New Orleans recording location, but adding horns, P-Funk keyboards and female backup singers removes them further from their SubPop roots. The sound is now much closer to the upbeat sensuality of mid-1970s Motown combined with Midwestern Rock.

The album opens with a match striking and Dulli confessing on “Something Hot” that his desire is so strong he’ll “never walk the same.” It’s a strong clue of what’s ahead.

Past Whigs records have offered paeans to the downside of bad love, but 1965 is an album about the night before it all goes to shit. It’s an album about trying to get laid.

On “John the Baptist,” Dulli uses wine and Marvin Gaye to charm a lover before offering himself with, quoting the soul legend, “Let’s get it on!” And the track never slows down, as the band hangs on for the ride while hoping to make a love connection.

The new album is “definitely our most Rock record since Up In It,” gushes Dulli. “I’m happy almost every time we get one done, but with this one I’m a little happier because we had a rough time after the last record. So this one seems very satisfying.”

Part of Dulli’s contentment comes from the fact that the album was made in the party atmosphere of New Orleans, his current adopted hometown, aided by the sounds of the city. Joined by members of the Rebirth Brass Band horn section, the Whigs are allowed a little more flexibility in their playing. What they add to the record is a fluidity that makes the bombast of Black Love seem almost pretentious in contrast.

“I’ve been a fan of the Rebirth Brass Band for the last eight years, and I’d go see them all the time,” Dulli says. “I did a solo record (The Twilight Singers) down in New Orleans last spring, and I had some of the Rebirth guys play on it. I became really good friends with Roderick (Paulin), the saxophone player, and he started to stop by with his brothers at the Whigs rehearsals in New Orleans. They started coming back, like, twice a week.”

As for the other notable album guest, Alex Chilton of Big Star, Dulli is characteristically low-key. As unabashed Big Star fans, band members must have been thrilled to work with an idol. Dulli says he’s been slowly getting to know Chilton, and his appearance on the song “Crazy” came about because of their acquaintance.

“He was friends with Jeff (Powell), our engineer, and we’d met Alex five years ago,” recounts Dulli. “He came and played with Teenage Fanclub when we toured with them. We met him there and had a smoke with him. We met him again in Memphis at one of his shows and saw him again in Seattle when Big Star played. At that point I felt I knew him well enough to ask him.”

The addition of Chilton is a tip of the hat to someone who knows how to include complex characterization and emotions into a catchy three-minute song. Like some of Big Star’s classic tunes, the songs on 1965 are less thematically intertwined than its predecessors – songs from Gentlemen reference back to lyrics from Congregation, while themes and phrases on Black Love carry over from song to song. The album is more stripped down by design, according to Dulli.

“It’s deceptive in that way,” he says, “but the songs can hang on their own a little more than Black Love and probably Gentlemen as well. I think the songs are a little simpler, just in how they are written. There aren’t many bridges on 1965, and Black Love is very bridge heavy, with lots of parts. These songs are kind of verse/chorus/verse.”

Showcasing his ongoing fascination with Hip-Hop and R&B, Dulli quotes Puff Daddy, Mase, Nas, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Not bad for a white kid from Ross, Ohio, who spent his summers doing things like lifeguarding at Hueston Woods outside of Oxford. (“I just sat in my chair and said, ‘No glass bottles! Stop running!,’ ” he says, laughing. “I’m still an employee at heart.”)

The playful mood of 1965 is reflected by Dulli asking, “Who’s hot, who’s not?” to parrot Mase’s question on Puff Daddy’s “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” And since the Whigs covered “Creep” by TLC in the past, a discussion of new R&B ensues, leading Dulli to trumpet his love for gangsta rapper Nas.

As for the Whigs jumping on the Hip Hop or Electronica bandwagon, “The new stuff has got to have something in there for me,” he says. “The Mase thing was more of a funny kind of thing. The Nas thing, I’m blown away by that kid. I think he’s a Bob Dylan-caliber writer. He’s the best lyricist I’ve seen since Chuck D’s heyday. It’s so far past what Master P is doing. Master P is just down there picking quarters out from underneath couch cushions.”

“Is there anything you won’t say?”

Long pause for cigarette inhale. Exhale. And you can hear the smile in Dulli’s voice.

“No.”

A rambling man, Dulli has lived in Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle since leaving the Queen City. And, now, New Orleans.

“I’ve been moving out of Cincinnati since 1983,” he says. “I never stay in one place long enough for somebody to get sick of me, although I always manage to do that. I get bored. I like seeing new things and meeting new people. I’m kind of a nomad. I’ve never had anything to keep me in one place. I’m kind of footloose and fancy-free.”

That lifestyle hasn’t seemed to affect the band negatively, even though core members Dulli, guitarist Rick McCollum and bassist John Curley live in three different cities.

“The only record that we made with all of us living in the same city was Big Top Halloween,” Dulli says, laughing. “I work on the songs wherever I am and then I come back to town. It’s nothing a telephone call, a fax or an airplane flight can’t fix.”

As reported in CityBeat last week, Dulli recently was back in town for a little rehearsing and the band’s traditional “secret show” warm-up for its upcoming tour – something they’ve done before their two previous tours. The tour begins Nov. 4 at the CMJ music fest in New York and includes a stop in Columbus on Nov. 19. (The Whigs’ Chicago show will be broadcast live on the internet on Nov. 12 at www.rollingstone.com)

For the Sept. 23 warm-up show at Sudsy Malone’s, the band had to adopt a new moniker, Gato Negro. Thanks to press leaks by overzealous mainstream media outlets, even their alter-ego band, the Havana Sugar Kings, draws too many people for it to be a true “secret” performance anymore. (True to form, the “Gato” show information was leaked in The Enquirer the day it happened.)

Speaking his mind without fear of the consequences or reaction, Dulli still shows the side of him that gets him in trouble. His wit is charming and his candor bracing. Part of the band’s appeal is that Dulli says what he thinks and says it eloquently. He is suave enough to deflect attention to his bandmates, saying that “John Curley is a media genius, because he tells me to never do interviews with any Cincinnati papers without getting the cover.”

Dulli speaks just as highly of McCollum and new drummer Michael Horrigan. While the Whigs’ face and voice is usually thought of as Dulli’s, it is McCollum’s slide guitar stylings that are often the band’s most distinctive element. An anecdote about McCollum’s law troubles during Mardi Gras in New Orleans breaks Dulli up laughing.

So why did Rick get thrown in jail? “Spilled a beer on a cop’s leg,” Dulli says.

Given Dulli’s predilection toward outlandish Rock & Roll style behavior, it would be easy to assume the rest of the band does too. There has to be more to the Rick-in-jail story than that.

“You know what?,” Dulli responds. “There’s really not. I wasn’t there, but I got the phone call. Rick is pretty much a teetotaler. He is usually the straightest guy in our band. He had not been out in Mardi Gras at all, he doesn’t like crowds and he doesn’t like drunk people, which makes it all the more ironic.

“He went out on Fat Tuesday, the last day, and it was his first time out the entire time and he’d just gotten his first beer and there was a surge in the crowd and some guy behind Rick just bumped his elbow. Rick had not even taken a drink of his beer and it went all over the cop’s leg. He was in the back of a police car before he even knew it. He didn’t even get to drink it.”

Horrigan, the third Whigs drummer in as many albums, first played with Dulli on The Twilight Singers record while still a member of Cincinnati’s Throneberry.

“He’s so great,” Dulli says of Horrigan. “We’ve never had a bad drummer in our band. Everybody’s got their favorite, but Steve (Earle), Paul (Buchignani) and Michael, well, we’ve always had someone great to play the drums. Michael is a great drummer who fits in personality-wise with our band.”

Because the Whigs and Throneberry have a long history – Throneberry guitarist/singer Jason Arbenz and Dulli were once roommates, and Dulli has done production for Throneberry – when Horrigan joined the Afghan Whigs, tongues wagged about the two camps being pitted against each other.

“That’s a situation that’s been worked out,” says Dulli after a pause. “That was a decision that Michael made, to lobby for a spot in our band. That’s the way it’s worked out. I could see that those guys (Throneberry) were definitely upset. I think they thought I had a big hand in that, but even I can’t do something like that. He loves those guys, and we love those guys.

“But I think Michael was looking at a long time of doing nothing and was interested in doing something. He wanted to work on another record. I know it was a really hard decision for him and a really hard decision for us. It definitely caused some temporary discomfort in band relations, but we’ve known those guys for way too long for that to be a nagging concern.”

Arbenz agrees that there was some bitterness but says the dispute is in the past. He and Dulli “just don’t talk about it,” he says.

‘It Can Be Done.’

The Whigs find themselves at a critical juncture with the release of 1965. It remains to be seen whether they can translate their hipster Rock into something Middle America will buy into. They have a strong catalog, good press, a torrential live show and great songs – exactly the same things that could be said of two of their heroes, Big Star and The Replacements.

But isn’t it daunting to ponder the failure of those bands to catch fire in the mainstream? Are smart songs and big sales mutually exclusive?

Undismayed, Dulli has his sights much higher than a pair of bands frequently cited as influences but rarely purchased at Best Buy.

“Look at The Smashing Pumpkins or Beck,” he says. “Or Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Who. Great songs. It can be done.”

That isn’t to say he’d be willing to tone done his lyrics or antics to a Muzak version of the Whigs the way fellow Replacements fans, the Goo Goo Dolls, did in search of platinum riches.

“That would be so against what we’ve done,” Dulli says. “The Goo Goo Dolls? God bless ‘em. That guy has always sounded like Paul Westerberg changed his life, but I can’t bust my stuff down to a Hallmark sentiment. That’s a concession I might not be physically able to make.”

Having said that, Dulli is quick to compliment the Whigs’ fanbase for sticking with the band through their hiatus, lineup changes and continuing quest to reinvigorate their sound.

“I’d be lying to say I didn’t want it any bigger,” he says. “Everyone would like to have more people listen to what they’re doing and come see them play. (But it) would be kind of shitting on our fanbase to say that I wasn’t satisfied. There have been a lot of people who have stuck by us for a lot of years and seen us do a lot of weird shit. I’d say that I’m definitely happy with the people we have turned on.

“Would I like to sell a few more records? Yeah, I’d love to. But if we don’t, I’ll be just fine.”

THE AFGHAN WHIGS release 1965 on Oct. 27. The group’s closest official tour stop is Nov. 19 at Columbus’ Newport Music Hall, although rumors suggest a Cincinnati show near the end of the year.

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