Consumable Online – JC
John Curley / Afghan Whigs, 1965- Chris Hill
You have to admire the nerve of a guy who records his lovemaking, titles a 23 second excerpt “Sweet Son of a Bitch”, and puts it on an album which should be in a million teenage stockings on Christmas morn. But that’s Greg Dulli – rogue and auteur – guiding force of a band (Afghan Whigs) with a potentially platinum new album ( 1965 ).
1993’s Gentlemen, stocked with gems like “Debonair”, “What Jail is Like”, and “Gentlemen”, brought the Whigs to the attention of grunge-laden radio playlists. 1996’s Black Love, though a respectable seller, was not as popular – blame either lack of label support or meatier, thought-provoking tunes. Now come 1998, and they’ve returned with their lighter, bawdier side given full rein and a whip.
Dulli’s cinematic interests are evident, either with establishing shots opening songs (a striking match – “Somethin’ Hot”, party babble – “Crazy”, French dialogue – “Citi Soleil”) or lyrical imagery (“You walked in just like smoke/with a little come on, come on, come on in your walk” – “66”). These songs are lust walking with a wide-open fly – my favorite line du jour comes from “Somethin’ Hot” – “You don’t know just how I lie awake/and dream awhile about your smile/and the way you make your ass shake”. There’s a plethora of randy quotables here.
Working the publicity machine, John Curley, Whigs bass player, was kind enough to talk with me on the phone. Past raving about the excellence of the album (ta, objectivity!), stylistic changes from Black Love, 1965 guest musicians, the amazing Susan Marshall (whose vocals round out 1965’s powerful groove), and their touring plans (sans horns, due to expense), I noticed the tape wasn’t recording. Sigh. So we start with…
CO: You guys pick great photographs for your albums.
John: Thank you.
CO: Angel Fernandez, who came up with the concept for Gentlemen – that photograph is just amazing. Should be a poster.
John: Angel’s actually Greg, by the way. That was his concept. And we knew what the cover was going to be before we really started writing the songs. We had a couple songs in the bag, that we had kind of started working out. “Gentlemen” and “What Jail is Like” were two of the early ones. And “My Curse” had been written some years before. But he knew what the cover was going to be, and told us, before we really set down to work on the songs.
In a subtle way – true, but I found it really helpful to know that. Once I had the cover described to me, I was like “Yeah, I got it”. I don’t know how much of that translates into the actual notes I play on bass, but it made it a lot easier to see where we were going and stuff.
CO: With the new record, you’ve got an astronaut over the Earth. Was that Greg’s idea, too?
John: At first, we wanted to use a collage of images from 1965, so we got a whole bunch of these images together, started looking at them, and it just became kind of obvious, definitely in looking at the cover of our last – of all our records, really – the single strong image seems to have more impact for all of us than a collage. But there’s a collage in there, on the back cover of the booklet.
CO: Why the image? There’s a real dichotomy between the shot in space and the intimate lyrics. Was that an in-joke?
JC: No, I don’t think it’s meant to be a joke at all. I mean, in that context, you’re out in space with that spacesuit on, but inside it’s kind of warm. You’re sort of alone with yourself. There’s probably several metaphors in that you could start to get out. And then there’s also that 2001: A Space Odyssey rebirth metaphor, too. Not so much the music, but at the end, after he encounters the black box, you know … reverts back to his baby self and the universe and stuff. I don’t know. We’ve never really talked about it much, but those are my musings.
CO: With pretty much the same personnel – Jeff Powell, Greg producing – HUGE difference in sound. I’m wondering what the catalyst was between the last album and this album, ’cause this one’s just … sunshine.
John: Well, you know, I think getting off Elektra was a big boost for us, emotionally. I think stuff happened in Greg’s personal life and health-wise, where he’s in a better state in both. I mean, he’s always said and even without saying, it’s pretty obvious, but when he’s feelin’ good, he writes about feelin’ good, and when he’s feeling lousy, he writes about feeling lousy. And he was feeling pretty good, and still is.
CO: Some of Trent Reznor’s fans hope he’s always miserable, because he writes the best songs when he’s miserable.
John: Yeah, I used to say stuff like that. Like when I was a kid, I would say that about Pete Townshend, “I wish he’d get addicted to heroin again” or something like that, ’cause he never wrote anything good after Quadrophenia or whatever. But you get in a band, or you become friends with somebody who’s an artist, and you know, it’s just not worth it. Greg said this to me in several interviews. He’s like “If I had to choose between feeling like that some more or not making any more albums, I wouldn’t make any more albums.” It’s just not worth it. To see your friend not happy, that sucks, too. And you can’t do anything about it. You just kinda got to sit there and watch.
CO: Well, he’s said Gentlemen was a pretty cathartic experience, sitting around with you guys, gushing out this emotional pain, that you guys were there for him.
John: I think that was the first time he really tried to do something like that. And I remember doing the demos for that, and just listening to the lyrics and being able to hear the lyrics for the first time, ’cause you can’t really hear them at practice, or at shows, necessarily, and just being like “wow, this is pretty personal.” To be able to write it in such an articulate and direct way.
He’s definitely one of my favorite lyric writers. So I’m glad I get to be in a band with him too, ’cause I’d probably still listen to it, even if I wasn’t. I’m tough on lyrics, man. I get turned off really quick by some stupid lyric.
CO: Who are your favorites? Do you have any modern guys piquing you?
John: Chuck D. I think Chuck D writes great lyrics. I think Thom from Radiohead writes some pretty good lyrics, and even the ones that aren’t great are okay, you know? It’s hard. I’ve tried to do it before, and it’s just like laughably stupid what I come up with. I think it’s really hard to say something in a cool and unique way. A lot of it, too, is just conviction and believing in what you’re saying.
CO: Your new drummer, Mike [Horrigan] sounds like he’s been playing with you for a while.
John: I don’t remember the first time I met him, but he’s been in bands since we first started going out and playing with the Whigs. We’ve known him for a long time.
CO: He’s familiar with your drum riffs?
John: It would be safe to say he was a fan of the band.
CO: ‘Cause I’m hearing little touches in 1965 that pop up throughout the other albums. It’s strange to have such a presence in the drums. The opening riff of “Going to Town”, I hear that showing up in other…
John: You say “Going to Town”, that was actually … you know, Greg’s a drummer, too.
CO: Yeah, I read he wrote on multiple instruments.
John: Yeah, so that might be your connection, as far as hearing stuff, ’cause really, from about Gentlemen on, he’s been pretty specific about certain drum things, and he definitely has beats that are his favorites, that I recognize, that it’s like “Oh, yeah, you like that stuff, don’t ya?” Which is not to say he says, “Sit down and play it like this” or whatever, but there’s definitely parts where he says, “Yeah, I gotta hear this” and that goes for drums, bass, and guitar.
CO: So how complete are the songs when you come in? Pretty much like “Here’s your line, go for it.” or…?
John: Well, like “Somethin’ Hot” was a demo that was recorded and there wasn’t really any room to change the bass on it, or the drums, or the guitar. It was a pretty straight- forward song, so we just kind of learned it like the demo, and I mean, it changes subtly. There’s little fills or whatever, that everybody does that are unique to them. But there wasn’t really a whole lot of room to mess around with it. “The Slide Song” – that ended up having an extra part, ’cause Greg wanted to sing it a certain way, and it needed that sort of second half of the verse where it descends, like the b-verse, I guess you’d call it.
CO: I have to bring up Susan Marshall again. She’s incredible.
John: She was in a band called The Mother Station. And I believe – you should check this, but I believe they were on Epic.
CO: Okay. [Atlantic, then on EastWest, according to the All-Music Guide web site]
John: She’s from Memphis. She sings with Ann Peebles sometimes. She sings with a lot of people down in Memphis. She’s a great singer, though. She’s got this huge powerful voice, and when we were recording, you know, the house is huge, and it would just boom through the whole house, you know, and all the floors are tile and wood and stuff, so it would just echo all the way back into the farthest reaches of the house.
CO: Wow. I noticed you played keyboards on this one.
John: A little bit, yeah. I did a keyboard bass thing on “Crazy”.
CO: I think it’s pretty cool that you’re personally responding to people on the site. [ http://www.afghanwhigs.com ]
John: Yeah, I’m trying to. Part of it’s guilt-driven for not responding to the analog fan mail we’ve gotten over the years. We’ve just tried a bunch of times to do it. It’s just too much work, and it winds up halfway getting done. We’ve had a couple false starts on trying to start a fan club.
CO: Well, you’ve got a couple out there – fan sites – that are just amazing. Meredith’s page… [ http://dolphin.upenn.edu/~borakove/whigs/ ]
John: I know. Meredith, yeah. The first time I ever got on the internet, I was like “Oooh, I’ll type in Afghan Whigs”…
John: …and saw that. So, I mean, that was already there. So, I’ll be forever indebted to Meredith for making me think the Internet was pretty cool.
CO: How involved are you with the Interactive portion of Ultrastudio? [ http://www.ultrastudio.com/ – the Cinncinnati studio he shares with partners]
John: I pretty much did the website for the studio. My wife and one of my other partners, Dave, run the interactive thing. Michelle, my wife, does all the enhanced cd programming, has a lot of corporate clients and stuff, and then Dave does the mastering and the digital audio work. So basically, the UltraInteractive part is the catch-all for doing anything that’s not multi-track recording.
CO: It’s pretty Renaissance – you’ve got bald eagles, fantasy baseball…
John: [laughs] She’s busy. She’s got boundless energy.
CO: All the press about the studio makes it sound like a communal thing.
John: Very much is. We couldn’t run it any other way, because when the Whigs go on tour, half the staff walks out the door.
CO: The rates are great.
John: Yup. You won’t find a better deal within 500 miles. I guarantee it.
CO: I read that you were in the black. Are you still?
John: Pretty much. I mean, if we were all trying to make a living out of it, I think it would be a little more difficult, but as long as it supports itself, we’re all pretty happy, ’cause we have other things we do. The whole point of it was never to get in over our heads, to the point where we’d just have to be slaves to paying the bills, and having to go out and hustle for business, and having to record just god-awful music that none of us liked. [laughs]
CO: Do you think Elektra was, in hindsight, almost good for not getting you out, so this album will be a little more fresh – a “who are these guys?” kind of thing?
John: I think Elektra did more to make us indie rock than SubPop, you know. As far as that goes.
CO: Really? Through lack of promotion?
John: Yeah. You know what? I mean, number one, it was a total different company that we signed with, than what we left on. When we signed with Elektra, they put out 40 some odd records a year, then they folded in EastWest and Atco, and went to putting out maybe 140 records a year, 180 records a year, whatever. They just don’t have the long-term vision. I don’t think the new management had a clue what to do with us. They had people telling them, “Oooh, these guys are good. Don’t give up this band.” But they didn’t know why.
They made all these promises to us about a year-long commitment, and blah blah blah “We’re in here for the long term”. Six weeks down the road, it was starting to filter back to us that they were saying “The Whigs’ record’s dead. Let’s concentrate on” … whatever their flavor-of-the-month band was at that time.
CO: What made you go with Columbia then?
John: The guy that signed us at Columbia, Tim Devine, has been a longtime fan of the band, and has come to see us. In fact, there were a couple of people from Columbia, besides Tim, who’d been coming to see us just as fans for a long time. Tim kind of made it known, through conversations with people, mutual friends and stuff, “Hey, if you guys ever wind up leaving Elektra, please talk to me.” And when it became clear that we were leaving Elektra, he let us know that we could come there if we wanted to.
But we talked to a few labels. We talked to Interscope, we talked to Capitol, talked to a couple others as well, just to see what was out there. But eventually, we wound up going with Columbia, mostly because of Tim. Beyond that, because of people that we met, they just really seemed to be on top of it these days. And they’ve also committed to whatever it takes in the long term.
John and I talked some more about his love for skiing, New Orleans’ vibrant musical atmosphere, his pleasure at the makeup of the current Whigs setlist, and the touring life in general. It was a fun interview. All that’s left is to tell you, the CO reader, to go buy 1965. Buy several as gifts, and I can see them with a horn section that much sooner.