Afghan Whigs discover their soul in N’Awlins
By KIM HUGHES
Sooner or later, the city of New Orleans and Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli were bound to collide.
Though Dulli might prefer to downplay it, his rep as a demon-baiting, soul-and-blues- obsessed gin-joint Lothario — albeit a finely turned-out one — is precisely the kind of character one would expect to find prowling the Crescent City’s foreboding streets looking for companionship under a neon sign long after sensible folks have called it a night.
The conspiratorial alliance between the Big Easy and the rakish hoodoo Romeo was an effective one, producing the Whigs’ sensual, sophisticated, horn-fed new 1965 disc. Where better to croon in raspy, come-hither tones about seduction, lust and other acts of romantic skullduggery than smack in the middle of soul music central?
At a time when the Afghan Whigs’ future was, if not open to debate, certainly shaky from a business point of view, mythic, mystical New Orleans — home to certifiables like Anne Rice and Trent Reznor — provided Dulli and crew with a capacious enough atmosphere to simultaneously indulge their love of old-school R&B and hedonistic Delta blues.
There, they retooled their own silky, smoochy and astonishingly rhythmic rock, and a litany of skilled guest musicians, Alex Chilton among them, didn’t hurt matters, either.
That the self-produced 1965 also came together following a year-long Whigs hiatus and under the aegis of Daniel Lanois’ purportedly haunted Kingsway Studios — a fact now regretfully acknowledged by Dulli in the song The Vampire Lanois — further suggests that Dulli and the Whigs tapped into something special that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
“I’ve never actually met the man,” Dulli says of Lanois during a recent promo trip. “I was at this party he was at, and I was waiting to be introduced to him, but he just walked out of the room. And then I saw him the next day across the room and, I swear to god, he appeared to be floating.
“So I started this joke that he was a vampire, and it kind of stuck and we kind of called this song The Vampire Lanois and, well, it’s kind of spun out of control. He’ll probably be pissed off.
“Funnily enough,” Dulli continues, “I did two records in New Orleans since Black Love — this one and a solo record called the Twilight Singers, which I actually finished before 1965.
“When we were there, we were told about this woman who was a freed slave but who was kept by a white man who had a family uptown. She was madly in love with this guy but he wouldn’t leave his family for her, so in despair, she doused herself in kerosene and lit herself on fire.
“I saw something one night that was… bizarre,” Dulli shudders. “It was a veiled… Well, there was no one else there and that’s why I have to wonder if I did indeed see something. But I think I did.”
Based on the smitten ghosts routinely haunting Dulli lyrics, in which the songwriter alternately casts himself as lip-smacking predator and lovesick puppy, it’s hardly surprising that a brokenhearted apparition felt comfortable enough to appear in his presence.
Still, as a spin through 1965 reveals, Dulli’s image-rich lyrics are now focused more on what goes on between the sheets than on the rituals and struggles played out before and after.
Significantly, sex works for Dulli, too, since after recording 1965 independently and declaring it the best thing he’d ever done, the singer felt compelled to sign a new deal with Columbia despite a dreadful past experience with Elektra. Evidently, Dulli wasn’t about to send his uptown, funkified Kama Sutra into the world without a big, er, thrust.
“Because the Afghan Whigs vehicle has become so big that I’ve had to split off to record some of my songs solo, we decided to hook it up with a monster this time,” Dulli says.
“We’ve been going for a long time, and we’re drawing this to its natural close. I’m not saying that will happen with this record or the next record or anytime soon, but I’ll know when the Afghan Whigs have outlived their usefulness.
“We hit our stride just around the Congregation record, and I can see us doing two more records after this. After that I’m starting to look at age 40, and I don’t know if I want to be traipsing around the world like Peter Pan, the little boy who wouldn’t grow up.
“As for success,” Dulli offers, “I look at it this way — anything I don’t have I just don’t have, and that’s the way it is. I do think it’s a drag that we don’t get played on the radio, at least not in America.
“We know we’re loved by our fans, and that means a whole lot. But would I like to sell more records? Yes. Would we like to play the big places? Yes. Who wouldn’t? That’s just flat-out honesty.
“Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.”