Rick Talks

Afghan Whigs
an interview – Rick talks

Luna Kafe

Afghan Whigs
an interview – Rick talks

When the Afghan Whigs and their Royal Orleans Revue (three backing singers and the keyboarder from Prince’s touring band!) take to the stage at the Oosterpoort in Groningen, Holland, to play their first show on mainland Europe in three years, guitarist Rick McCollum hardly can see 3 ft cause he’s so stoned and you imagine that the smile on singer Greg Dulli’s face is connected to the consumption of weed, too. And as if that wasn’t enough, he drinks large amounts of whiskey and red vine on stage as well. That and lyrics like “Baby, you don’t know / just how I lie awake / and dream awhile, about your smile / and the way you make your ass shake / if that ain’t love / I guess I’ll never know” plus their sexy soul music (labeled “sex muzik” in the press) on their current album 1965 perfectly confirm every rock’n’roll cliche there is. Or so it seems. Because when we meet the band two weeks later, only hours before their Easter Sunday show in Dortmund, Germany, Greg is the perfect, um, gentleman and when we talk to guitarist Rick McCollum he’s not talking about the booze, the drugs and naked chics backstage either. What he says is that he’s looking forward to the short break the band has in April cause he misses his girlfriend and cat back home. Awww … Here’s what else he had to say about the Whigs past, present and future.

Carsten: You’ve been in this band for more than 10 years now …
Rick: We have a lot more patience with the whole business, cause after 12 years time you’ve already seen a lot. There are friends that are gone, they’ve been dropped by labels and stuff and then there are folks who are beyond us and you wonder why they were. So I feel good about our situation cause after a long period of time we start to get more respect. It’s different with these German shows cause they are festivals and we don’t fit in, it’s a hiphop/teenage crowd. It’s actually good though for the shows we’re doing with Aerosmith in the States, starting April 11th through to May 24. We got four days off next week that we are gonna cherish. We’ve gradually grown as far as songwriting and everything else is concerned and I think this album itself is more of an end. It’s a rebirth, but it’s kind of an end to our whole back catalog of the past. We started to get our own original sound and now we’ve got it right.

Carsten: That’s interesting that you see it that way. Greg gets quoted in the press release and apparently he sees this album as a new beginning, too. To me it sounds more like the end of a trilogy that started with Gentlemen.
Rick: It felt more like a rebirth when we actually got done with the album. Now as we play live it’s more like a ‘best of’ set. Sometimes it feels we almost need two hours per set to get everything across cause we have some slow stuff, we have some fast stuff, we have some slide songs … The whole array of them, it takes that much time to get across. The list we have now is perfect. In that sense it is the end of something, but hopefully something that will be phenomenal next time we go and record.

Carsten: I guess you had high hopes for this record though, not only because it’s very strong, but also you got away from Elektra. You mentioned before that you haven’t been very happy with the way they handled Black Love. So what is your view on Columbia and their promotion skills six months after the record has been released?
Rick: We just signed to a major label to be able to quit our day jobs. But yeah, Elektra gave up on the album after a couple of weeks, which was weird, cause it had entered the Billboard charts higher than Gentlemen and the next week it doubled and then the next week you couldn’t see it cause they had given up on it. They went on to do whatever else … Whitney Houston. No, Whitney Houston is probably on Columbia (laughs). Just things like that. With Columbia we’re very happy. This is the best promotion we’ve gotten, ever! There’s no comparison to Elektra really. I mean there were people behind us after Gentlemen but the next album came right after the merger and we lost all our support. They just didn’t know where to target us.

Carsten: So the Afghan Whigs are a new band now? Is that what you’re saying?
Rick: We’ve all matured and we all have different interests outside of the band. Greg did the Twilight Singers, which is kind of a step away from Black Love, it’s a little darker and it hasn’t been released yet, but it’s something you gotta listen to at midnight. There are some songs that came out of that era that ended up on the album, like Something Hot. When we entered Kingsway – we were in New Orleans for about six months – we were in there for about two months and lived in the building itself, which is down right in the French quarter and you don’t really have to go out of the quarter to survive cause it’s walking distance 24-7 anything you want. The last two albums were recorded like: Do the basic tracks, do the overdubs, gone. This time we all stayed for the whole duration with guests coming in for different instruments so there was always a guest in the house and there was always a good feeling about the whole place. And cause we stayed through the whole sing we helped out on backing vocals so I felt more attached to the whole thing than the last couple.

Joerg: Listening to the new album and having seen your live show a few weeks back you can’t help but notice that soul music seems to have a bigger and bigger impact on your music. There’s the 60s soul obviously, but there’s also the new r ‘n’ b side of it. You also covered Creep by TLC and songs by New Edition.
Rick: Yeah, and Papa Was a Rolling Stone and Superstition. That’s just something we all have one like, one love for.

Joerg: You also added the horns and a little more piano to your songs …
Rick: Yeah, it felt more like an Exile … kinda period. Joerg was trying to stay with the soul vibe for a bit, but Rick was of course referring to the classic and never bettered 1972 Rolling Stones classic Exile On Mainstream – Carsten’s note]

Joerg: You also have a very distinctive style of guitar playing …
Rick: At a certain point I got tired of the guitar and I moved to slide and when you play slide you’re definitely eartrained to play slide and there’s no other way to do it and the next thing I moved to was Theremin. It’s very limiting live, but in the studio, as far as multitracking goes, there’s every orchestral voice, from an oboe to like high voices …

Carsten: Have you ever tried to play it live?
Rick: No, I used it on Uptown Again, on the chorus, but it’s really hard to push it into rock music.

Carsten: I’ve seen Mercury Rev use it live …
Rick: But they use it for sound effects, like Jon Spencer or Helen Love or the Beach Boys on that one song …

Carsten: …Good Vibrations.
Rick: Exactly! But it came into popularity in the 20s and at one point in the late 20s they would orchestrate 10 or 15 Theremins around dancers and choreograph it. So as soon as the dancers would get to one of the Theremins, it would change the note or the pitch or something. There’s a multitude of guitar-players, tons of slide players, but not to many Theremin player. I wanted to exclude myself to show I play something not everybody else plays. Part of it is the challenge.

Carsten: How would you describe the changes on ’1965′ in general?
Rick: 1965 is more single- orientated, it’s definitely more accessible. It’s like you’re attracted to someone physically, and then you learn about their secret later. Our secrets are Black Love and Gentlemen. The new album feels a little more Congregation-like, but at the same time we have more of our own tag on the sound. And the horns were new. We used cello a lot on Gentlemen and Black Love … it was just the next step. As I said, we feel like being around the Exile-period. And the Stones get tiring after that. I still like Some Girls and Tattoo You actually.

Carsten: And they even made a quite good album in 1997 with Bridges To Babylon.
Rick: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t wanna be at that stage though.

Carsten: Everybody seems to mention that recording in New Orleans has been a big influence on the music and your life in general. I never have been to New Orleans, but made it to Memphis a couple of times. Did you experience something similar there while recording Gentlemen?
Rick: No, I don’t think so. It was more of a sterile atmosphere. Maybe we were staying at hotels so it was very …it just wasn’t the same. In New Orleans the bedrooms were in the studio, so you just could come down and do certain tracks. It was very laid back. In Memphis we also had to watch the budget so we had to get in and get out, that gets a little more stressful. Memphis has got some stuff but it really is a lazy town and I don’t think I could live there more than six months without going crazy. It’s like Louisville [Rick's hometown in Kentucky - Carsten's note] or Cincinatti. It was a different time period, too. We had our first drummer and that was the last album we did with him and it was getting into the point of … when personalities clash after a build up of four or five years. I don’t think I’d want to relive that time period, cause I didn’t like it. Black Love was like that, too.

Carsten: Yet you play Gentlemen almost in it’s entirety on this tour. Is is difficult for you to separate the songs and the memories?
Rick: I don’t feel anything, cause I just wanted to forget that time period. It’s just songs from that time … If we’d go back to Memphis, it probably would be a different matter [watch out, indie-kids, they actually play Memphis' Pyramid with Aerosmith in April - Carsten's note].

Carsten: How did you come up with the idea to record 1965 in New Orleans?
Rick: Greg had done the Twilight Singers there and he’d rented a place and decided to keep it and he said: ‘That’s the place to record the next album’. We’d already recorded twice in Seattle, once in Memphis, once in L.A. actually, the second part of Congregation, so it seemed to be the most logical place to go after that, besides Electric Ladyland maybe. That’s the best place I could think of. We’re happy with the outcome though. It’s definitely the best sound on the guitars and the drums that we’ve had. I mean, I can go back to Congregation and think ‘eww’. This time we’ve kept it closer to a live sound. It’s never gonna be the same live as it is in the studio, but that’s more exciting, too. Nobody wants to hear the album live, so it’s a lot louder and a lot more energetic. Hopefully we’ll capture some live tracks and put them on EPs, like on 66 [their upcoming single taken from 1965].

Joerg: Talking about the lyrics: Do you ever comment on the lyrics Greg is writing?
Rick: No, I know that he wouldn’t record lyrics if it didn’t sound right and if it’s not from his heart, that’s how I feel about it. That’s the confidence I have in him doing that. I think we all have confidence in everybody else’s abilities. I accompliment his vocals and at the same time add the more technical lead guitar stuff Greg couldn’t do. The lyrics are definitely personal but there’s no advise like: ‘Hey wanna change that’. But that might change in the future.

Carsten: The not so distant future will be taken up by touring though. Greg said “take it to the people” and after your headlining tours of the US and Europe (with your tours of Australia and Japan to follow this fall) you will, as you’ve mentioned before, support Aerosmith. Is that the biggest tour you’ve ever played or did you do an arena support tour before?
Rick: No, we did festival like Pukkelpop or Pink Pop or Reading but this is the biggest tour. It’s gonna be Amphitheaters, like 18,000 capacity. The closest we came to that was with Neil Young, we did a week’s worth of shows with him. It actually was us, then Jewel and then Neil Young. We were playing at 8 o’clock and people were still coming in. It’s gonna be the same with Aerosmith. We got only 30 minutes at first, but we slowly will move it up to 45. I think 45 minutes is the most we’ll get out of them. We’re gonna keep the alcohol on the bus. And the pot. It’s gonna be strange, but you gonna draw the line. I wish they could play Draw The Line, but they might relapse if they play any stuff from Draw The Line [Aerosmith's (in)famous 1977 album -Carsten's note]. There’s not many other bands we would or could be paired with. We’re not soul enough to be with Lauryn Hill or whatever, but I like her. It’s just a generation we need to open our eyes to, the teenagers. They don’t know anything about us. They don’t know about Prince anyway, much less us. And Prince is a million seller and a genius.

Copyright © 1999 Carsten Wohlfeld & Joerg Castor

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