CityBeat Chats with Greg Dulli
By: Jason Gargano
Greg Dulli needs little introduction in these parts, but for those who are somehow not familiar, the now-46-year-old Hamilton native came up as frontman for The Afghan Whigs in late 1980s and exploded out of the local scene via a string of visceral, dark-hued albums (the best of which, 1993’s Gentlemen, continues to grow in stature) that were equally influenced by Husker Du, Prince and moody, noir-infested crime movies. Dulli’s post-Whigs output has been just as compelling, including releases by The Twilight Singers, his main project. The band performs Monday at Newport’s Southgate House.
The Singers’ latest, Dynamite Steps, is another satisfying widescreen endeavor, “shot on location” in Dulli’s residences of choice in California and New Orleans. It’s another trip to the dark side by way of its creator’s evocative lyrics and a dynamic sonic landscape that, while instantly familiar, is somehow as moving as ever.
CityBeat recently phoned Dulli to talk about the local influence on his music, his continued love for the peeps at Sub Pop and the source of his voracious appetite for … well, everything.
CityBeat: Hey, Greg.
Greg Dulli: Hey, Jason.
CB: Where are you right now?
GD: I’m in Atlanta. Where are you in Cincinnati?
CB: I’m at our office downtown.
GD: Are you from Cincinnati?
CB: Yes. West Side.
GD: What, like Cheviot? (laughs)
CB: I grew up mostly in Bridgetown and Sayler Park.
GD: We used to play baseball in Bridgetown when I was a kid.
CB: So another tour.
GD: Yeah, I’ve lost count by now.
CB: Do you like touring?
GD: I like playing the gigs and I like parts of being on the road. Sometimes it can get a little brutal, but I love playing the gigs and I love seeing old friends. It’s safe to say that I do like touring and being on the road. Cut all that other stuff I said and I’ll say, “Yes, I do.”
CB: Is it also that it’s a moneymaking venture for you at this point?
GD: It makes money. I couldn’t afford to do it if it didn’t. But I ain’t getting rich doing it either. Luckily, I have other means of income as well.
CB: From what I’ve read, it sounds like the new record was more of a collaborative band effort than you’ve had in recent years.
GD: Scott (Ford) and Dave Rosser play on almost every song; that’s the bass player and the guitar player. I think there were five different drummers (on the album), including myself. I played most of the piano on the record, too. Between me, Dave and Scott, that’s the core of the Dynamite Steps band, and the three of us will be at the gig. Greg Wieczorek, the (live) drummer, has played on every Twilight Singers record since Blackberry Belle, including most of the drums on Powder Burns. He played drums on the Gutter Twins (Dulli’s side project with Mark Lanegan) record, too. So I’ve been playing with him for years. And Rick Nelson went with me on my acoustic tour last year, so I’ve been playing with him for lots of shows. We’ve all known each other and get along really well. Me, Rick, Whiz and Rosser know each other from New Orleans, and I know Scott from Los Angeles.
CB: I’m curious about the writing and recording process. Do you write all the music yourself and then bring it to the guys when you’re ready to record?
GD: I mostly do. I always, since I was a teenager, will write riffs and then I’ll try a melody over the riff. Then if the melody starts to stick, I’ll begin an arrangement. Sometimes the song will take a week, sometimes it will take six months; it depends on how eager it is to reveal itself.
CB: I was looking at the lyrics for the new record earlier today. Most of them are fairly vague, kind of evocative snippets, but they’re still written from a first-person perspective. There are a lot of pronouns, especially “you,” in there. In fact, I can’t recall one proper noun. Was that an overt choice on your part to go in that direction?
GD: I don’t think it was deliberate. It’s pretty unconscious. Probably deliberately abstract as well. On this one I think I just wanted to be as broad as possible and as inclusive as possible, trying to summon a collective experience. Some other records I’ve been more pointedly personal. This one I felt like sharing the experience.
CB: When you start writing a song do you think about how the listener or the audience will respond to what you’re doing?
GD: When I’m writing it? No. When I’m recording it? Yes.
CB: What’s the difference there?
GD: When I’m writing it, I’m writing it for me. It’s something that I’m personally seeking. There has been a couple of riffs I’ve come up with where, when I’ve starting playing it, I’ll be like, “Wow, motherfuckers are going to love this.” You just know. The other ones are more like, “What do I want to hear at this moment right now, me, audience of one?” But once it gets into the recording process I start to lose the selfishness.
CB: As you’ve done on almost every record, you say in the liner notes that it was “shot on location.” Where does this interest in using a cinematic approach to a record come from for you?
GD: I lead a widescreen life. In my mind it’s all the greatest experience of all time. (laughs) Someone once said I was self-mythologizing, and I’m like, “Man, I’m just livin’. I don’t know what your life is like, but mine is like Apocalypse Now and The Godfather and Starship Troopers.” (laughs)
CB: So where does that come from? It seems like that’s been there from the very beginning, where you’ve had this voracious appetite for everything.
GD: I think it was escapism. When I was growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, which I love dearly — it’s my hometown and will always be my hometown — I would watch movies, and when I would see a movie that took place in New York or California or Chicago, or that took place in England, I wanted to go to all those places. And now I’ve been to six of the seven continents. I had wanderlust as a child. Whether it was just going down to the riverbank or wandering into the woods as a kid, that was the ability that I had. Then as soon as I had the ability to drive or buy a plane ticket, I really became dangerous.
CB: Someone recently dug up that old clip that MTV did about the Cincinnati music scene, from ’93 or ’94, and posted it on YouTube. It was interesting to see you guys back then and the scene in general and how different the music business is now. If you were starting out today, how do you think you would approach it differently?
GD: I have no idea. I just don’t know. Who knows what would happen if we had the Internet 20 years ago. We were one of the last generations who — and I’m not saying people don’t still get in the van and go cruise to towns — but when we started the Whigs when we were 21, we immediately started playing Columbus, playing Louisville, playing Lexington, playing Athens, playing Champaign and Bloomington. And then a little later Detroit and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The location of Cincinnati made it that you were able to satellite out. A lot of times we would drive to a town like Louisville and we would come back and all go to work in the morning in Cincinnati.
That was our way of doing it. The opportunities that people have now — and I have them, too — are much different. But I’ve been doing it so long that I’m able to do it in a different way than young people today. So I really don’t know how to answer that question.
CB: Well, how is it different being on Sub Pop now as compared to the first time around?
GD: They clearly learned how to run a record company. They went broke during our second record and I got stranded in California. Then (Nirvana’s) Nevermind came out and we had money again and we were able to finish Congregation. They were the Grunge label, then they started to expand. In fact, they put out African records now. Their big sellers are vocal groups. They put out great comedy records, too. They’ve always been my friends — Bruce (Pavitt), Jonathan (Poneman) and Megan (Jasper). Jonathan and Megan in particular are two of my closest friends ever and have been my friends for 22 years. I’m enormously proud of what they’ve done. They’ve put out a wide swath of genres and styles and had success in all of them. They’re just the best people to work with. I couldn’t be happier to be back on Sub Pop. The Gutter Twins record was a great experience, and this record has been a great experience, too.
CB: The big shift since you’ve been doing this is the digitization of music. You clearly still put a lot of thought and care into the design of your album covers and packaging. I still buy vinyl. A big part of the experience of listening to music for me is having the actual artifact in your hand and being able to look at it while you’re listening. It’s kind of sad that an entire generation will no longer have that as part of their experience.
GD: I’ll tell you something, Jason, the first week that our record came out, 25 percent of our sales were vinyl …
CB: Yeah, no doubt there will still be a small, hardcore vinyl crowd, especially those interested in certain artists and genres, but the more mainstream stuff, for better or worse, will never be the same.
GD: I run a couple bars in L.A. We have DJs at both bars and they are very vinyl heavy. DJs are playing vinyl — new vinyl and old vinyl. I’ve said it since I started making records: It’s my preferred way of listening to not only my music but anyone else’s music, too. You get the full re-creation of the sound that the artist wanted you to hear without the compression and the digitization of the CD. When I heard Dynamite Steps on vinyl it was one of the happiest days of the last year for me. I fucking loved it. It sounded like what I put my name on at the end, you know. I was really, really proud to hear it that way.
There will always be anachronisms. I’ll be honest with you, if I hear a song that I like, I’ll go snag it digitally and play it and put it on a playlist, but my favorite records are still the ones I buy and listen to the whole thing. There are still a lot of artists that put that care into it. I’m like you. I like the tactile experience. I like to read the liner notes and check out the pictures. It’s definitely part and parcel of the whole experience to me — holding it, looking at it, listening to it, feeling it. I’m with ya.
CB: How has your Midwestern Cincinnati upbringing influenced your approach to music?
GD: It’s influenced my music and the music that I’ve listened to in the way that, again, coming from Hamilton, they didn’t sell The Velvet Underground at Sears. I would read about these records that I liked in Creem and Rolling Stone and Trouser Press and Hit Parader and Crawdaddy and whatever other magazines I could get my hands on and I would mail-order records from New York City — sometimes from England, sometimes from Rough Trade — and then wait like six weeks for it to show up. It made me appreciative of what was out there and I have remained that way to this day.
I still listen to a lot of music. One of my favorite things I’ve done in the last couple of weeks was put together a playlist that we play in between bands on tour. Break music, I call it. It was a blast to do. I made a three-hour playlist so that no one would get sick of it. We would play an hour of it and then the next day play another hour and then you wouldn’t hear that first hour until the third day. I’ve always been very appreciative of music that I had to work to (put it together). It made it that much more rewarding when I finally did hear it. I think it made me appreciate the care and love that it takes to make music you like and bring it to other people. That’s my long answer to your short question.
CB: Do you ever get sick of people asking about the Afghan Whigs?
GD: No. We impacted people’s lives. However large or small our audience was, they loved us, and I loved it, too. So I’m a proud member of the Afghan Whigs and always will be.
CB: Do you have anything special planned for the Southgate show? Will John (Curley) come up and play like he sometimes does?
GD: I don’t know. He didn’t last time. We did the Whigs songs at the acoustic show, so I don’t think we’ll be doing that at the Southgate House. I’m separating the two now and have been since Powder Burns. The past five years I don’t really intermingle (between The Twilight Singers and Afghan Whigs songs), but when I play by myself I play all my songs, which I’ll continue to do, too.
CB: Well, thanks for taking the time, Greg.
GD: You’re welcome, Jason. Nice talking to you, man. I hope you can make it out to the show.