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Signifying Honkey

Date: 04.01.96
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The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli Dares To Get Funky On Your Alt-Rock Ass.
by Ann Powers, SPIN

"Any love is good love," cracks Greg Dulli, leaning back in the one funky cafe open on this snowy Cincinnati Sunday, letting his big face fill up with a mouse-eating grin. Dulli's got a lot of tom in him; he has cat eyes, almost orange in a certain light, the type that focus better in the dark. And there's that smile, the first step in a seduction that's made the Afghan Whigs' 30-year-old leader the kind of dangerous heartthrob who gets bras and panties thrown at him while his band churns through tales of romance gone down a gravel road "I stick with the classics," hedges Dulli, when I probe a little about the noirish scenarios that dominate his songs. "Lying, betrayal, lust, hate, decay." Across from him sits Whigs bassist John Curley, 30, a sweetie himself, but more a brother than a crush. As we talk about the Whigs' fourth album, _Black Love_, it becomes clear that none of us can quite figure Dulli's metamorphosis from ordinary child with glasses, braces, and allergies into grunge's number one lover man. Dulli's a born flirt - he charms his friends, his fans, even Curley's Black Labrador. And he's worked hard to absorb the love lessons of his favorite soul slingers. So it comes as no surprise that Dulli's idea of a man's man is one who belongs to the ladies. "Greg was a mama's boy," Curley reveals at one point, and Dulli quickly agrees. "I've had a close friendship with my mother since I was two years old," he confesses. "She's just very nurturing. I drew comic books, and she encouraged me. She snuck me into tap-dancing lessons behind my dad's back. My dad was the Man, but my mom could always get around it." Dulli likes to shoot the shit with the boys, talking baseball and burping unapologetically. But he also wants to hang around with the girls, learn their secrets, make them smile. "At some point, we realized we gladly wanted women to come to out shows," he says. "How many indie-rock shows have you been to where you're one of four girls? We want to create a different kind of mood."

The mood at Ultrasuede, the studio Curley co-owns, where the Whigs rehearsed and polished _Black Love_, is set by the rose glow radiating from the stained-glass skylight in the foyer. Behind it there's a little cubbyhole cut into the wall where, Curley smirks, the space's former owners used to hold intimate "auditions." The room's tawny wood paneling and red-and-black shag carpet could have been lifted from the Ohio Players' den. Literally: The studio was once owned by the Calloway brothers of '70s soul sensations Midnight Star, and no doubt the composers of _Honey_ dropped by on occasion. Bootsy Collins definitely did.
"Bootsy gave Babyface his nickname right in this studio," enthuses Dulli. Like Quentin Tarantino, Dulli's a pop-culture junkie who grabbed a fistful of glamour from a lifetime of watching and listening. He's worked in three record stores and knows four versions of Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto." He owns rare video footage of James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, and has conducted an informal study of how Prince, his ultimate idol, copped moves from both progenitors. "When we played at First Avenue in Minneapolis [the club featured in Prince's _Purple Rain_], it was like a religious pilgrimage," Curley recalls later. "They hadn't painted over the mark where Prince stood during filming. We were all walking up to it, didn't want to get to close -" "But I got to stand in it," Dulli exclaims. "And I had them introduce us as the Revolution. Prince is the only person in modern music who was the entire package," he raves on. "When he was in his prime, he was un-fucking-touchable." As we leave the studio, Curley reaches into a mammoth safe for a few videos to watch later. "I'll bet that safe was made in Hamilton, Ohio," says Dulli. "It's the safe capital of the world." A portrait of a rustic riverside cabin adorns the front of the safe. "It's a pastoral view of my house," snickers Dulli. "Not really. I grew up in a subdivision. Ordinary tract home. It was on the river, though."

It was in Hamilton, a small town 20 miles north of Cincinnati, that Dulli first integrated his musical tastes. "I played a lot of basketball as kid," he remembers. "For white kids, once you've mastered the opposition in your neighborhood, you go in search of a better game. And that meant going across the river, a quarter mile away. I got hipped to Brick and L.T.D. at my friends' houses there, the black music white people didn't listen to. But I liked rock, too. All we've tried to do as a band is shove them together."
The Whigs refined their transgressive soul on the Sub Pop EP _Uptown Avondale_, a collection of R&B covers shot down a black hole. The went a giant step further with 1993's _Gentlemen_, a 100-proof distillation of cruel romance that is still alternative rocks' final work on the subject. _Black Love_ takes _Gentlemen_'s clenched-teeth energy and blows it up into a wail. Drawing from the Who and Pink Floyd as well as Stevie Wonder, it's the furious flip side of the cool soundtrack Dulli helped construct for the Ted Demme movie _Beautiful Girls_, which features the Whigs - Dulli, Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum, and drummer Paul Buchignani - attacking soul classics by Barry White and Frederick Knight. "Black music is just more openly emotional," Dulli explains. "It's the difference between an indie-rock white boy whispering something into the microphone, or Teddy Pendergrass coming in and saying, 'You got you got you got what I WANT!' " Dulli knows the moral risks of mining the soul canon. "As a white person, the minute you acknowledge you like black music you have to defend yourself." While _Black Love_'s title clearly carries an interracial overtone, Dulli's other inspirations - Kenneth Anger's book _Hollywood Babylon_ and the work of ambulance-chasing photographer Weegee - suggest a broader story about the shadowy borders that any urban dweller could end up crossing. "Compulsion is an accurate word to describe the mood I'm looking for," admits Dulli. After all, that's the beating heart of soul music; beneath the sublime smoothness and the bubbling groove is hunger.

"I just move around a lot," explains Dulli, as he tries to describe the wild loop he's made from Cincinnati to points unknown and back again. Since the mid-'80s, he's lived in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Chicago, and he now splits his time between a rented house in Seattle and a makeshift bed on Curley's floor. "I don't know why he moved to Seattle," laughs Curley's wife, Michelle. "He's here most of the time."
Maybe all that wanderlust is in his blood; his dad worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Dulli, though, doesn't speak to his father anymore. "Not in any horrible, bad way," he says. "We just don't have anything in common, and there's no sense sticking two people in a room who bug each other." The Whigs did record the sound of train brakes on the tracks near Ultrasuede; mixed in with a bit of church organ remembered from a Catholic childhood, it begins and ends _Black Love_. But Dulli's not haunted by Cincinnati, merely tired of it. Seattle offered a change, and change is his most serious addiction. And though he hates coffee and won't eat fish, he likes the Northwest air and the water, and his buddies from Sub Pop. "I'm kind of a hick," he says. "I like being around trees." Cincinnati has trees, if not much else. It's an in-between town where you make your own excitement as long as you can, then slip out. Tonight, in the middle of the Blizzard of '96, Curley decides the fun is on Straight Street - he's going to ski it. We drive over to the hill, which is indeed straight, and steep; Curley piles out, adjusts his goggles, and pushes off. Dulli affectionately watches him slalom downward. "There are three things that make John happy," he says. "Computers, skiing and pot." As we play ski lift to Curley, Dulli confesses to an unexpected discomfort with the rock-star role. I ask how it felt to become the sex god in the wake of _Gentlemen_. "Would you explain that to me?" he huffs. "To this day I'm shocked about that." Oh, please, I protest. What about the "Debonair" video, in which you're transformed into Richard Roundtree? What about _Congregation_'s "Conjure Me," with the naked babe plopped in your lap? "We were dating, though." Dulli's songs of seduction and betrayal might lead a listener to an obvious conclusion: that he's a womanizer, a player, a dog. But he's also the kind of goofball who quotes Monty Python, jumps on the hood of your car as you back out the driveway, and lovingly boasts of having introduced John and Michelle. He wants to be everybody's favorite. And he usually gets his way.

The day after the snowstorm, I'm stuck in Cincinnati, just like Greg Dulli. "It's 50 degrees in Seattle," he moans. We talk for a while about hometowns. Tonight, Dulli will watch college basketball with old friends. But soon he'll be gone. "I'm enjoying myself," he says. An old saying I learned from my mother pops into my head. "Curiosity killed the cat," I warn.
He throws me his wicked grin and replies, with a phrase he might have learned from his own mother: "Satisfaction brought it back."

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