The Afghan Whigs provided us with one of the more surprising reunions of recent memory. As recently as two years ago, singer-songwriter Greg Dulli flatly talked down the idea of the Cincinnati-based four-piece – who steamed through the 90s on the back of a clutch of exceptional, if occasionally flawed, albums – putting aside other projects and getting back together.
But despite their well-documented excesses, the Whigs’ original demise had more to do with practicalities than any sort of personal strife. So when fellow Ohioans Guided By Voices pulled out of the September edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll Be Your Mirror festival, Dulli, bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum got together, tested the chemistry and responded in the affirmative to promoter Barry Hogan’s call for a favor.
There’s no question that some reunions are all about the cash, and of course fail accordingly. But other bands seem to grow in stature after the fact as they realize there’s unfinished business. The Afghan Whigs – with a powder keg performance on Jimmy Fallon followed by a mountain of well-received shows across the world – have certainly felt like the latter.
I caught up with Greg Dulli over the phone during a recent tour stop in Rome. He was as garrulous as ever as he reflected on the band’s past whilst refusing to discuss its future. We talked grunge, drugs and what exactly makes the Afghan Whigs so special when compared to his other projects, which include the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, his team-up with former Screaming Trees frontman, Mark Lanegan.
Hey Greg. You’re talking to me from Rome, correct?
I am in Rome, yes.
How has the tour been going?
It’s going great.
From memory the Twilight Singers have a pretty strong Italian following. What caught on first there with the Italian audiences? The Whigs or the Singers?
The Whigs. We started playing here in 1990. It’s just the Twilight Singers became a little more popular. And then I ended up moving here for a little while and playing with an Italian band (Afterhours)– the one we’re playing with tonight – who are probably the most popular band in Italy. That probably helped my profile a bit (laughs).
So, where are you living at the moment, Greg?
I split my time between New Orleans and Los Angeles. I have homes in both cities.
Is New Orleans picking up after the post-Katrina years?
You can’t keep New Orleans down. You can’t. The civic pride in that city rivals New York or San Francisco in as far as cities that really love themselves. It’s a great place to live, great people live there, it’s one of my favurite places on Earth.
Talking about the Whigs, when I was researching for this interview I was surprised to see people calling the Afghan Whigs a grunge band, or at least part of the grunge movement. I was wondering how you respond to that in 2012?
I think if you asked anybody who was called ‘grunge’, they’d roll their eyes (laughs). It’s a journalistic slang term that got thrown at a style of music that came out of a town, a town that I didn’t live in. The record label that popularised that term [Sub Pop], we were on that label and certainly shared guitars, bass and drums with all of them, but at that point we parted ways. I don’t really know what else to say about that name (laughs). Grunge was the dirt on the bathroom floor; that’s what it was when I was growing up. When they started calling the music ‘grunge’ I’m like, “That’s dirty bathroom floor. Nice.” (laughs)
Did it aggravate you or baffle you a bit back in the day? Because there was a strange genre tension of sorts with you guys. You could argue you were a counterpoint to grunge.
Certainly when we went to England, that’s when we started to walk away from it. I’m friends with a lot of those groups. I mean, we played with Mudhoney the other night in Switzerland and they’re just a great band. To me, it’s all rock’n’roll. We were all rock’n’roll bands – of different styles and stripes, but rock’n’roll. Grunge? Sure. Whatever. Excellent.
So, the reunion. You talked recently about working through the reformation with John: you guys were saying how you “couldn’t have done this six years ago”, I guess around the time of [best-of album] Unbreakable. There was no way you were emotionally ready to do that and now’s the perfect time. What changed between then and now?
Six years. Really, that is the answer. I would just ask any individual, including yourself, to look at yourself six years ago and look at yourself today and how the same are you. If you’re the same, either good for you or you’re probably, like…
You were emotionally dead, and still are (laughs). In my opinion, who we were then, it was not going to happen. We got together and did a favour and then went our separate ways. I don’t know what will happen after this. People keep asking if we’re going to stay together: I don’t know. You’re not my child and we’re not your parents. I don’t have to answer that (laughs).
I read about filling in at ATP. Was that the trigger for you guys?
I think it was a combination of the acoustic tour I did, where I got to play with John [Curley] and sing some of my old songs that I hadn’t sung in a while, and I really enjoyed singing them. Then there were a couple of friends of mine who were, like, “Wow, maybe it would be cool if you did this,” and I was like, “Ahhhhh.” And then Barry Hogan: I’ve been a fan of the All Tomorrow’s Parties movement ever since he started doing it. It’s been one of the most interesting festival ideas that has come along, maybe ever. He had asked before and I had said no, but we always had a very cordial relationship, and then Guided By Voices had a situation where they had to pull out. We knew those guys too – they’re from Ohio – so we were kinda able to do a couple of people a solid. We got together to play to see if it was cool and then we said, “Okay.” Now, here we are.
It was really strange. We said yes back in November, and then we didn’t play until May. By the time we got to New York John said, “Man, I feel like we’ve been marching for six months. I’m ready to put the bayonet in somebody.” You know what I mean? (laughs) It’s pretty much an army marching around looking for a fight. Now we’ve finally got one, so it’s good.
It makes me wonder what’s special about the Whigs as a band compared to your other projects. I think a lot of people would wonder, why not just tour with the Singers, or solo, and play some of these songs. What sets the Whigs apart from some of these other bands?
It’s the combination of the personalities involved. I mean, John Curley: I was the best man at his wedding, his wife is one of my best friends. In particular, it’s my relationship with him. The fact that we grew up together: I never had a brother and he was my brother. That’s really it. Nothing against Rick – lovely guy (laughs).
You look at the bands – the Whigs and the Twilight Singers – as being really different beasts?
They are. The Twilight Singers: I’m the only constant in the Twilight Singers. It was always formed as a rotating collective. I based the Twilight Singers on Anton Fier’s band, The Golden Palominos, and he changed members every album. And he was the drummer. I was able to helm it from a more singer-songwriter position. The first record we made was pretty electronic, the next one was a spooky, downcast record, and then third one was a rock’n’roll record, and then the fourth one kinda became a strange fusion of styles. The last one, I think I started to get a little bit more rock’n’roll, and maybe that’s why it was the right time to do it [reforming The Afghan Whigs], because I had moved back to full blast rock’n’roll.
There was that great moment when you turned to John after the recent Jimmy Fallon performance and gave him a wink and a nod – a bit of a smile. Have you been surprised in a way with how easily some of these songs and the Whigs in general have come back to you?
Do you mean the soul song or the rock song?
The rock song. ‘I’m Her Slave’.
That song in particular was to me when The Afghan Whigs sound was born. That was when I got a handle on who we were going to be. So that was a shared moment with my friend. We remembered the moment that happened and that it had happened again on television was kind of funny (laughs). It was a private, very public moment (laughs).
There’s a lot of pain in some of those albums – a lot of self-loathing, bitter love – in everything right up until 1965 [the band’s final album, released in late 1998]. It’s not like the Singers stuff is all happiness and sunshine, but did that give you pause at all for revisiting them?
There’s a couple that I don’t do. We tried and I’m just not gonna get up there and fake my way through something, because someone wants to here ‘blank’. They shall remain nameless, but all you have to do is take a look and see what we’re not playing and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The other songs: it’s been cool to play. In a lot ways, it’s like if I wrote Death of a Salesman and I decided to go and perform it again. It’s like that, in a way. It’s like, “Oh. I know you. And I can do you.” And it’s cool. I’m a different person to what I was then and I get a chance to be someone else who just happens to be me.
Do you have a favorite Whigs record? Do you tend look back and pick favorites like that?
Congregation was the first record to me. It was the first record of the rest of my life. It was the one where I dialed in and heard myself. It’s nothing against Up In It – it has some great songs and we’re probably gonna soundcheck a couple of them in the next few days – but I have great affection for Congregation, and so the final four – the big four, really – Congregation, Gentlemen, Black Love and 1965, they’re four very different records and it’s been cool to mash up songs from those. And occasionally I’ll forget one and then I’ll throw it in again. Like in Bologna the other day: we played ‘Somethin’ Hot’ the first night and then didn’t play it again, and then I’m like, “Oh, what about ‘Somethin’ Hot’?” And we played it, and it was fun as fuck.
You’ve talked openly about your addictions in the past, laying them out for listeners on [the Twilight Singers’ 2006 album] Powder Burns. Is this the first time you’re doing a Whigs tour more or less sober?
Absolutely. Really, in a lot of ways, the last Whigs tour I only have vague memories of. I was absolutely in and out of presence. I kinda feel like, you know, I get a chance to vindicate the monster band that we could be when we were present. Playing the songs the way they deserved to be played, and doing them the honour of playing them correctly instead of a sloppy mess with a bunch of chalk talk in-between (laughs).
I’m just getting down to business now and it moves along really nicely. I mean, people have talked about our famous three-hour shows and what they fail to mention is that 90 minutes of it was me talking about who knows what – whatever space alien had taken up residence in my fuckin’ noggin that day.
I understand you’re playing plenty of covers, as is the Whigs and Twilight tradition. Are you tackling some new ones?
Right now we’re playing ‘See and Don’t See’ by Marie Queenie Lyons that we released and we’ve been playing ‘Love Crimes’ by Frank Ocean. We’ve been playing parts of ‘Over My Dead Body’ by Drake. We played some of ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith a couple of nights ago.