By Nevin Martell; photos by Alice Wheeler, Chris Cuffaro, Danny Clinch on April 30, 2014
Greg Dulli doesn’t mince words. The Afghan Whigs frontman has always had a knife-sharp knack for lyrics that cut to the heart—and often the balls—of the matter. Sometimes he’s coming on heavy, sometimes he’s storming out the door, but he’s nothing if not brutally honest. As he sings on Black Love’s “My Enemy”: “I told it like it was.”
He scrawls his searing screeds across a soundscape that has roots deep in R & B, vintage rock and roll and Reagan-era indie alternatives. The genesis for this gut-wrenching blend began in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the late ’80s when Dulli, bassist John Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Steve Earle first came together.
In 1988, the foursome self-released their debut, Big Top Halloween, which got the attention of Sub Pop bigwig Jonathan Poneman. After putting out a 45 through the label’s singles club, the band scored a deal for 1990’s rough-edged full-length LP, Up in It. Two years later, they followed it up with Congregation, a promising set rife with fuck-you bravado, a surprising soulfulness and swaggering riffs, all of which would become the band’s trademarks in years to come.
Unrepentantly driven, it was hardly a surprise when the quartet signed to Elektra Records. Their major-label debut, 1993’s Gentleman, released amidst the clamor of grunge’s heyday, couldn’t have been further from what people expected of a Sub Pop band. The Afghan Whigs stood out from Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney like an albino at the Apollo.
At a time when Seattleites were embracing a thrift-store-sourced anti-image, the Cincinnati foursome were donning debonair dark suits, slicking their hair back and generally looking like precursors to Vince Vaughn in Swingers. Worlds apart from the Seattle sound, Gentleman’s title track and “Debonair” earned the band frequent spins on MTV’s 120 Minutes, but the band never broke through to the mainstream like many of their plaid-clad contemporaries.
Following the departure of Earle, the group returned with Black Love, a decidedly noir affair that marked the band’s creative zenith. There was a roiling, raging darkness threaded through it from the slow-burning torch song “Step into the Light” and the driving “My Enemy.” Unfortunately, the record wasn’t as commercially successful as either the band or the label would have liked, so they parted ways in a messy legal battle. When The Afghan Whigs finally emerged again in 1998, they were on Columbia Records peddling punchy pop songs that borrowed equally from Stax’s soul and Nas’s worldplay. Despite strong reviews and a series of thrilling live shows, it wasn’t enough to sustain the band, who quietly called it a day in 2001.
Dulli, Curley and McCollum briefly came together in 2006 to record two new songs for Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990–2006, but nothing further. It wasn’t until 2012 that the three original members reunited for several high-profile shows, notably All Tomorrow Parties’ I’ll Be Your Mirror festival, where Dulli personally curated the lineup. The next spring, the group surprised fans by backing up Usher at SXSW in Austin for a short set that included the R & B star’s “OMG” and the Whigs’ “Somethin’ Hot.” All was not well with the alt-rock renegades though, and the band ultimately split from McCollum, leaving just the core of Dulli and Curley.
The pair began plotting a new album, which ultimately became Do To The Beast. When it is released in April, it will mark The Afghan Whigs’ return to Sub Pop after a two-decade absence. Produced by Dulli, the 10 tracks were recorded in New Orleans, Burbank, Joshua Tree and at Curley’s own studio in Cincinnati. The collection is littered with guest appearances. Van Hunt sings on “It Kills,” Petra Haden lends her vocals to “Lost in the Woods” and Joseph Arthur adds his voice to “Can Rova.” However, the roaring return to form is ultimately driven by Dulli, who has lost none of his bluster or his knack for crafting supremely suave songs that manage to be a little louche and utterly soulful.
Do To The Beast pings back and forth between the expectant energy of the early evening—like on crunchy opener “Parked Outside” and the urgently thrumming “The Lottery”—and vibey late night balladry like “Lost in the Woods” and “Algiers.” It’s a gripping album, especially for a band that’s been around for a quarter-century, and a very welcome return for one of the most underappreciated bands of the ’90s.
What was the first song that really got its hooks into you?
Greg Dulli: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 is the first song that really electrified me and made me become hyper-aware of music. It’s one of the greatest songs ever written. I will never get sick of it. When it comes on the radio, I turn it up.
When did you know that you wanted to become a songwriter?
Dulli: I started playing in bands when I was 12. When I was 14 or 15, I started writing drone-y psychedelic songs. The first song I learned how to play was The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” which is just two notes repeated over and over. That provided me the “I can do this” template. My freshman year at University of Cincinnati, I went to a lot of punk-rock shows. The Dream Syndicate, Hüsker Dü and Violent Femmes were all big bands for me, because they were all like me. It wasn’t David Bowie or something unattainable. What they were doing looked attainable.
What was the first rehearsal as The Afghan Whigs like?
Dulli: We played a bunch of covers to find out what everybody liked. The first songs we played were “The Rover” by Led Zeppelin, “One Day” by The Church and “Psychedelic Shack” by The Temptations. You find out what everyone likes, what they can play and how you mesh. Those disparate songs embodied our eventual helter-skelter style.
Your first show happened soon thereafter. What do you remember of it?
John Curley: The very first time we played out, we jumped up to play three or four songs between sets of friends that were playing in Oxford, a college town an hour north of Cincinnati. Our first proper show was just across the river at the Jockey Club in Newport, Kentucky. It was a legendary punk-rock bar that hosted bands like REM, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and Minutemen.
Dulli: I had written a bunch of songs when I was living in Phoenix, including songs that would appear on Big Top Halloween, so we played those. We also played some covers, some country-style songs and some heavy-metal-style songs. I’m pretty sure we proceeded to confuse all seven people who were in the audience that night.
You went into the studio to lay down Big Top Halloween after being together for only nine months. Was the recording process intimidating?
Curley: The moment that was intimidating for me was when we went to this warehouse to pick up the vinyl months later. My two thoughts were, “Wow, this is cool,” followed quickly by, “Wow, this is a lot of records to get rid of.”
Since it’s been out-of-print for years, have you ever consider re-releasing Big Top Halloween?
Curley: When Up in It was re-released on Sub Pop on CD, we added four songs from Big Top Halloween as bonus tracks. Beyond that, there are no plans to reissue it. When I look at that record, it’s like looking at a picture of yourself in third grade when your parents dressed you for picture day—you’re kind of cute, but it also makes you cringe a little bit. We were still trying to find ourselves as a band. We still play the title track for fun in practice, though it hasn’t made a live appearance in quite some time.
How’d you wind up on Sub Pop?
Curley: The Jockey Club had different people booking shows, including a friend of ours. The Fluid came through town and were on Sub Pop at the time. They stayed at our friend’s house and he played them Big Top Halloween. They took a copy back to Sub Pop.
Dulli: [Sub Pop's] Jonathan Poneman called me and left a message on the machine. We were broken up at the time— but we broke up every four months then. I told him we had broken up and that I’d send him my new project when it was ready. But then Lori Barbero from Babes in Toyland called me and told me to play one more gig. It went so well that we decided to stay a band and I called Jonathan back, which led to us doing “White Trash Party” and “I Am the Sticks” for the Sub Pop Singles Club.
Was there any hesitation about transitioning over to a major label, for fear of how it could have been interpreted?
Curley: No, we were eager to do it. We were looking to grow. You’re in the minor leagues and you want to go to the big show. I remember being courted by the major labels, who spent money like they had a printing press. A couple of guys from Capitol Records would book us hotel rooms, buy us drinks and take us out to dinner. One night, Greg talked them into paying for a trip to a famous strip club in Atlanta, where he ran up a huge tab of drinks and dances. Money was no object when they were courting you, but once you signed, it was a different story.
After two albums with Elektra, you parted ways with the label. Did all this external drama complicate the creation of 1965?
Dulli: We recorded it with my money. Only when we got to the mix stage did we engage with labels. I wanted nobody in my way and didn’t want to run shit by people. I felt really burned by the last process, so I wanted total freedom.
Was the ultimate breakup in 2001 difficult?
Curley: When we formed The Afghan Whigs, we were in our early 20s. By this point we were in our early 30s. People grow, evolve and start to move in different directions and the touring was starting to feel like a grind. It was something I had to do, rather than something I wanted to do. After 1965, we got together in Cincinnati and were working on new songs. Though one song wound up on a [Dulli side project] Twilight Singers record down the road, it mostly felt like we were struggling creatively at that point. Then my first daughter was born. When it came time to really seriously think about leaving and being gone for a while, I just couldn’t do it. The breakup conversation was very calm, understanding and loving. We were friends supporting each other.
What brought you back together again?
Curley: Despite the end of the band, Greg and I remained close friends and stayed in touch. He did an acoustic tour in 2010 and I played some dates with them. Six months after that, in the summer of 2011, I was out in California for a wedding and spent a few days hanging out in LA with Greg. That’s when we had our first conversation about it. In Greg’s mind, it was something that was going to happen, though I was more hesitant. But he’s pretty persuasive, so I eventually warmed up to the idea and got really excited about it.
When did it become apparent that if the reformation was going to continue further, Rick wasn’t going to be a part of it?
Curley: Even before the rehearsals started I was really positive and enthusiastic, but I also wondered if optimism and enthusiasm were enough to get us through it. On the tour it became obvious Rick wouldn’t be a part going forward. None of us were having fun. It was a relationship dynamic that didn’t work.
Dulli: A band is a relationship. When you keep running into roadblocks, you articulate them and try to fix them, but you can’t always fix them. You can be a masochist and stay in it or you can move on. It was clear that it was still unworkable very soon into the reunion shows.
How did the songwriting process evolve over the years?
Curley: Greg became a more confident songwriter and was presenting more complete ideas. So instead of just having a chord that sounded cool, he would have a bunch of parts and lyrics. On the latest record, some of them started out as very basic ideas—a riff, a chord or a vibe—but some were completely done.
As an artist with several musical projects—The Twilight Singers, The Gutter Twins (with Mark Lanegan), Afterhours—can you write a song that’s specifically for one project?
Dulli: Making an album is like building a house. The songs are the people who live in the house. Sometimes it’s not your house. You might live in another house some day, but not this one today. I have written songs that I thought would be great for Mark Lanegan or Afterhours, but usually I work with the songwriters directly and it becomes a very specific thing that we’re doing.
Is there ever going to be another Gutter Twins record?
Dulli: We’re supposed to get together and work on some stuff in the next few months. I already have a couple of things that I’d like to hear Mark sing over. You have to remember though that the gestation for the last Gutter Twins record was seven years.
Where does the name Do To The Beast come from?
Dulli: I was beatboxing on “Matamoros” while Manuel [Agnelli] from Afterhours was visiting. He thought I was saying, “Do to the beast what you do to the bush.” But if I kept it that long, it would stray into Fiona Apple territory. I like the ambiguous nature. After that, there was never any question what the album would be named.
Over the course of your career, you’ve done a wide variety of covers, from The Supremes’ “Come See About Me” and TLC’s “Creep” to recent recordings of Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes” and Marie Lyon’s “See and Don’t See.” What makes you gravitate towards someone else’s song?
Dulli: My qualifications for a cover song are that I have to wish that I wrote it and then act like I did. I love to sing other people’s songs. If I end up becoming a hotel bar piano player, I’d be the happiest.
Do you have any plans to reissue your catalog?
Curley: There has definitely been talk about it, but nothing has come to fruition. It’s something that we would hope to do when the time is right and all the pieces align. I have a lot of demo stuff, but a lot of tapes didn’t stand up over time. I had a lot of stuff in a box in my old house that got flooded. Despite that, we definitely have stuff that no one has heard before.
Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur has been a longtime compadre, collaborator and admirer of The Afghan Whigs—he’s played with them, supported them and even covered them over the years.
How were you introduced to The Afghan Whigs’ music?
My first impression was the album Gentlemen. I was late to everything. I remember listening to that record on a plane. So I always associate their music with flying either into or out from oblivion.
How did you end up becoming friendly with them?
I met Greg in SoHo, NYC, while working with our mutual friend [producer] Mike Napolitano. Greg came by, so we played him some songs. He was very cool and present. I liked him right off. The next time I met him was outside of Largo in LA where I had just played a solo show. He asked me if I was ever going to put drums to my songs. I thought it was a funny question because I understood what he was getting at. From then on, we were fast friends.
Recently, Greg played me the whole new record at top volume while driving around LA. Then I interviewed him for my podcast, “Nothing to Talk About” [JosephArthur.com/podcasts]. It was deep, poignant, sad, tough and funny—just like the man. He’s a poet first and foremost, so he’s kind of a moving dude to be around. I’m lucky to count him as a friend.
How did you choose to cover “Step into the Light” for the Afghan Whigs tribute album Summer’s Kiss?
I believe Greg suggested it for me. I love his vocal on that one, so I could tap right into it. Usually when doing a cover, if it’s down, I take it up. And if it’s up, I take it down. I was happy with how that came out.
Big Top Halloween (1988)
Dulli: We made this within nine months of being together. We had never worked in a real studio with a real engineer, so it was a very new experience for all of us.
Up in It (1990)
Dulli: I skewed my songwriting to the Sub Pop sound. It’s a hard, fast and loud record, though that was where we were as a band at that point. The Northwest scene was very tightknit. They all knew each other and there was a sound amongst those bands. Did I feel like we fit in with them? No. But all my life I’ve enjoyed being the black sheep. It gives you more room to confound expectations.
Dulli: This is when we became The Afghan Whigs. The country, psychedelic soul, wah-wah and hip-hop elements all started to come in. I give Jonathan Poneman a lot of credit for letting me do what I want to do, so that was the record where I felt set free.
Curley: We were starting to think of the studio as a tool, so we didn’t come in with all the songs completely ready to go. “Turn on the Water” sticks in my mind as being a landmark of what was going to come, as were “Congregation,” “Let Me Lie to You” and “Miles Iz Dead.”
Dulli: While I was writing the record, we did a nine-week tour of Europe. The songs became about what was happening to me and my then-girlfriend. I was learning from it and being destroyed by it at the same time. It started to get to me, so I found ways to numb that. At that point it becomes a rock-and-roll story. I won’t be the first or the last, but it’s my story. All I can do as a writer and performer is to be real about what was going on. It was a wild time in my life and it will never happen again.
Curley: It’s hard to listen to now because it’s pretty raw. I’m listening to my friend sing about being in pain.
This article is from FILTER Issue 55