Greg Dulli on Assembling the Afghan Whigs in Isolation and Missing Mark Lanegan
Greg Dulli lives alone in Los Angeles, but when he picks up the phone, there are voices and music on the other end of the line. “I got to get it together a little bit,” he says as he moves from room to room, silencing radios playing his favorite French station, FIP. Later today, Dulli’s flying to Europe to start a tour with the Afghan Whigs, the angsty, soul-influenced alt-rock band he cofounded in Cincinnati in 1986, and he has been packing and prepping while drawing vibes from the station’s typically eclectic mix of music by film composer Ennio Morricone, rapper Oddisee, and British-soul group Delegation. “It’s probably my most Shazamed radio station,” he says. “This morning, they played Steve Reich into Amy Winehouse.”
In the past, Dulli, now 57, would obsess on songs and albums, dissecting them and reassembling them in his own likeness with both the Whigs and the Twilight Singers, which he led between the Whigs’ 2001 breakup and 2011 reunion. These days, he listens a lot to jazz radio, which he says has no impact on his music. “My days of fixating on one record or one band, I don’t know if I do that as much anymore,” he says.
The music he wrote for the Whigs’ upcoming album, How Do You Burn?, sounds both wider and freer than that of Gentlemen, the group’s taut and anxious 1993 breakthrough album. The group, which recorded the album remotely (even though it sounds convincingly like a band effort), traverses throbbing noise rock (like Rolling Stone’s Song You Need to Know, “I’ll Make You See God,” and album closer “In Flames”), joyful party tunes (“A Line of Shots”), and more reflective, acoustic moments like “Concealer.”
The album also contains a couple of full-circle moments for the group. Gentlemen guest singers Marcy Mays and Susan Marshall, who had added vocals to the Whigs’ 1965, both make appearances, as does Dulli’s longtime friend Mark Lanegan, the sandpapery-voiced grunge firebrand who died earlier this year. The title How Do You Burn? came from a phrase of Lanegan’s, though Dulli didn’t know how much all of this would mean to him when he and the other Whigs started collaborating on the record from their respective abodes.
Dulli had finished recording his solo album, 2020’s Random Desire, and was headed over to Dublin for a gig on March 17, 2020, when “the plague” as he calls it, arrived. Once Dulli recognized that the plague was lingering, he reached out to the other Whigs, who agreed to record their parts for a new album remotely. Since drummer Patrick Keeler lives in L.A. and guitarist Christopher Thorn, who joined the band last year, lives in Joshua Tree, California, the three of them entered into a bubble while bassist John Curley — the only other original member of the Whigs — and keyboardist Rick G. Nelson worked in their respective cities.
“This was certainly a reaction to the solo record, which was a quieter affair,” Dulli says, reflecting on how the album is a mile marker for getting through one of the worst times in living memory. “This one’s a bit more noisy, fast, and bigger. We built these songs to perform them onstage, and now we’re going to go do it.”
How do you decide when to do an Afghan Whigs record versus a solo album?
Well, the reason I did the solo record in the first place was not because of some great desire to be a solo artist but more because the rest of the Whigs were busy. Patrick plays in the Raconteurs, and they were doing a record and a tour. John Curley went back to college. Rick Nelson was building a new studio. Everybody had a project but me, and so I invented my own project. That’s why I did it.
What was the original idea for the Afghan Whigs?
I started getting into covering R&B songs in [my first group] the Black Republicans, and we all had an affinity for Seventies soul music, Motown, Stax, Philadelphia-soul music, a lot of pop soul. That was kind of that. And we also obviously were into what was then called indie rock or “college rock.” I remember the first songs that we played as the original foursome of the Whigs: The first day, we played “Psychedelic Shack,” by the Temptations, “The Rover,” by Led Zeppelin, and “One Day,” by the Church. If that, in a roundabout way, answers your question, it’s sort of a mash-up of those three bands.
When and how did you find your singing voice?
I started my first band was when I was in high school, and we were called Helen Highwater. The name was given to us by Allen Collins from Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’d found the Rossington-Collins Band was the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they were in a Jacksonville phone book that I found in the library. And I gave it to our guitar player, Mike, who was like the biggest Skynyrd freak. And he called and started a friendship with Allen Collins, who gave us the name of the band. So a lot of my first singing was singing Ronnie Van Zant, who I love to this day. He was an incredible singer, great songwriter.
Later, when I went to college and started going to punk-rock shows in particular, I loved Hüsker Dü. And that was a very primary influence on how I started playing guitar. I think Grant [Hart]’s vocals were a little more the way I was singing a little bit, the kind of scream singing. Those were two of the formational moments of my voice until I found what it was going to do on its own later. It took me a while to find out what I wanted to be, and I don’t think I really got there until Congregation, the third Whigs record.
Since you mentioned Congregation, what is your favorite album from the early Whigs era?
I felt like we started writing really good songs around then that were unique and that sounded like us. We’d found our sound. The wah-wah and the amped-up R&B versions started to emerge there and become a part of what we did. We were also playing a lot of shows then. Once we got signed to Sub Pop, we’d play 200 shows a year, and you get good when you do that. Then we made Congregation and Gentlemen in 18 months. And Gentlemen opened up another world for us.
Well, the popular consensus is Gentlemen.
I had kind of a strange relationship with that album for a while, probably because it became incredibly popular in that time. And a lot of people say it’s been one of their favorite records by us. But I had to reconcile … there’s a lot of emotions in that record, and some of the songs became hard for me to sing. And when I didn’t have to sing them — or stopped singing them for a while — I felt like I was in a better place.
When we reunited in 2012, and I played a bunch of those songs again, it sort of exorcised any kind of weird feeling that I have, and now I’m cool with it. We don’t do every song, but we’re doing three or four right now. But it’s a good record, and it’s messy. It’s a true document of the four of us at that time and absolutely of me as a person.
Some of the lyrics on Gentlemen are brutal, and you almost always come out looking like a creepy bad guy. What do you feel you got out of beating yourself up in your songs?
I was getting to know myself. I had kind of skated through a lot of emotional stuff. The seeds of Gentlemen are in Congregation, and [Gentlemen] is almost Part Two. I learned accountability. I was maybe prone to blaming my problems on other people. I had a moment of “Wow, this is me. And this is on me. I’m either responsible or partly responsible for what I’m talking about here.” And I don’t think that had ever really occurred to me. And it was actually quite humbling.
And for all of the things that were said about that record including like accusations of misogyny and things like that, I’m like, “If you’re hearing misogyny on this record, you have missed the fucking point. I’m the problem.” And there I was owning the problem. So I grew up a lot during that period. And as far as after that, I was never going to do that again. Like, it’s not that I wasn’t going to have my heart broken again or be confused again, but I’m 27 years old there. And that’s kind of when a lot of people figure out who they are.
It must be weird to have a time capsule of an incredibly raw time that you probably don’t relate to very much personally anymore.
Especially when you have to go out onstage every night and relive some of those moments.… Eventually you have to just kind of feel it in another way and perform it. And that’s what I do.
The Whigs emerged at a time, though, when being edgy gave you credibility. You mentioned you had a band called the Black Republicans, and your Up in It album had the songs “Retarded” and “White Trash Party.” How do you see these things now?
In the case of the Black Republicans, there was a local politician in Cincinnati who was just, like, embarrassingly conservative, like deaf-ear conservative. And I just found the hypocrisy of that guy offensive, and that became the dig — like, that’s how we named the band. Like this guy was such a clown, he needed to be called out. And let’s face it, a lot of stuff is just young people being provocative and “I’m going to get a rise out of you.” A lot of that was just being a punk.
I’m not saying that there did not need to be an evolution of the culture and especially anybody feeling disenfranchised in their feelings, not acknowledged. A lot of great things have happened where people are being respected where they used not to be.
I like how How Do You Burn? maintains the through line from those early albums to the ones since you reunited. You’re still singing about sex with a lyric like “I’m copping a feel as I reveal my surreptitious appetite.” Like, that’s still the Afghan Whigs.
I’ve found different ways to say it now. And getting “surreptitious” into a song had been a long goal of mine, and “goal unlocked.”
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Catch a Colt.” What do that song’s lyrics mean to you?
A lot of times I’ll just say something, and it sticks. That song was a freestyle, and “Don’t let your money, honey, steal you.” I don’t sit down and write that down; that just came out of me. And I was like, “Oh, that’s nice. I won’t be changing that.” And then the title came out of what came next. I very rarely impose my will on a song.
“My scent has gone below” was another peculiar turn of phrase in that one.
It sounded good. And then when I looked at it later, I was like, “Oh, that sounds kind of dirty, too.” And I liked that also.
Mark Lanegan sings on “Jyja” and “Take Me There.” How have you been handling his passing?
That was a very sad day when I got that call. Mark was a brother to me. I’ll tell you why I’m mostly sad about it is that I really feel like he had started to find his writer’s voice. He wrote a couple of books in the last five years of his life, and even a novel, and a couple books of poetry, and he was really good. I was just watching him improve. I was watching him become this other thing, and I really wanted to see where it would go. Mark was just a very complicated guy in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways, very simple. Super-talented, incredibly kind, one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.
I really do miss even just the snarky texts we’d send to each other when something weird would happen. And like a lot of good friends, you have your secret language. And I miss the banter because he could just fucking crack me up. For someone with such an intimidating public persona, he was a fucking pussycat and really sweet, very thoughtful. And without question, he was one of the greatest singers to ever sing.
Speaking of how he could be intimidating, I remember getting his voice mail when calling him for an interview once and it said, “You have reached Old Scratch” in his gruff voice.
Right. He had “Old Scratch.” He had “Dark Mark.” He had a couple other like satanic nicknames, and I called him “Bubbles.” I called him Bubbles after he named one of his records Bubblegum. And he definitely didn’t like it at first, but he grew into it. I spoke to him a week before he died, and I called him Bubbles during that conversation. So it stuck from the time I named him that to the time I called him that.
I visit with him either through our text chain or listening to him. Some folks have sent me interviews and live clips of him that they love. Mark will never be far from me. He’s always very close to me, and it’s not anything that I’ll be over, ever. But I can say that I’m glad he’s at least in a peaceful place now. I don’t know anything that anybody else doesn’t know [about his death]. I will say that the Covid experience that he had was devastating, and you can read about that in his book. He’ll tell you everything you need to know if you read Devil in a Coma. It’s all right there.
Mark named the album How Do You Burn? How did that come up?
He just said stuff. Mark was a very lyrical, poetic person. And he asked it in the form of a question. He said, “How do you burn?” And I’m like, “What do you mean by that?” And he goes, “What turns you on?” And I’m like, “I’m going to be using that.” And he’s like, “You go right ahead.” And so I used it.
Years ago, before Bubblegum came out, he recorded the song called “Number Nine” with the Twilight Singers. We were leaving the session and, you know how like when wind blows and you just kind of shiver for no reason, I said, “Here comes that weird chill.” And he named his EP that. So in those terms, he returned the favor. I love the title. I think it’s very Mark. I appreciate the parting gift.
Since Mark recorded on How Do You Burn?, do you have other, unreleased recordings with him?
We did a bizarre cover of “California Dreamin'” that never came out, and we also did “Crossbones Style,” by Cat Power. I don’t know where they are, but we definitely recorded both of those songs.
Another connection to your past on How Do You Burn? is the presence of Marcy Mays, who sang on Gentlemen’s “My Curse.” Why did you want to duet with her on “Domino and Jimmy”?
We were talking on the phone a lot during the pandemic, and at one point I mentioned, “Hey, we should do this song together again someday.” And she was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And then literally, within a week I wrote the song and sent it to her, and it happened really fast. It was cool to actually sing with her this time.
“Domino and Jimmy” are the “My Curse” couple 30 years later. I was aware of the history, and I played to the history, and it was a really good time. And I loved the song, and obviously we’ll play it when she’s around.
A few of the album’s songs are almost solo tracks. You wrote and performed every instrument on “A Line of Shots” and played most of “Please, Baby, Please” yourself. Were those Random Desire songs or did you plan those as Afghan Whigs songs?
Every song on there is brand new. The reason that’s just me on those songs is out of necessity. If I was doing a track and somebody wasn’t available for whatever reason … I don’t want to wait for something. I sent everything out to the gang, and I’m like, “Do you guys like this? Is this cool?” And they were cool. We don’t have those big Nineties budgets anymore. You got to get it while you’re getting it.
When you look back on your “big Nineties budgets,” do you feel like you wasted a lot of money and time?
No. We never made a super-expensive record. I still to this day have not, but you can find other things to spend that money on, and, back then, we did. So that stuff was more for entertainment reasons if you know what I mean. Now it’s sort of “Hey, you got this much money. Go make a record.” You’re like, “OK.”
Then you have to entertain yourself with whatever’s leftover.
You entertain yourself with your memories of the Nineties.