The Killer: An Interview With Greg Dulli

BY his own count, Greg Dulli has played about 2000 live shows, give or take, in his long and ongoing career as a self-styled musical assassin. Sometimes travelling solo, but more often with a hand-picked gang of like-minded, hardened professionals, Dulli rolls into town, tunes up a little, and “executes”.

“We’re a very capable and effective group right now,” says Dulli of The Afghan Whigs, his first and most famous band – formed in Cincinnatti in 1987, named after a Florida-based white Muslim motorcycle club, and now semi-reformed after 16 years apart. “We can still kill everyone in the room.” Dulli is speaking figuratively, of course, though this might also be literally true.

Tomorrow night at the Teatro Opera, when The Afghan Whigs finally make their long-belated live debut in Buenos Aires, the only original members on stage will be Dulli himself, and his old friend and bassist John Curley. Guitarist Rick McCollum, who co-founded the band after he and Dulli shared an Ohio jail cell on Halloween night in 1986 (Dulli had stolen a policeman’s hat and failed to run away quite quick enough), is off the current roster as he deals with unspecified personal problems.

And in the decade or so that they released their initial run of good-to-great albums – from the punky, throwaway Big Top Halloween to the joyful horns and harmonies of 1965 – they never really settled on a regular drummer. Today, Dulli says that he never believed in the standard rock model of four or five young men forming a band and playing together forever.

“That’s more of a dream or a theory anyway. U2 is the only example I can think of where it actually seems to be happening.” In the long run, he says, that kind of arrangement can only be bad for the music. (U2, again, are the primary case in point, though Dulli leaves that thought unspoken.)

“Let’s say one or two of those other guys don’t want to do what you want to do. Are you then supposed to not do it? That’s a form of control I’m not willing to give away.” This may or may not explain why The Afghan Whigs broke up in the first place. To hear Dulli tell it, he was “burned out” after years of non-stop writing, recording, and touring, not to mention the mistreatment they suffered under major record companies after leaving the renowned Seattle indie label, Sub Pop. He is constitutionally wary of complaining about this.

“I look at it this way, man. My dad and my aunts and uncles all worked on railroads or in factories in Ohio. Basically, really hard jobs. For me to bitch about some asshole at a record label, my relatives are not sympathetic to that. They already think I’m living a fairy tale.” It might be worth asking if any of his family ever suffered a fractured skull in a work-related injury, as Dulli famously did after a combative Whigs show in Austin, Texas – he cracked his head on concrete in a fight with stagehand, and was briefly in a coma.

The band went their separate ways shortly after that tour in 1998, and Dulli took a regular job for a couple of years around the turn of the millennium. He bought a stake in an LA bar called The Short Stop and worked there most nights as a co-manager, bartender, and occasional DJ.

“It was a necessary break for me,” he says. When he got back into music, he turned his side-project, The Twilight Singers, into his main outlet, and went on to make more great records with a revolving cast of friends and peers, including fellow indie-rock anti-hero Mark Lanegan (with whom he also formed a diabolical partnership that they called The Gutter Twins).

One of those records, Powder Burns, was made in his second home, New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina – in the immediate wake of the storm Dulli’s studio was opened to the public as an evacuation shelter, and the rest of the album was recorded with backup generators.

When asked about The Afghan Whigs, Dulli usually maintained that the split had been “unofficial”. He played a few gigs with the others in the intervening years, but never seemed particularly interested in a more “official” reunion until he and John Curley performed with the collar-popping R&B star Usher at the South By Southwest festival in Texas just last year.

The old songs – and particularly the most soul-infused numbers from 1965 – now sounded both classic and completely modern. “I was saying all along that we were ahead of our time, and that we’d have to wait for people to catch up with us. Now I’m getting these young guys telling me they’ve never heard a guitar played that way before. Which is cool, because my way of playing is not really knowing how to play.” This seems a bit disingenuous. Of all their contemporaries on the US alternative scene of the late 1980s, and through the lumbering grunge era that followed, The Afghan Whigs seemed the most professional.

They had started out in clubs playing Motown covers, and their style had more in common with The Temptations – all sharp suits, tight riffs, and expertly controlled rhythms. But, by Dulli’s own admission, his personal life was a mess for much of that period, and his early lyrics read like dispatches from the frontline of his own private gender war – funny, vicious, self-lacerating.

“I’ve got a dick for a brain, and my brain is going to sell my ass to you,” he sang, notoriously, on Be Sweet, from the defining 1993 album Gentlemen. It was uncomfortably easy to imagine Dulli writing those words in blood and other fluids on dirty cocktail napkins in horrible dive bars at four in the morning. “Well, I think I mostly used regular ink,” he says, “but I did write a lot of that stuff on napkins, fast food wrappers, airplane sick bags and what have you.”

My Curse, another song from Gentlemen, was supposedly so painful that Dulli couldn’t even bring himself to sing it, drafting in the female vocalist Marcy Mays of fellow Ohio band Scrawl to do it for him, thus reversing or confusing the roles of the cruel relationship he seemed to be describing: “Hurt me baby, I flinch so when you do, your kisses scourge me … ”

Dulli has since said that he does not particularly like the young man he was, or the caricature that he became in later years, doing lines of cocaine off the amplifiers. Are there certain songs that strike him as unpleasant reminders, songs that he’d rather not play or even hear again? “Yeah, there might be a few,” he says. “But now I tend to look at those older songs like going to the closet. Oh, that’s a nice suit, I’ll wear that one tonight. At this point I have enough to choose from that I don’t have to worry about the ones I don’t feel comfortable wearing any more.”

And then there are the new songs, written in a flurry from last May to December, resulting in a new album, Do To The Beast. The music, he says, came easier than ever, and it sounds more or less like vintage Afghan Whigs. If Rick McCollum’s distinctive counterpoint guitar is conspicuously missing, Dulli admits that McCollum’s absence may also have provided “the chemistry change” that allowed him and Curley to pick up and move on, without feeling overly oppressed by history and legacy.

And if the new stuff also sounds like Dulli’s other projects, with electronic touches that sometimes seem more reminiscent of The Twilight Singers, there is at least one good reason for that. “Well, I’m the one who wrote the songs,” he says. “Unless I do a complete 180 and start making reggae or speed metal, people will be able to draw parallels. I can’t be worrying about what they think The Afghan Whigs or The Twilight Singers are supposed to sound like, and I can’t go door-to-door explaining the differences. Honestly, I find expectations to be kind of a prison. When you start making rules and putting up barriers it kills the music a bit.”

The lyrics were more of a chore, he says, but he says they always were. “It’s my least favourite part of the process. Like being a novelist, I guess. Just you and the blank page, with no-one to help you.” Dulli will turn 50 years old next year, and he claims to live a quieter life these days. “There’s not enough going on in my current life to fill a whole album.” So while much of Do To The Beast was drawn from memory, some of it was simply made up. “The lottery, the ritual, the consequence, the criminal, come back to me, I’ve seen them all,” he sings here.

This rings entirely true, of course, and Dulli still invests every line with a scorching sincerity, but there has always been slightly theatrical element to his barroom/bedroom demon act – a cinematic sense of atmosphere, a showman’s flair for black comedy and psychosexual drama. “You’re gonna make me break down and cry,” he howls on Parked Outside, the first track on the new record, but it sounds more like a threat than a statement of vulnerability, as if it could be easily flipped to say “I’m gonna make you … ”

It’s a common trick of his, and invariably effective. Most of his songs are directly addressed. There’s always a recipient, always a target. The tension and insinuation of his best work – the recurring theme of blame and denial – suggests that he might have made a mean tango singer. As it turns out, Astor Piazzolla’s album Tango: Zero Hour is one of Dulli’s all-time favourite records, and there are copies of that disc slotted into all three jukeboxes of the bars that Dulli now owns in LA and New Orleans. He says he danced to it the last time he was in Argentina, when he came on holiday in 2011. This is only mildly surprising – he’s a big guy but pretty dainty on his feet, and an avid music collector with demonstrably omnivorous taste.

He will often throw live covers of songs he loves into his set-lists – Prince, New Order, The Clash, Freda Payne, Al Green, and more recent stuff by Outkast or Frank Ocean. It’s always possible that the Afghan Whigs might play something by Piazzolla or Carlos Gardel tomorrow night. But that’s not what local fans have waited 25 years to hear from him. The only show he’s ever played in Buenos Aires is a solitary Gutter Twins gig with Mark Lanegan in 2009.

“Well hopefully we’re about to make that right,” he says. “We know what we’re doing. We’re very good at it. So come and get down.” It’s not really in the spirit of Dulli’s music to actually sit down and do the maths, but if he’s played 2000 shows in his 49 years then he has spent more than 10% of all his nights in Earth performing for the pleasure of strangers. “It has made for a very lucky life,” he says, “and I’m still trying to live it as fantastically as I can.”

But as a middle-aged man now replaying the songs of his youth, does he not feel, on stage, like he’s competing with his younger self? “To be honest, I think I might be doing my younger self one better. It’s hard to describe, but it’s almost a triumphant feeling. Like, I knew this song was awesome 20 years ago, and here I am still excited to perform it. That kind of feels like victory to me.”

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