The Afghan Whigs: "We stayed true to ourselves; always walked our own line"

As the reunited Afghan Whigs prepare to take the stage for the first time in 13 years, a reflective Greg Dulli offers an album by album guide to the inimitable soul rockers’ catalogue.

Feature by Dave Kerr | 01 May 2012

The Skinny won’t lie to you Greg, we're well acquainted with the rest of the band’s records, but never did track down Big Top Halloween (1988). What did we miss? 
Greg Dulli: You didn’t miss much! You missed some teenage kids trying to figure out how to record, write songs, and play with each other. There’re a couple of interesting moments, but we pretty much walked away from it really quickly. It got us gigs and ostensibly got us heard by Sub Pop, so that was the positive from that.

Was it more of a means to that end?
Anything I’ve ever tried to do I’ve tried to make perfect. Man, we just didn’t have the know-how or the ability at that particular time. We were kind of stupid. We threw the kitchen sink at it – we listened to a lot of different kinds of music. There are our attempts at funk, blues, country music (laughs), heavy metal, punk rock. It was literally, like, splattering paint all over a canvas and trying to make something out of it. After we put out Up In It we never played a song from Big Top Halloween ever again. We left it behind. In most ways we consider Up In It our first record.

Pre-internet, it seemed as though Up In It was your first album. Did the band effectively bury Big Top Halloween?
We made a thousand copies, and just never made it again. It’s rare among the collectors, although my Mom has 20 copies under her dresser.

Up in It (1990) was the Sub Pop debut – loud, gritty and obnoxious. At the time you were the first band from outside the northwest to put an album out on the label; did you feel that the Afghan Whigs belonged there?
Yeah, Jonathan [Poneman, the label's co-founder] took care of us; he was a nurturer you could say. When we got out there, I mean, I was certainly aware of and enjoyed a lot of Sub Pop’s music. I probably began to tailor my songwriting a little to perhaps fit in there, which is the only time I ever did that. Then I got self-conscious. That said, there are some songs on there that are very un-Sub Pop and I think, like, Son of the South for instance was pure southern rock, that freaked some people out a little bit. I look back on that record and there are a few songs that I really still like.

By Congregation (1992) the Whigs seemed to be catching their stride, which is a luxury that bands on their third album aren’t really afforded by the music industry or the public these days… 
Sure, that’s what happened back then; you got a chance to get your legs. That record, to me, is when we became the band we were trying to be. We were unafraid to play slow and mid-tempo songs, and started to work out our guitar interplay; the playing between the people in the band was unconscious and we had that ESP you get when you don’t even have to look at the other guy, you can just feel what he’s gonna do and get ready to match it. That record has a lot of magical moments on it for me. I did this acoustic tour a year and a half ago and played Let Me Lie To You; I remembered thinking that was a song that was going to go on and if anyone at Sub Pop tried to talk me out of it…well, that just wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t a very Sub Poppy song, but it was my song and it was crucial to the tone of the record. I never had to defend it; Jonathan loved the song and that record set the template for what was going to come next.

You’re talking about testing the limits of the label, but on the other hand Nirvana had become a global phenomenon by this time. Did your aspirations change, knowing that Sub Pop now had international clout? 
I kept my head in the band, I never existed in a vacuum, I was certainly aware of everything that was going on around me. I was finishing Congregation when Nevermind was released. I heard Nevermind and you couldn’t miss it. I was in California by that point and they were playing Teen Spirit non-stop. You literally couldn’t go anywhere and not hear that song. But we, like we always did, stayed true to ourselves. Always walked our own line, for better or for worse…

It paid off, coming into Gentlemen (1993) – Debonair cracked the top 20 of the US singles chart and network TV beckoned. How did the band take it? 
For one thing, [with Debonair] I was trying to nick the opening riff to I Want You Back by the Jackson 5, which was the first song that really made an impression on me. In a way I was trying to pay homage to it. There was a little wink wink going on there. The fact that one popped out and people paid attention to it…I was not surprised, that was by design.

Which brings back the old question: Was Mr Cobain trying something similar with Teen Spirit? 
Right! When I first heard that, the second or third listen I said to someone, ‘That’s More Than A Feeling!’ Which is a great song; no problem there… 

Black Love (1996) was your score for an aborted film project, so the legend goes. You stripped away the distortion and brought your soul influences to the front; there's a finesse to it that the previous albums only hinted at. You've called this one your "misunderstood baby"
I think everybody has ‘who am I’ moments in their life; I found myself squarely in the middle of one there and just began to build a literary conceit around it. I really love the songs on Black Love and the feel that it has – like that intro and how it begins. As I’ve gone back through the records, I had a little bit of ambivalence about it for a while, but again, when I was preparing that acoustic tour, I was surprised to end up playing songs that the Whigs really didn’t play live from that record. I enjoyed how connected to the songs I felt. In a lot of ways I think I raced past myself a little bit, and had to play catch up later. I’m very proud of Black Love and I think it has some really beautiful and important personal moments for me on there that maybe I didn’t see at the time, but I certainly see now.

1965 (1998) was your swansong. As upbeat and glorious as it was, in a strange way it played out like it was hurtling towards the end. Did you realise this? 
No, it was not intended to be last album. I tried to consciously write songs that would be on the radio. We had signed to a major label and I was ready to be on the radio. I think it’s the most fun record that we made, it was the most fun to play those songs live. People called it a party record, I wouldn’t’ completely say that; there’s a certain undertow to it. It’s a celebration, but there are always clouds in my celebrations!

There’s a great lyric in Omerta: “I don't sleep 'cuz sleep iz the cousin of death. Least that's what Nas say,”which is about the only real point of reference that pins this album to the 90s... 
That’s always the goal; I’m trying to make songs that I want to listen to always. Anymore than that, like the I Want You Back nick – sorta ties me to being a kid brought up in the 70s. Honestly, from Congregation on, even parts of Up In It – I can go back, as we’re on the eve of being that band again and playing these songs again, I could not be more proud of what we did. And that’s just really honest. I really wouldn’t do this if I didn’t feel we were going to come out and play a great show. It’s exciting.

Finally, I’m A Soldier / Magazine single (2007), your last recordings for the Unbreakable retrospective Rhino put out. At the time you told us that the occasion was ‘vintage Whigs.’ You played cards, got drunk and got on four different planes. Was there an inkling at that time that there was a bit of unfinished business?
We weren’t ready. I think there’s a time and place for everything and at that point it absolutely would not have worked…just the place that we were all in with our lives. John was just down visiting me in New Orleans and we were working on some stuff together. The last time he was here we talked about how we couldn’t have done this six years ago, there was no way we were emotionally ready to do that. I think now’s the perfect time.

When you first spoke to The Skinny on this subject in 2005, your words were: “The Whigs have been offered significant money to reform, but if it was about money, I would have quit this a long time ago.” What did it take to make this happen?
When Barry [Hogan, ATP founder] got in touch with us, obviously they were in a bind with the Guided By Voices situation [who had cancelled their tour]. Unbeknownst to them, John [Curley, bass] had toured with me and just before that I’d seen Rick [McCollum, guitar] for the first time since the Rhino compilation. A bunch of things had happened that made it possible. Previously we were asked to do things when the wheel hadn’t been greased yet. This time, the wheel was good and slippery and ready to turn.In that regard, for the first time I didn’t give ATP a blanket ‘No,’ I took it to the other fellas, we talked about it and  thought about it for a few days, and I invited them to New Orleans to come down and play. Two days after Thanksgiving we got together in a studio down here, set up the gear and played the old songs for the first time. I was actually really surprised. We played for two days and by the end of the second day we could’ve played a gig. Maybe not the best gig, but a gig. That said a lot to me and at the end of it we just kinda said ‘Do you wanna do it?’ and agreed to that show.  Of course, the show has snowballed into other things and we shall see. But yeah, that was kind of a perfect storm moment.

So it’s you, John and Rick. Who’ll be in the drum stool?
The drummer is Cully Symington [also of Cursive and Okkervil River]. He was my drummer in The Gutter Twins and the fifth guy is Rick Nelson who plays piano, cello and violin. He played those instruments in The Twilight Singers. Two guys from my recent past, two guys from my past past.

The band toured with gospel backing singers in its latter day. Will there be more of that?
Not at first, but I have been in touch with each one of them including one I met with last night. Discussions have happened, so we’ll see what goes on there.

The band was also famous for some cracking covers, a few of which you documented on Uptown Avondale; will that tradition continue into this new phase? 
I think so. We’ve actually just recorded a couple and I thought ‘these are pretty underground.’ They’re older, like really old, and I’m certain that no one will know what they are. They’re pretty obscure. They weren’t chosen for their obscurity, they were chosen because they were great songs.What always happened in the Whigs is I would hear music as we were touring, I’d listen to the radio, hear something in a bar and decide to do it. It was always spontaneous; I don’t want to calculate, like ‘oh, I have to do this.’ If it comes naturally and is not trying to shoehorn something into a moment, I’ll fully do it. I never met a mash up I didn’t appreciate. We haven’t run the show since November, we’re meeting next week and we start the two week rehearsal. Things will happen; things I don’t even know exist right now are going to happen in that room.

How will these recorded covers surface? 
I think we’re just going to put ‘em out, we’re just going to give ‘em away.  I gave them to the management, I’m sure they have some sort of masterplan that they don’t tell me about. Which is always the way! I just found out that we’re playing in New York today. Somebody just called up and said ‘Hey, you’re playing in New York with Eagles of Death Metal.’ And I was like ‘Really? [laughs] I’ll play that gig.’

Besides playing I’ll Be Your Mirror in London this May, you’re curating its counterpart event in New Jersey; did you get the bill you wanted? 
Everyone I got was on my list; there were some that didn’t happen. Maybe some day I’ll tell somebody who those were. It was a crazy list. Prince was asked, that’s all I’ll say.

You’re also playing alongside Soundgarden and Refused in Milan soon. Are you happy to be lumped in with the so-called nostalgia circuit?
They’re great bands; they’re our age. I read this quote that Steve Malkmus said when Pavement got back together in regards to nostalgia, and it’s really true. The second time you read something, it’s nostalgia. As soon as we hang up the phone, I’ll be able to think back to this conversation. It already happened. We’re making nostalgia hour after hour until tomorrow comes and we do it again.

People are going to call things what they want. Did I choose 'Grunge' to describe my music? Fuck no. Somebody else did. Honestly, if I knew Refused and Soundgarden were playing and I was in Milan? I’d motherfucking go. They’re badass bands. It doesn’t matter to me. I haven’t seen Soundgarden since, God man, the SST days… 1990. I didn’t see them once they got big. I was happy for ‘em and I’m friendly with members of the band, but I haven’t seen them in a really long time and I’m psyched to see it. I’ve never seen Refused, and I’ve always thought they were super badass. So I really can’t wait.

Can you see a future for The Afghan Whigs beyond this tour? Does recording an album seem like a stretch or the logical next step?
My answer is going to be ‘I don’t know.’ Swayed to give an honest answer, I’m going to wait and see how this works, y’know? To go ahead and make any grand announcement, I don’t know…I think it’s one of the smarter things I’ve done, is to say ‘Yes, I’m not saying no.’ I’m not even trying to be cagey; I’m going to see how it feels. I’m going to see if the jacket still fits or if it needs to be tailored. So we’ll see. 

The Afghan Whigs play ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror at London's Alexandra Palace on 27 May and Primavera Sound, Barcelona on 31 May. Visit their website for updates on their unfolding European tour schedule.