Rank Your Records: Greg Dulli Orders the Afghan Whigs' Seven Records
The frontman reflects on nearly 30 years of musical output.
No one sings with a sneer better in rock 'n' roll than Greg Dulli. It's a weird way to pay someone a compliment, but he is the king and he rules at it. Even during a conversation over the phone where he's laughing and basking while looking back on his work, I feel like it's still there. It's just his trademark, but also one of the reasons why the Afghan Whigs became one of the most captivating bands of their generation.
Rising up through the ranks of indie rock in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati band was on Sub Pop before their labelmates Nirvana became the saviors of the scene. It took the Afghan Whigs a couple of albums to identify a sound, but once they located it—a smoky, alcohol-soaked mix of hard rock, post-punk, and vintage R&B led by Dulli's penetratingly incensed and cutting lyrics—they established something unique that set them apart from a crowded market of distortion-happy rockers.
Like a lot of their peers, the Whigs caught the wave of the alternative boom in the early 90s, scoring a major label deal that put them in a spot to crack the mainstream. They didn't, and instead went on to record their three best albums. And then they quit. Dulli then moved on to the Twilight Singers, the Gutter Twins (with Mark Lanegan), and a solo career. But eventually, his old band came calling back to him and the Afghan Whigs reformed in 2012 for what was just supposed to be a one-off reunion tour.
However, thanks to the band's new pal Usher, the Whigs ended up recording a new album, 2014's Do To The Beast, which was such a positive experience they decided to make another. For Dulli and the band, making their eighth album, In Spades, was almost too easy.
"It just started happening once we got into the studio," he says. "Half of the record was written in a week. The other half took a year. But it was really, really easy and really, really fun to make. It's the first kind of full band, everybody is there in the studio at the same time album we have done since Black Love. So, 20 years later we did it again."
Noisey caught Dulli on a nice sunny day in New Orleans and got him to put the Afghan Whigs catalog in order. Boy, was he ready.
7. Big Top Halloween (1988)
Noisey: I have to admit, I don't know much about this album at all. Why is it your least favorite?
Greg Dulli: I have to admit, I don't either. [Laughs] It was the first record we made. I had a band in Cincinnati called the Black Republicans, and the last show we played was essentially the first look at what would become the Afghan Whigs. Then I left Cincinnati and moved to Phoenix for about six or seven months. I can't even remember why I did that. It was really hot and I ostensibly stayed in my bedroom the whole time and taught myself how to play guitar and write songs. I brought a bunch of songs back to Cincinnati, and then Rick McCollum, John Curley and I formed the band. We found Steve Earle and that was the first version of the band. We took those songs and some I wrote with Rick and went into a studio. None of us had ever been in a studio before, and I'm gonna guess that we made the whole record in three days, maybe four. It's all over the place. I haven't heard it since the 80s, so I can't really go deep on any of the material. But my mom liked it!
It did get you a deal with Sub Pop though, right?
I don't think that got us the deal. Our next round of songs we had put onto a tape called Jugula, which was named after a Jimmy Page and Roy Harper collaboration. Our friend Scotty Haulter ran a bar in Louisville called Hooligans, and he was playing our tape over the speakers. The band the Fluid were playing in town and they heard the Jugula and asked for a copy. And then the Fluid's drummer Garrett Shavlik gave the cassette to Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop, who then called us. That's how we got the deal.
6. Up in It (1990)
This was our first Sub Pop record. And again, we were still learning the ropes. I was aware of the Sub Pop model, and I think I aimed my songwriting in that vein. A lot of times it was trying on clothes that didn't fit you well, but you try them on anyway. An interesting thing about Up In It that no one really knows is that we did an early version of what became "My Curse," which ended up on Gentlemen. Originally it was called "Ciaphas," who was a high priest in the story of Jesus. We recorded that song and Jack Endino said, "Bruce Pavitt will never allow this to be on the record." And I said, "Yeah, put it on there anyway." And Bruce Pavitt did not allow it to be on the record. He actually did us a favor, because the next version of it was infinitely superior.
There is a song on Up In It that we still play to this day called "Son of the South," which I still love. And I still like "Retarded." Had we not made so many changes to "Hated," I would say that is a great song. But it got mired in an arrangement that hurts my ears to listen to now.
Was there any outcry over naming a song "Retarded" back then?
No. There was no internet back then. It was not meant in any sort of derogatory way towards anyone with a disability. It was a slang term, and it was done in that spirit. If someone wanted to take me on, I'd finish them pretty quickly.
I read that you guys were on the verge of breaking up at this point?
We broke up so many times. When Jonathan called about the Jugula cassette, we had already broken up. We broke up again after releasing Up In It, got back together, went on a tour, broke up on stage in Amsterdam—literally in the middle of the show we told each other to "fuck off" and went our separate ways. We were the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton of 90s rock.
5. Congregation (1992)
This is where it gets difficult for me because I have a very warm place in my heart for Congregation. I believe this is where we became the Afghan Whigs that people were drawn to. I became infinitely more comfortable as a songwriter. Bruce Pavitt was not gonna tell me to put ballads on records anymore. There are two on Congregation and I love them both. He did try to get us to take the Jesus Christ Superstar song off, and I was like, "Nope! We're leaving it on there. You can either put it out or not put it out." At that point, I became resolute and knew what we were doing was special and no one would tell me otherwise.
Sub Pop was struggling financially at this point, weren't they?
They were, and we started making the record in Seattle and then moved it to California, which is when they ran out of money. I had to get a job and an apartment, and I was sort of marooned in Los Angeles. That's when they had those shirts that said, "What part of 'we have no money' don't you understand?" And then out of nowhere Nirvana released Nevermind, and Sub Pop had money again. I was able to finish the record. I've told this story many times, but Nirvana played the Palace in LA, and I went backstage to thank Kurt for getting me back home. Which is funny now because I've lived in LA for 20 years. For that record we toured with Teenage Fanclub, who had just released Bandwagonesque, and that became the biggest tour we'd done at that point. Then it was off to the races for us.
The album was done, and then you recorded "Miles Iz Ded" and rushed to have it added, correct?
Yeah, I was still in LA working at Rhino Records. I was driving to work and Miles Davis had just died. Someone had spray-painted "Miles Iz Ded" on the side of the building. So that was phase one. And then a week later I was going to my friend Dave's party, and right before I left he called and said, "Don't forget the alcohol." And just over and over in my head I repeated those words. Stopped and got the alcohol, went to the party and somehow I put all of those things together for the song. We had already done the artwork, but said, "This song has to be on the record as a mystery track at the end." So that's what we did and that song became our concert closer. People love that song. I love that song.
The album cover for Congregation is one of my favorites. Was it just a matter of tipping your hat to your R&B influences?
It was. Some folks had given us shit for our influences and our love of black music. It was sort of my poke in the ribs to those people. Rick McCollum was dating the girl on the cover, and the baby was the photographer's daughter. But beautiful photograph, man. All of the contrasting colors were so powerful.
4. 1965 (1998)
From here on out it is slightly interchangeable. Before we got the Whigs back together, I used to always say this was my favorite record. It was the last one that we had done with the first run of the group. It was the first record we did in New Orleans. I love it. It was the one and only record we made for Columbia. It was the one and only time in my life that I tried to write radio songs. I'm not gonna say I tried to write a hit, but I tried to write something concise with choruses. Side one is all of my attempts to write radio songs. Side two is the weird side, which includes "Omertà," one of my favorite songs we've ever done. It's a spooky travelogue through the New Orleans underworld. It was the first time we used a horn section. It's the least uptight Whigs record. It's the party record. The working title of 1965 was Stand Up To Get Down. I have no idea why we changed it to 1965 because Stand Up To Get Down is a way better album title. [Laughs] Always trust your first instinct, man. Even our fans come up to me and tell me how much they love 1969. And I'm like, "It's not 1969, man. That's a Stooges record, but I know what you mean."
You once called this album "ass music."
You can dance to it. You can fuck to it. It's a good time. "Somethin' Hot" is a jam. "John the Baptist" is a jam. There are fucking jams on that record. Coming from the bleaker tones we offered the public over the course of our initial run, this felt like a release. I started wearing feather boas and there's cocaine all over that record. It was wild. It's a crazy record. It's New Orleans, man!
This was recorded at Daniel Lanois' studio. Did you get to work with him?
No. We saw him, and as John Curley would say, he appeared to be floating. And that's where the song "The Vampire Lanois" came from. The people that worked at the studio had this kind of cultish, slavish devotion to him. When they saw the title of that song they were like, "You can't call it that." And I said, "The fuck we can't!" And then it just became funny. I actually want to clear this up right now: I don't know Daniel Lanois. And "The Vampire Lanois" is an instrumental, and you can't really diss somebody in an instrumental. Plus it's a fucking jam! He apparently came to a show of ours in Toronto to confront us about it, and I was like, "Dude, confront away!"
Alex Chilton is on this record.
I became friends with Alex during my time in New Orleans. It was the third time I met him and I said, "Hey, do you remember pissing on our tires?" He had no idea what I was talking about, which was good because then I knew it was nothing personal. I was ecstatic that I got to record a song with Alex Chilton.
Did you have any clue that this would be the last Afghan Whigs record for 16 years while you were making it?
No. A lot of things happened during the tour. It was really one of the best tours we ever had. We had a piano player, we added backup singers, we had a full horn section for some shows, and so it was a revue. It was really fun. And then toward the middle of the tour I got jumped in Texas and had my skull fractured by these guys that worked at the club. I was in a coma for a few days. I lost my sense of smell for a year and my memory was heavily altered. I had to re-learn all of the songs. I couldn't recall some parts and words, so it took a while to get everything back. So at that point we had been a band for 12 years and never stopped. I think it was a bunch of factors all piled up on each other, and it just came out of nowhere. We finished the tour and tried to work on another record and it just wasn't there anymore. Making 1965 was a very fruitful time for us though. I felt that we were really turning a page. Obviously we did when we broke up.
3. Gentlemen (1993)
I think most people would put this at either number one or number two.
Yep. I love Gentlemen. It's a great record and without a doubt it changed the game for us. I think there were a lot of things that went along with Gentlemen. It's a break-up record. I was diagnosed with clinical depression during this record. I had a tough time making that record and touring that record. I have really mixed feelings about it. We became a lot more popular with it. The things that go along with success were foreign to me. I was accused by the record label of not playing the game and being difficult. I was just a rock 'n' roller who didn't want to do the dog and pony show. There was a whole lot of that happening at the time. At first I wasn't comfortable with it, and then I just outright rejected it. This wasn't the best time of my life. A lot of the material became hard to get with every night. I had to go to a mean, angry, dark place. It has a lot of personality and can be beautiful in places.
Ask me tomorrow and this could be either number six or number one. I've made 15 records in 29 years through all of my groups, and this is a landmark in my life and recorded output. I think it tails off towards the end, and there are other records that are wall-to-wall quality. If I had to redo Gentlemen now, I would change a few things, and maybe even yank a few things. But it's a great record. "Fountain and Fairfax" is still one of my favorite songs I've written. To this day when it comes up on the setlist, I get a little smile on my face.
People sure do like to analyze your lyrics on this album.
Yeah. Ultimately, when it came time to make the record that came after Gentlemen, the crown got heavy. When people want you to do that trick again, I just can't do it again. That happened and I had those feelings at that time. I'm not gonna have them again. This is what you get. That chapter is not gonna return. I wasn't gonna be trapped by Gentleman. I think it struck a chord with people because everybody's had their heart broken. Perhaps I gave it a voice. I listened to Blood On The Tracks a lot while I was making Gentlemen. You are drawn to things that give a voice to the experience you're having or have had. Maybe it's a comfort. Maybe it's an explanation.
What's with Linda Ronstadt hating the album cover so much?
Sherry Ring was our publicist at the time, and that's her daughter on the cover. Sherry was also Linda's publicist. Linda saw the record in Sherry's office and made some references to child pornography. I was not happy about that. The cover of Gentlemen is an homage to a photograph by Nan Goldin, who's one of my favorite photographers ever. I thought it was a cheap shot for someone who wore short shorts and rollerskates with a "come fuck me" look on the cover of her record. So I found it highly hypocritical and made that clear to whoever would listen. By the way, nothing against Linda Ronstadt, she's a great singer.
Right around this time you were making the Backbeat soundtrack. That band was stacked: Don Fleming, Dave Grohl, Mike Mills, Thurston Moore, Dave Pirner, and yourself produced by Don Was!
We did Backbeat in February that year, and then we started Gentlemen in May. Backbeat came out after Gentlemen, but it was recorded before. We made the whole record in two days. I remember I was in New York, really hungover, and I answered the phone to some guy asking for me. He was like, "This is Don Was. We're making a record about the Beatles and we're wondering if you wanted to come do the John Lennon vocals." I said, "Fuck you!" and hung up on him. I thought someone was pranking me. He called me back later and said, "Are you awake now? This really is Don Was, we're really making a record about the Beatles, and we really want you to sing John Lennon's vocals. Are you interested?" I said, "Absolutely!" Great band, man! I have often said that if Pete Best played as well as Dave Grohl did, the Beatles would have been a different band.
2. Do to the Beast (2014)
Flat out, it's wall-to-wall, start-to-finish, all ten songs, I love it. Could easily be number one. One of my favorite records I've ever made. I will always and forever be proud of it. I would gladly play any of those ten songs at the drop of a hat. I wouldn't change a thing. It was a great way to get back together with John Curley. It's a different band than the band of the 90s. It kinda had to be.
How did losing Rick McCollum change making this album?
Rick was enormously difficult in the studio. From always. He had red light fever. The best way to describe that is he can be a great player. But when the record light went on he would freak out and not be able to play. If there was no recording on, he could play all day. There was something about the record light that would make him flip out. It would take hours and hours to get takes out of him. When we first started, I wrote a lot of songs with Rick, a lot of which are my favorite. He was fun to write with, but as time went on… I've said this many times, but I don't know Rick McCollum any better than the day I met him. You get to know people and become friends with them, but I don't know him at all. He was my roommate and my bandmate, and I have no idea who he is. So after he left, right off the bat things got done.
I loved playing with him and wish him the best, but man, things would not get done with him. I can't handle people that overanalyze and can't let go. He got his own way so much that it got in my way. I am a force of nature. Like me, don't like me, but I know what I'm doing. The bottom line is, I was free. Rick's problems in the studio highly contributed to the demise of the original version of the band.
Is it true that performing with Usher at SXSW was what made you guys want to record again?
When we did the reunion tour in 2012, it was not unlike what Malkmus said when they did the Pavement reunion: "We're gonna do this and then it's done." And we did, whatever, 80 shows, including a farewell show in Cincinnati on New Year's Eve, and that was it. I was in Australia recording with Steve Kilbey of the Church and my manager called and said, "Do you wanna play South By Southwest?" And I said, "Absolutely not." Then he goes, "What if you played with Usher at South By Southwest." And I said, "Go on…" So he said that Usher needed a rock band and he'd heard our cover of "Love Crimes." So Andy Cohn at Fader set up a meeting. And then Usher called me and we talked and it sounded cool. We went to Texas without Rick and we got that show together in two days with Usher. There was something about the spontaneity. It really reminded me of being a kid and having to put together a show really quickly. Usher came in to the studio just ready to work. He was there before we were. When we came walking in the room he was playing bass. He was just a really cool guy. And we figured out what we wanted to do. He would sing one of my songs and I would sing some of his. We did about five or six songs and had a great time.
And then John Curley and I went to dinner that night and he said, "Hey man, maybe we should make another record." And I said, "Yeah, that sounds cool." We went down to New Orleans and it became one of the fastest records I've ever made. The whole thing was done in a crisp six months—from nothing to a completely finished product. That alone was like, "Wow, look at how we can do this." And then we went out and did the tour playing nine out of ten songs every night, and people loved it. I always said that if I was to do the Whigs again I'd have to have a new record. I'm glad we did the reunion tour, but even then we still had two new covers to play. Those two songs kept me interested in what was happening.
1. Black Love (1996)
Why is this your favorite?
Going back to it being the follow-up to Gentlemen, that record just came with pressure. I was able to conceptualize something that I wanted to do. I was reading a lot of crime novels. I was working with some filmmakers with some ideas. I had a visual image of something that I wanted to hear. I know that sounds strange, but I wanted to make a story. I think my innate love of Pink Floyd inspired me to make a concept record. I started doing things I'd only dreamed about. I brought in strings, we had a new drummer after Steve Earle left, which was a good thing. He was a great drummer but I was having trouble with him trying to do different things and his disinterest in pushing the envelope. So that set me free. I had started playing more piano. My abilities to write songs I felt had grown exponentially. I think also some of the reaction to it when it came out, I got very protective of it. I feel as though Black Love was misunderstood. I feel, as time has gone by, my faith and belief in it has been validated. When we did the reunion tour, we were playing almost the entire Black Love record. It has some of my favorite songs I've ever written. And I think it's the favorite of the people that really love the band. There is a magic inside Black Love that is unexplainable to me. I don't ever want it explained.
You left Elektra after this. What was the label's response to the album?
There wasn't really a single on the record. I was aware of that, and even told them that in the meetings. Again, having meetings about rock 'n' roll records, that goes back to playing the game. That's when the game got difficult. The regime had changed at Elektra. Really, none of the people that worked on Gentlemen worked on this record. I don't think anybody knew what to do with us. And honestly, in their defense, I get it. If you're trying to sell a pair of shoes that only a section of people would wear, you're gonna move on to Air Jordans. It became obvious to me that it was a commodity and we were a product.
Around this time, you scored and even appeared in the film, Beautiful Girls, which is an all-time favorite of mine. How did you score that gig?
Ted Demme was one of my best friends. I met him through my ex-girlfriend, who went to high school with him in Long Island. We met and bonded over a whole bunch of things and became instant friends. He directed the "Going To Town" video from Black Love, and a year later I was in his movie, Monument Avenue, and I did the closing theme for it. And then he died five years later. I'm in two of his movies, I'm referenced in a third, I shared the music supervision job for Beautiful Girls with Ted's wife Amanda, who did the photos in the Do To The Beast packaging. She's a super great, amazing photographer. Ted challenged me to do a Barry White cover, so we did "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe." I had been listening to a lot of Memphis soul music, and we covered "Be For Real" by Frederick Knight, which Leonard Cohen also covered. I brought in songs by Satchel, Howlin' Maggie, and Ween. It was really fun to do, and I think it's a cool movie. I'll tell you something, man. Every year, in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, people text me saying, "Hey, you're on TV!" and I always know that Beautiful Girls is on. It's happened every year since that movie came out.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.