Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli on being chased by Meat Loaf for helping himself to Meat's leftovers
While the Afghan Whigs are probably not the first band people think of when they think of the '90s, album for album, the band consistently put out quality material. The outfit's soul-inflected rock, which could just as easily be called power pop even though it packed a lot more punch than some of that music, can be heard in a lot of contemporary music being made, whether the acts know it or not. Greg Dulli's strongly evocative voice has always reverberated with a raw emotional honesty that remains undiminished to this day.
The Afghan Whigs first came to the attention of wider audiences with the release of its third album, 1992's Congregation. But it was the 1993 followup that rightfully garnered the band enduring fame. Gentlemen is truly one of the classic albums of the '90s, not just because the Whigs stood out from other artists hopping on the grunge bandwagon, but for the raw, poetic, emotional honesty of the lyrics. The group's strong songwriting established Dulli as a songwriter whose words possessed a literary quality bereft of pretension.
The Afghan Whigs released two more remarkable albums in the '90s with Black Love in 1996 and 1965 in 1998 before parting ways in 2001. In 2006, the Whigs re-formed temporarily, and in December 2011, the group announced it would get back together for that year's All Tomorrow's Parties. Earlier this year, the Whigs started recording new material for what will hopefully be a new record. We recently spoke with the charming, frank and insightful Dulli about Skip Spence, Dulli's brief tenure as a filmmaker, how his blue collar background has kept him surprisingly grounded and why he plays a Gibson 335 instead of a Fender Telecaster for this incarnation of the Whigs.
Westword: You recorded a cover of a Skip Spence song for a tribute album. How did you learn about his music, and in what way would you say it made an impact on you?
Greg Dulli: Well, I remember hearing Moby Grape when I was a kid and, you know, learning the legend of Skip Spence and his drumming and his sleeping with Grace Slick and his various incarnations in the San Francisco music scene. But to be honest with you, I had a vague recollection of Oar, and when the project came around, I was approached and offered that song, "Dixie Peach Promenade." It's a bizarre song in a series of bizarre songs.
I've done a few tribute records, and I'll tell you something, it's the one that I still listen to occasionally. I rarely listen to that stuff, but I thought everybody did such a cool version of the record, it got me to re-approximate the record and listen to it in the original form as well. So I know that record pretty well. Then I think Beck, Wilco and Feist did a version of it, too. Beck has his record club and people go and make a classic record in one day. Which was odd because Beck was on the More Oar project, as well.
My favorite version was "All Come to Meet Her," which I think was the perfect song on the record. The band, Diesel Park West, [sounded like] they were channeling the Byrds or something. But I love the Robert Plant, I love the Lanegan, I love the Alejandro Escovedo, and the Tom Waits version is great. There are many beautiful versions of those songs.
You've had a direct hand in the production on all of your albums. How did you get started with that?
Four trackin'. We started on four tracks, then eight tracks and then went into a real studio and watched the crazy guy in Kentucky, Wayne Hartman, do his thing. I think it came more from what you like and sounds that you like from records that you grew up with. Personal choice, I think, more than anything, in trying to create a universe that you could inhabit and invite other people inside with you.
Classic R&B seems to be very much part of your musical DNA. Who are some of the artists that still strongly inspire you today and why?
In terms of the Afghan Whigs, it was sort of a specific strain that we rallied around when we were twenty years old. The psychedelic Temptations, the Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, Temptations, were kind of our [inspiration]. "Psychedelic Shack" was one of the first songs we ever played. "Ball of Confusion." We played "Cloud Nine," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," those were all big influences on us. Lots of wah-wah, lots of four on the floor. Noisy and rock. They were using rock instruments and orchestration and stuff like that. In a specific way, that was the era that sort of defined a lot of the early Whigs sound.
I love anything with a great singer and a great melody. Marvin Gaye got into my head, and he's my favorite singer of all time. He really felt it. When he sings, it's like something is being set free inside me. Sam Cooke, too, Al Green, James Carr, William Bell. Lots of people, you know what I mean?
Why did you record Gentlemen at Ardent Studios, and how would you compare it to other studios in which you've worked in terms of vibe and the technology available?
Not only being a fan of Big Star, but actually my first notice of Ardent Studios did not come from Big Star, it came from ZZ Top, who I absolutely loved and still love. I remember meeting Jody Stephens in the early '90s, and he liked our band and came to watch us play. I remember when I met him I was like, "That's the drummer from Big Star. He's at our gig and he's inviting us to come to Memphis."
So it was Jody who invited us. He was working at Ardent and invited us down and made us feel at home. We met some lifelong friends down there, including Jeff Powell, who engineered our last three records, and his wife sang in our band. There's a big family style in the Memphis thing. At Ardent, we've recorded four of our records. I recorded some Twilight Singers stuff in Memphis, too. So it's kind of a go-to, spiritual well for us, Memphis, Tennessee.