Greg Dulli has a thing about cars. In his songs with the Afghan Whigs in the 1990s and with the Twilight Singers in the 2000s, the Cincinnati-born, New Orleans-based songwriter always has a ride waiting outside. “I’ll get the car, you get the match and gasoline,” he instructs a lover on the Whigs’ “Going to Town,” promising great conflagration. On the Singers’ “Follow You Down,” he sings, “Get the wheel, let’s go for a ride. If you’re trouble, then I’ll follow you down.” That car — presumably a sinister muscle car circa ’72, painted oil-slick black and with tinted windows, growling in idle — sometimes offers salvation, but more often it’s a vehicle to damnation.
It’s a powerful metaphor, simultaneously menacing and reassuring, and it’s the first thing that connects the Afghan Whigs’ first album in 16 years with that band’s revered catalog. The opening song — one of the heaviest in Dulli’s catalog — is called “Parked Outside,” while another, “Can Rova,” includes what might be a kind of mission statement for the singer/songwriter: “Start the car, check the mirror … We leave tonight, ain’t nuthin’ but the stripes.” Dulli is taking us for a ride, showing us around the seamy underworld he has created in his music. He might crash that car, he might open the door and kick us to the curb, he might even have the cops behind him, but he will never run out of gas.
An alt-soul auteur with a deep knowledge of pop and R&B history, Dulli plays the role of Virgil in his own Purgatory, ushering the listener through various levels of obsession, addiction, self-annihilation and insoluble ache. Yet, he’s never so self-absorbed as your typical confessional songwriter, not only because he filters his emotions through back-alley imagery — junkies, dealers, squares, thugs and the cars they drive to and from their crime scenes — but because you never know if he’s bemoaning that pain or savoring it. Or both.
In the 1990s, Dulli was out of place. Mainstream rock favored flannel shirts, long hair, intense self-absorption and classic rock filtered through a punk ethos. The Afghan Whigs, on the other hand, sported crisp suits, short hair and a sound built on rhythmic thrust. They understood that punk and R&B were imminently compatible, so made no bones about nodding to Isaac Hayes or Stevie Wonder, James Brown or Joe Tex rather than Neil Young, the Clash or the Who. They may have been lambasted for trying to “sound black,” but their albums — especially the epochal “Gentleman” and their swan song “1965” — are beholden to no particular scene and have aged remarkably well.
The Afghan Whigs disbanded in 2001, citing logistical problems and family obligations. Dulli formed the Twilight Singers, which boasted a loose membership; he was the only constant for 10 years and five studio albums. As with many classic alt-rock bands of the 1980s and 1990s — such as Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, the Feelies, the dBs, among many others — the Afghan Whigs reconvened in 2011 for a handful of new dates, dusting off old tunes and recording two new covers. “Do to the Beast” arose from that tour, an immensely satisfying addition to Dulli’s incredible catalog. Salon spoke to him about the new album, the nature of performance and the act of reconnecting with his younger selves.
Was there a moment when you realized that you could get new music out of the Afghan Whigs reunion?
Those shows were a retrospective, so to speak. I just really enjoyed playing them. Other than doing the covers for that tour — the Queenie Lyons and Frank Ocean songs — we never talked, not one fucking time, about making a record. Not once. It wasn’t until that Usher gig [at South By Southwest 2013] that it clicked for me that I wanted to do another record. People don’t believe that.
What was it about that show that sparked that idea?
We had two days to make the show happen, so it reminded me of the old days when a bunch of people got into a room with a common goal. I talked to Usher about this, while it was happening. It’s almost like there’s a battle of the bands on Saturday and you’ve got Thursday and Friday to make a band. That was thrilling for me, just to get in a room with a bunch of people and make something happen. You have to get to know each other. You have to see what works and what doesn’t.
Usher’s guitar player appears on the album. You must have been impressed by him.
Johnny “Natural” Najera was just standing on the sidelines observing, and eventually I invited him to play. I couldn’t believe what an amazing player he was. I was stunned. So he got put in the band. That process reminded me of being a young guy again. I had other people playing on a lot of the Twilight Singers records, but they were mostly solitary. And I was excited by the band dynamic — putting that Usher show together — and wanted to explore that again.
Did you plan on releasing this album on Sub Pop [the Afghan Whigs’ original label]? It seems like you’ve come full circle.
This is my third record on Sub Pop since 2008 [following the Twilight Singers’ Dynamite Steps and a collaboration with Mark Lanegan called Gutter Twins]. They’re friends, keep in mind. The landscape of recording and touring and making music was so different in 1993 than it is right now. We had outgrown what we could do at Sub Pop at that time, so that’s why we moved to Elektra to do “Gentleman.” Nowadays, there’s not much disparity [between major labels and independent labels]. I’d much rather work on a label where I can call the president on his cellphone at midnight and ask him what he thinks of something. I don’t have to wait to talk to anybody. I’ve maintained a relationship with [founder] Jonathan Poneman and [executive vice president] Megan Jasper since 1989. They’ve always supported me, even in the years when I wasn’t on their label. They always come to my shows. They call me on my birthday. So it was a no-brainer.
You’ve described “Do to the Beast” as being extremely personal. Can you talk about that aspect of the record? You don’t write traditionally confessional lyrics.
They’re all personal records to me, so I don’t know that this one is any more or less personal than “Up in It” or “Black Love” or “Blackberry Belle.” But I was aware that I was returning to something that I began as a young man, and I was very aware of the legacy I was engaging. So I scrawled my thoughts out on the bed and chose them carefully. As time goes on, you think about things more than you thought about as a young guy, and I think I had more things to draw from. About a year ago, I was visiting my mother in Ohio, and she pulled out some journals that I had as a 12- or 13-year-old kid. I read them as really connected with that kid who was writing that stuff. I even remembered some of it. I was writing a lot about the music I liked and the thoughts and dreams that I had. A lot of those dreams I ended up realizing. So it was me reintroducing myself to me 30 years later.
Is that experience similar to singing your older songs? Is that like reconnecting with your younger self? Or do songs like “My Curse” or “Summer’s Kiss” grow up along with you?
When I was performing these songs a year and a half ago, there were a few where I felt an empathy for the person who wrote them, even though it was me. You have a perspective when time passes, and you can look back and think, wow, I could never write that again. But even in the middle of it all, I had some appreciation for the experience. It was unique, probably not unlike Nick Cave singing “From Her to Eternity.” He’s a different dude now than he was when he wrote it, but he still sings it every night with conviction.
So there’s a performative aspect, not unlike an actor investing himself in a role.
It has to be, just for the sheer fact that you are not that person anymore. It’s not insincere. It’s just that you’re not having that same experience. I certainly can’t. I’ll put it to you this way: If I don’t think I can perform a song sincerely and with conviction, I won’t do it. That’s not acting. However, it is performance and you have to imbue your performance with the emotions you were processing at that time. On one hand, you’re not that person anymore. On the other hand, you once were that person, so you have to put yourself back in that position for the song. If I’m not feeling a song, then I won’t do it. And there were some that I didn’t do and still won’t do.
Conversely, were there any that you discovered you had a more intense connection with?
There was a song on “Up in It” that we hardly ever played as a band called “Son of the South.” It had a really interminable intro. But as soon as I cut that intro and started playing, it was almost like we had a brand-new song. That’s a song I wrote when I was 22 years old, and now I look forward to it every night. Every time it gets closer in the set list, I’m like, sweet. I get to sing that one again. A lot of times you get little gifts along the way. Wow, I wish I hadn’t drawn out that intro for 45 seconds before it got to the action. So perspective has certainly helped me in that respect. We’ll probably play “Son of the South” a lot this year. It’s a killer song.
In the early 1990s, the Afghan Whigs were criticized for drawing from a lot of soul and R&B influences, as though it brought up uncomfortable racial issues.
My thoughts are, the Rolling Stones did it first. So I don’t apologize for liking what I like. I don’t apologize for using my influences to make sounds that I want to hear. When you’re making art, you use the world around you. If digging the wah-wah guitar sound on an old Temptations record is a crime, then hang me. I make no apologies for any of that stuff. I grew up listening to that music. I’m not going to reject the things that made me me.
It definitely means that the songs have aged a lot better than a lot of the alt-rock from that period. Nobody else sounded like this.
For me, writing songs is as necessary as drinking water or sleeping. I do it because I have to. It’s something that I’ve always just done. I did it when I painted houses. I did it when I drove a cab. I did it when I tended bar. I did it for me. I was able to record my thoughts and feelings and make songs out of them, which was and continues to be the greatest gift I could give myself.