The Afghan Whigs (Sub Pop Records)

The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli on keeping it "fun" after death of a beloved bandmate and 30 years of touring

After the loss of guitarist Dave Rosser, the beloved '90s band drops a new album and soldiers on


Annie Zaleski
July 30, 2017 8:30PM (UTC)

Low-key kings of ’90s alt-rock, the Afghan Whigs have been on a tear since reuniting in 2011. The band's two post-reformation albums — 2014's "Do to the Beast" and "In Spades," which arrived in May — seethe with R&B-saturated roars, distortion-fuzzed guitars, and antique-sounding orchestration. "In Spades" especially is haunted by macabre-sounding vibes: Strings and horns dart and quiver through many songs, including the elegiac "Toy Automatic" and spare "Oriole," while the elegant opening salvo "Birdland" has stuttering arrangements that sound like chamber-jazz.

As anyone who's seen the Afghan Whigs in recent years will testify, this ever-present studio ferocity comes directly from the band's stunning live shows.

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In late June, however, the group suffered an emotional blow. Guitarist Dave Rosser, who also played alongside Afghan Whigs vocalist Greg Dulli in groups such as the Gutter Twins and the Twilight Singers, passed away less than a year after being diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. To honor his memory, the Afghan Whigs recently recorded and released a cover of a song called "You Want Love" originally recorded by a band called the Pleasure Club. “Pleasure Club was a legendary New Orleans band and Dave Rosser and I had spoken for years about performing this song,” Dulli said in a statement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=24&v=cvaKKy3g9Tg

The Afghan Whigs are heading to Europe and the U.K. for tour dates starting on Aug. 4, and kick off a U.S. tour on Sept. 6 in Orlando. Dulli checked in from Los Angeles to talk about the "spooky" nature of "In Spades" and how the band decides what songs to play, and to share memories of Dave Rosser. 

This is the first time since "Black Love" that you guys have done a full-band record. What were the biggest differences this time around doing an album that way?

Well, no big differences. "Black Love" was just the last immersive one where we were all there all of the time. It’s really a preferable way to do a band record. Everybody in the same room, everybody on the same page, feeling it the same way.

When you get a great band take, it’s live. Even if you’re using a click track, there’s a human interaction that a lot of times when you’re building a song by yourself, or putting down a guitar part and then sending it to a drummer in another state, it’s just a different . . . there’s disconnection, a little bit. Sometimes that serves the song, and sometimes it does not. But in this case, it was the band that toured the last record [and] it was the band that was going to tour the next record, so I really wanted to make it a live-sounding record. I think we did that.

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Having seen you guys a couple of times in recent years, and then as someone who really enjoys when bands do records live like that, you can tell. It’s intangible, but you can tell when a band is doing something remotely. And you’re right: It works in some cases, but when you’re a killer live band, it just makes sense to go in the studio and try to harness that energy.

I totally agree. And everyone has ownership of their parts, so you’re onstage playing the part that you made up. I think that translates into the performance angle of the show. In this case, we were a six-man band who made the record. We’ll be a five-man band who will perform the rest of the tour.

I was going to offer my condolences to you. I was very sad to hear about Dave.

Thank you. Yeah, you know, I have to acknowledge his immeasurable contributions to this record, because he’s on every song. It wouldn’t sound that way without him. I’m making sure dude gets his play, you know.

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You guys have been covering the Pleasure Club song "You Want Love" too. I saw the performance the Afghan Whigs did at the Apollo Theatre, where you prefaced the song with the story that you and Dave used to go see the band together. What about that song really appealed to you guys, and made you really want to cover it?

Well, Rosser liked that it sounds like a song that I would write. I have to say that when I first heard it, I was like, “Oh my God, I wish I would have written that song.” I’ve said this many times, but my criteria for doing a cover song is, I have to wish that I wrote it, and then I have to act like I did. That is what happened on that song.

We recorded the song the day before Dave’s memorial, and we sent it to Atlanta and James Hall, the guy who wrote the song and sang the original, duets the song with us. It’s pretty smokin’.

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And that’s a case where you’re doing something remotely, that works.

Yeah, of all of the covers I’ve ever done, I’ve never done one with the dude who wrote the song or the person who wrote the song. It really needed a low voice harmony and I just could not get down that low. And I was like, "Well, I could just call James and ask if he would sing his own song." He was psyched. That’s how it happened.

One other thing that intrigued me when I was reading about the new record, is that you kept saying it was spooky. I really like that description, because you don’t necessarily hear records being described using that word. What in particular contributed to that?

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I think just the vibe. It had a gauzy kind of mystery about it. You know, a "Who are you, and where did you come from?" kind of vibe to me. I sort of felt like I had been used as a channel for several of the songs, for lack of a better word. Like, songs just kind of came out of me fully-formed. And that is really rare for me, where they’re just like, “Hey, here I come, and I am this.” For instance, the song “Birdland,” I was just messing around. Fifteen minutes later, I had the musical bed finished, and then I went to do a scratch vocal on top of it and I sang all of those words in one take. I never wrote those words down.

Whoa, that’s crazy.

Full freestyle.

Whoa.

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And that’s happened, like, three times in my whole life. And I’ve been recording for 30 years. So there’s how rare and strange that is.

Was that just because you guys were recording in New Orleans? Because New Orleans definitely has kind of a vibe where there are spirits floating around everywhere.

"Birdland" actually happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was at Sam Phillips’ studio — not Sun, but the studio that he set up after Sun. Really cool place. Beautiful room and, you know, very vibe-y. There’s an energy in that place too. There’s an energy in Memphis. Southern energy is its own thing.

But yeah, I think just all of the songs sounded a little haunted to me. It’s hard to say, you know . . . I was talking to Rick Nelson today. I’m pretty sure we were recording “Oriole” about a year ago, right now, and going to lunch with Dave Rosser. And, like, just how strange a year later — Dave got sick, we put out the record, Dave passed away. And only a year has gone by, you know. If I really sit and think about everything, it could trip me out a little bit.

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Yeah. I think about how a year ago, the older I get, that feels like yesterday. It’s weird to think that, okay, that’s a year. It feels both a very long time and also a very compressed amount of time.

Yeah, I totally agree with that assessment. But, today, it feels a really long time ago. You know what I mean? Like, if I think about July '16, it seems really far away. And I don't feel that every day. But today it feels just sort of like, you know, I think because it’s hard for me to wrap my head around everything that’s happened in the last 12 months, you know what I mean? Like I said, a year ago, I was in New Orleans with all six guys in the band and now we’re down a man.

How is playing live then? Is that helping at all? Is it difficult because he’s not there?

You know, I think it was difficult a little bit on this last run, because he was struggling. And not being able to be with him, or help him, or know how he was, except for with phone calls, that was . . . We were just all very concerned. It was heavy on everyone’s mind. The good part is that we were together, and out of all of the people we knew, we were the ones who understood it more than anyone else.

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So you were kind of in a support group, and there was a lot of great cathartic moments. But I think now we can go celebrate our friend’s life and music that we made with him, and I think it will be a bittersweet situation out there. We’re all going to miss him forever. But that he’s not suffering anymore — and I can only speak for myself, but it’s a relief to me that his suffering is over.

Understandable. I saw you guys tweeting back and forth from the European tour and kind of keeping tabs on that. I think he took a lot of joy and solace in seeing all of that stuff. I think he could probably feel the energy that you guys were sending his way.

Yeah, I mean, I was in daily contact with him. When we played the Apollo, I gave him a Skype tour of the Apollo. He got to watch the Primavera show, and I got to talk to him on stage, because he was watching. There were a lot of great moments like that. Again, we’ll never forget him. You know, always in my heart, absolutely one of the most perfect souls I’ve ever encountered.

What are some of your favorite memories of him? Do you have any good studio memories or just kind of hanging out memories that stand out?

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Well, I mean, he seriously was just a really incredibly funny, smart, really quick-witted, incredibly clumsy dude. We could do a slapstick reel of every time he spilled, knocked over, broke or lost something. Those stick out in my mind. But I mean, [he was] just a really, really funny motherfucker. To know him was to love him. I never met one person who did not love Dave Rosser. And if you didn’t, you were the problem.

I’ve totally known people like that and I’m married to someone who falls up the stairs all of the time. You’ve got to laugh at that stuff, because if not, it will drive you nuts.

You’ve got to know it’s coming. I told this story when we were last down there. He came on the bus last tour, and I had a bowl of popcorn on the floor, and I’m like, “Oh, fuck, here comes Rosser!” I consciously picked the bowl up and put it on the table so he couldn’t kick it over.

He walks past me, and he had a backpack on, and all of the sudden, he turned around and he’s like, “Oh, I forgot to tell you!” He whipped around and the backpack fucking destroyed the bowl of popcorn. It went everywhere. I’m like, “Oh my God, dude. Somehow, you found a way to fuck that popcorn up.” That’s one memory of Dave Rosser that I’ll never forget.

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You couldn’t do that if you tried. There’s no way you do that on purpose. It’s like "Looney Tunes."

It’s very "Looney Tunes." But even despite my cautionary procedure, he subverted it anyway. It was uncanny. Buddha in the china shop. That’s what we called him.

Going back to the record — you mentioned that you channeled one song. When you were working on other songs, was there anything you wanted to do differently? Was there anything that you really were like, “Alright, I’m going to challenge myself this time around.”

Challenges sometimes thrust themselves upon you. It’s not like you even have to seek it out. “Birdland,” for instance, I didn’t see that one coming. It’s one of the strangest songs I’ve ever put down. Even when I finished it, I was like, “I don’t know, man, that’s pretty way out there.” And then I was like, “I think we should use it.”

“Oriole” and “Toy Automatic,” the dynamic between those songs… After I wrote “Oriole,” the outro to [that song] was such a unique set of chords that I’d never used before, and I was just captivated by them. I left town, and I came back to California, and I just kept playing those chords, playing those chords and then I started putting them in different order. And pretty soon, I started to write what became “Toy Automatic.”

That song became a favorite of mine because of the amount of time I spent with it. I have a recording of the first time I started messing with it and listening to it. It was almost like I was whittling it, like it was a piece of wood, and I started just carving at it until it looked like something or sounded like something. That one sticks out in my mind, not so much as a challenge, but my tenacity sort of birthed it. It's something that I have a great deal of affection for.

I think “Birdland” is the perfect opener on the record too. You put it on and it immediately announces that this is going to be something really interesting. It grabs your attention, which you need to do on records now, so that people continue listening.

Yeah, it’s very dramatic — theatrical even. People are like, “Man, too bad you can’t do the song live.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? I’m going to do it live every fuckin’ night.” It’s great. It’s been an excellent way to start a show. I’ve enjoyed performing it every night.

How do you figure out what songs you guys actually are going to play live? Obviously, you’ll have stuff from the new record, but the band has such a deep catalog at this point.

When we get together every tour, we come up with 25 songs. Like, let’s just learn 25 songs and we’ll figure out the rest later. You figure out those 25 songs, and you probably play 20, 21, maybe 22 of them. By the time you get to the third or fourth show, you’re already starting to practice new songs at soundcheck, and then pretty soon you can play 40 songs. You get what you need first and then after you get comfortable with that, you start to go, “Hey, how about this one? How about that one.”

I think by the time we get back to North America, we’ll probably be up around the 40-45 mark. We were easily at 35 halfway through the European tour. Lee Fields got up and did “Magnolia” with us at the Apollo. He lives in New York, so we were like, "Hey, it would be great to have him come out, what song will he do?" I was like, "Man, I really liked his cover of ‘Magnolia,’ let’s do that one." And then we liked it so much that even after Lee, when we got to Europe, we were like, “Hey, let’s play ‘Magnolia’ tonight.” When Gregg Allman passed away, we were like, “Man, we should play 'Melissa' tonight,” so we learned “Melissa” in soundcheck and played it in Dublin. You know, everybody’s a fast read, and we can do that. We can put a song together really quickly.

And that’s good too, because nothing frustrates me more when you go see a band that you know is really excellent, and they play the same 20-some songs for an entire tour. Like a months-long tour. It’s like, you know that they’re talented enough, they could do something like that. But for whatever reason, they’re just so in that groove.

Here’s what I’ll tell you about that: I can speak for that. We’ve done that. Because once you build a set, and you get something that flows, upsetting the apple cart sometimes . . . I mean, we’ll sometimes play the same set two nights in a row, because it felt good, and the turns felt good, and the segues felt good and stuff. But pretty soon, I mean, the audience notwithstanding, the band itself, like, to keep it fresh, you’ve got to bring in new blood. Even if it’s just one or two [songs]. But we’ll often swap out like six or seven. It keeps it cool. It keeps it fun.

 

 


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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