The Afghan Whigs haven’t released an album in 16 years, but they’ve had no good reason to. Their frontman Greg Dulli can’t name a single band who’ve come to replace them. Even when you really press him.
‘No. Can you?’
In fairness to the former Mark Lanegan and Dave Grohl collaborator, he has a damned good point. You can hear echoes of the Whigs at their wretched, drug-addled worst in The National’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, or My Chemical Romance’s ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’. As for an act that has fused hyper-articulate miserabilia with hip-juddering R&B, there aren’t too many of those knocking about. Dulli can afford to rest easy on his bed of jaded laurels, or at least he could have done.
In recording Do To The Beast, there’s a new album that has to stand comparison with 1993’s seminal Gentlemen or the orchestral film noir sprawl of Black Love. These records borrowed far more from Little Richard and The Ronettes than they ever did The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, and inspired a tidal wave of admirers with self-esteem issues. Even if they have all fallen short of the real thing.
To understand why The Afghan Whigs are finally back with new material after their 2012 reunion shows, we rendezvoused with Mr Dulli in an East London hotel room. Then, before we knew what was happening, talk turned to whisky, Beyoncé and all manner of other vices. Anything less would have been a severe disappointment.
Do To The Beast is the first Afghan Whigs album in 16 years. Why did now feel like the right time to make a new record?
Because it did. I’ve really only done things when I wanted to do them. There was no, ‘Oh my god, I have to do this now’ kind of thing. It was, ‘I want to do this now, so I’m going to.’ And it kind of took me by surprise because, when we finished the tour we had never talked about doing another record.
It never came up?
We weren’t avoiding it. It just never came up. People are surprised to hear that, but I have no reason to mislead you. When we did the gig with Usher [at SXSW 2013], we had dinner after the gig. We were like, ‘That was fun. Do you want to make a record?’ And then that was March… We booked the studio time in May, June, August, September, October and then it was done.
It seems like the Usher show was important, because that was the first show you did without [longtime Whigs guitarist] Rick McCollum. You had the band in place to make an album.
Yeah. We weren’t going to be able to make a record with Rick, and the way Rick is currently. That’s probably why we never talked about making a record on that tour. We were existing to fulfill the obligations that we had and it was fun, but there were certainly many difficult moments during that tour. That was nothing that either John [Curley, bassist] or I wanted to go through again. When we did the show with Usher, it was really fun, really easy and we were unburdened… There were reasons why we broke up in the first place, you know?
Okay. So you got several collaborators to fill in for Rick during recording?
Yup. Alain Johannes and David Catching who both played with Queens [of the Stone Age]. Mark McGuire from Emeralds, he plays quite a bit on the record. And then Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic - they’re my two main guns. I’ve been been playing with Skibic for 11 years and Rosser for 8, so I know them well. I knew their strengths, and I knew I was going to bring them in for the live shows.
’Algiers’ is the first song you released off the album and it opens on the ‘Be My Baby’ drum beat. We’re assuming that’s deliberate...
Well I had the riff and needed something to start the song. Then I thought, ‘I’ve never used that drum beat. Other folks have. The Jesus And Mary Chain have... it’s there for the taking. I’m going to take it now.’
You’ve covered classic R&B standards like ‘Band Of Gold’ and ‘Come See About Me’. What’s the appeal of that era of music?
It’s the music I grew up with. My mum was a teenager when I was born, so I listened to her record collection. She listened to Motown records, she listened to Dionne Warwick records. Dusty Springfield she played. There was this musicality I grew up listening to and it always stayed with me. I’ve nicked pieces of it throughout the years.
’Matamoros’ is one of the highlights from the new album. Where does it get its name from?
Matamoros is a border town on the border of Brownsville, Texas. There were a series of satanic murders there in the late 80s. I liked the syllables in the name. There are three locations that are on the record, Matamoros is the first, Algiers is the second and Can Rova is the third. They’re evocative without pinning me into writing about something.
Someone was like, ‘Is this song about satanic murders in Mexico?’ Not at all. If it is to you… I just gave you a piece of trivia.
You use locations a lot in your songwriting. ‘Fountain And Fairfax’ is about a LA street intersection near a church where they host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
‘Decatur Street’. ‘Front Street’. These are all places that evoke something to me and they trigger some kind of writing to me there.
Is that usually a starting point for a song then?
No. Always music. Sometimes a riff. Sometimes a drumbeat. ‘Parked Outside’, for instance, started out as a drumbeat and then I built the riff around a drum beat. ‘Matamoros’ started out as a drum beat. Drums were my first instrument...
Who gave you your first drum kit?
I never owned a first drum kit. I started out on a neighbour’s kit. His name was David Bunn, he lived on Biscayne Drive in one of only five two-story homes in my neighbourhood and I went over to his and played his drums. Then I played drums at a couple of kids houses that went to my school, and then I became a lead singer. Because playing drums you're sat in the back, I wanted to move upfront.
I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 19, and that was out of necessity. I was much more interested in writing songs and humming my ideas was, ‘Eurgh. I’ve gotta cut out the middleman and do this myself.’ Taught myself guitar... Taught myself piano... Here I am.
When you returning to old material on the reunion tour, a lot of it is very dark in tone. Is it tough to relive those songs?
When I was in them it was, as time goes by it’s okay. While I was doing it, it was hard. I was reliving it every night and it was still really close to me. A lot of the songs off Gentlemen were just mean, and I started not liking myself for writing them. By the time we did Black Love, I had had cut a bunch of them out and wouldn’t play them. I recognise the person who wrote those songs, but I don’t have to exist as him anymore.
It must have been strange that those songs off Gentlemen were the ones that drew a lot of new fans to you?
Sure. I had begun to be that person in Congregation, which was really when I found my voice, but you don’t get to chose what you go through in life. And what you go through in life, you’re going to represent it artistically. I certainly did, and in a lot of ways it helped me because it took things that I was thinking and feeling in my mind out in front of me. I didn’t necessarily enjoy what I saw, but there it was.
At the time it was a very public thing, people wanted to watch me do it. It was strangely masochistic. It just got strange, and then I started doing things to alter the strangeness like drugs. Then it just turns into a big mess. So the next record I did... it was personal but in a cinematic context. Black Love became a way for me to distance myself from that stuff, so I wouldn’t feel those feelings anymore - it was kind of protective.
You gave up smoking six years ago. Do you have any vices left?
I drink occasionally. I smoke weed, not often. I enjoy life, but I’m very responsible with my vices. We’re at peace, me and them.
You’ve covered Frank Ocean in the recent past. What modern R&B singers do you admire?
Martina Topley-Bird, she’s one of my favourites. I like this girl Lulu James. I haven’t really heard anyone really refresh the genre… She’s very young. She’s from Africa. She’s flying that flag, she's sexually powerful and in control. That song ‘Closer’ is just a jam, a fucking jam. And that video, you’ve gotta watch it - you will need to take a cold shower afterwards. She’s on fire, she’s wearing the best clothes, she’s so sexy. The song is so badass. I can’t believe that song wasn’t massive.
Have you heard the new Beyoncé album?
I love Beyoncé. Haven’t gone that deep with it, but I’m a big fan. I’ve seen her a couple of times, she’s phenomenal. She’s Tina Turner with a little Prince thrown in, and again she’s fully in control. I’m excited by the newness of Lulu James though. I want to see what she can do. I want to see if she’s a creator or a creation.
What about Janelle Monáe?
I like Janelle Monáe. I’ve had trouble connecting emotionally with Janelle Monáe. I like watching her, but there’s like a wall. It’s so conceptual that I don’t know who she is. I can’t get in. I can stand back and admire her, but if I can’t get if I’m still on the outside.
Do To The Beast is the first Afghan Whigs album that’s released on Sub Pop since 1992. When was the last time you went back and listened to Up In It, your debut album for the label?
I listened to Up In It before we did the reunion tour. I went back and listened to all the records to see what songs we were going to play. I think a lot of it’s too fast. I don’t know what the rush was there, maybe the rush was artificial - I don’t know. Could be.
But when we did hit it… ‘Retarded’ is a jam. ‘Son Of The South’ had a big long boring intro, we chopped it off and just started playing the riff. Put it in the set and I look forward to playing it from here on out. It’s a fucking jam. That was cool. Not being afraid to go in and correct mistakes you might have made as a younger person, ‘You know, that didn’t work but the rest of this works so we’ll just take that away and do this.’
Are you quite critical of your music in general?
I try to be critical as I can. I’m trying to do that work for you, so that by the time it gets to you, you’ve heard it worked out. In that case it took me 20 years to edit that song, but when I edited ‘Son of the South’ it became a song that I looked forward to playing every night. It was really strange because it was something that I wrote when I was 22. It was really gratifying to me to still connect with the 22 year old version of myself, and say, ‘I like that too. I like that dude.’
Finally, since location is so important to your songs, where did you record the album?
Did it in a bunch of places. Most of it was done in California actually, Joshua Tree, and we did a lot of it at Josh Homme’s studio in Burbank. It’s a beautiful studio called Pink Duck, it’s phenomenal, great room, great sound. Mixed most of it in New Orleans though and did a lot of the vocals and overdubs.
I’ve had an apartment in New Orleans for 11 years. For a metropolitan area, it’s kind of a small town. Everybody knows each other. There’s a lot of civic pride there.
Where do you go for a drink there?
At my bar. It’s called The R Bar and that’s where I drink.
If you’re serving us a drink. What should we have?
Well. I’d ask you what you like.
Something with whiskey.
I drink whiskey on the rocks or straight up. So I’d give you a Van Winkle 12 year old or Willett, those are two of my favourite bourbons. I’m a bourbon man. I like bourbon and tequila mezcal those are my drinks. I drink bourbon in the winter. I drink tequila in the spring and summer.
But I have been drinking tequila in the winter… I had Ocho here last night, which was phenomenal. Ocho Anëjo, try it sometime it’s really good. It’s kind of got a little heat to it, like a spicy heat.
I like spirits, I’ve never really got into beer. I’ll drink beer on a hot day, but like a 7oz. Pints... I can’t get into that.
You realise you’re saying that to an Englishman?
Sure. All of my partners that I own bars with are beer drinkers. They love beer and curate the beer and I curate the spirits. It’s great.
Do To The Beast is released this week.