Q&A: The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli On Getting The Band Back Together, The Art Of Comedy, And Bad At-Bat Music


Tonight at the Bowery Ballroom, the Afghan Whigs—the Cincinnati torchbearers for damaged soul music—return to the stage after 13 years on hiatus, and if their performances on last night’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon are any indication, tonight’s sold-out show will be full of the band’s trademark self-lacerating fury, with Whigs frontman Greg Dulli leading the charge as he spits out twisted tales of love gone spoiled. In advance of the band’s return, which includes a Whigs-selected lineup at this fall’s I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Asbury Park, I spoke with Dulli from his home in New Orleans shortly before he left to rehearse in Cincinnati with his bandmates; the parts of our chat that didn’t make it into last week’s Voice are below.

Is this the first time that the band is playing together, or have you guys been playing a little bit?

We played together in January, and we’ve played together like 11 or 12 times now.

Were there any surprises that you experienced, or any songs that took on some new life?

I was surprised at how many we could play. I think we made a list of 12 to play and we played 30.

Did any of those stick out?

They all stood out, Maura! [Laughs.]

[Laughs] You know what I mean.

I mean, they all brought up various feelings. In our true fashion, the first songs we played together were cover songs. The first song we played together was Thin Lizzy.

Do you think you might bust that out on tour, or was that just a warm-up thing?

I hope we do.

Are there any songs, aside from the covers, from your catalog that you’ve never played live before that you might bring out?

Um, yes. [Pause.]

Okay. [Laughs.]

That is a very short answer.

That’s fine. So many of your lyrics are really raw and passionate. Do any of the lyrics strike you differently now than they might have 15 or 20 years ago, when they were written?

I felt connected to that person, I did. In a lot of ways, this was emotional anthropology.

How so?

Well, you’re going back and examining someone who used to live and breathe and felt those stories, you know? In that respect, it’s a unique experience.

I started listening to you back when I was in high school, and it’s interesting watching the way my reaction to your lyrics have evolved over time. You might’ve written a certain song 15 years ago, and then something happens to bring that into a new light. Do you think there are any songs that have achieved greater depth because of things that happened after they were written?

Yes. I think depth showed up in every aspect of my life, whether it was a song or a story graph or a painting or anything I did. You have to walk away from anything, really, to have perspective. Sometimes I’ve written a song and [been intrigued by the lyrics’] vowel sounds—[the way] words come off my tongue. But later I’ll go, “No, the words.” The reveal is not always instant, in most ways, especially if you’re dealing with any abstraction in your lyrics. In a lot of ways, you could be fooling yourself—or at the same time, laying bread crumbs for yourself to discover something.

I went to your solo show in October 2010, and there were people shouting out requests for Afghan Whigs songs. Are there any songs from the past that you’re surprised that there was a lot of affection for?

“My Curse” is a song that’s kind of like, “Wow.” I’m certainly proud to have written the song and love Marcy [Mays]’s performance, but that is a song that has fans within the fans. I’m always kind of blown away about how people want to talk about that one, but any way that you can move someone is a good thing.

That’s definitely one of my favorites too. I definitely like the one-two punch of it and “Now You Know” at the end of Gentlemen. I think that it’s a powerful, devastating pairing.

“Now You Know,” I certainly remember writing that one because it was the last one I wrote, and I wrote it on the spot. Rare is the song that comes out complete, and that one did. Gentlemen was written very quickly, maybe the fastest one I ever did.

Was there any reason it was written so fast?

I think we were on tour all the time, and just kind of on a roll. We were 26, 27 years old and, you know, feelings were coming together right. That one was, by the time “Now You Know” showed up, it was time to wrap up the recording. I knew that there was still one emotion that needed to be expressed. So I absolutely remember the recording of that song and it was, uh, I think we collapsed in a heap after that one.

Obviously you’ve been touring on your own and with other projects, but how do you think touring will be different with this particular group of people this time around?

I have no idea.

[Laughs.] I’m sorry.

I have no idea. That’s good news, you know? If I was recording… I just kept avoiding predictable life always. So, once more with feeling.

Have you been any of the ATP Festivals before?

I’ve never been.

I wondered how you put together the lineup for the ATP in September. Was Louis CK one of your picks?

He was. I mean, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever watched. I watched him last October, and he was just, you know, amazing. One of the most remarkable performances, I think, I’ve ever seen.

In what way?

The great thing about comedy is the honesty and the personal catharsis that they’re having. They’re telling you things about themselves that, most likely, you recognize—not unlike a songwriter. Anyone who connects with the part of your soul that you recognize, you know, that is a guide. We’re all carrying each other through. It would certainly be a lonely place if there weren’t other people there.

I’ve seen your shows and you’re good with banter. Have you ever thought about doing comedy?

That is the loneliest, scariest job in the world. I can’t imagine that. I really can’t. It’s one of the greatest art forms.

I think the loneliness begets the honesty, too. It just pours out of you, all of this material.

Sure. And you mix it. It’s observational, it’s personal—it moves between the two poles. You pick up on things about yourself that you recognize in others. If art were an exact science, I certainly wouldn’t be in it. [Laughs.]

I’ve been following your baseball commentary on at Rolling Stone. One thing I noticed was that you were talking about the bad pop music at the baseball parks.

I think that they should play organ music, like in the old days.

They do play the organ at Citi Field. It’ll pop up and it’ll play the “Blister In The Sun” riff and other things.

It’s when these dudes come up and they play, like, Rascal Flatts and shit. It’s like, “Fuck, you’re ruining it. Come on.” How does that psyche you up when you strike out? You know what, I think they should play the exact same song if you strike out, or someone gets to pick a song if you strike out. In some ways I understand it, but it’s, you know, the dudes with Creed, Nickelback, who play that shit. It’s like, “Come on, man.”

Are there any pop songs that are out now that you would like to cover?

I’ve got my eye on a couple—I can’t reveal them.

“Call Me Maybe?”

No, oh. No. Oh, God. That is just… ugh. There’s a song by this Swedish band, it’s called “Pay Off.” This is the kind of song that should be a fucking hit song. This girl is such a great singer, man. There’s a great clip of them playing it live. The recorded version is good, but the version of them playing it live is off the fucking chain. O’Spada is their name. It’s called “Pay Off.” I mean, I could hear like 10 little girls rocking out to this. That thing was a fucking smash. A fucking smash.

Did you know there is a Jesus Christ Superstar revival in New York right now?

I’ve never seen it on stage.

Oh really? What made you cover “The Temple” [on the 1992 album Congregation]?

When I was a kid, my babysitter played it all the time. I really loved—I used to play “39 Lashes.” We used to play “Heaven on their Minds.” We got pretty deep.

Are there any other musicals that you want to mine or have your eye on?

No. No. [Laughs.]

Afghan Whigs play at Bowery Ballroom tonight.