In response to some speculation about what exactly might make Do To The Beast, the first album made under The Afghan Whigs moniker in some 16 years an Afghan Whigs record, rather than a Twilight Singers album or Greg Dulli solo record, he jests that “it was going to be a Moody Blues record but then we discovered someone had already taken that name”. He takes a deep breath before continuing. “It’s an Afghan Whigs album because…” – here he leaves a further uncomfortably long pause – “…I said so.”
Well, that’s as good a reason as any. But is there anything about the sound or the approach of this material that lends itself to the Whigs specifically. “I actually recorded the first Twilight Singers album before the last Whigs album,” Dulli explains, “and it had a very different sound. But as time went on after the Whigs broke up it began to skew more rock ‘n’ roll. When I got back in touch with my past, so to speak – I did a solo acoustic tour and played songs from my whole life including Afghan Whigs songs – I hadn’t played those songs in many years and I really enjoyed it. For part of the American run, John Curley, my oldest friend, joined me. He’s somebody that I grew up with and he’s like my brother. That’s when we decided to talk about doing something again.”
From there, the project took on something of a life of its own. “Then we got offered the ATP thing and we contacted Rick, and got the band back together to rehearse. We brought in some other players to flesh out the sound and to protect ourselves from anyone going off the reservation, so to speak. At the end of that tour, we were done. But then Fader magazine contacted me and told me that Usher wanted to play with the Afghan Whigs.” Given Dulli’s preoccupation with soul and R&B, this is maybe not quite as unlikely a proposition as it initially seems. “I was like, you know what, have Usher call me. And he did! At this point Rick McCollum was not in the group.”
The inevitable questions about McCollum’s absence have to be asked, particularly given the pivotal role his strafing, thrilling lead guitar played during the band’s reunion shows for ATP. “I can really only tell you that Rick has made some personal choices in his life that I really wish he had not. I have tried to help him out, including on the tour, but you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I love him, he’s a beautiful guy but he’s involved in something that I can’t get him out of. John and I faced a similar situation in the ’90s and we broke up the group. This time we decided not to let one dude dictate whether we play together or not. It’s our group as well and we decided to make a record. We started recording in May and finished it in December – it was quick and effective doing it that way and it really shined a light for me about a lot of things – about how things were, how things could be, and I feel absolutely liberated.”
It’s a difficult but honest conclusion to draw that the loss of a troubled band member might actually free up proceedings (although McCollum himself seems to have responded positively to Dulli’s statements), and a sense of liberation is a theme that Dulli frequently reiterates. The involvement of numerous guest musicians seems to have had a beneficial effect.
“Playing with Mark McGuire (formerly of ambient experimentalists Emeralds) previously, I knew what he could do and I knew that I wanted him involved. Johnny Natural (Usher’s guitar player Johnny ‘Natural’ Najera) did some things that convinced me I wanted to use him too. John Skibic and Dave Rosser, who I’ve been playing with for years. They’re just fucking studs, so they were in. I had a wealth of players at my disposal and everything pointed to what we did. It just became very matter of fact and efficient. It felt like the shackles finally got thrown off me and I got to get down and do it the right way without things holding me back.”
McGuire seems to have offered some particularly unexpected and refreshing directions for Dulli, who has expressed enthusiasm for instrumental music in the past. “I listen to a lot of instrumental music because I’m not distracted by lyrics. The emotional context comes from the playing and that’s a really pure thing for me. It’s why I like jazz, classical music, ambient and soundtrack music. I’d love to make an instrumental album one day and I hope that it’s soon actually. I’d love to not have to worry about writing words for once, but still keep an emotional feeling in. Mark McGuire made a record called Living With Yourself (in 2010) that I was captivated by. He was talking to me with his guitar, and the field recordings of his father talking. I could see their house, feel the love that the family had for each other and I could feel him manipulating the instrument to amplify that experience. I talked about it a lot with him when we became friends and I was surprisingly on the mark – it was all about love and family.”
He elaborates a bit and seems to conclude that music is a universal language: “With Opera, which is almost never sung in English, you surrender the language to the feeling. I started listening to French, Italian, Swedish music – even Sigur Rós, who invented their own language – I know what they mean, I know what’s going on enough that I’m not in the desert without a compass.”
Do To The Beast certainly seems to broaden out The Afghan Whigs’ sound world. Whilst there are many memorable elements that brilliantly distill the potency and fever of the band’s past, there are fresher, more unexpected sounds, such as Algiers’ intriguing and heady mix of New Orleans brass, Ennio Morricone-esque twang and Roy Orbison-inspired crooning. It certainly seems to provide some new vocal perspectives for Dulli.
“It started out as Roy Orbison,” he muses, “but actually ended up as Eric Carmen (Raspberries lead singer who scored a massive power ballad hit with All By Myself). Go and check out that song Never Fall In Love Again, you’ll know what I mean. It’s astounding how close it is to that, and I did it completely unconsciously, I hadn’t heard that song in years.” This least likely of reference points for an alternative rock legend such as Dulli suggests just how wide his musical net is cast.
Parts of Do To The Beast were recorded at Josh Homme’s Pink Duck studios in California. How important were location and environment in the making of this record? “Like all of the records I’ve made in the last 15 years, it’s a combination of Los Angeles and New Orleans,” Dulli suggests. “It’s the two cities I live in, and the studios I feel most comfortable working in. A lot of side 2 was done in Josh’s studio.” It’s interesting that he still thinks of his albums in terms of sides of vinyl. “I definitely split the sides up in my mind. Even if it’s a CD, I know where side 2 begins. There’s a finality of a side, and I just know where it is. Lost In The Woods is the end of side 1, and The Lottery is the start of side 2.”
This serves as a reminder that all the key Afghan Whigs albums seemed very carefully and effectively sequenced. “Sequencing is crucial,” Dulli says. “You have to pace the experience for the listener. Initially, I am the listener and I have to pace it for myself. What do I want to hear and feel right now? It’s the same as building a set list – you can’t come out and play ten hard ones and then go, here’s a soft one, y’know? I’m trying to create an experience. Also, a lot of audience members come to multiple shows and I don’t want it to be like going to see Cats! There are always little nuances and ways of making things different each night.”
This comment suggests that Dulli sees songs as mutable forms that might never quite be finished. He agrees. “I wish I could go out and tour these songs before we record them, because they change.” What about recording an album on the road, then? R.E.M.’s New Adventures In HiFi and Richard Thompson’s Dream Attic both seem like good examples of this.
“For me, the key album made whilst touring is Running On Empty (Jackson Browne’s 1977 album). It’s hard to do because there’s so much travelling and you’re tired. I rarely get to the place of wanting to record whilst on the road – I tend to want to take a nap.” If this seems unlikely, what about a covers album? That seemed to be what might be coming when the first new Afghan Whigs tracks to surface were two interpretations (of Marie Lyons’ See And Don’t See and Frank Ocean’s Love Crimes). “I don’t think that’s such a crazy idea,” Dulli admits. “The Twilight Singers did one and I really enjoyed it so I would certainly consider doing that.”
In some respects, it seems as if Dulli psychologically approaches his earlier material as if he were playing a series of cover versions of snapshots from a previous life. “With the Gentlemen stuff, by the time I got to the Black Love tour I didn’t feel too comfortable with it. A lot of it was really mean, and I didn’t feel so mean then. I also didn’t want to do anything out of obligation. But returning to it again much later, while I didn’t do everything, there were songs – like Gentlemen itself – that I hadn’t played for a long time and the meanness was fun now – I was hanging out with 26 year old me! Alright buddy, let’s try to feel what you felt. Doing it two years after the fact was sometimes too painful but doing it 12 years after the fact was like anthropology.”
What about the songs on Black Love, an equally excellent perhaps even better record that tends to be somewhat neglected given Gentlemen’s alternative classic status? “Black Love was the record we played the most songs from during the reunion tour. I was drawn to a lot of those songs. It was always a very special record to me. My Enemy was a song we hadn’t played for years and years, Crime Scene too. Going back and opening the show with Crime Scene was cool. I had forgotten how much I loved that song, it was a very heartfelt message to a friend of mine who chose to leave by her own hand. While that was painful at the time, time had passed, and I was able to see it more as a tribute that as an exorcism.”
Dulli is forthright and honest about the earlier days of the band. “I put myself in difficult situations as a young man. As art it was great, but to live it every night was difficult. Then I started doing things to help me forget about everything and I became quite self destructive.” It seems Dulli has now reached a place where he can look back on such times from a wiser and more experienced perspective and has reconciled himself with his past.
The potency in those songs remains, however, and some threads run consistently throughout Dulli’s career. Is it really, for example, still about getting more girls to come to the shows? “You always want to see more girls at the shows, yes. I hope that I’ve cultivated and curated the material as such this time around so that happens. It’s nothing against the blokes, but I sure do like to sing to the ladies. What’s immature about wanting to play to pretty girls?” It’s reassuring to know that some things never change.
The Afghan Whigs’ album Do To The Beast is out now through Sub Pop. More information and tour dates can be found here.