Q&A: Before Tampa show, Greg Dulli details The Afghan Whigs' first new album in five years

The band is at Orpheum next week.

click to enlarge Cover of the May 5, 2022 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. - Photo c/o The Afghan Whigs / Design by Jack Spatafora
Photo c/o The Afghan Whigs / Design by Jack Spatafora
Cover of the May 5, 2022 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.
Musical acts that defy categorization and are difficult to describe are rare, fascinating creatures. While so many artists’ styles and sounds can often be compared or harkened back to a musical ancestor or predecessor, a few make it extremely difficult to determine their musical lineage.

Take, for example, The Afghan Whigs. The band formed in the mid-80s in Cincinnati, Ohio and have been releasing superb (albeit hard to categorize) records since the latter part of the decade of their arrival. Led by charismatic, passionate singer and songwriter Greg Dulli, it was almost inevitable that the group’s sound would evolve into a mélange of genres, textures, and styles. Raised and reared simultaneously on heavy doses of R&B, punk-rock, jazz, and rock and roll, Dulli’s appreciation for music as a whole is clearly evident both through his recorded works and in conversation.

After a long hiatus (the band’s last full-length album, In Spades, was released in 2017), Dulli and The Afghan Whigs are on the verge of kicking off a new tour in advance of a brand new studio album—How Do You Burn?—due on September 9. In preparation of the upcoming live dates (including one in Ybor City on May 12), Dulli took some time out of his schedule to speak to Creative Loafing Tampa about a variety of topics from his homebase in California.
I’m so excited The Afghan Whigs are coming back to town. That's a big deal for a lot of us here locally.

Yeah. I'm excited. With the day off in getting there, it'll be like four days in Florida. [The tour kicks off in Florida and includes three shows within the state] That would be the longest I've spent in Florida since I was a child. I take that back; I actually spent 10 days in Key West 30 years ago. Well, I mean, we just don't really play for Florida very often so it's cool to do three gigs there, including our first ever gig in Fort Lauderdale.

Yeah, I see that you're kicking off the dates there at The Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. That's a pretty cool place. So, that's exciting.

Yeah, and it's my birthday that day, too.

I'm loving this new single that you’ve released, “I’ll Make You See God.” It's such a rocker and I saw that it’s being used for an upcoming PlayStation game, "Gran Turismo 7." How did that come about?

Well, my friend Alex works for Sony PlayStation and we play golf together and he's the guy who puts together the soundtracks for all the games and he was like, ‘Hey, do you have anything fast that you're working on?’ and I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.” After we played golf, we went out to my car and I played it for him and like 30 seconds in, he was like, ‘I want this!’ and I'm like, “You got it, dude.” So that's how that happened.
Well, that's perfect timing, it sounds like.

Yeah, it was. It was only a couple of months old by the time he heard it and we made the deal for it; to my knowledge, my first song write in a video game to my knowledge.

That's great. That's a big deal. So, you've made it to video game stardom, I guess.

Exactly! I'm stoked.

Speaking of timing, a lot of artists have their own unique version or their own take of what the pandemic did for them in terms of creativity or what having time off from touring was like for them. What did the pandemic do to you? Did it give you more time to write or to reflect? What was that like for you personally?

Well, I had just put a record out the last week of February of 2020. I put out my first solo record [Random Desire]. I was getting ready to fly to Ireland to start a tour when it was like, ‘It's the plague! Everybody stay in your house!’ and I was like, “Oh my God,” you know. So in regard to that, it sort of really knocked the wind out of my sails because I had worked really hard on a record that I loved and was excited to go out and play it and then obviously, the world shut down. So, nobody knew but were saying ‘It'll be done by June,’ or ‘It'll be done by July,’ so I rebooked the shows for the fall of that year and then it became pretty clear that it was not going to go away. So I filmed a couple shows where I played alone and in a friend of mine's club, and I did pay-per-view for those.

As soon as I was done with that, that was August 2020, I called my manager and my booking agent and I said, ‘Cancel those fall shows. They're not going to happen. I'm going to make a new Whigs, record.’ We went from September of 2020 and finished it in December of 2021. So, it was written and recorded in about a year and, you know, with me and Patrick [Keeler] the drummer, living in California, and then we went out to Joshua Tree where our new guitar player [Christopher Thorn] has a studio and the three of us worked on it there. And then sent it to the other guys in New Orleans, Cincinnati and New Jersey. That's a long answer to your question.

But as far as reflection and all that stuff goes, I'm a songwriter. I am a constant reflector, you know, I'm reflecting right now (laughs). I live alone and have for a majority of my life. So when people were like, you know, calling me when all that was going on saying, ‘How are you?’ I'm like, ‘How are you?’ You know, I'm fine; this is normal life for me. I used the time to make this record and I'll look back on this record as it being that; you know, just kind of, driving to Joshua Tree, every other month and that was kind of my rhythm. I'd go out there for two weeks. I'd come back for four and go back again for two weeks. That was my cycle. So that was what I did during the pandemic.
So you did a lot; it's not like you stayed idle. I mean you were working and you were creating.

Yeah, I mean constantly. By the way, there's 10 songs on this record, but I wrote like 24 songs and pared it down. There was a moment where I was like, ‘Hey, should we do a double album?’ And then I’m like, don't do a double album. I can take most double albums and turn them into an amazing single album.

Ah, so you can pare them down to nice, tidy, edited versions?

I’ve pared down the best of them. The one double-album that I took the least among of songs off I could not make it a single record was [The Clash’s] London Calling.

I knew you were going to say that! I was hoping you were going to say that…and I agree. I'm right there with you.

Yeah, I mean, [The Rolling Stones’] Exile on Main St., no problem. [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall, no problem. [The Who’s] Quadrophenia, no problem. I can chug through your double-albums and get them down, no problem. But with London Calling, it's almost impossible. They're all great.

I agree. That's a hard one to top. You said something interesting, when you were talking about the pandemic and I think this was true for a lot of people. I think the most stressful part of that time was the fact that nobody really knew when it was going to end or when things were going to ‘get back to normal.’ And I think that's what kind of wore on people: the fact that there was no end in sight. So, I think what you did was interesting, you used that time without knowing what the end date was going to be. You created, and you worked, and you wrote a bunch of songs. That's really excellent.

I've been writing songs since I was a teenager, it's like the pursuit I've easily done the longest in my life. But this obviously had a different slant to it. Because whenever I would go to Joshua Tree, especially in the early days, we would have to—and this was before they had home tests—we would have to go to the doctor and get a test and, his whole family would have to get tested and I would get tested, and then we would create the bubble and then his wife, Heather would, you know, mask up and put on an astronaut suit and go out into the world and get us groceries and stuff. You know what I mean? Like you really had to be vigilant about, not just your health, but the health of the people around you. Just being extremely careful. And then, when Patrick would come in, his wife would have to get tested and then he would get tested and then we'd all get tested. And this was all just on this end of it.

And then doing it virtually with the other guys in three different states was—I had done some of that before but not at the scale of this record. The only time I would see the other guys, was if we FaceTimed or something and, and we would really only FaceTime if it was like, ‘Hey, I need to show you how to play this,’ or ‘Can you play it like this?’ or, ‘What kind of pedal are you using?’ or that kind of thing. But luckily, the three other guys are all like Pro Tools whizs and it was, it was really pretty seamless. When you listen to “I'll Make You See God,” that is four guys playing in three states.

Wow, that's amazing. And it sounds like it was so much work, like you mentioned, while being so safe. I think that's another factor that really stressed people out during that time. So I like the way that you worked around those things. You obviously still adhered to them, but you made them work out. You really made the best out of it.

Well, I mean, once the goal was established, it's by any means necessary. You know what I mean? You just get it done. You want this thing so you make it happen. I mean honestly, I hope it's the last record I make like that just because that would mean the world was safe to travel around again and nothing beats being in a room, feeding off the energy of other people. But that said, this record has a very special place for me because of how we did it, how well we did it and and how much we love how it turned out.
That's great. I can't tell you how anxious I am to get it and hear it, so knowing the back story just adds more specialness to it. I'm so curious to get your perspective on this because I know what it's like from our side, from the side of the listeners and it’s one of the things I've loved about your music and what you've done with The Afghan Whigs.

I'm always intrigued by bands that defy categorization. With The Whigs, you can't really pinpoint what the origin is or what the exact influence is of the music. I’m always fascinated by bands like that. But, from your side, is that kind of by design? Or is that something that just comes out naturally? I've heard and seen your band referred to or associated with grunge and with all these other sub-genres, but I think you guys are kind of in your own sort of category. What's your take on that?

Well, I mean I'm an omnivorous music person. So I listen to a lot of stuff and always have. I grew up listening to Motown, pop music, Rolling Stones, whatever the older neighbor kids were listening to, Zeppelin and AC/DC. But my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, they were Kentucky and West Virginia. So I was listening to a lot of country music. And then when I got to college, like I got turned on to jazz, I got turned on to punk-rock and all that. And not to mention my high school metal years and my absolute love of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of my favorite bands of all time. So I was the kid who listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, and George Jones, so I like a lot.

I just like a lot of different stuff. So that’s the best way I can describe it. My songwriting is like a bird, making a nest; there's some newspaper, there's some hay, there's a fucking fast food bag. Whatever I can find to get myself a styling vehicle or home, or a place to rest. That's how it's going to happen. So I feel like, first of all, thank you for saying so, but I can easily say we sound like The Afghan Whigs and nobody sounds like us. So that's how I answer that question.

"My songwriting is like a bird, making a nest; there's some newspaper, there's some hay, there's a fucking fast food bag."

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I could not agree more. You just eloquently described what I was trying to get at. You're one of the bands that, again, it's so hard to describe but if someone plays 30 seconds of one of your songs, you instantly know it's The Afghan Whigs and not anybody else because it doesn't sound like anybody else. That’s how I perceive your stuff and that's why I dig it so much. That’s always been the attraction for me. So, it's safe to say that you're not going into a studio and saying ‘Alright, I'm going to write a song that touches on my influence of Skynyrd or of The Clash.’ It's just coming kind of coming out of you in this conglomeration of all the things that that influence you or that you really dig.

Sure and whatever lessons all of those groups or listening experiences taught me. Like, ‘Oh I'm going to phrase this like Van Morrison,’ or ‘I want a guitar sound like Uli Jon Roth from early Scorpions’ you know what I mean? These are just all things off the top of my head where I'm like, ‘Isaac Hayes’ wah wah’ just like certain things. I'm just like, OK, that dude knew how to create a thing’ and I was either directly or indirectly influenced by that and I can draw from it like a painter is staring at a pallet, you know? ‘I think a bit of turquoise here.’ You know what I mean?

That's so refreshing. I love to hear that. Sometimes I read pieces or interviews and some guys are too cool and say, ‘Oh I don't listen to that,’ and it's almost like they're being snooty or they're above it. But I mean you're an open book in what you like musically. Fans who listen to you and have heard the covers that you've done and, obviously through your original material, can detect that you have a lot of that stuff going on and just hearing you talk about it is fascinating to me. So thank you for touching on all those things. It's obvious that you're a fan of so much music and I love to hear that expressed.

Well, I mean, here's the best way I can describe that element of it: The Twilight singers covered John Coltrane without a saxophone. The end.

And that's a good summation, right? That speaks volumes, right there. Speaking of The Twilight Singers. I have to give my condolences for the loss of former bandmate Mark Lanegan. That had to be pretty tough. I know you'd done so much work with him in the past.

One of the greatest people I’ll ever know. One of my absolute most beloved, and beautiful friends, and friendships that I have ever or will ever have. But, you know, in the words of Theodor Geisel, ‘Don’t be sad it's over, be glad it happened.’ [Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, said, ‘"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.”] And that's how I'm going through this particular thing. I will miss Mark forever. He just was such a good friend of mine, such a kind, intelligent, incredibly funny, wildly talented person. One of the greatest singers to ever fucking walk the planet. I appreciate your condolences.

A tremendous loss. On the flip side of what we were talking in regard to personal influences, I often read a lot of younger bands that came out after The Whigs, citing you all as such a huge influence. What does that mean to you? When you read stuff like that or when you hear about stuff like that? How does that impact you?

I mean, imagine if you were a carpenter and you know, somebody was like, ‘Man, I love your houses. I started building houses because of you.’ Any time you've inspired someone, that's like the greatest compliment you could ever get: that you did something that moved someone, even if you just move one person. People will come up to me and go, ‘You probably get this all the time…’ and I'm like, ‘Dude, if you're about ready to give me a compliment just give it to me because it’s never not appreciated or never does it not fail to make me feel really good.’ So any time I hear that I had a positive effect on someone either like by just me or something that I did, it's an incredible feeling. It's a gift. It's a gift in itself.
click to enlarge Artwork for The Afghan Whigs' new album 'How Do You Burn?' - Photo c/o The Afghan Whigs
Photo c/o The Afghan Whigs
Artwork for The Afghan Whigs' new album 'How Do You Burn?'
I would have to think that. I see it as you kind of keeping that cycle going. You have all of these guys and all these bands that influenced you and you just kind of pay it forward. And you have those who were moved by your music telling you so. That's got to be a pretty intense feeling.

It's like I said, there's no greater gift than the gift of inspiration.

I’ve always been so enthralled with your choices for covers that you all have done throughout your tenure. I was managing a record store when a lot of those covers were coming out and we would play them in the store and people would stop dead in their tracks and go ‘Who is this?’ in response. I know you love so much music, but how have you been able to pinpoint which songs you chose to cover? Was it just a particular favorite song from the artist’s catalog, or was it something that you thought suited the band? What’s that process like?

I'll give you the philosophy of covering a song. When I hear a song. I have to wish that I wrote it and then act like I did.
Oh, it's brilliant! That's perfect. So it's been awhile since you guys have been here or done a tour of the extent of the one you're about to embark on. Tell me a little bit about the show and what you have planned. Are you going to focus on the newer stuff? I know you always like to go back and throw some surprises in your setlists. What can the audience coming to see you at Orpheum expect?

Notwithstanding, I haven't played a concert in front of people in four years. That’s the longest since I was 20 years old…even longer than that probably, since high school. Keep in mind, I was about to do a tour two years ago and it got pulled out from under me. And then we had basically two years off. So, yeah, it's been four years, but, to the point of your question, we have the album coming out in September. We have this second song coming out before the album.

And, while I love to play new stuff, I don't want to drown people in it and say, ‘Hey, what the fuck is this?’ I mean by the time that we start playing on my birthday, the world will have been able to hear two of the songs and we'll play both of those and we're going to play one other one from the new record, and then stuff from the last two records. I'm going to slip a song from my solo record into the show that everybody in the band wants to play. There will be a generous helping of some ‘90s highlights from almost all of the old records.

Are you the type of guy that likes to kind of play around with a setlist on the night of the show? Or do you like more of a regimented kind of straightforward set list ahead of time?

Here's what I like to do: I like to establish a show. Usually the first stab at it is when you find out. You're like, ‘That didn't work….let's move this one here, or let's move this one in here.’ I like to get a framework because it's nice to have some foundation of a show than just to go winging it every night and just changing it just to change it. That's, to me, just kind of careless and like, ‘Oh, we played this one last night,’ you know? But you're going to a town like 300 miles away. Those people weren’t there last night. What if they want to hear it, too, you know what I mean? So, yeah, I don't see it swapping out incredibly at first. I think we’ll get our legs and then we'll start to come and we’ll start to mess around. I usually like to have a 30-35 song well in which to draw from and then, of that, we’ll probably play like 20 or 21 songs.

We will come and play a serious motherfucking show, no doubt about it. I'm not flying all over to like, you know, hit and run, you know? There's the old saying: I played the show for free; you're paying me for the other 22 hours of fucking around that I have to do (laughs).

Of the times I've seen you before, and in referring to one show in particular, on the 1994 tour in support of the Gentleman album, I’d have to say that was probably the loudest show I’ve ever witnessed. Not to brag, but I’ve seen a lot of shows and that was easily the loudest concert I’ve ever been to.

Yeah, we're loud. Definitely wear earplugs! But we also have one of the great sound people in rock and roll. So, you know, while we may be loud, it is very clear and mixed and it will be a quality experience

Oh, I don't doubt. Yeah, that one show I referenced was loud, but was clear as a bell, and it was mixed very well. Don’t get me wrong; I was absolutely loving it. I was in joy.

We're loud, but we're not as loud as Dinosaur.

About The Author

Gabe Echazabal

I was born on a Sunday Morning.I soon received The Gift of loving music.Through music, I Found A Reason for living.It was when I discovered rock and roll that I Was Beginning To See The Light.Because through music, I'm Set Free.It's always helped me keep my Head Held High.When I started dancing to that fine, fine...
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