Q&A: The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli Talks 20 Years Of Black Love, Shares Acoustic Version Of “Going To Town”
Following up one of the most acclaimed albums of the decade would be tough for any band. But as in all other matters, Greg Dulli and the Afghan Whigs did it with style. Released in the spring of 1996, the Afghan Whigs’ fifth album, Black Love, is packed with snarling, caustic rock songs (“My Enemy,” “Honky’s Ladder”) and lush soul numbers (“Blame, Etc.”). To extrapolate a commonly used comparison, if the Afghan Whigs’ 1993 masterpiece Gentlemen (a song cycle about a dying relationship) was the alternative rock answer to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, the 1996 follow-up was like a Dashiell Hammett short story collection: a series of vignettes about characters dealing with hard times, hard love, and broken faith.
On 11/25, Rhino Records will issue a deluxe version of Black Love for, appropriately enough, Record Store Day Black Friday, and it will come with a second disc of outtakes, including an acoustic version of album highlight “Going To Town” and sumptuous piano-led cover of New Order’s “Regret.” Though they were sometimes thought of as controversial at the time, if the Afghan Whigs were a new band, their R&B-infused rock songs and acerbic take on romance would probably drown the internet in thinkpieces about cultural appropriation and masculinity issues, among other topics. But even though frontman, producer and songwriter Greg Dulli is older, sober, and much happier than the damaged man we met back then, he still doesn’t care what anything thinks of him or his art. I caught up with Dulli to chat about the making of Black Love, learn about the Afghan Whigs’ next album (out next year), and ask whether or not he has any regrets. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t.) Read our Q&A and hear the acoustic version of “Going To Town” below.
STEREOGUM: We’re here to talk about the re-release of Black Love. The album before this, Gentlemen, was critically acclaimed and had some songs on the radio and TV. Was your record label putting pressure on the band to make something that would take you all the way into the mainstream?
GREG DULLI: You know, no, because right after Gentlemen, there was regime change at Elektra. It was sort of in disarray, so we slipped under the radar, like nobody paid attention to us. We kind of did what we wanted.
STEREOGUM: I take it the A&R guy who signed you had already left?
DULLI: Yes. It obviously was a long time ago, so it’s hard for me to feel it with any immediacy, but it was a strange time at the label.
STEREOGUM: So you recorded Black Love, handed in the album, and it was done?
DULLI: Yeah. I’ll tell you, I have always just done records and turned them in when I was done. I have never not done it that way. I would not know what that was like to do it another way.
STEREOGUM: Most of the people there are smart enough to realize that they shouldn’t tell you what to do.
DULLI: I don’t mind being shared information with or if someone thought of a constructive situation to put me in, I would absolutely listen to them. I mean, I love collaborating with people and checking out new situations, but there was none of that there, you know what I mean? We literally were an island unto ourselves.
STEREOGUM: So there was no pressure from the label. Was there pressure from you guys that you wanted to top yourselves?
DULLI: I always do. It’s not like I’m trying to compete with something I’ve already done, but I do react to what comes before anything that I’m doing, and I definitely wanted to make something different than Gentlemen, and I was feeling incredibly ambitious at the time, and I think the song-cycle thing that I had explored with Gentlemen, I went full-tilt with the exploration of the song-cycle with Black Love.
STEREOGUM: So one of the stories about this album is that it was based on an unproduced screenplay of yours. Is that true?
DULLI: That’s not true. I was working on a screenplay. I bought the rights to a book and was working to get that done, but it was a completely different story then Black Love. It’s kind of strange how the legend has taken up with that, but it was not an unproduced screenplay, no.
STEREOGUM: It’s one of those things with rock legends and stories that get told again and again. I think on Wikipedia, it said that part of your record deal with Elektra was that they also had to buy a screenplay from you or fund your screenplay or something?
DULLI: I did have that in the contract, but it was for another project completely. That project was called Spoken In Darkness, and it bears no resemblance to what happened in Black Love. Black Love was its own thing, a freestanding group of songs, written by me.
STEREOGUM: You know what they say: “Just print the legend.”
DULLI: Sure, yeah. Go for it. It doesn’t matter to me.
STEREOGUM: Going into the actual facts, then, what was on your mind as you were writing? With Gentlemen, you had a story about this toxic relationship; what were you thinking about for this one?
DULLI: Well, in Gentlemen, I was in the toxic relationship, so this one was a bit more subjective. I will say this: My friend Nick [Klein], who had written a screenplay for a movie called The Million Dollar Hotel… it was unproduced at the time, and Wim Wenders eventually filmed it, but I had read the screenplay, and the opening scene of the movie is a guy on a roof, contemplating the end. A lady who I had known took her own life around that time, so from those two experiences I began what became “Crime Scene Part One,” and that was, I believe, the first song that I began working on. So that set the tone for the rest of the record.
STEREOGUM: You’ve always had a love of soul music, but on “Blame, Etc.” you’re really pushing it out farther than you ever have. It has that ‘70s symphonic soul sound that you’d never quite done before. What was it like making that one?
DULLI: Well, “Blame, Etc.” was my attempt at a Norman Whitfield production [chuckles] and it was loosely based on the David Ruffin story, who was one of the original singers of the Temptations. It bears a resemblance to a style that the Temptations began to explore in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Ironically, the time without David Ruffin. It’s very well-documented, my affection for symphonic soul and certainly the Norman Whitfield productions, the Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia productions as well, lots of strings, and horns. Big fan of that stuff. So I think “Blame, Etc.” was my homage to a certain style and sound of long ago.
STEREOGUM: David Ruffin is one of those tragic music industry stories of a guy who had everything and lost it all to drug abuse. Is that something you could relate to? Because you’ve been very open about the fact that back then, you were also struggling with a lot of things.
DULLI: I think David Ruffin’s struggle really was with his ego and that led him to drug abuse, and honestly, I think that’s probably what leads many people to it, is the struggle with self, the struggle with ego and whatever sort of mental illness that you may take into that: depression, or personality disorder, or many of the modern “-isms” that affect people. I think that David Ruffin was doomed by his own ego and psyche and that drugs were just a wave to take him there.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of your love of soul, should we see the album title as a play on words, both these stories about doomed romances and also your love of black music?
DULLI: In the most honest and innocent way, as depicted on the cover of the record, Black Love was my favorite incense when I was a kid. But it’s an evocative name that ties all kinds of things together: black magic, black culture, the yang to the yin. The evocation of the word “black” is all-powerful. Those two words are two of the most powerful words in the English language brought together, in my opinion.
STEREOGUM: The band’s sound was this blend of big, aggressive rock music that was compared to the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, and R&B. Do you ever wish you could do straight R&B and get rid of the loud guitars, or do you feel self-conscious about doing that sort of thing?
DULLI: It’s not that I feel self-conscious about it, it’s that I have so many other things I’m interested in and interested in exploring. As much as I love soul music, I listen to a lot of hard rock, a lot of metal. A lot of my aunts and uncles and grandparents listen to country music all the time, so I had a whole lot of stuff that I was influenced by and turned on by to be penned down by one type or style of music. But if I was able to do straight R&B… oooh! It’s tough to do and I find that for me, as a songwriter, it’s better if I explore it in doses rather than as some sort of means to an end.
STEREOGUM: Now with the Twilight Singers and Afghan Whigs and your other projects, you’ve had this celebrated career with lots of albums that people have said great things about, but it does seem that in your body of work, Gentlemen is the album that looms largest over all of them. Do you ever feel that your other work is living in its shadow in a way?
DULLI: No. I mean, first of all, even if that were true, what could I do about that? And I will say this: Amongst the fans of the band, as far as the original six records go, you might be surprised to find that this one looms a little larger than Gentlemen, amongst that group of people.
STEREOGUM: But whenever a magazine does a “Best Albums Of The ‘90s” lists or whatever, Gentlemen is usually the one that’s on there.
DULLI: That we put something out that captured the zeitgeist of a certain moment, that’s fantastic, you know what I mean? That’s lightning in a bottle. But I look at it this way: Thriller may have been Michael Jackson’s most popular album, but it was not my favorite. Things have a way of working themselves out.
STEREOGUM: The fan favorite’s going to be different from the established thing. I don’t know if how many U2 fans’ favorite album is actually The Joshua Tree.
DULLI: I like Achtung Baby better than The Joshua Tree, and that’s not a put-down to The Joshua Tree, it’s just a preference. That’s the cool thing about having a body of work. People have stuff to talk about, lists to make.
STEREOGUM: So you left the label shortly after Black Love came out. Did they just not have any idea of what to do with it?
DULLI: Like I said, I found that label to be kind of in disarray. It was not the place that we signed to, you know what I mean? We did our thing and we moved on. Again, it’s so long ago, I could really care less. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Do you listen to your albums ever, or do you do them and put them away and move on to the next thing when you’re done?
DULLI: I listen to them in preparation to tour. I listen to them while I’m making them, and then I reinterpret them onstage, and then they belong to the ages, not to me.
STEREOGUM: So when you were listening to Black Love to get ready for the reissue, what’d you think of it? Was it the first time you listened to it in a while?
DULLI: I had listened to Black Love probably in 2012, when we got back together, and then I listened to it again for this. We found a bunch of stuff. Of all of the records that I’ve done, this had the most unreleased stuff that I have ever found, so that was cool to listen to some of the jams that we were doing and the covers. But the record itself, I had listened to a few different takes, and I agreed with the takes that we used on the record. I think it’s a killer record. It was really fun to put this one together.
STEREOGUM: With this album and Gentlemen, and a lot of your other work, a lot of it dealt with what today we call “toxic masculinity.” Back then, some people thought you were a writer exploring ideas. But I know a lot of people thought you were sexist. What was that like for you? Did you have to explain yourself a lot?
DULLI: I know who I am, you know? I found a lot of those potshots to be lazy journalism, of “We’ll just tag this dude a cad,” and you’re the cad. OK. Based on what? That I said this or that about a relationship or whatever? If my mom, my grandma, my aunts, my sisters still talk to me, that’s all I need to know.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting, because in a lot of ways, the ‘90s culture wars are back. I was just thinking that if this band started today, you’d still have people that would love you, but I feel like there’s a lot of people on Twitter like: “This is problematic! This is appropriating black culture!” This is sexist!!” I can’t even imagine how you’d be greeted today.
DULLI: Do you think Archie Bunker could happen today? Richard Pryor? Probably not. Everything is so hyper-analyzed and PC that… again, man, if I can look myself in the eye in the morning and brush my teeth, I don’t really give a fuck what some Twitter person says about me.
STEREOGUM: That said, is there anything you look back on and cringe about? Have you thought, “I don’t know, maybe naming a song ‘Retarded’ wouldn’t be the best move today?”
DULLI: Again, “Retarded”…that song in particular is not about a special-needs person. The meaning of “Retarded” extended beyond that. Not apologizing for “Retarded.” Not gonna do it.
STEREOGUM: As a person who was alive and working in the ’90s, what do you think of the ’90s nostalgia you see today?
DULLI: Everything old becomes new again, and the dog eats its tail. There’s always a revival of an era of a sound, and I think it’s cool if a style comes around and people want to check it out, but I’m infinitely more interested in what’s ahead, you know, and what hasn’t happened yet, and will always be.
STEREOGUM: A lot of your songs have lyrics about substance abuse, depression, and anger. You’ve talked a lot about being in a different place in your life these days. Does it feel weird when you go back and re-listen to the songs to learn them to play them live? Do you feel connected to them still?
DULLI: It’s different versions of yourself. It’s sort of like looking at photographs of yourself through time like, “Wow, did I wear that? Did my hair really look like that?” It’s whoever you are at a given moment. And the great thing about songs for me is they remind me of times of my life. I can instantly remember experiences, sights, sounds, smells even. It’s a cool trigger to have. It’s a roadmap to my life, especially my life from nineteen on, so… good, bad, ugly, embarrassing, extraordinary, and everything in between.
STEREOGUM: So the band broke up about five years after this album and in a lot of interviews that you were doing for Twilight Singers projects, you said that the band is done and “We’ll never get back together.” Were you surprised when you finally did and what made you decide to give it another crack?
DULLI: I did a solo tour in 2010 and I had been working on songs that were later on Dynamite Steps, which was the last Twilight Singers record. [Bassist] John Curley, whenever I would come to town, he’d come up and play a couple songs with me, but he came to Chicago and got up and at that point, the Whigs had been broken up for 11 years, and he came up to Chicago and that was the first time we had been on a stage outside of Cincinnati in 11 years. The response to his appearance when he walked onstage was pretty magical. Then he came out West and did four shows with me on the West Coast, we started talking about it then. I love playing with John; he’s one of my oldest and best friends. During the time of us broken up, him and his wife had a couple kids, everyone kind of went and did their own thing. There’s a time and place for everything. If you find that you can come back around and do something cool with somebody that you had a creative relationship with in the past and it’s fulfilling again, life’s too short not to have the kind of experiences you want to have. So I’ve become very philosophical about how I spend my time and who I spend it with.
STEREOGUM: You guys are working on a new album at the moment, right?
STEREOGUM: How’s it coming along?
DULLI: I hope to tie a knot in it by December 1.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a title or anything you want to say about it?
DULLI: I cannot reveal at this particular moment, but I love it. It’s a strange and magical little creation.
STEREOGUM: How’s it been trying to do the band without [lead guitarist] Rick McCollum? He was such a huge part of the original version of the band. Was it kind of weird trying to figure out a way without him?
DULLI: It was kind of weird trying to figure it out with him. That’s probably the easier answer. I wish Rick the best, and if Rick was in a place in his life that he could contribute both musically and emotionally, that’d be great, but things don’t always work out the way you want them to. And to not let them work out based on someone else’s situation, I can’t be tied to that. I just can’t. I can only wish someone well and walk away, and that’s what had to happen there.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever end up finishing your screenplay or getting your screenplay produced?
DULLI: No, it did not. Several of the people involved are no longer with us, so I kind of lost the desire to do it after losing a couple of the principles.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, you were gonna work with the late Ted Demme, right? You guys were good friends?
DULLI: Yeah, Ted was my partner in that project, and then the author of the book, Ann Imbrie, passed away. So when they both left, I sort of lost my passion for it.
STEREOGUM: I was a huge fan of the Gutter Twins album that you and Mark Lanegan did eight years ago. Is there a chance you and Mark might do another one these days?
DULLI: Oh yeah. Either July or August, we did three or four songs at one of his shows. I’m having lunch with him in a couple days. He’s working on a record right now and I sing with him on one of the songs, so there will be absolutely be another Gutter Twins project for sure.
STEREOGUM: So my last question, you’re a big R&B fan obviously and you keep up with stuff, because a few years ago you covered Frank Ocean. What’s your favorite R&B album that you’ve heard in the last few years?
DULLI: Golly. Oof. You know what, I would have to have something in front of me to look at. I really like the new Maxwell record. I think it’s awesome. I loved that D’Angelo finally put another record out, too. So those are two off the top of my head that I really love.
Black Love remastered album tracklist:
01 “Crime Scene Part One”
03 “Double Day”
04 “Blame, Etc.”
05 “Step Into The Light”
06 “Going To Town”
07 “Honky’s Ladder”
08 “Night By Candlelight”
10 “Summer’s Kiss”
01 “Go To Town” (Acoustic Version/Mix*)
02 “Leaving Town” (Mix 1.0*)
03 “Faded” – Demo*
05 “Crime Scene Part II” (Mix 1.1 with Scratch Vocals*)
06 “Mick Taylor Jam”*
07 “Wynton Kelly Jam”*
08 “I Often Think Of You”*
09 “Staring Across The Water”*
* previously unreleased