Greg Dulli on Reuniting Afghan Whigs, Retaining Some Mystery
Famously combative rocker on nostalgia, corporate Medusas, and his memories of a very unflattering fanzine
Greg Dulli is a lot of things: lead singer for sultry rockers the Twilight Singers, occasional actor, part owner of New Orleans’ R Bar. But he’s no longer “ex-frontman” for ’90s R&B punks the Afghan Whigs. Eleven years after splitting, the seductively seedy bad boys have reunited to play the Lollapalooza and All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals, as well as undertake their own U.S. tour this fall. We caught up with the famously combative Dulli, 47, to talk about nostalgia, corporate Medusas, and his memories of a very unflattering fanzine, shortly before he headed off to the Whigs’ old home base, Cincinnati, for rehearsals.
In the past, you’ve said that you were consciously avoiding nostalgia tours. Yet here we are. Isn’t this a nostalgia tour?
You tell me.
Aren’t you doing ’90s alt rock in 2012?
Some of the ’90s were 20 years ago and some were only 13.
Thirteen years ago, the Afghan Whigs were opening for Aerosmith in Texas. Does that seem weird in retrospect?
We did a month with them. There were some shows we played when people were walking in, but we engaged more often than not. There was a night when my guitar went out and I broke it onstage. Aerosmith used a teleprompter — it usually had the lyrics to “Back in the Saddle” — and the next night I looked at it, and it said, “Lose your temper, smash guitar, storm offstage.” I looked over to the side of the stage and Joe Perry was laughing at me.
A lot has been made of your drug history. Does being able to go back on the road with the band feel like some sort of redemptive Oprah moment?
No. The past is the past. That’s my personal life. Whenever I watch someone take a camera through their house: “Here’s my living room, here’s where I sleep with my wife. Here’s my kid’s room” — you are an attention whore, and I can’t get behind watching people’s private shit. If you want to advertise your car wreck, go ahead; I keep mine private.
But maybe some people saw a mystique in that kind of behavior?
My favorite time in music is when I was a kid, and there wasn’t MTV or any of that shit, and the mystery of rock’n’roll was still well in place. Led Zeppelin — you saw exactly what they wanted you to see. There needs to be more of that. The all-access culture we live in is boring to me.
One of the reviews for 1998’s 1965 called you a “black-music ironist, bar none.” Are you still?
What is that? [Laughs] What is a black-music ironist? I am who I am.
How important was it to be on Sub Pop when you started out?
These were people our age putting out great rock’n’roll records, with a great image. My relationship with them is something I am very proud of. The way they built it and evolved — they are the model for a great record company. Even the years I wasn’t on Sub Pop, I watched them with pride.
So why did the Afghan Whigs sign with a couple of major labels?
We were on Elektra for two records. When we signed, they were a small label who put out 20 records a year, not unlike an indie label. When we put out our second record with them, they had blown up into a corporate Medusa. It was a completely different situation, and it was time to go.
To Columbia and opening for Aerosmith? That’s about as far from Sub Pop as it gets.
That was a complete thrill for me. I had Aerosmith posters on my wall in seventh grade. I saw the Toys in the Attic tour. I saw them up to the Night in the Ruts tour. They wrote “Last Child.” That’s all I am going to say.
Is it strange to be revisiting music you wrote in your 20s? Is there a time when you won’t be able to do that?
Rock’n’roll is a relatively new art form. What is it, 60 years old? There are no rules. The Rolling Stones — they’ve been playing for 50 years. Tell them it’s a young man’s game.
A lot of people already have.
The perfect example for me is Nick Cave. When he started Grinderman, it was “Wow! What are you doing? You’re already successful with the Bad Seeds!” But that’s a guy who never stopped challenging himself. He writes film scores, screenplays, books. He’s a Renaissance man in the true sense of the word. He is not letting age get in the way of what he does. My uncle taught me years ago, you either have another birthday or you don’t. The wheel keeps turning.
How fondly do you look back on the Fat Greg Dulli fanzine?
I think there was only one issue, and they never contacted me. I would have gladly given them some of my high-calorie recipes.
Maybe you should write a cookbook.
Exactly! I think you’re on to something.