Greg Dulli killed Emo Nite LA so that it may live. As the Afghan Whigs frontman and I get reacquainted during our phone conversation, we’re shooting the shit about the Short Stop, an Echo Park bar co-owned by Dulli that’s rich in local lore. Short Stop was an unintentional player in the LAPD’s Rampart Scandal, a recent shooting location for the A Star is Born reboot starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper as a Father John Misty doppelganger and—for a few weeks in late 2014—host of the now exceedingly popular DJ night and “lifestyle brand.”
Before what would turn out to be the last Emo Nite LA held at the Short Stop, I joked on Twitter about the kind of reaction I expected from Dulli, knowing this kind of music would be likely be antithetical to everything he stood for over the past three decades. Dulli, however, saw the tweet, and didn’t find it so funny. “I called the Short Stop and was like, ‘What the fuck is going on there?’,” Dulli recalls. “They were like, ‘oh, it’s Emo Nite!’ and I was like, ‘No it’s not.’ And I turned off the light the next week and that is that.” Two and a half years later, Emo Nite LA is a nationwide touring concern and has a brick and mortar store. Safe to say, it worked out best for both parties.
While it would be easy to turn this into the latest episode in the ongoing battle between Dulli and passive-aggressive masculinity, what really stands out about this whole story and our conversation is that Greg Dulli has an incredible memory. Regardless of the extent of his self-destruction during the 90s (not to mention a fractured skull), the guy is able to recall with crystal clarity 15-year-old run-ins with a couple of journalists, the inadequate last calls of Lexington, KY bars in the 90s (“if we played on a weekend night in Lexington, we would drive to Louisville so we could keep drinking”), the woes of Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system in the early 2010s and obviously, random tweets from three years ago.
And so it’s promising that the Afghan Whigs’ crackling new record In Spades is primarily concerned with memory, even if it’s a standard trope within the realm of indie rock the band technically occupies, and thus seemingly opposed to what they built their reputation upon. Prior to returning to Sub Pop for 2014’s Do the Beast, their major-label trilogy was decidedly not cerebral, dealing in sex and heartbreak (Gentlemen), sex, revenge and murder (Black Love) and, in the case of 1965, pretty much just sex and nastier kinds of sex.
Those hoping that the Whigs would reassert their status as a virile counterpoint to perpetually nebbish indie rock will certainly make do with the “Oriole” video, which dropped a day after our talk and is not even remotely safe for 99.9% of all workplaces. But otherwise, In Spades doesn’t offer the same provocation as Black Love or Congregation, the Sticky Fingers-derived “drugginess, the race-baiting, the devil stuff” that Dulli holds so dear. It’s still a sexual album, though one that recasts Dulli’s formative years as a listener as a time when everything on the radio was sexual: “Arabian Heights” recasts the symphonic guitar peals of “Dancing Days” in a “Trampled Under Foot”-style strut, “Toy Automatic” plays like “Kashmir” in miniature, the talkbox riffs of “Copernicus” melt into a psychedelic soul coda. But it’s also more sensuous than the Afghan Whigs of the past, drawing on the gothic, dusky expanses and electronic undercurrents of Dulli’s work with Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins, while experimenting with chopped-up, Blonde-style R&B on “Birdland,” a song that Dulli wrote vocals for on the spot.
In Spades makes Do to the Beast sound like the dry run it may well have been for the band’s true reboot, but for all of its artistic confidence, uncertainty and death loom large, from its foreboding cover art and morbid lyrics that touch on the passing of friends and musical idols, not to mention the decline of America itself. Though Dulli was certainly affected by the death of Prince and David Bowie, I ask if he was swayed by the post-mortems that touched on their problematic qualities and whether he wondered what people might say in his obituary. His answer is, thank heavens, less than gentlemanly: “Who gives a fuck! And if there is an afterlife, I’ll have a fucking list fast-tracking how badly to haunt those people.”
It seems like every time I’ve talked to a band that makes a new record after a long hiatus, their attitude is, “oh, man we can do an even better record! We’re on a roll!” Rarely does that record come to pass, so what helped keep the momentum going for you guys after Do to the Beast?
In my case, I never stopped making records in the interim. I kept working the muscle group. By the time we did Do to the Beast, I had some more wind in my sails. Playing with [bassist John] Curley was a key reason for that. For a guy who doesn’t write songs, he’s absolutely integral to what I do and is just a really solid cat to have by my side. We did about 90 shows, and we were ending the tour in Barcelona. We were playing really well together, so we thought we should just roll back into the studio. 30 days after that tour, we cut eight songs in five days and five of them made the record. That said, it took another year for the other five songs to come. But I really feel like the momentum of the live band definitely rolled in—eight of the ten songs on In Spades are live, and I think that makes all the difference. I haven’t really been able to do that in 20 years, and it was joyous for me.
Did you ever find you had picked up any fans who had just discovered the Afghan Whigs on Do to the Beast?
It’s encouraging when you’re an established band that comes back after 13 years and you’re able to play your whole new record and nobody goes to the bathroom. We were meeting people every night who were like, “I never heard you guys until ‘Algiers’.” And then they went backward and checked it all out. Again, man, after we did the initial reunion tour, we had offers to keep on going and I’m like, “Man, I can’t do that. I can’t keep doing that, I have to keep doing what I love.”
Though Afghan Whigs was a major-label band getting MTV airplay in the 90s, Do to the Beast was your first record to chart in the top 40. When you look at some of your label mates like Beach House or Father John Misty, does it almost feel like you’re back on a major label in the context of 2017?
No. I mean, number 1: When we were first on Sub Pop, Soundgarden was on Sub Pop, Nirvana was on Sub Pop, much bigger bands than us. And, you know, Beach House or Father John Misty and the Shins and all the other money groups that Sub Pop has, I just felt like we just slotted back in where we were—always the outsider, always the party band.
1965 is certainly a party record. But even though it’s less explicit than 1965, In Spades is still based in funk and has this sexual energy that you don’t hear much from rock music in 2017. But then again, wasn’t that how it was in the 90s too?
I just do what I do, you know what I mean? I like sex. And rock ‘n’ roll in its inherent nature is about sex. If I hear somebody doing music that I feel is neutered, I walk the fuck away from that. I won’t be revealing any names, but there’s some vanilla shit out there that is oddly popular.
I was discussing with a colleague that’s an Afghan Whigs fan whether Greg Dulli would like any new rock bands.
One is on Sub Pop called Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever, I think they’re phenomenal. Going back a little, Queens of the Stone Age are a perennial favorite of mine. Tame Impala, their last record started moving a little more Daft Punk-ish, who I also love. I really love King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizards, I think they’re an amazing band. I’ve seen em play live twice and it blew my mind.
What about Father John Misty? Like you, he has roots in LA and New Orleans and he seems to be catching the same kind of shit you did in the 90s for being unapologetic about embracing certain aspects of his masculinity.
I met him one time like three years ago. I really liked that first record, I’ve heard a little bit of the new one, it’s very Elton John. I haven’t listened to it enough to make sense of it in any kind of educated way, but I really loved the first record and I saw him tour that. I really in particular loved the song called “Only Son of the Ladiesman.” I haven’t seen him since then on stage. I don’t know what the vibe is now. But he’s a really great performer—he kept my attention and that’s really hard to do. I thought he was provoking the audience and I appreciate that.
When I hear “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” I’m curious how all of the musical deaths of 2016—Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie—play into In Spades.
I had three people really close to me pass away during the making of this thing, not to mention David Bowie, Leonard Cohen. But Prince in particular, that one hit me like a family member. I genuinely mourned that; I just can’t believe he’s not around. That and the noise of that unending presidential campaign just wore me out, it just wore me out.
Did any of this take you by surprise, especially living in a place like Los Angeles?
No, and I’ll tell you why. Once that “Grab ’em by the pussy” line came out and he was still running for president, at that point, I was like, “This guy is teflon, nothing sticks to him. If he can say that and still be standing, that dude is gonna fucking win.” So like right after that, I was like, “If that didn’t take him out”… I mean you’re 37, but looking back to Gary Hart—
I remember Gary Hart—Monkey Business and all that.
And I’m like, “Gary Hart got chopped off at the fucking knees for having a hottie sitting on his lap in a photo.” But nothing stuck to [Trump], he managed to wrangle out of any problem. And then at the end when the FBI started to chop [Hillary Clinton] off at the knees, I’m like, “Show’s over, folks.” Either, “Show’s over, or show’s just beginning.” Either way, here we are.
Have you almost become immune to it yet?
I’ll tell you what happened—probably because I saw it coming, I didn’t crack up. There were really smart, together people that fucking melted down after that happened, and I’m like, “Man, first of all, if you’re really flipped out, you need to like gather your senses and do something about it, not like melt down and freak out.” I saw some people I really cared about and really respected just like lose it and I’m really not sure if they have it all back together or not yet.
Do you find it necessary to be in a place like Memphis or New Orleans to channel the necessary state of mind for an Afghan Whigs record?
Dude, the first record I did in New Orleans in ‘97 was the first Twilight Singers record and then I rolled that into 1965, and I have done all or most of my records in New Orleans for the last 20 years. It’s the most musically-inspiring place for me—if I’m ever blocked, I go there and I’m unblocked. I don’t know what it is about that town, but I can write like a motherfucker down there. It’s like water for me. And Memphis, I have a long history and relationship with Memphis: We recorded Gentlemen there, we mixed Black Love there. It has a home-like feel for me and I just whipped [opening track “Birdland”] right out. It was totally effortless, just the easiest thing. I can count on one hand in the 30 years that I’ve been writing music that writing something came that easy.
As far as the lyrics go, they seem to be a lot more abstract than what people might typically expect from you.
You know what? It’s not even that thought out. I just come up with a riff, sometimes I’ll sketch something out and put it on my phone. I know a lot of people who record themselves, but I never bothered to learn how to do that. So I sketch out the idea and then I scat a vocal on top—most of my lyrics are like phonetic and really lean heavily on vowel sounds. Once I get all the vowel sounds straight, then I look for cool words. So that’s my system. I have written that way since I was a teenager. I’m doing nothing differently, I’m just older. If I’m gonna break up with somebody, it’s probably not going to drill me like it did when I was 26. Now, I’m sort of like, “Eh.” I’m a more lived-in version of myself.
That’s a great way to put it, especially when I hear some of the lyrics that talk about being in touch with your younger self or like channeling the memory of a younger Greg Dulli.
I can tell you that I had a series of dreams like late last summer and early fall that kind of led to a couple songs—”Toy Automatic” being one of them, “Oriole” being the other. “Toy Automatic”, I dreamt of one of the deaths I mentioned earlier. There was someone very close to me who got sick and we had been estranged for like four years. During the final year of her life, I tried to reach her and she had just gotten married and she wouldn’t see me. And the next time I saw her was at her funeral. “Toy Automatic” is my way of saying the goodbye to her that I never got to say. That one in particular was extremely emotional to me. “Oriole” was the name of a street that a bunch of my childhood friends lived on, they lived in a neighborhood called Birdland. That’s where it all starts to tie together—the kids in Birdland were a little faster than the kids elsewhere in my town and rolling with the Birdland kids was a good fuckin’ time, if you know what I mean.
And so I think in that way, it’s not even nostalgia to me. It’s a memory of something that I carry with me to this very day. There’s only so many ultimate moments that only you or one or two other people would know that you carry with you through your life, and I was able to revisit some of those moments. I had this dream, and the song “Oriole” is really about that dream in relation to who I am now, and who I used to be.
Do you have more empathy for your younger self than you used to?
I do. I’ll tell you what man, running with the Birdland crew taught me how to be a rock star—they had the best parties, they were naughtier kids, they knew how to have a good time and I gravitated toward those people.
Do you still gravitate toward those people?
Now I find I’m the person that gets gravitated towards.