Lightning Flashes (or: we will resume our scattered scheduled blogging after that)

Below there’s a translation of an interview I had with Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers/Gutter Twins/whatever, man), which was kindly edited by the most fantastic Elisheva Rotman. The original is here, and if you know Hebrew, I’d suggest reading the Hebrew version.

[Mini-disclaimer: I’m not a reporter. I’m an anthropologist. For me, it was never the content of Dulli’s art that I found fascinating, but his performance. Outside of fandom, in academia and at work, I actually have the reputation of a sane, rational and highly critical person. And while I can explain to myself rationally lots of things, I can’t explain what is it, exactly, that makes his shows so great and can turn me into a puddle of energy and emotions within five seconds.]

Lightning Flashes: A mini-interview with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs

“Listening to Greg Dulli’s voice, a warning label should state on every album of his, may harm the listener’s mental health and is his or her responsibility alone.” (Ray, from a review on Blackberry Belle [Hebrew])

Style. Desire. Ricochets of honesty. Anger.

This is what the Afghan Whigs represent in my eyes, more or less in that order. Here I aim to emphasize the first element. There might be more gifted or better artists, but no one else is as alive as Greg Dulli is on stage. The style in which he shapes the last three elements is exactly what makes Dulli an artist who is worth your time and money, even if you are not a devoted fan of his music. The way he performs and channels these four elements into a sexy, refined and thrilling live show is what makes his various bands some of the finest live acts on earth.

When people talk about the Afghan Whigs, stories are often told. The classic story goes something like this: In the beginning there was a party, an arrest, and a holding cell. The gang was then joined by various drugs, certain life circumstances, and some emotions that were easy (or not) to define at the time as “love”. And there were intense tours, pushing the boundaries to their very limit: notorious half-hour-long cigarette breaks on stage, song covers that 90’s band shouldn’t cover according to the prevailing wisdom at the time. And, of course, every aspect of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll one can conjure up.

All these stories, true or false, are not the thing that makes the Afghan Whigs to one of the best live shows you’ll ever see if you attend the Barby on June 15 and 16. Many of the anecdotes mentioned above are past choices, which should remain in the past. Part of the fascination is based on them, of course: the flirtation with danger, law and boundaries can be an interesting sideshow. But I find that this fascination mostly camouflages that which Dulli and co. have turned into an art form since the early 90’s. It’s too easy to turn to tall tales when describing the Afghan Whigs or Greg Dulli. But as tempting as it may be to write long and casuistic analyses of the ex-junkie singer who uses a safety belt as a guitar strap, that rather misses the point in my mind.

In a past interview, Dulli said that calling the Afghan Whigs ‘grunge’ amuses him, because that’s what his mother called the grime left on the shower floor. Some reporters and fans love to delve into this grunge, the dirt that remains after the music has stopped. But focusing on grunge, both as the musical genre the Whigs were wrongly associated with and a popular media aspect of the band’s music, is ultimately useless. Listening to Dulli’s music over time is a process in which past myths are shed and the souls of the artists and listeners are left exposed. Over time, as the plastic aura of the stories are left behind, Dulli’s music becomes a constant escort, a permeate glance, a shattered mirror. It is where the aperture is opened to the small moments of insecurity, of escape, of anger, disappointment and euphoria.

On stage, in the albums and the songs, one can hear and see sparks of passion, honesty, insecurity and imbalance in a rare and exposed manner. Dulli’s work is the place to turn when one is wracked with self-doubt, and the clearest reflection for the emotions one might be too afraid to acknowledge. Perfect honesty, the kind that if it is hiding anything it is only from blindness, not malice.

Almost from the beginning of his musical career, interviews with Greg Dulli were never the way to get to know him or his music better. An interview with him is not much different from listening to his music or watching him perform. The nuances matter; they are what make a mediocre live show into a great one. Mostly, it’s not the words he says such as the way he says them; The way his voice takes off and breaks in dramatic pause or laughter, or, to differentiate, the warmth and the love that flow from his voice when he mentions his mother. A soul artist who lacks the voice for it, Dulli knows how to use his talent in order to present a certain character. When he answers questions on the other end of the phone, it’s hard to say what here is the (relative) truth and what is improvisation – in Dulli’s case, probably a mixture of both. He’s not lying, of course. This is a man who is used to juggling different layers of perception and truth. He’s a storyteller, and it doesn’t matter if it’s for an audience of hundreds, thousands, or one. The role, it seems, remains.

Yet there are the moments where the story stops. The questions that Dulli doesn’t answer, or hesitates to answer. When he is asked, jokingly, if he can be trusted as a reliable source after all the statements and words he has retracted throughout his career, he pauses, and I can almost hear him weighing his words. “It is what it is”, he’ll eventually say, not for the first or the last time.

I wrote here mostly about Dulli, unjustly. The Afghan Whigs are also the magnificent Rick McCollum on lead guitar and John Curley on a bass that both grounds the songs and lifts them up. In this tour they’ll be accompanied by Rick Nelson (keyboard, viola), who was with the Twilight Singers on their last tour, Dave Rosser, who has been playing lead guitar with Dulli for nearly a decade, and Cully Symington (drums), who played with Dulli on The Gutter Twins tour.

***

Let’s talk a bit about live shows. I know what I find exciting about them, as an audience member. What is it that gets you excited about performing?

The interaction with the audience is the most special part of performing for me, ever since I was a kid. Since I played in my first band, when I was 12. Watching people nod their heads while you play, or pay attention, or become excited about something, or smile… As time went on, making an audience dance or feel something or sing along with you… There are some things you can’t accomplish without an audience. I try to give the things I look for when I go to shows myself. It’s the give and take between you and the audience that is special for me. It’s a public exorcism. It’s a bit exhibitionist, but all artists are exhibitionists. Or at least, I am [chuckles]. It really is a form of public exorcism.

You’ve mentioned that there will be four new cover songs this tour. Do you plan to release them, online or in an album?

Well, we still don’t have definite plans, so we’ll see. But there are two new songs.

Exciting.

[Laughs] Yes.

You have mentioned in previous interviews that the process of writing/recording/producing Saturnaila [w/ the Gutter Twins] was very fast, easy and almost intuitive. Is it different with the Twilight Singers and the Afghan Whigs? How do you decide which song you’ve written goes to which band? 

The Afghan Whigs’ was easy, it was my only band when I was writing the songs, so that’s where the songs went to. When I first created the Twilight Singers the songs were very different, I was kind of working on electronic music. When the Whigs broke up and the Twilight Singers took over, I was able to merge the rock sound and the electronic sound together. When the Gutter Twins’ formed it was mostly Mark and I writing the songs together, and when we decided to be the Gutter Twins I just started writing exclusive for that project. So it’s organized on my end.

Are there plans to film this tour, and will we ever see some of the shows that were filmed up to date? 

There will be some shows that will be filmed, yes. As for other shows: they were filmed and we have them, but it’s just one of those things we will get to.

You are known for being a great lyricist, even in cases where you wrote the music first and then came up with the lyrics afterwards. Is there a reason for the misspelled words in some of your songs, such as in Miles iz Ded and Power Burns (“tonite”)?

Miles was a writing I saw on a wall, and I thought it will look cool as a title to a song. “Tonite” is actually common spelling. [Pauses, voice warms up] – my mom taught me that spelling.

On the last Whigs tour for 1965, there were certain songs that you said you would not play anymore. Do you still feel that way?

[Decisively] No. Which songs did I say I wouldn’t play again?

According to my sources, Gentlemen, for one. But Crime Scene is also mentioned.

Crime Scene? I said I won’t play it? No. I love Crime Scene!

Your Instagram photographs are quite distinctive – even the cat pictures. What is your relationship with photography, and what made you decide to more actively release your photographs to the public? Is that something you would ever consider, or are you just enjoying it as a hobby and sharing it in a less formal way?

Our social media person introduced me to Instagram. It’s nice, it’s easy, and that’s why I’m doing this. I really wouldn’t use it unless it was easy. I believe that when we’ll start touring we’ll posts more pictures from different cities and locations.

You have mentioned your disapproval of Stephenie Meyer with Twilight. Have your or John Curley’s feelings changed regarding the Afghan Whigs’ name, especially since the war in Afghanistan?

[Pauses, hesitates] It’s a very troubled place, and I don’t mean it in disrespectful way. It’s just… It is what it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it, you know? There was a war there when we started, and there’s one now. It’s just…

Bad luck?

[chuckles] Yeah, bad luck. But there’s nothing I can do about it.

Thank you again for taking the time for this interview, and in a personal note, as a fan – it means the world that you’re coming here. Thank you for that.

[voice warms up] Thank you. I can’t wait to come with John and Rick and show them everything I got to see the last three times. I’m very excited to play in Israel.

***

Man only escapes from the laws of this world in lightning flashes. Instants when everything stands still, instants of contemplation, of pure intuition, of mental void, of acceptance of the moral void. It is through such instants that he is capable of the supernatural. (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace)

Dulli has never hidden. For honest answers, all one ever had to do was to listen to his music. I do hope you will come to the shows in Tel Aviv, for some truth, escapism, love, or for that rarest of performances: a live show that transcends the supernatural.

[Thanks: Guy Hajaj, SFR folks, Elisheva Rotman, T. for her endless and limitless tolerance, and everyone who tried to help me to find a recording thingy to record the interview with.]


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