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When The Afghan Whigs broke up in 2001, the band from Cincinnati, Ohio, ended an underappreciated career as one of alternative rock’s most soulful and sinister acts. Leaving behind a legacy of ups (creative) and downs (commercial), The Afghan Whigs hopped from a self-released debut (1988’s Big Top Halloween) to Sub Pop success to major label victory (1993’s Gentlemen). A follow-up to Gentlemen, Black Love, failed commercially, leading the band to take time off—-eventually changing labels for the release of 1998’s swan song, 1965.
But like so many other ’90s rock bands, the group has reunited and will bring its revived show to a sold-out 9:30 Club on Friday. All the Afghan Whigs’ trademark moves are back in play: frontman Greg Dulli‘s snarled lyrics about twisted sex, Rick McCollum’s downcast-yet-aggressive guitar work, and an arsenal of cover songs. The group has already released two new recordings this year, covers of Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ “See and Don’t See” and Frank Ocean‘s “Lovecrimes.”
Dulli remained the Afghan Whigs’ most visible member after the band’s initial flame-out, going on to lead The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, his collaboration with fellow ’90s rock singer Mark Lanegan. I spoke with Dulli before the Afghan Whigs’ performance at All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in New York City last weekend, a festival Dulli helped to curate. We discussed his relationship with D.C., his beginnings as a songwriter, and how he became the only other musician on Dave Grohl’s debut album as the Foo Fighters.
WCP: How has it been playing these Afghan Whigs shows?
GD: It’s been fun.
WCP: Are you excited for the I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival?
GD: I am. I get to see a bunch of my favorite music all weekend. So, I’m really looking forward to it.
WCP: How were you approached to curate the fest?
GD: [Festival founder Barry Hogan] has been kind of asking me for a few years and when he approached me to play, for the Whigs to play in May [at London’s I’ll Be Your Mirror event], that was when he asked me if I would curate the fall American festival. So I said I would.
WCP: What was your approach as curator?
GD: Well, I mean, I had a really long list and there were—-y’know, I mean, availability, Barry’s availability to sway and pay. I just made a list and handed it to him. It’s definitely a collaboration between myself and him and his wife. I didn’t get on the phone with anybody, other than the people that I actually knew. And the rest, he sort of handled.
WCP: You’re playing in D.C. in a few weeks at the 9:30 Club and you’ve played there with The Afghan Whigs before, and in recent years with The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins. What’s your relationship like with D.C.?
GD: I’ve been playing D.C. since I was a kid. Since the 9:30 Club was on F Street. Played Black Cat a bunch of times, too. Played some other place, I can’t remember what it was called, back in—-it was a long time ago. D.C. Space, was that a place?
GD: Yeah, played there, too. One of my favorite places to play. Truly. There’s a get-down factor in D.C. that’s kind of unique to the area, so—-sort of like, Detroit-ish in its rock ‘n’ roll. A great place to play. I really love playing for people at all those clubs down there.
WCP: Do you have strong memories of playing in town with The Afghan Whigs?
GD: [Bassist John Curley is] from there. I think he went to Walt Whitman [High School in Bethesda]. He’s got a lot of friends down there. Whenever we played down there, we used to stay with his folks out in Potomac. The thing that I always remember, aside from my bicentennial trip to D.C. with my parents, was when John Curley showed me where The Exorcist steps were, that was kind of my deepest memory of first coming to D.C.
WCP: Since John’s from here, how did you guys meet up? Did he just move to Cincinnati after high school or something?
GD: He moved to high school after college. I think he went to Maryland for a year. And then he moved to Cincinnati and started working for the newspaper in Cincinnati and I met him through a friend.
WCP: Do you know if he was a graduate from the University of Maryland, or he just went there?
GD: He is not. He is absolutely not a graduate from Maryland. [Laughs]
WCP: I read an old City Paper article [“Legacy of Newt,” Nov. 27, 1998] from November 1998 that quoted you at a 9:30 Club show, and it said you were asking a clueless crowd about Trouble Funk and EU. Are you still a go-go guy?
GD: I still am a go-go guy. I still like go-go. I haven’t listened any recently, but I still like go-go.
WCP: You were touring behind 1965, I guess. And that album, it seems like, at least to me, you and the band finally made some kind of peace on that record. The melodies are a lot prettier and it’s not quite as sad and angry-feeling to me, as the other records. Do you feel that way?
GD: I do.
WCP: How did that happen, you think?
GD: I think I kind of grew up and worked through whatever I was working through on a couple of those records and by then, I had moved to New Orleans. 1965 is very much a celebratory record to me. One of my favorite records I’ve ever made, in all my years of making records. It holds a very special place in time.
WCP: Recently, you’ve released two new recordings with The Afghan Whigs this year, and I’m sure that people ask you this all the time, but have you played any new song ideas with this band?
GD: We’ve played a few things. We’ve messed around with some stuff in sound checks. And we’ve even kind of begun to play something live that changes from night to night, whenever we do play it. There’s an organic happening happening right now.
WCP: The Afghan Whigs have some really great album covers. Could tell me the story behind the art for Gentlemen?
GD: The art for Gentlemen—-there’s a photographer named Nan Goldin and she had a series of photographs that she took of her and her boyfriend at the time that were kind of stark renderings that looked like of a relationship not really going extremely well. I had the idea of transposing that to the effect that those feelings start at a much earlier age, and based on observation and kids being able to vibe on happiness from their parents, or whoever. It was sort of—-the idea was—-I was inspired by the couple of Nan Goldin photographs. One in particular that, y’know, if you saw it you would know where I got the idea from. She was the main inspiration for the cover.
WCP: Did you happen to collaborate with her, or ever speak with her?
GD: No. Never met her.
WCP: How did you end up playing on the first Foo Fighters album?
GD: I knew Dave from The Backbeat Band. And we both were living in Seattle at the time and hung out quite a bit. He asked me if I would play guitar on the song and I said, “Yes.” I didn’t know what was going on with it. I had no idea that he was—-I knew that he was playing everything, I didn’t know where—-I just kind of played that guitar and forgot about it, then it came out, and it was like, “Oh, wow.” He’s done very well for himself.
WCP: Was that a spontaneous collaboration?
GD: I did it in five minutes, I’m sure. Most of my collaborations with people are off the cuff. You get what you get while I’m there. That happened such a long time ago, I can [only] vaguely remember it.
WCP: When The Afghan Whigs first started playing, what were you doing other than playing in the band? Did you have a plan for your life that didn’t involve being a successful musician?
GD: I’m sure I had some sort of plan. I’ve always kind of had sideline jobs along the way, y’know. Probably not unlike Jay-Z had when he was coming up.
WCP: Did you go to a university or anything like that?
GD: I went to the University of Cincinnati.
WCP: Did you get a degree?
GD: I did not. There is no one in any of my bands with so much as a bachelor’s degree. We all sort of went in and got out of college what we were gonna get and moved on.
WCP: How did you start out playing musical initially?
GD: I started out playing drums when I was 12 years old.
WCP: When did you start playing guitar?
GD: I started playing guitar when I was 18.
WCP: Were you [good at practicing the instrument]?
WCP: You’ve written so many songs, how did it happen that you learned everything?
GD: My learning to play coincided with me being frustrated with having to depend on the other guitar player to help me write songs. So, once I decided I wanted to be a songwriter, I needed a tool to write on. And that’s when I taught myself guitar. So, probably when I was 19, that’s when I started to really focus on learning how to—-at least learning all the chords. I’ve actually, I guess, developed my own style. Then I taught myself how to play piano and between those two instruments, those became my writing tools.
WCP: Did you learn piano when you were 19, as well?
GD: No, I learned piano probably when I was like, 24.
The Afghan Whigs perform with School of Seven Bells Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. The show is sold out.