The Afghan Whigs - Greg Dulli on the “Spookiness” of new album “In Spades”

Spirit Level

May 25, 2017 Photography by Chris Cuffaro Web Exclusive
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"Sometimes you can make a decision in a moment that will serve you for a long time, affecting your life and the lives of people around you," Greg Dulli tells me as we sit in the back room of The Short Stop, the bar The Afghan Whigs frontman co-owns in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. "These are spiritual pursuits, and 'The Spell' definitely has that vibe. It's an internal conversation, asking of myself 'which one of these things are you going to be?' Maybe even just for that given moment or that day."

"The Spell," a track on The Afghan Whigs' new record In Spades, speaks of the desire to dive deep into one's fantasies, laying them bare, and "seeing/being/freeing the light." Like so much of Dulli's best work, a murky spirituality (of which "light" is part and parcel of, a counterforce intermingling with the dark depths) pervades this song and In Spades as a whole. "In the past, if I'd heard that song I would've been like 'fuck that.' I went through a lot of nihilistic times where I just wasn't very comfortable with myself, probably didn't even really like myself very much. That youthful self-loathing that you either better get over or it will eat you alive. So it's almost a rhetorical question within that song."

Those urges towards self-destruction all started to change for Dulli when he stopped doing drugs around 13 years ago. "It had gone so far past recreational, it was debilitating. It had gotten to the point where I was going to stop or die. You never forget places in your life. I don't have to live that anymore but I can certainly go back and in my collective experience say 'remember this guy,'" he reflects, smiling.

In Spades definitely evokes "that guy" we're so familiar with from previous outings, but an updated version, one full of experiential wisdom. If Dulli occasionally takes a peek backwards, he's using those sights to move forwards. Although "The Spell" and "Arabian Heights" have the dark grooves of 1998's 1965, In Spades picks up where 1996's Black Love left off. A band at the expansive height of their powers creating turbulent yet transcendent soulful rock 'n' roll. The band's line-up may have changed slightly (only bassist John Curley remains from the Whigs' first incarnation), but Dulli's vision is as strong as ever.

As the final shows of the Do to the Beast 2015 European tour were coming to an end, the band realized that they were on fire and would do well to capture it on tape. They booked time at multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson's studio in New Orleans and bashed out five songs in eight days. "And then the next five took a year," laughs Dulli. "Eight of the ten songs were done live in the studio, we hadn't done that since Black Love. We obviously overdubbed them and I sang them later but we laid them down very live with everyone playing. When you have a highly functioning band like we recognized that we had at the end of the tour, there's a momentum there that you can't get anywhere else. It's almost telepathic. When you have that sort of telepathy as a group of people, you would do well to exploit it."

And with the band telepathically in sync, the songs often touched on the supernatural. "I found the material kinda spooky sounding, ghostly, haunting even," explains Dulli. "It just had a vibe, and that was the vibe that it had. It's also the vibe of New Orleans, where most of the record was made. But some of the songs are...witchy." When asked how much he's into "that sort of thing," Dulli takes his time to consider and thoughtfully responds, "I mean I've dated witches. It's an...interesting way of life, an interesting way of looking at life, an interesting way of interacting with life...and even changing it a little bit.... But it's a fascinating lifestyle and another way of looking at life. You can interact with life in many ways. And in the case of spells and cards, that's taking life into your own hands."

In Spades single "Oriole" speaks of divination outright. "For sure," Dulli confirms. "The whole 'Oriole' song is...very witchy." It even had its origins in a lucid dream. Dulli explains, "I had that strummy riff that opens the song on my phone. It was called 'Scarlet Circle.' If something gets a name instead of just 'memo 147' or whatever then I know I should stop and listen to it because naming it essentially puts a star by it. So I had that riff, I had the dream. In the dream I was in Birdland, which was a neighborhood near my school where I grew up. Two of my friends lived on Cardinal, two of my friends lived on Oriole. We mostly hung out on Oriole. And that's where [in the dream] I walked up and saw me and my friends. We were probably around 11. Lucid dreams, they stick with you. Because more than being in it, you watch it happen. I remembered all of it when I woke up, and I took that into the recording. When I started working on the words, it's interesting that I say 'draw the circle' in the song because the song had 'circle' in the name originally. And it was also written with the experience that I had had of conversations with witches so it had that spirituality to it. It was a very unique experience."

At the end of "Oriole" Dulli found himself playing a chord progression that was entirely new to him, and from this sequence sprung "Toy Automatic," one of the highlights of both In Spades and Dulli's career. "The two songs are siblings in a lot of ways," he says. "I loved those chords so much, I became borderline obsessed with them. Thirty years in, I was like 'wow, my hands have never been like this on a guitar.' I didn't want to let it go so I took that riff and turned it into 'Toy Automatic.' Coming up with a chord progression that unique this far into my playing life blew wind in my sails and really made me feel almost immortal. It gave me a lot of power, the power that I needed to complete this project."

Like "The Killer" (a song by Dulli's Twilight Singers side-project) before it, there's an urgency to "Toy Automatic" that comes straight from the soul. Dulli's voice soars with emotion through a dense, beautiful arrangement of electric and acoustic guitars, strings, and horns. As with all the best songs, it is a communication from one heart to another, saying what couldn't be said otherwise. Having used the song to exorcise what needed to come out, Dulli explains why "Toy Automatic" was so necessary. "Someone that was very close to me, that I had a very intense and unique relationship with and had not seen in five years, passed away from a terminal illness. Because of the complicated nature of our relationship I did not see her for the last five years of her life. But I did go to her funeral, and I met her husband and I met her mother. 'Toy Automatic' was my way of saying goodbye to her, that I needed. I felt cleansed after I cut the vocal, and then after I mixed it and listened to it, I felt at peace. In all the great ways you can be inspired, that was lightning in a bottle for me. I'll never forget the experience of writing that. It became almost like a friend to me. I hung out with that song more than the other songs. I had a very intense relationship with that song not unlike the relationship that inspired it. It had a kismet to it. It's a very short song but every word is very valuable. When I was singing it, I almost felt like she could hear me. I was trying to make her hear me."

The other highlight of In Spades, "I Got Lost," wraps a gorgeous melody in a slow swirl of piano and strings, with the understated guitars perfectly punctuating the vocal hits. The lyrics deal with the themes of truth and ego that Dulli has brooded upon throughout his career, though the exact message of the song remains obscured to the songwriter. "Songs that I do on piano tend to be a little more...vulnerable. I'm more forthcoming on the piano than I am on a guitar. It feels more naked to me. I can tell you that many songs I have written in my life I don't know what they mean right way but I inevitably figure them out by performing them. I don't know what 'I Got Lost' is about but I will say this, it's the only song on the record that I wrote the lyrics to after I found out [guitarist] Dave Rosser had cancer. And when I listened to it about a month ago, I felt that feeling of when he told me that he was sick. There's not a lot of people that I've gotten as close to as I have with Dave Rosser. He's an incredibly beautiful spirit and amazing musician, really fun, one of the best friends I've ever had. And anytime you love someone and you see them suffer, it's trying. I can only imagine what he himself is enduring. He's in treatment and doing pretty good. I go and visit as much as I can. And I think maybe the reason why I haven't figured out what that song is about for sure is because I don't wanna know right now. The end of the song in particular, after the bridge when it breaks back down, that's where it gets super real for me. And I've honestly found it a little hard to listen to." When asked if it will be performed live for Dulli to divine its meaning, he responds, "Not right away. If something spooks me like that I'm sort of like 'eh.' We didn't play 'Can Rova' off the last record until we were deep into the tour, but when it finally showed up, it was time for it to show. 'I Got Lost' is not on the master list right now, but I would bet big money that it shows up and when it does, it will deliver."

In Spades' opener "Birdland," with its syncopated rhythms, jazzy feel, and orchestral arrangement, is new territory for Dulli, conquered with flying colors. The title of course nods to the famous NYC jazz club named after Charlie Parker, but Birdland was also the neighborhood with the avian street names in Ross, Ohio which Dulli visited in the lucid dream that inspired "Oriole." "Birdland" seemed to arrive out of nowhere, choosing Greg to be 'the vessel in which it was brought into the world.' "I was in Memphis working on the Black Love reissue. We were waiting for material to come from another place and it wasn't coming fast enough so we literally had a free day and I was like, 'Oh, you got a Mellotron.' I started playing it and doing these stabs, and soon I had an arrangement. I freestyled the vocal. That's stream of consciousness, I just sang them as they came. You're not even writing a song then, you're just channeling something that wants to happen. Although I 'wrote' it, I literally just let it come through me. But as I started to sing, I knew who I was channeling."

In line with the general 'spookiness' of the record, hearing the "Birdland" vocal back afterwards confirmed to Dulli that he was channeling jazz singer Jimmy Scott, who he's long been a fan of. "In 1998 I got put in a coma after getting jumped from behind. After I got out of the hospital, a friend of mine took me to this Demetrio's Jazz Alley in Seattle and Jimmy Scott was playing. He did a set then he took a break and my friend told him what had happened to me and he came up and talked to me. A beautiful, kind man. His speaking voice was just as melodious as his singing voice, and the way he touched my shoulder I really felt touched by a spirit. And in my way, I feel like I was channeling Jimmy Scott on 'Birdland.' And it's such a strange little number. Had no idea, didn't see that one coming, didn't know I could do that."

www.theafghanwhigs.com

 

 

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spanish to english
May 27th 2017
12:21am

The Spell speaks of the desire to dive deep into one’s fantasies, laying them bare, and seeing the light

Guitar Graph
May 30th 2017
2:18am

One of the best band ever surfaced in the music industry.

afghan series
December 5th 2017
6:14am

woOw cool