The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli on meeting Frank Ocean and the art of the cover
Photo by Sam Holden
The Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers frontman Greg Dulli is undoubtedly smarter and deeper than the internet. He connected a love of R&B's brutal underbelly and the visceral outbursts he had inside decades before Napster turned everyone's music tastes into rotisserie fare. Still, a steadfast fan of pure, raw songcraft will never find the right Pandora station.
His recent curation of All Tomorrow's Parties in New York meant his band could share the bill with Frank Ocean, the artist behind one of his favorite songs of the moment. It also symbolized Dulli's insistence upon not getting stuffed into whatever alt-rock genre cubbyhole seems convenient at the moment. It has been over a decade since the last Afghan Whigs record, but the dread and madness of '90s classics like Congregation and Gentlemen lives on in the band's 2012's reunion.
Ahead of Sunday's sold-out show at Varsity Theater, Gimme Noise got Dulli on the phone from the Silverlake neighborhood in Los Angeles. The topic quickly slid from his brief stay in Minneapolis to inhabiting another man's song, especially in the case of Ocean.
Gimme Noise: What window of time did you live in Minneapolis?
Greg Dulli: I think I lived there in '91-92. I think it was during the Congregation tour. Yeah, it was around then because I had nowhere to live, then, so I lived with Phil Harder.
One of my co-workers at City Pages made a point to have me re-watch the "Miles iz Ded" video and it scared the shit out of me. Was that your view of Minneapolis?
[chuckles] It's freaky... I directed a quarter of it. Mine was the long dolly-shot in the bathroom, so that's just probably some sort of Naked Lunch type of fiasco that I was trying to perpetuate in the scene I guess. It just happened to be in Minneapolis, I don't think it was any commentary on the city, at least not from my point.
Not enough people are talking about with your guys' reformation is that it's one of the best cover bands to ever walk the face of the earth getting back together.
Thank you! Interpretation of other people's material is honestly one of my favorite things to do as person, not even as an artist. My criteria of covering someone's songs is as follows: I have to wish that I wrote the song, and then I have to act like I did. That's how I cover a song. It also comes from the fact where my friends would learn songs note-for-note, other people's songs, when we were kids, and I would just get my guitar and play along and make up my own parts to people's songs. So I never really learned how to play other people's songs, I would just jam inside their song.
When you come to something like Frank Ocean's "LoveCrimes" though, like a song that literally is the intersection of love and crime, to me is like the perfect Afghan Whigs material.
I heard that record...like...when did it come out? A year and a half ago? Something like that. The Nostalgia/Ultra record, and loved the whole record. The first song I heard I think was "Strawberry Swing," which is beautiful, it's just a beautiful song. And then when I got the whole record I was listening to it, and I listen to the same things a lot in my car.
I kept going back to "LoveCrimes" and really loved the words, really loved the imagery of the "talk to me and I better not hear a word" and "touching without feeling," you know, the whole dichotomy of the song. That chorus, it just stuck in my head, you know, I'd be walking around like "murder murder murder" and so when we got together to play back in November the first song we played together was a cover.
Not that one, it was this Thin Lizzy song called "Little Darlin'" from when Gary Moore joined the band, it was a B-side, and I love Thin Lizzy so that was the first song we played. When we got together in January, we layed down a version of "See and Don't See" and when we got together in May to rehearse, at that point I had worked out an arrangement of "LoveCrimes" and I started to cover "LoveCrimes" and those were the three covers we've been playing on this tour so far.
Frank Ocean has become one of the artists right now.
Actually I met Frank Ocean about three weeks ago [This interview took place in August]. It was at the Metro [in Chicago], I went to his show and went backstage and said hello to him after his show.
What was that like? Was he familiar with the Afghan Whigs?
He wasn't familiar with the Afghan Whigs but he knew that the Afghan Whigs had covered his song and he knew that I was the singer of the cover. That was the extent. I know that he had heard the song and liked it, and that meant a lot to me.
Sounds like you would see him again, given the opportunity.
Yeah, I love to hear him sing, man. I love his songs. Honestly, it's rare when I go to someone's show and love every song, and I love all of his songs. There's like a couple people who have that, I love all of their songs. That band Vetiver, I love all of their songs. Jose Gonzalez, I love all of his songs. If you have like 15 albums, the chance of me loving all of your songs has slimmed considerably. But if you've only got a couple of albums, and you're hitting for a high average, Frank Ocean is. I haven't heard a bum song from that guy yet. I mean he's just like a melody machine, his melodies are insidious, and he's just the magic rollin' right now.
I am pleasantly surprised with how well he can do it live, too. His voice is magical.
His voice is magical. I read somewhere that someone kind of took a hack at his band and I was like "Fuck you man, that band is killer." When you see a theater show, he had this killer backdrop, it was almost like a spaceship behind him, and it completely worked. When I saw him do the show at the Wiltern, he came out and did "When You Were Mine", the Prince song, in a really stripped down way. That was how he opened the show, really casually, alone.
And then he's also been doing that Sade song "By Your Side." Opening with covers, you know, I'm a big fan of that! Jose Gonzalez and Vetiver, also into the covers. It's probably like a strange kinship that I feel with all of those artists.
As a bonus, we have five of the finest Afghan Whigs too-many-to-number cover songs listed below.
"If I Only Had a Heart" from The Wizard of Oz
You can picture Tom Waits sitting on the sidelines cheering Dulli on for this smoky lounge take on the Tin Man's song.
Goosebumps alert! This didn't come out too long after TLC's original -- via the Honky's Ladder EP -- and it stays very vocally true to the original while a cacophony of funky noise swells.
The Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket"
Want to see something dated? Check out the artists taking part in the 1999 Burning London: The Clash Tribute album. Amidst other covers by Rancid, Third Eye Blind, Moby, and Silverchair -- and Ice Cube and Mack 10 teaming up for "Should I Stay or Should I Go" -- we did get this injection of soulfulness on "Supermarket."
Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River"
From the Going to Town EP, this is another Afghan Whigs moment for the completists. While Audrey Hepburn first popularized the song in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's , the recently departed showman Andy Williams basically made the song his brand name. Since then, dozens of other versions have emerged. Yet the way Dulli lets his voice break and bend here makes for an interpretation that crushes the heart all over again.
Al Green's "Beware"
Go back and listen to Al's original to get a sense of why he'd probably love this sludgy classic from the Uptown Avondale EP. Both versions are foreboding at their core, and given the conversation already had about "LoveCrimes," this is the way Dulli thinks musically. Of course he's going to jump all over a lyric like "Friends are the reason for so many breakups and breakdowns around town" and add the implied snarl.
The Afghan Whigs play a sold out show on Sunday, October 28, at Varsity Theater; 612.604.0222.
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