Greg Dulli on curating All Tomorrow's Parties, getting the Afghan Whigs back together, and why Louis C.K. is like a pretty girl
Greg Dulli has spent the first decade and a half of the 21st century as the mastermind behind the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, dressing up after-hours reveries in blues riffage, goth leanings, and tales of love gone awry. But that footprint began back in the ’90s with the Afghan Whigs, his cultishly-adored group of funk-loving, soul-stealing rockers from Cincinnati.
That band called it quits nearly 15 years ago, and now Dulli has reconstituted the group, which will make its grand return at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey—an event that Dulli also happens to be curating.
In addition to the Whigs, his eclectic lineup includes the Roots, stand-up comic Louis C.K., Sharon Van Etten, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and frequent collaborator Mark Lanegan. We spoke with Dulli about the reunion, the festival, and the haze of the ’90s.
EW: Which came first: The reunion or the call to curate All Tomorrow’s Parties?
Dulli: The best way I can describe it is that it was sort of a perfect storm of events. I did an acoustic tour a year and a half ago and John Curley, my dear friend and bass player in the Whigs, joined me for the show in Cincinnati, which we’ve done before when I pass through there. But then, I asked him, “Do you want to come up to Chicago and play?” He came up to Chicago and people freaked out. I finished up that tour on the west coast and I called him and I was like, “Hey man, do you want to do the west coast with me?” And he said yes. That was a great time. At that point, we began to play a few more Whigs songs in the show and I really enjoyed it. I rediscovered some songs that I had forgotten about and how much I enjoyed playing them. Then, when the Twilights tour last spring, we played Minneapolis where [Afghan Whigs guitarist] Rick [McCollum] lives. I had lunch with Rick. I hadn’t seen Rick in three or four years. We didn’t even talk about playing together but we had a really nice time at lunch. Then, he came to the gig and hung out. We were never at odds anyway so we didn’t have to get over any animosity. There were no hatchets to be buried. So when [All Tomorrow’s Parties founder] Barry Hogan came around this last time was like, “Hey, do you want to?” I’m like, “Maybe.” My stance had just softened on the hardline and it seemed like if we were ever going to do it, this seemed like the right time to do it.
This can’t be the first time somebody has floated that idea.
People asked us a couple months after we broke up. I like that we’ve been gone 13 years. There was something about that number that appealed to me as well. I’m a numerologist so 13 sounded sweet. It was the sweet number.
Before the acoustic tour, how long had it been since you engaged with some of those Whigs songs?
It had been just shy of 20 years since I’d played the Congregation songs and about 15 years since I’d played the Black Love songs. I was pleasantly surprised as to how much I enjoyed singing the songs and how much they made me feel. I definitely had a visceral reaction to the material. If you get goosebumps or if the hair on your neck rises up, you can’t conjure that. It has to just happen. That started happening and I was like, “Wow. What a crazy feeling that I’m feeling.”
Did you have to re-learn stuff or was it like riding a bike?
It came pretty easily. It’s funny because I remember the song from Congregation that I played in the acoustic tour was called “Let Me Lie to You.” As I was playing it, I was reminded of how I wrote it because I was trying to imitate one of the musical segues on Twin Peaks.
They would show the traffic light blowing in the wind. It would change green to yellow to red and the pine trees waving in the background. It’s hard to describe but it definitely transported me back to Twin Peaks, which was very influential on me in more ways than one.
Are there any plans to write new Afghan Whigs songs?
I’ve been working on some songs. I don’t know what they’re going to be for but I’ve been demoing songs since last summer. I really haven’t stopped working since I was 16. I do it because it’s what I do. I’ve written hundreds of songs, songs no one’s ever heard, songs that I forget about. Sometimes, I’ll junk one for parts. The next thing I’m doing for sure if my friend Jorge Sierra is coming over from Madrid and we’re going to work on some electronic music.
Had you had any experiences with All Tomorrow’s Parties before?
I’ve admired the All Tomorrow’s Parties’ aesthetic for many years. I have never witnessed it in person because I really don’t travel to see concerts. I’ll travel to play them but traveling to see them—that’s a younger man’s game. Whenever I’ve read about them, I’m like, “Oh, that’s really cool.”
“Curator” is sort of an amazing title. How did you approach it?
I had crazy lists: Reincarnate Elvis Presley. Reincarnate John Lennon and George Harrison, and put Beatles back together. I just made a list of things that I like and I wanted to see and tried to balance styles. I wish there was an exact science to it because it got kind of consuming for a minute. You have to go through and see who’s available and who will do it. I didn’t personally do it. I would give names to Barry and he would do all the heavy lifting in that respect. It was a good time and Barry Hogan made it very easy for me to do it.
How did Louis C.K. end up on the bill?
I’m a huge fan and that it seemed impossible to get him made it that much more attractive to go after. It’s just like a pretty girl in a bar. She’ll stay there all night unless you go up and talk to her. You can’t be afraid. You just got to go up and talk to her. That really becomes the attitude, all they can do is say no and you move on. He didn’t say no, so we’ll get to watch him that night. I saw him in New Orleans last October and in a lot of ways it reminded me of what it must have been like to see Richard Pryor at his height. He tore me down like six times, like tore me all the way down, like reduced me to rubble. That’s a powerful thing, powerful as rock and roll. He’s an electric performer and that’s what I was looking for. Nobody said you had to play guitar to turn somebody on.
We’re at the 20th anniversary of Congregation, which was a big turning point for you and your band. What do you remember about that time?
It’s pretty hazy. To paraphrase, if you can remember the ’90s, you probably weren’t doing it right. Most of the stuff I really remember from the early days was before that. The Flaming Lips took us out on tour in 1988, before we were even on Sub Pop. We were somewhere in Michigan, and at one point their smoke machine went insane and they had to evacuate the entire club to get the smoke out. You couldn’t see anymore. I think Wayne broke a string. I remember I gave him my guitar. It was like literally like somebody had Agent Oranged the crowd or something.
And we used to play a show on Christmas in Cincinnati every year. I remember someone saying, “Nobody’s going to come to your show on Christmas.” I was like, “You are wrong, because who the f— wants to stay with their family that long on Christmas Day?” There’s only so much cheek pinching and fruitcake eating you can handle before you want to get out and get wasted with your friends. I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but I was wholeheartedly correct.