Music interview: ‘It’s a moment in time that I don’t think any of us will ever forget’ says Greg Dulli on The Afghan Whigs’ album In Spades

The Afghan Whigs. Picture: Chris Cuffaro
The Afghan Whigs. Picture: Chris Cuffaro
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The Afghan Whigs’ new single, a cover version of Pleasure Club’s You Want Love, is dedicated to the band’s late guitarist Dave Rosser who died last month of cancer aged 50.

“It was a song that we both loved,” says Greg Dulli, the US group’s singer and songwriting mainstay for the past 30 years. “We both loved the band and we’d go watch them together.

“We were both friends with James [Hall], the singer and it was something that we had talked about [recording with The Afghan Whigs].

“I did a solo acoustic tour in 2016 and Dave accompanied me on that tour. We actually were starting to work it out then but we never did work it out so I sort of thought that it was unfinished business and I wanted to finish it.”

The new Afghan Whigs album In Spades was mostly made in New Orleans, a city Dulli describes as his “recording home”.

“I’ve recorded all or most of every record I’ve done since 1997 in New Orleans, so I’ve been recording there for 20 years. It’s probably impossible that the city doesn’t seep into all of those records.

I had built friendships with several witches over the years and I think their influence on my consciousness probably seeped in to my songwriting.

Greg Dulli

“Eight of the ten songs on this record were recorded there. I find New Orleans to be an incredibly inspirational, creative place for me as a songwriter.”

Much of the record was done live. “Eight of the ten songs were done with all six of us in the same room,” Dulli says. “We play in a circle and it’s a very organic and comfortable way to perform.”

A consistent theme in many of the songs is the supernatural. Dulli says the album was “originally based on a series of dreams”, adding: “I had built friendships with several witches over the years and I think their influence on my consciousness probably seeped in to my songwriting. It’s not that I haven’t touched on those things in other albums, I think it was just more pronounced this time.”

The album’s other principal theme is memory, specifically remembrances from childhood. Dulli admits to becoming more reflective in his early 50s.

“As each year goes by it’s a new experience as you move into your life further and further. Certain things get further away, obviously.

“I’ve made a conscious and unconscious effort to stay in touch with the person that I was early on. It’s very important for me to exercise my memory. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. When you see or hear about people with dementia it’s something that I don’t know if I’m genetically predisposed to but I exercise memory as much as possible.”

The Afghan Whigs and Dulli’s other projects, the Twilight Singers and The Gutter Singers, have long been notable for their use of horns and strings alongside rampaging electric guitars. Dulli admits to a fascination with “the symphonic nature of music”, particularly that from the era of psychedelic soul.

“Gamble and Huff, Barry White, these were all folks who were going beyond guitar, bass and drums and bringing in orchestral qualities without it swarming the music. In particular Just My Imagination by The Temptations I think is an excellent example of the majesty of a Norman Whitfield production. It’s very subtle but it changes the song with the string section. Papa Was a Rolling Stone, using a very simple drum and bass intro and punctuating it with electric guitar and trumpet, it’s like a painter using a wider palette and I’ve always been attracted to that. Sometimes I go too far but the massive productions – the Phil Spector productions, the Norman Whitfield, the Gamble and Huff, the Barry White productions – have always been incredibly attractive to me and a major turn-on.”

Dulli has described the song Toy Automatic as his “favourite child” on this record. It was inspired by the loss of a former partner. “It was inspired by someone that I’d been in a relationship with for a long time and then we lost touch for a long time and I never got to say goodbye to her,” Dulli says. “It’s not that I’m consciously writing about this person or this experience, I just let my subconscious take over but after I listened to it there were a couple of tipping points in the song that led me to believe that I was attempting to communicate something to someone who was no longer here.”

The album’s opening track Birdland channels the spirit of the late jazz singer Jimmy Scott. Dulli remembers going to see Scott play when he was recuperating from a head injury inflicted during an assault after a show in Texas. “He did two sets,” Dulli recalls. “I had been injured and a friend of mine went and talked to him unbeknownst to me and [Scott] came over and put his hand on my shoulder and sat down and talked to me for ten minutes and I’ll never forget that. The guy was working and he took time to come over and comfort someone that he didn’t even know. That kindness was never lost on me and I hope I’ve imparted it since then to others.”

Five years since The Afghan Whigs’ reformation, Dulli feels the band’s current line-up hit its stride with In Spades. “We definitely have a stride, that’s for sure,” he says. “It’s an excellent collection of musicians and spiritual beings. We’re all very close friends. We made this record unbeknownst to any of us at the time that one of us was terminally ill and then finished it knowing that. It’s a moment in time that I don’t think any of us will ever forget and the fact that it was the last recordings that we made with Dave gives it a degree of importance that other things just simply cannot have, based on the circumstances that came to all of us.”

The Afghan Whigs play at The Church, Leeds on August 16.