When we meet at the London’s Royal Institute of British Architects, Greg Dulli is radiant, pleasantly chatty and a far cry from the turbulent, moody person he used to be. “It’s almost as if my past was predicting the future, and now that I am in the future I am actively able to view the past”, he tells me while talking about the recently-found balance of consciousness and reconnection with the past that inspired the new record of his main outlet The Afghan Whigs.
In Spades, the second album since the Cincinnati band reunited five years ago, is mainly about memory and how, over the last couple of years, Dulli has been revisiting his childhood through frequent lucid dreams. In one of these dreams he’s reliving a memory of bike ride through a field by a river near his house that he took almost every day as a child. “I would ride up on the river bank and see the river, then I would go back down the hill into the field and while I was there my imagination was where I felt the most free and at peace in my life. In probably an early version of meditation, I could see things, and in my mind I would see this place, which I didn’t realise till about a year ago is actually where I live now. I was basically seeing where I would end up”, Dulli recalls smiling.
To him, this reconnection with the past is very comforting, but also illuminates on the person he was then, who he is now and how he got to the present. “Those experiences made me who I am. They made me smile then, and it is ok for them to make me smile now. I don’t live in the past, but I like to visit it”, he points out.
During the extensive reunion tour, the chemistry between Dulli and the members of the Whigs’ new reincarnation (a.k.a. guitarists Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic, drummer Patrick Keeler, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson, and co-founder/bassist John Curley) was so strong that as soon as the tour came to an end in Spring 2015, Dulli invited everybody to reconvene at Nelson’s studio in New Orleans. In just a week, five of the ten songs that would end up on In Spades were laid out, whereas the other half were composed over the following year and recorded between New Orleans, Memphis, L.A. and Joshua Tree.
Though most of the tracks were written in the traditional Whigs way, evolving out from a riff Dulli created at home or in the studio, this time the creative process was approached more collectively. “I wrote all the songs, but the band helped me shape them. I hadn’t done it that way in about 20 years. The new record sounds so rich and textured because of them being so involved”, he explains.
Album opener ‘Birdland’ (which is both a homage to the iconic New York jazz club and a literal reference to a neighbourhood in Ross, Ohio where Dulli went to school) stands out for being the most unique song on the record in terms of instrumentation. Composed by Dulli alone over just an hour “while messing around with an instrument in Memphis”, the track was done by stacking six mellotrons and mixing in a woman voice imitating the mellotron, and then embellished by Rosser on classical guitar and Nelson on cello and organ.
However it’s another album track, ‘Toy Automatic’, named after a band his friend had in the 80s, which is Dulli’s favourite. “Usually my favourite song is never anyone’s else favourite. I can almost predict it”, he jokes. “It’s a short song, with no chorus, just two and an half minutes of pure emotion, and I really feel like it’s my favourite vocal performance that I have ever done. I was singing in a way that I had never felt that free singing before, as if I was almost exploding”.
In Spades is not only about memory and revisiting the past; it’s also about mortality. ‘I Got Lost’ was written just after finding out that longtime collaborator and friend Dave Rosser had been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. Currently undergoing treatment, Rosser can’t join the band for the upcoming European tour, but the Whigs are optimistic that he will be able to play shows in America later in the year. After playing around 800 gigs together over the span of a decade, Dulli admits it was surreal to play without Rosser for the first time at the benefit show organised for him last December. “Dave always stands to my left and I always turn around to him, and when at that first show without him I turned around and he wasn’t there… it was really strange, not just to me, but to the other four guys as well. So, once we realised the power we had when all connected, we decided to play as a five piece and not try to replace him”, he proudly tells me.
“I am telling you this without any kind of arrogance or lack of humility…. when on stage we feel like we are the greatest band in the world”
Moved by the recent passing of many music icons that inspired him over the years, Prince’s death a year ago was a particularly difficult blow to deal with. “I really experienced a loss when he passed away. I felt as if my uncle or my older brother had died”, he confesses. “I followed him since the beginning and I saw him [live] more than ten times. I was really sad for a long time and I still have moments when I can’t believe he is gone. “
With lyrics rich in mysticism and spectral imagery, it’s something the band chose to reflect in the monochromatic album artwork designed by Christopher Friedman. “Chris and I met on Instagram. We usually send each other stuff that we both like and for this album, he found this woodcutter from Brazil, Ramon Rodrigues Melo, who already had drawings of the spirit that is on the cover facing in different ways in a woods, in a Victorian city etc., so I commissioned him what I wanted to be a vision of pre-civilization and civilization”, he explains. “To me the album cover is a piece of art. Out of 15 albums I made, only 4 had written words on them, while the others only had an image that stood for itself, evoking something, while letting you make up your mind what it is about”.
I finally ask Dulli what legacy he thinks the Afghan Whigs will leave behind them. “I am telling you this without any kind of arrogance or lack of humility …. when on stage we feel like we are the greatest band in the world, and we act like we are in terms of playing and giving the audience everything we have”. With so many successful years behind them, it’s hard not to agree with him.