After Midnight With Greg Dulli

The hard-livin' Afghan Whigs reunite and rediscover their soul.

I once had a boyfriend who told me the only person he trusted for romantic advice was his friend Greg Dulli, the legendarily lecherous frontman for the Afghan Whigs. I should have taken that as a warning shot and run for the door right there.

While it is certainly true that the Whigs’ 1993 modern-rock masterpiece Gentlemen was crafted with equally important contributions from guitarist Rick McCollum and bassist John Curley, Dulli’s self-cultivated Lothario persona lives in that album’s dark heart. His affection for all things hedonistic (less now than in his younger years) and an oddly bright streak of optimistic romanticism mix into one hot mess and set the conflicted spiritual tone for nearly all the Whigs’ material, whether the sardonic paeans to sexual voraciousness that characterize Gentlemen or the midnight blue-eyed soul that colors 1998’s swan song, 1965.

The band’s announcement, in late 2011, that it would reunite was welcome news to both fans and, evidently, Dulli himself. The former Seattle resident and Sub Pop signee seemed in especially good spirits when I got him on the phone.

SW: Why did you break up?

Dulli: Probably because we had been together for about 12 or 13 years, six albums, and 1,400 shows. We were a hard-livin’ bunch. I think we just reached our saturation point. We all moved away from each other. One of us had kids, one fell in love, one of us went crazy. We had gone as far as we could go.

Who went crazy?

One of us did—and might still be . . . it had to happen. Things that have to happen, happen. That’s the best way I can answer that.

While you’ve been in rehearsals and going through your back catalog, are you finding there are songs you want to do differently?

We’ve adjusted five or six of them. There are several differences to the songs—they are just reimagined, in a way. We always kind of did that anyway. We’d sometimes cover our own material, if you will. Sometimes you just decide an intro is way too long, or that you wrote that intro when you were 14 and you don’t feel that way anymore.

You’ve always had a fondness for covering other artists. What made you recently decide to cover Frank Ocean’s “LoveCrimes”?

A girl I knew played it for me while we were driving around in her car. I fell in love with that record, and kept getting drawn to that song and the little mini-dramatic arc that it contained. I loved the “murder-murder” hook. So I started playing around with it with the fellows when we reconvened this year, and we put our thing on it.

Can you tell me your first memory of falling in love with soul music?

I think I loved it before I even knew it was a genre. I just kind of liked the unrestrained joy, the unrestrained emotion and healing that came from that style of music. Hearing people sing like that—with that depth of feeling— really captivated me and my fragile little mind. The first record that I really remember being taken by was “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. There’ve been few singers before or since who can bring it like Michael Jackson, especially young Michael Jackson.

My mom was a teenager when I was born, so we liked a lot of the same records. I loved the Motown records she played me. I remember hearing Al Green and Sam Cooke and William Bell . . . Marvin Gaye became my favorite guy. Still might be my favorite guy. I just have always had a great affection toward soul music. I don’t anticipate that ever changing.

Reflecting on your years here in Seattle and with Sub Pop, what do you look back at with the most fondness or regret? What memories jump out most vividly?

Before I lived in Seattle, I came there in ’89, the first time just to play. We played Squid Row on Capitol Hill. [Sub Pop co-founder] Jonathan [Poneman] came, and maybe 11 other people, and we had a great gig. When we came back—we came back to record Up In It—we played with The Fluid at Washington Hall. That’s when I started living in Jonathan’s apartment on Queen Anne. When the rest of the band split, I stayed to mix the record with [producer] Jack [Endino] in Ballard at Reciprocal. That’s when I started to get to know the town. My first few times being here were mid-spring and early fall, so I hadn’t gotten rained on yet, so it seemed like a magical place to me. [It was] physically very beautiful and had progressive culture. I became really good friends with Jonathan, Megan Jasper, and Bruce Pavitt. I moved there in ’94 and left in ’99.

So you eventually got rained on and had to leave?

I bought a house in Magnolia, and I realized I had commitment issues. As soon as I bought the house I felt trapped. I immediately moved to New Orleans after that.

Are you and the Whigs talking about recording new material?

Not really; we’re trying to stay in the moment. We jam at sound check, and there’s one song that’s organically evolved that we’ve been playing . . . something’s going on. I don’t know what it is, but I’m just going to let it be what it is. I really have no plans outside of having lunch today and going to the beach.