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Exclusive: Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli Talks Bob Dylan, New Tour & 'Gentlemen' at 21
No list of the best '90s albums is complete without the Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen. Released in 1993 on Elektra after two albums on Sub Pop, the band’s major label debut escalated the Cincinnati group into the elite of the alternative world. It was a raw and provocative collection that swung loudly and proudly from below the waist. In arguably the album’s most famous passage, frontman Greg Dulli sang, “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.”
Twenty-one years on, Rhino Records is bringing a grown-up Gentlemen to fans Oct. 28 in CD, vinyl and digital formats. The new two-disc collection will feature the original album, demo versions of 10 of the 11 songs (the only one missing being “I Keep Coming Back”) and seven B-sides/live versions of songs like “Now You Know” and “What Jail Is Like.”
The Whigs are currently on tour in support of their new Do To the Beast album, the work that brought them back to Sub Pop. And they will do a special show in Brooklyn on Oct. 5, where all tickets will be priced at $21 to celebrate the anniversary of Gentlemen.
While in Toronto, Dulli took some time out to chat exclusively with Billboard about the new set, the albums that inspired Gentlemen, the current tour and more catalog mining in the works.
Billboard: What prompted the set?
Greg Dulli: I worked for Rhino Records in Westwood back in the day, so I have kind of a connection to them. They did our retrospective record and they came to us and were very enthusiastic about doing a reissue. John [Curley] was heavily involved and we dug up and remastered the demos. I hadn’t even heard the demos in 20-something years. So it seemed like a cool thing to do. We got Jeff Powell, who engineered the original record, to cut the vinyl. This was kind of a family affair, a lot of the folks who were there when we did it were involved in doing this. That was a really cool process.
What did you notice about the demos listening to them for the first time in so long?
What I was struck by was how at least half of them were so ready. We had really played those songs into shape on the road. That record was written on the road. It was really the only record that I’ve ever written on the road. And those songs were tried out every night and they were tried out with only half the lyrics. We did “Be Sweet” in Paris as “Frere Jacques.” That was its original title. I was surprised at how ready we already were before we went to Memphis. The songs were ready to be recorded and there’s no major stylistic differences. They actually sound, in many ways, similar to what happened. That’s a product of them being honed on the road. That’s what stood out to me, that they were so ready at the time, to the point of even the demos could’ve been the record.
When you and I spoke for Black Love you mentioned at the time that you could see where you had hit upon moments of truth lyrically on Gentlemen. Looking back do you still see those moments and are there instances now that come to mind lyrically on the album?
Songwriting is a shared experience. I have had great comfort in other people’s songs, they’ve comforted me in confusing times or sad times or happy times even. But it’s because someone is sharing their experience with the world and that someone else recognizes themselves in that experience. And that’s the power of music.
What are some of those songs that comforted you?
I remember Blood On The Tracks being sort of my companion, Here My Dear I was listening to a lot, Astral Weeks I was listening to a lot. That was my shared experience that was comforting me as I was writing the lyrics to Gentlemen. And I go back and I see parallels in retrospect. I was a fan of those records and those records were comforting me and guiding me in some way too.
Take us through this new set.
The unreleased songs, to my knowledge, are the demos. The covers have been out there, on flip sides of singles and a couple of those were from radio shows that we did back then. There's a really great version of “Now You Know” from a radio show we did in ’94 in Denver. Those were cool to hear.
You probably haven’t heard those songs in forever?
After I finish making a record I don’t really listen to my songs anymore, they’re kind of done because then I go and play them 200 times. Between sound checks and concerts I hear those songs a lot. But sitting around listening to them for enjoyment, I don’t do it. We toured Congregation for a long time and then Uptown Avondale we were playing those songs, and we stayed on the road to try out this new material and these songs were coming really fast. I’ve heard demo versions of "Gentlemen" with nonsense words, "Be Sweet" with nonsense words, "What Jail Is Like" with nonsense words. So that’s what made those demos compelling to me.
Are there moments from the album you’d now be interested in reviving live after revisiting this material with the understanding that the focus now is still Do To the Beast live?
We’re playing a great cross-section of all of our material. I was told recently by Rick Nelson -- who has played with me since my acoustic tour in 2010 -- that he used to drive around and listen to “Now You Know” all the time. “Now You Know” was his song and I was like, “Wow, really?” So I’ve been compelled to go back and listen to it and it's just really a nasty song. I was trying to figure out whether I could do it again. And I still don’t know, but I loved that it meant something to him. I loved hearing about that from him. He’s been my dear friend for four years and that just came out of the blue at lunch, so the range of people who come up and tell me about their experience with Gentlemen, whether it was the first thing that they heard or was a leap for them after Congregation, however your experience with that record is, I never get tired of hearing someone’s story with it.
Before this, when was the last time you listened to Gentlemen?
I listened to Gentlemen a couple of years ago to relearn the songs to play on that tour. That was the extent. I just needed to get my muscle memory back. It’s in me, it’s part of me, I don’t need to listen to it to remember it. It’s engrained in me.
Are there moments where you hear the similarities to the albums that you were listening to at the time?
I’ve listened to Blood On The Tracks as recently as two weeks ago. So that record’s part of my life, certainly I hear echoes of it in Gentlemen absolutely.
What have been the favorite songs to do off Do To The Beast live?
We’ve played all of them but “Can Rova” and there are different parts of each one that I enjoy. “Parked Outside,” one of the great opening songs I’ve ever had, I love it being the first song every night. But I would say “Lost In The Woods” and “I Am Fire” have developed in a way because I get to come off the guitar. I’m just a singer on those songs and I like to prowl.
Have you busted out new covers on this tour or will you be?
Yeah, we do a version of “Across 110th Street” and we’ve done a little bit of “Morning Theft,” by [Jeff] Buckley.
Are there other Whigs albums or Twilight Singers albums you’d want to give the same treatment as Gentlemen?
Yeah, sure. We’ve begun the preliminary stages of doing a Twilight Singers box set. I’ll be digging through the crates in my off time this winter in regards to that project. But I think we got a few years for Black Love. It’s a cool thing to do. If there’s new content then it’s cool. If you’re just slapping another fancy singer on something you already did then no. But if you can bring something unique, it’s a great thing for people who enjoy your music.
What do you want to add?
I love playing shows and now I get to play a bunch of them so I’m a happy guy.