Back in 2011, Afghan Whigs front man Greg Dulli wrote off the chances of his Cincinnati-based alt-rock band ever re-forming in an interview he did with MTV. The following year, the group was back on the road, playing Lollapalooza and small clubs. Now, having just released a terrific new album, Do to the Beast, the group is on a full-blown tour in support of the disc. Singer Greg Dulli spoke to us via phone from his L.A. home.
The band got back together in 2012 and embarked on a successful tour. At what point did you start thinking about an album?
We never really talked about making an album. The first time we talked about making an album was after we played with Usher at South by Southwest. Making that show with Usher, which we made in 48 hours and then played the show, there was something kind of youthful and innocence about it. It was like a bunch of dudes getting together in a basement and hooking a show up for Saturday night. That was why. We did a whole tour and never once talked about making an album. And then we did this one gig with this cat and we said we would go into the studio. We didn’t even say let’s make an album. We just said, let’s go into the studio. The record was written, recorded and mixed in seven months.
You recorded at a few different places, right?
I live in L.A. and New Orleans so there are two cities right there. Joshua Tree I have used as a recording location for the last 12 years so that’s another go-to place. And we recorded some in Cincinnati because it’s obviously our OG spot.
You wrote all the songs and music. Has that always been the case?
I’ve always written 90 percent. Wrote some great songs with all of the guys over the years. Right around Gentlemen or Congregation, I became the main writer.
What was it like to go back and write for the Whigs?
I’ve been asked that a few times. My answer is that I write for what’s in front of me. When I was writing Twilight Singers records, that’s because that was my band. When I was writing Gutter Twins songs it’s because I was in a band with Mark Lanegan. I think it’s what’s in front of you. You’re going to write this interview with me because that’s your job. It’s really that simple. I find expectations to be prison-like and if you go trying to make something that you made before then you’re inevitably going to let someone down, most likely yourself.
Do you write in L.A. or New Orleans?
I wrote songs in both cities. I wrote one of the songs in Mexico. I wrote “Matamoros” in Cincinnati.
What’s the story behind “Matamoros”?
My friend Manuel came to visit from Italy. He told us this crazy story about what happened to him in Mexico. He met someone from Matamoros and it was really a scary situation. I don’t know if you remember those murders that happened in the late ‘80s in Matamoros. I told that story. It became the Matamoros hour. I was working on a song and it needed a name and that’s how this happened. Suffice it to say, Manuel saw the face of evil in that gentleman from Matamoros and later found photographic evidence of it. He took pictures and threw that film in a box and then developed the film later on and that person was demonically deformed in the photographs.
The Rolling Stone review said the record was rather “muted.” But I think these songs are particularly powerful in the same way that the old albums were.
I did not read the Rolling Stone review so I don’t get where “muted” comes from. The first song is as hard rock as I have ever done a song. It’s the opposite of muted. I can only react. I can’t comment.
What did inspire that first song, “Parked Outside”? I love the sinister title.
It’s vaguely stalkerish. I don’t even remember where the name came from. The names are usually random. Sometimes the titles are mutually exclusive. But when you give something a title, it can help you write the words. I think the working title was “Parked Outside” and the lyrics follow suit. It’s vaguely stalkerish.
You’ve quit smoking. Did that make a difference in the studio?
I’ve been off cigarettes for six years now. I can do things now that I couldn’t do then and certainly that I could not do in the ‘90s. Singing with Lanegan for the past few years – he’s such a great singer and I had to do harmonies with him — made my pitch get better. He’s never pitchy. He’s always in key. That’s something I have struggled with over the years. Going to Lanegan school was a good education for me as well.
How did you initially meet?
We met each other in the ‘80s when our bands played together somewhere in Boston. I think it was a really odd bill – Afghan and Screaming Trees and Primus. We got to know each other in Seattle. We really started hanging out in ’99 when we ran into each other in L.A. So for the past 15 years, we’ve been close friends.
Are you doing more stuff together?
I just finished a remix for a record he has coming out in January. He’s doing a remix album and me and Josh Homme and Moby and James Lavelle among others have contributed. I had breakfast with him last week. We’re both touring right now so it’s hard to get in a room. I would imagine in November or December we’ll go in the studio and see what happens.
The music industry has changed so much in the time that the band was away. What challenges are you faced with as you try to get people to hear the Whigs’ new album?
I never stopped making records so all of this stuff has been going on. It’s no different for me. I just make the best record I can. Then, I go play some shows. Whatever the other folks do and bless their hearts because what record companies do is nothing I personally want to do. I like to write songs and record them and play shows I have no problem splitting the money with people who do the work I don’t want to do.
The Afghan Whigs. Joseph Arthur. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25.50 ADV, $28 DOS, houseofblues.com.