Greg Dulli

Greg Dulli is in a sprightly mood, down the phone line when I ring him in LA. He has every reason to be. Having recently finished his debut solo album ‘Random Desire’, there’s plenty of musical projects in the pipeline, as well as owning several successful LA bars and a hotel in New Orleans to be content with.

Dulli is mostly known for being the frontman and main songwriter in seminal Cincinnati band, The Afghan Whigs, yet his forays into other creative areas have led to acting roles in films such as the Beatles biopic ‘Backbeat’ and Ted Demme’s ‘Monument Avenue’, plus there’s his collaborations with Mark Lanegan in The Gutter Twins, and also his Twilight Singers project. He’s a man with a vast creative resume, all of which he appears to have drawn upon for his latest album. Throughout his thirty plus years of artistic endeavours, they’ve been plenty of highs but also a fair amount of tragedies too, friends who have passed, demons to be conquered, all of which seem to have fed into ‘Random Desire’ – a phenomenally powerful piece of work, with Dulli’s raising the roof with his soul infused vocal performances one minute, and then singing as soft as a whisper the next. It’s an astounding album, which isn’t surprising given his track record of releasing so many mesmerising albums with the Whigs, The Gutter Twins, and The Twilight Singers, yet what’s so surprising is the fact that it’s his first solo venture after all these years. Which begs the question, why now?

“I mostly did it, honestly Paula, out of necessity. My bass player went back to college, my drummer was making a record and doing a tour with The Raconteurs band, my guitar player was having a baby, so everyone was busy. I gave myself something to do, I said ‘Ah, I’ll make a solo album’, so I did!”

Did you fund it more challenging to do everything yourself or did you find it a bit easier?

“Honestly, it was really easy, cos you know logistically The Afghan Whigs live all over the country, so just being by myself, it was very easy for me just to drive to Joshua Tree and start working, y’know what I mean?”

During the writing of the album, I heard you abandoned a lot of the songs and then started again is that true?

“Well I write songs all the time, and by the way those songs weren’t abandoned, I felt they were more suited to a rock band. So I shifted my focus to songs that I could do alone. “

He may have shifted his focus to working solo now, but lyrically throughout his career, Dulli’s words have often posed more questions than they’ve answered, with tales of complex characters, themes of lost loves and redemption, intrigue, betrayal and hope, all cropping up throughout his songs. On ‘Random Desire’ Dulli’s wordplay is peppered with lovelorn scenarios, in the track ‘Lockless’ he mentions: “As I watch the spider set her game, I the lonely rider, moth to the flame”, seemingly setting a warning tone regarding the perils of love, yet Dulli’s vision is neither on the celebratory side of love nor sounding the warning sirens either, but always left open for the listener to decide as he explains:

“I prefer to write about the abstract side, because it’s a little more mysterious and open for interpretation.”

One of the songs on the new album ‘The Tide’ has the line “I’ve got things to do before I fade away”. Do you feel this album is just the start of you doing many more solo projects?

“I don’t really know what I meant by that. Sometimes it won’t occur to me, until years later, what I meant in certain lines. Sometimes it’ll happen to me in the grocery store, sometimes it’ll happen on stage while I’m singing it, but I’m guessing it probably was just a good rhyme at the time! (laughs). That’s probably my first instinct! But, to answer your question, there’s all kinds of records I’d love to make. I’d love to make another solo record, I’d love to make another record with The Whigs, I’d love to make another record with Mark Lanegan. Just of the top of my head, there’s a few more things I’d love to do.”

Random Desire Album Cover

‘Random Desire’ finds Dulli at his most experimental best, playing with sounds ranging from Mellotrons and wild guitar riffs to beat boxing and pitchshifting, yet still with that same soulful rock groove underpinning it all. Dulli has been described previously as a soul singer who happened to end up in a rock band, and it’s his understanding of other genres by listening to so much music over the years which has helped define his sound. ‘Lockless’ finds Dulli beatboxing on a late night session as he recalls:

“That song in particular, started on a Mellotron, and I found some horn samples on the Mellotron, so I started playing it. It was really late at night when it came up, so we didn’t have drums set up, so I beat boxed a beat with my voice! So the drums on that song, it’s me! Then I boosted it with 808s and hi-hats, but the beat is my mouth.”

There’s elements of Prince’s funked up style and vocals which initially you wouldn’t recognise as being sung by Dulli on the track ‘Scorpio’ yet with studio wizardry, anything is possible:

“Yeah that’s me, all the vocals are me. So I used a pitchshifter, kinda like Prince did on ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, that was sort of my inspiration.”

Talking of inspiration, you’ve always been influenced by soul, gospel, funk as well as rock, so, what in particular were you listening to around the time of writing this album?

“Well, when I’m in a writing process, I tend to just listen to a lot of instrumental music. So probably, honestly, a lot of jazz. You would say to yourself, I don’t really hear a jazz influence on this record, and I would say, well, that jazz was just for me to relax. If I’m working on a song with lyrics, I tend to gravitate towards instrumental music, so I’m not getting confused or distracted by someone else’s words. So I listen to a lot of soundtrack music, classical music, ambient music and jazz, so that’s probably what I was listening to then. I honestly listen to jazz probably more than any other kind of music because it’s the same reason why I’m attracted to painters and paintings. I’m not a painter but I have a great appreciation of things that I can’t or don’t do. I find that I can actually be sort of just an appreciator instead of a participator you know what I mean.”

In the album notes I read that the album title ‘Random Desire’ hints at the reasoning behind why artists write songs and why listeners need them, so when you’re writing songs do you ever have a listener or particular audience in mind?

“I mean honestly, and I’m gonna be totally honest with you here, I write songs for me. I wrote songs to entertain myself, and I’m guessing in a lot of ways, that I know enough about people, that if I like it, somebody else is gonna like it too.  I do them to express myself. First it’s yours and then you share it.”

Dulli relocated to the remote Joshua Tree area in southern California to record some of ‘Random Desire’, with the vast open space and natural beauty of the desert landscape providing the kind of place Dulli needed to immerse himself in his work.

“Whenever you go out to Joshua Tree, it’s the desert. It’s very wide open, the sky is incredibly beautiful, there’s no light pollution, you can see the Milky Way, it’s pretty magical. It’s very quiet, you hear Coyotes occasionally, there’s a beautiful desolation to it. All of the traps of city life are gone. I find it really nurturing to my imagination, I can kind of hear my thoughts,  and there’s not a whole lot, especially at night, to pull you away or distract you, so I tend to work a lot more while I’m up there, because you know, there’s not a bunch of other things to do.”

It sounds beautiful, it sounds much more scenic than Manchester!

“I love Manchester too, every place has its place, and I personally could not live in Joshua Tree, you know, I’m a city boy, but I love to get out of the city. It’s a great escape.”

Joshua Tree National Park

Escaping the music industry, Dulli side-stepped into the hotel and bar business in 2006 opening up a bar in LA, more followed and now he’s the co-owner of a string of bars and a New Orleans hotel or ‘bed and beverage’ as Dulli likes to call it. He clearly has a shrewd business head on him, and in the days of declining revenue from music, it all helps, but what made him take the plunge and develop this second vocation?

“Well, in my family, my uncles owned a couple of bars in my hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, so I was kind of around it as a child, and then when the opportunity came up here, I got into it with some friends of mine, so it was just like four friends, pitching in money to buy a bar. Plus I had some experience doing it, so that helped to make the first one become a success, and then subsequently as the group got more experienced doing it, we started to acquire other properties, and doing kind of the same low key turnover of the place. Not super radical, never changed the name of any of the bars, just kind of came in and made them better.”

If any of our readers are going to be visiting LA or New Orleans, what would you say to them to entice them into your bar or hotel?

“The hotel in New Orleans is also a bar, on the bottom floor, so we call it a bed and beverage. For that one there’s five rooms, they’re very special rooms, it’s not like a big sprawling complex, it’s boutique style and very well appointed, incredibly comfortable. The bars are just bars, but we have the best of the best of the alcohols from around the world, each and every one. All of my partners have a specialty and bring their expertise to stocking the shelves with what we find is some of the best spirits, beers and wines of the world. There’s great music when you come in, it’s dark, which every bar should be cos everybody looks good in the dark!”

Leaving his bar and hotel adventures behind, Dulli comes to the UK in March, playing Manchester’s Gorilla on 23rd, and although Dulli is keen to get back on the road, he admits that he doesn’t like to overthink the live shows. Having seen him plenty of times in his various band incarnations over the years, one of Dulli’s gifts lies in his ability to not only bring the raw soulful emotion through whilst blasting out some of the greatest melodic lines you’ll ever hear, but also seeing where the night takes him, usually resulting in a great tale in between songs, or a spontaneous cover version, as he explains:

“Well, we haven’t rehearsed yet. I rehearse a week before I go on tour, every time. A week usually puts it in the sweet spot, and then you have enough to be dangerous and then you can start experimenting on stage which is always really fun. I’m going to do songs from my whole life, most of the new record, a couple of new covers, a couple of old covers, and always the prospect of ‘wow, I didn’t know I was gonna do this tonight, and now I’m doing it’ you know what I mean. Again the unknown is exciting, I like to keep that open as an option. I take playing live very seriously, and by the time I get to Galway (first stop on the tour), I’ll be ready to share the gifts of myself and fellow musicians.”

Before we go, I remind Dulli of the previous time I interviewed him in the nineties when The Afghan Whigs played to a packed out venue in north London, and although Dulli is now older and wiser, there’s still the same youthful energy and emotion pouring into every song on ‘Random Desire’. Twenty five years on from our last conversation, what does he think has been the biggest lesson learned since those days?

“If the drugs don’t kill you, the cigarettes will!”

‘Random Desire’ is out 21st February 2020 (Royal Cream / BMG Records)

Greg Dulli plays Gorilla, Manchester on 23rd March 2020.

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From the early days of creating handmade zines, in a DIY paper and glue style, interviewing bands around town, then pestering Piccadilly Records to sell them, to writing for various independent mags such as Chimp and Ablaze, writing about the music I love is still a great passion. After testing the music industry waters in London with stints at various labels, being back in my hometown again, writing about this city’s vibrant music scene is as exciting as ever. All time favourite bands include Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Patti Smith although anything from electro to folk via blues and pysch rock will also do nicely too. A great album, is simply a great album, regardless of whatever musical cage you put it in.