If there were ever a gender-bent rock & roll remake of the TV movie Sybil, Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli would be a contender for the starring role. Not only is he a natural ham, he has all the qualities of the film’s schizophrenic character. ”I feel like a different person every time I wake up,” he says, drawing deeply on a cigarette at a Manhattan restaurant. ”That’s why I continue to get up in the morning — to see who I’m gonna be. It’s like trying on new clothes.”
In the decade since Dulli met guitarist Rick McCollum in an Athens, Ohio, jail cell (after being held overnight for disorderly conduct and urinating in public, respectively), Afghan Whigs have donned any number of musical looks, playing their own swaggering brand of punk, garage rock, and soul music. Black Love, the group’s newly released fifth album, is an emotionally turbulent disc driven by Dulli’s continuing search for self. Scratching guitars, howling vocals, and devotional keyboards clash at one moment, only to be replaced by soothing strings, featherweight drumming, and soft crooning the next.
Lyrically, the album is equally dramatic. ”Double Day” chronicles a crumbling relationship, while ”Going to Town” is about lovers who paint their town red by setting it ablaze. ”Dark subject matter is the most interesting to me. Anything I can’t understand, I obsess over,” says Dulli. ”Manic depression runs in my family, but I’m not a terminally depressed person. I just use songwriting as a way to deal with my unhappiness.”
Regardless of how bleak or chaotic the tunes on Black Love are, they always groove, thanks largely to the band’s unlikely obsession with the magic of Motown. ”Blame, Etc.” was even written as a eulogy for Temptations vocalist David Ruffin. ”There is no more emotional music that I’ve ever heard,” says Dulli of the Motown sound. ”Even the restraint in soul music feels like it’s ready to burst at the seams, and when it does, you know exactly what that person is feeling, whether it’s happy, sad, or horny.”
When he’s not Whigging out, Dulli writes and produces screenplays, and he and his friend Beautiful Girls director Ted Demme plan to make a film based on the Ann E. Imbrie memoir Spoken in Darkness in the near future. Most recently, Dulli helped put together the soundtrack for Girls, in which Afghan Whigs play a bar band performing a version of Barry White’s ”Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” Originally, Dulli was asked to read for the film’s lead, but when Matt Dillon expressed interest, Dulli was cast aside.
”I didn’t really mind,” he says. ”The only way I would want to be involved in acting is if I got to be a hitman or something. I would love to do a movie like The Terminator where I could go around and blow people away and not talk.”
So much for Sybil.