Words by Tommy Johnson
All of the work leading up to Dulli’s solo album Random Desire (which dropped on February 21 via Royal Cream/BMG) is wrapped up, according to him during our phone conversation on early February morning. I asked Dulli if he has ever wondered what the response is to his music once it’s released into the open for all to hear. “I don’t go looking for stuff,” he replies. “Here’s a couple of things that I learned a long time ago: Don’t Google yourself, don’t read the comments. You are never as good as they are, and you are never as bad as they say you are.”
When it comes to looking up some of the defining icons that have shaped the indie rock scene over the years, Dulli is undoubtedly on that list. In the 80s, Dulli teamed up with bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum to make up The Afghan Wigs in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.
The infusion of sound, including garage rock, R&B, soul in their lustrous catalog, offered those locally uncompromising convictions and deeply introspective lyrical content. After signing with Sub Pop, The Afghan Whigs curated a cult-like following that remains strong to this day. Even after the long hiatus, Dulli and company emerged back in 2017 with the acclaimed album In Spades stronger than ever. Random Desire marks releasing solo work for the first time in his lustrous career. Tapping into the works of his favorite acts: Prince and Todd Rundgren. The result is an expansive piece of work that showcases Dulli tapping into some of his best work to date.
OffShelf: I ask a lot of people this question, How did you get involved in music?
Greg Dulli: I’ve loved music from the jump. My parents took me to the Ohio State Fair back in ’71, ’72, maybe, and I saw The 5th Dimension as my first concert. I was blown away, especially by Billy Davis Jr. He was electrifying; the way it made me feel… I never forgot the feeling. I was fourteen when I first got into a band and instantly loved it. It was automatically my favorite thing to do. Then once I started writing songs that pushed it for me. I didn’t want to do anything else.
OS: Is that way you moved out to Los Angeles? To start up your music career?
GD: When I first came out to LA when I was nineteen, I was interested in getting into film. I made 8mm films while I was a kid and did it in college as well. I wrote screenplays. I acted. I made some money on movies. It was out here when I worked at Tower Records on Sunset Strip that I realized that I would have more autonomy being a music auteur. And in my freshman in college, I saw a bunch of great music that pushed me in that direction. I was seeing people that looked like me, and I said, “Wow. If they can that, I can do that.”
OS: Working at Tower Records, you had all that music at your fingertips had to be wildly influential to you.
GD: It got my gears going in so many ways, plus I met people that I had seen on stage or saw on television. I had a particularly interesting relationship with Peter Falk [Columbo, The Princess Bride]. Every shift that you had, each employee got to run the information booth; you stood in the middle of the store and got to run the turntable. So every shift I had, Peter would ask if we ever played any jazz. I would say, “I don’t know a lot much about jazz, Peter Falk [laughs].” He gave me my introduction to jazz…I didn’t grow up around jazz, so that my first real immersion into it, and I loved it.
OS: Did any of your family play music at all?
GD: No. The one person who I knew well was the next-door neighbor; he played guitar. Then there was a friend of mine who had drums and guitar at his house. I would go there, and that’s when I started practicing drums and messing around with the guitar. I had to seek that out; I didn’t have it around me.
OS: Random Desire is your very first solo album. How did it come to fruition? Had you been thinking about doing it for a while?
GD: You know what? I wasn’t thinking about it all. Patrick [Keeler] was going to make a record and tour with his other band The Raconteurs, John [Curley] went back to college, Jon [Skibic] was having a baby, Rick [Nelson] was rebuilding his studio… I needed something to do.
OS: Were you nervous about doing a solo album? Most musicians like to have someone or a group to bounce ideas off of. You mostly did all the instrumentals yourself.
GD: No, I was not nervous. I do have to say that yes, I did play most of the instruments, but Christopher Thorn, who engineered most of the album and mixed it, was my sounding board. Chris is hardcore; he wants the sweet takes and will get it. I would regularly sing the songs six or seven times, and then we would sit and comp the vocals unless I nailed it right out of the box. He was always pushing for all the words to sound good; we would go line by line through the song. He was an excellent foil. I couldn’t have done it without him.
OS: You recorded the album in various places. Did Christopher travel with you?
GD: He didn’t travel with me, but he knows all the other people that I worked with. Wherever I would track, I would bring my drive to Chris, and that’s when we would overdub. I sang everything in Joshua Tree, along with the mixing with him.
OS: Was traveling from place to place to lay down tracks by design?
GD: In New Orleans, I needed to do because I needed Rick and the horn section. So I flew down this past summer for a few days and got what I needed. Crestline is not that far from Joshua Tree; my friend Mathias Schneeberger [Twilight Singers] lives there, so I just went to visit him. He is an engineer as well and was checking out his stuff. Next, you know, I wrote a song at his house and we laid it down. The other times was either Chris was just busy, or I stayed in to record.
OS: Random Desire showcases you tapping into several different genres, which from what you have been notorious for.
GD: Whatever my skill level was…the song showcased it. It was great to try different things. I did a beatbox on “Lockless.” I did three-part harmonies on “Pantomima.” There was a harp on “Slow Pan.”
OS: At any point did recording Random Desire reinvigorate you? Being a musician for so long, you have to feel somewhat burnout at times.
GD: It gets really exciting once you know you are making a record. I record all the time; I went and recorded something about a month ago. It was fun, and I had a great time. It’s when you have three or four songs you like, and you feel that you can build something around them. Once you get that spot, then that’s when it gets extremely exciting. It’s palpable.
Let me give you an example: I thought that the record was done maybe June or July. I listened to it, and I had ten songs, and I had them in order that I wanted them in. But the fourth song, which I loved and still love, I would get to it and was like, ‘Ehh…this one doesn’t work.’ It works on its own, but it doesn’t work in the flow of the record. Moving it around didn’t help, so I thought, ‘Wow…I have to write a song for this slot’. So I took that song, and I wrote “The Tide,” which became the final song of the record. That was…that’s how you make a record. You have to know what the record is. I thought I had it. I wanted it to be it. It wasn’t it. I had to take one out and put another one in.
OS: How long does it take to write a song? It sounds like you wrote “The Tide” pretty quickly.
GD: Sometimes, it takes me a minute for the lyrics. Sometimes it takes me a minute for the arrangement. Honestly, I prefer it when a song forces itself upon you. That’s my preference-when a song says, ‘Hey man, I need to get there right now.’ I say, ‘Alright, man. I’ll try to help you get out there.’
OS: Speaking of writing, I read that you also typically write the arrangements before the lyrics.
GD: The song will tell you what the words are going to be. It’s the way I have done it since I was a teenager. I come up with a riff, and then I start to hum something over on top of it, then frenetically, I figure out what to say. Once I do a demo of a melody, it’s pretty locked—even right down the vowel sounds, which I have to match.
OS: Having completed, do you feel like you want to do another solo album?
GD: I hope to. I hope I can do a lot more of everything. I am start going back to work on the new Whigs album; we are going to get back this summer to work on it. I don’t think you have to pick one over the other. I can do both.
OS: How excited are you in regards to getting back with The Whigs to write new music?
GD: I can’t wait. As of now, the five of us we have the best time. We are really good friends. It’s a full family vibe, and everyone is an excellent musician and excellent human being. It’s where you want to be, and I can’t wait to hook with them.
OS: If you don’t mind me asking, with Dave [Rosser]’s passing was there doubt about continuing with the band?
GD: The record [In Spades] was not mixed or mastered when he got the diagnosis. We were all hopeful, but it was too far along. We did the first leg of a tour, and we were Skyping; he would watch every show at the side of the stage. I would talk to him during the show; he would wave to the audience sometimes. He did as much as we could to make him feel a part of it. He passed away at the end of June, and we still had another European leg and North American leg to do.
It became almost like a rolling wake; we made it a point to celebrate his life every night at the end of the show. As in his life, he got the biggest ovation. Everybody loved Dave; he was the most lovable guy out there. He would be mortified if we were stopping on his behalf. I would hate it, too. People aren’t going to stop playing basketball because Kobe Bryant passed away. They are honoring him, and it’s beautiful, but the beat goes on.