Home Trends Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli Talks Pop Music Covers & Influences – Billboard

Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli Talks Pop Music Covers & Influences – Billboard

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Few major figures in the history of alternative rock have spent as much of their career in service of pop music as Greg Dulli. As lead singer and songwriter for The Afghan Whigs — as well as the Twilight Singers, and a wide variety of other side projects and solo ventures — Dulli has covered a truly countless number of classics from the pop world, as well as from R&B, rock, jazz, hip-hop, country, folk and seemingly every other possible genre.

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In 1992 alone, while grunge was taking over the world, the Whigs not only released the Uptown Avondale EP of pop and R&B covers — Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,” The Supremes’ “Come See About Me,” Al Green’s “Beware” — but they found space on their full-length critical breakthrough set Congregation to put their spin on “The Temple,” from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. (On the accompanying tour, they would also mix in bits from The Spinners’ 70s soul classic “I’ll Be Around” into their own “Turn on the Water,” with such mid-song interpolations becoming common practice for the Whigs in live sets over the decades.) Despite drawing from such an era-spanning variety of source material, all of these covers ultimately ended up sounding like Afghan Whigs songs, an indication of Dulli and his band’s love for and connection with the songs in question.

And at age 57, with the Whigs prepping release of their ninth studio album — the appropriately searing and smoldering How Do You Burn? — for this Friday (Sept. 9), Dulli’s musical diet remains as full and balanced as ever. “From the time I locked in on buying records to right this minute, I’ve been an omnivorous user of music in whatever style it is,” he says. “Top 40, not top 40, jazz, hip-hop, country music, folk music, classical music. I just don’t keep an eye on charts and things like that — that’s not how I maneuver, never have. There’s two kinds of music: There’s music I like, and there’s music I don’t like.”

Below, Dulli talks with Billboard about a career spent in awe (and in service) of the possibilities of popular music, as well as getting to count such pop purveyors as Usher and Olivia Rodrigo as fans, and the many such newer artists who “flipped the switch” for him during the recording of How Do You Burn? [Ed note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

It seems like you were a pretty big top 40 guy when you were young. How did it appeal to you as a kid, and how did that inform your perspective on music while you were growing up? 

Well, I mean, FM radio was still kind of an exotic concept when I was a child. I mean, I grew up with AM radio. My station was WMOH Hamilton Ohio, and I have to say — for a top 40 station, they moved around the genres quite a bit, which was cool. Additionally, my mom was a teenager when I was born, so y’know, I’m listening to what she’s listening to. By the time I’m like, three, my mom is 21, and still listening to what the pop culture dictated. So a lot of the music that I heard was through my mom –including her record collection, when I got my hands on that. 

But the thing about top 40 or pop radio when I was a kid was that they were incredibly well-written songs. Sort of the golden era – it’s why the oldies radio is still so popular. Because those songs, they hold up. 

And when you started in the early ‘80s – you’re moving to Cincinnati, playing in bands, learning about the worlds of punk and indie – did that change your perspective about top 40 at all? Did you still love it the same, or were you viewing it differently coming from this underground world?

I didn’t, y’know – I never turned my back on anything. People who were like, all in on punk, and “I only listen to punk” – I was like, “Well, you’re stupid.” If you’re cutting yourself off and only listen to punk, I’m like, “You’re not gonna listen to Patsy Cline? She’s not punk. You’re not gonna listen to Miles Davis? He’s not punk.” Y’know, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that you’re leaving on the table. 

So while I was absorbing punk, maybe some stuff got moved to the side. But I never turned my back on any of it. 

When you were forming the Afghan Whigs, was it important to you for the other members to also have that expansive view of music? That they not just be rock guys or indie/punk guys? 

Well, we were all the same age. So obviously, not everybody liked exactly the same stuff, but we found we shared a lot of common interests. And what we didn’t know, one of the other guys would show us about. 

As the Whigs were kinda coming together, were you still finding inspiration in the kind of big MTV pop of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, new wave, stuff like that?

Oh, we used to play [Madonna’s] “Into the Groove”! We played a lot of Prince. I remember we played [The Bangles’ Prince-penned] “Manic Monday,” which was a hit. We played “Mandinka,” which was a hit for Sinéad O’Connor. So yeah, we still would tilt that way. I mean, I like good songs, man. And however they come through is up to the listener. 

And obviously, almost from the very beginning, covers have been a very big part of what you do – not just live, but on record. Was it always sort of the plan for the Whigs? 

I don’t think it was a plan, but it was a way to like, warm up. And kind of start a dialogue inside the band. The first songs we played as a band were cover songs. So it’s how you get to know if you can play with someone, and then find out the other strengths. But I love to interpret, you know what I mean? It’s fun. And I wouldn’t know what it was like to not do that. There’s plenty of room to do both, you don’t have to be either/or. 

When you talk about starting a dialogue between band members through covers – does that lead you to either sort of discover your band dynamic, or do originals come out of those covers? 

I think so. For instance, one of the first songs that we ever played as a band was “Psychedelic Shack” by the Temptations. So you’ve got sort of that psychedelic soul that was happening in the early ‘70s, with a lotta wah-wah guitar, that got Rick [G. Nelson, lead guitarist] on the wah-wah — and a song that I can think of that came out of that was “Turn on the Water” from Congregation. I can hear that in there. For sure, man: I think that by trying different things, it would lead you to your own thing. And I believe someone said, “Talent borrows and genius steals.” 

You talk about how much you love reinterpreting these songs – that’s one of my favorite things about the way you guys do covers, is that they’re not faithful in the strictest sense, but they’re not complete reinventions either. They just sorta sound like the would if they had been Whigs originals. Was that difficult to do the first couple times – to find your own voice within these classic songs? How much of a process is that for you?

I’ll tell you why it happened that way: Because I couldn’t be bothered to learning how they did it. So I would get it as close as I could to the way I wanted to hear it. And they had already done it their way anyway. 

I was listening to Uptown Avondale this morning, and it was striking to me – at the time, it was probably the height of the grunge explosion, and you guys were covering Freda Payne and Supremes songs. What was the reaction to that, either at your Sub Pop label or with your peers? Did people get what you were doing, or did it seem kinda alien to them?

I don’t know that it mattered at that point to us what anyone else thought we were doing. We were gonna do it whether you wanted us to or not. We were already leaving Sub Pop at that time anyway, so that was a the last record we did for them. But we had already done the Supremes songs as B-sides I think, during the Congregation Tour. So we had already been doing it, and having a good time with it. That had really no bearing on where we were gonna go after that. Except for, y’know, it definitely started to color the albums we did next – it certainly did in Congregation, Gentlemen, Black Love, and all the way up to 1965. It just increasingly got that way, a little more R&B-ish. 

Would it bother you when other bands who were ostensibly your peers, or in the scene, would do these kind of pop or R&B covers, but they would do it with either a kind of ironic edge, or they would play up the novelty of it? That was pretty prevalent at the time, and still would be for decades after…

I mean, The Replacements did stuff like that too, like, much earlier. But I’m gonna go all the way back to, for instance, The Stones doing Chuck Berry songs, and The Beatles doing Isley Brothers songs. I think it’s just… you get turned on by something, you want to see if you can sound like that. And then the great ones take it somewhere else.

When you say “the great ones” – were there other bands that you looked to at the time as fellow interpreters of song, that you were like, “Oh man, whenever these guys do an older song, they really put something new into it, they put themselves into it”? Anyone you kinda looked to as an example there? 

No. I mean, I am my own example. [Chuckles.] 

When you guys got signed to Elektra and started getting played on MTV more, were there any moments during that sort of period during the mid-’90s where you felt like, “OK, now I understand what it’s like to be at the center of pop culture”? 

Um… no. I have to say, that there was a little bit of “careful what you wish for” when we got there. Because it got a little overwhelming for me. Just like the extra stuff that you had to do, that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I definitely had kind of an ambivalent relationship with that once I got there. 

Was it a dream of yours to get a song on top 40, to have one of those classic pop song hits that would be covered by future generations?

I would love that. And I can tell you that I’m still trying! But for sure, yeah, I would… I mean, I love to write songs. To write a song that captured the zeitgeist, as it were – to get something in the top 40, that would blow my mind. 

Did you pay attention to the Billboard charts when you guys were popping?

Not really. I wasn’t like that person, ever. I do remember when Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson out of No. 1. And that was a moment I was like, “Oh, wow. One of ours did that.” To someone who was – I mean, Michael Jackson was probably my first musical hero. I loved Jackson 5, man, they were my favorite. 

Were you still keeping up with Michael Jackson by the time of Dangerous and Nirvana kicking them off, or did it just feel like a win for the home team? 

Nah, it definitely felt like a win for the home team. I’m trying to think of what the last Michael Jackson song I liked was, and it was probably “Smooth Criminal” or something. So he was just kind of doing things that I didn’t really care about anymore. I mean, I loved Michael Jackson, still love his music to this day. But at that time, Nirvana doing that, I was like, “Hell yeah, man.” Very proud of them. And well-deserved, they made a great record. 

So as the Whigs went on hiatus, as you went solo and with the Twilight Singers – how did your relationship with popular music change, and how did you continue to consume music? It seemed like you got particularly inspired by the new wave of R&B at the beginning of the 2010s, when you were covering Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Did that particular moment in music turn you on in a new way? 

Well yeah, but in the same way that D’Angelo and Maxwell did in the early ‘90s. Or Tony! Toni! Toné! Somebody’s always flipping the switch, there’s always a new person who’s bagged it up and is about to show it to you and show you how it can be done. That’s what I love. Y’know, you could draw a line from D’Angelo to Frank Ocean. But again, it’s not a chart thing for me: It’s just, “Do I like it, do I not like it?”

Do you feel like most of the people you work with – your bandmates and peers – do they keep the same kind of open ears that you do? Or do you find that’s kind of anomalous, that most people, even musicians, as they get to a certain age, their taste is their taste and they’re not necessarily looking to get turned on by new stuff?

Yeah. I mean, does everybody in my band listen to as much music as me? Absolutely not. Am I turning them on? Yes. But even though they might not listen to as much music as me, every single guy in my group has played me something I’ve never heard before, and that I liked. So again, maybe it’s not a new thing that they played me, but it was new to me.

I can tell you that when we did [Frank Ocean’s] “Lovecrimes”… I arranged it myself, and I brought it to them, and we started playing it, and they were like, “That’s cool, when did you write that?” I was like, “I didn’t!” [Laughs.] And that’s when they found out that they were playing on a Frank Ocean song. It was just like, I just whipped it up and showed them a new song. And who wrote it only matters to the publisher. 

Are you generally attracted to songs that it feels like you could have written?

Well, what I always say, for me to cover a song, is: I have to wish that I wrote it, and then I have to act like I did. 

I wanted to ask about the couple gigs you played with Usher a decade ago. Did you develop any kind of relationship with him? Were you fans of his, was he a fan of yours?

Well I was definitely a fan of Usher. Incredible singer, and great dancer too. But when – oddly enough, he heard “Lovecrimes.” And our friend Andy, who used to run The FADER, he put us in touch, because Usher wanted to play South by Southwest, but he wanted to play with a rock band. He asked us to be the band. 

And we were kind of done then. We had already done the reunion tour. I was actually in Australia, working with Steve Kilbey, again. So Usher inadvertently got the Afghan Whigs back together. And we went down and did that show with him and decided to make an album after that. Then we did Do to the Beast, and then when we toured Do to the Beast, he texted me while we were in Brooklyn. He was like, “Hey, I’m in Brooklyn – can I come down to the show tonight?” And I was like, “Hell yeah, dude!” And then he was like, “Do you wanna do ‘Climax’?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” So he got up there and he forgot the words, so I had to get him out of it. 

Have there been other moments in recent years, or even a while ago, where other artists have paid you that sort of homage and respect? Or artists that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be Afghan Whigs fans, either covered a song of yours or given you that sort of hat tip? 

We don’t get covered much. We might be a tricky cover!  

It’s included in your press info now that Olivia Rodrigo’s a fan of the Whigs. Have you actually heard anything about that?

I did hear – you know what, I heard that through Patrick Keeler, who also plays drums in Raconteurs. And he met her at the Jack White show in L.A., and shared that information… that made me smile. 

That must be some kind of career validation, that maybe the biggest new pop star in the world the past year or so is a fan of your band. 

Yeah. You know, I’m a self-validator. But look man, it is always nice to get a compliment. Who doesn’t like that? Even if somebody’s like, “Hey, I like your shirt.” It makes you smile, doesn’t it? 

She’s kind of emblematic of a new thing in popular music now, where she’s a pop star but she’s also a rock star, and the sort of lines between pop and rock and pop and R&B – basically all genres. The lines between them are sort of blurrier than they were back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Is that a cool thing for you to see? Or do you feel the lines have actually always been blurry? 

Well, I mean, again – go back to the Stones, who were a blues band, and they were a rock band, but then they wrote pop songs. And then when disco came, they did disco songs too. So you’re sort of just like, surfing the culture. Y’know, “Can you stay on the wave, and get yourself back to the beach to do it again?” 

So I have not heard any of Olivia Rodrigo’s rock ‘n’ roll work. But I’m sure she’s… I’ll put it to you like this: The music that teenagers are making these days is kind of mind-blowing. For instance, [Whigs guitarist] Christopher Thorn’s kid is 15 years old. And he’s playing me music and I’m like, “Oh my god, you’re 10 years ahead of me.” With the sophistication of his compositions. 

Like, how old was Lorde when Pure Heroine came out? 16 or 17? So that means she wrote the songs a year or two before that? So that means we’re talking about a 14 or 15-year-old kid, doing sophisticated composition work. Billie Eilish and her brother for instance, as well. These are – they’re coming at it just at a more fully formed at younger ages than anybody I remember.

Was there anybody from that generation – or not from that generation – who you were listening to during How Do You Burn that you found inspiration in?

I mean, I am constantly listening to new stuff. I could give you some names, and I wouldn’t necessarily say that you hear them in the record we made, but… there’s this young lady named Nilüfer Yanya. And I Shazamed her a couple times, we ended up playing a festival in England last month that she performed at, and I watched her perform and she was fantastic. There’s a young French woman named Camélia Jordana who I absolutely love. I like this British instrumental all-girl group called Los Bitchos, they’re fantastic. There’s this young woman named BENEE, who I really like – she’s either Australian or New Zealand, I can’t remember. Genesis Owusu, I love him too. Arooj Aftab. Laura Mvula. These are all newish or new artists that have shown me a good time over the last couple years. 

I don’t think you guys do any straight covers on the new album, but I notice that you kinda sneak an Ice Cube lyric (“Then we played bones, and I’m yelling ‘Domino’” from “It Was a Good Day”) into “Concealer.” What was the inspiration there?

Uhhh, I was just putting the song together and – it presented itself, and I was like, “Do it!” I’m gonna sneak it in there. I’m sneaking things in left and right. 

There’s so much litigation now over songwriting credits, and who does and doesn’t get credited when you’re doing that kind of pop intertextuality thing. Do you ever worry that it makes those kind of quick-hit references, or those kind of short lifts – does it make it too difficult to include those, with all the potential legal difficulties? 

Come at me, bro! 

That’s your official stance?

I mean, what else am I gonna do? I’m not doing anything harmful, y’know? I could tell you – I’ll put it to you this way: I have lifted directly from some of the biggest hits of all time. And those people haven’t come at me. So either I’m too small potatoes, or they don’t give a f–k. 

You’ve released so many great covers over the years – some live, some interpolated through your own work – but a lot of them are either hard to find now, or they’re scattered all over the place. Do you ever think of collecting them all in one place, as like a box set or some other kind of illustration of the full Afghan Whigs/Greg Dulli pop canon? 

I wonder how hard that would be. I’ve been on so many labels… but we are putting together a Twilight Singers box set, and that will have all of the covers. The Twilight Singers is the only band that I ever did a covers album with, so that will be there. But we also did a ton of covers, and there’s an extra disc just of those. So that’s coming next year. 

But yeah… the Frank Ocean song, and the Queenie Lyons song that we did back in 2012, I was sad to see that those aren’t up on streaming. And the Police cover, too. So there are a bunch of… I gotta herd some cats, Andrew. There’s a bunch out there that, you’re right, could be corralled. I gotta get on that. 

Do you ever think about the kind of complete picture of the pop music history that you’re creating through these covers? That this is the Greg Dulli version of pop history that you’ve created through these many many covers over the years?

Ehhhh, y’know… not actively. I’m kind of an in-the-moment dude. But I do have to say, that you do have me thinking about herding cats. There’s a lot out there, and it’s just kind of willy-nilly. 

Do you have a pick for the greatest pop song of all time? Top five, contenders, whatever?

Oof… The first pop song that I ever like, just fell in love with, and still love to this day was “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. I think that’s a perfect song. I think “Do It Again” by Steely Dan is a perfect song. I think “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson is a perfect song. I think “Cult Logic” by Miike Snow is a perfect song, too. It’s fantastic. Those are my top four. 

And if you could have one of your own songs — one Afghan Whigs song to become a sort of pop standard — do you have a pick for which that would be? 

Oooh… I would say “Somethin’ Hot.” 



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