The Afghan Whigs' new album, Do to the Beast, lays out like claws of an aged, mangy city. Up close, structures are corroded and crumbling. From a distance, though, The Beast becomes a magnificent thing, a marvel of rock and darker soul. Singer/guitarist/conductor Greg Dulli has entered his seer phase, reading cracks in concrete like they were palms. Higher in his vocal range, he foretells with a gritty, splintered falsetto. Lower, his voice is viscous, rounded, and morose. "I Am Fire" spells out beauty in a bleak facade. In the 16 years since Afghan Whigs' previous release, Dulli has been active with the Twilight Singers, the Gutter Twins, and solo material. Do to the Beast (out on Sub Pop) is not music from a re-formed band rehashing their previous sounds at all. It's an urgent, hungry creature. Sharp with thinking teeth, longing anew, and dripping with fresh blood. You might want to save your Bumbershoot Shishkaberry's for another set. Dulli spoke from his home in Los Angeles.
Songs on The Beast come off like a city. At street level, they're ugly, oil-soaked, and trash-filled. There's pain. But when you pull back, you can see what the builders were going for. You see where it aligns. You see grace and form.
That's the definition of perspective, really, isn't it? I'd say city is very much a part of it. The album was made in four different cities: New Orleans, LA, Joshua Tree, and back in Cincinnati, speaking of perspective. Location always plays a part. It's the life you're living, in the surroundings you find yourself in. The experiences of making the album in these places definitely gave the songs some shape. The entire record was written and recorded in seven months—from May to December of 2013.
Does it feel like 16 years have passed since Afghan Whigs' previous release?
Not at all. I think touring in 2012 made it seem like not so long. Five months after that tour, we started making the record. It didn't seem like a giant gulf anymore. We'd been playing together for a year, and it just seemed very natural.
"Matamoros" is a fucking jam, goddamn. It steps on the gas and doesn't let up.
That one came from the main guitar figure and the drumbeat. The interplay there, yeah. It just started as a jam. We liked it immediately, so we started recording it. The change happened, which became the next guitar figure. Then the chorus. My favorite part of the song is the double violin push in the middle. It all happened in one day, very quickly—we were at Ultrasuede Studio in Cincinnati, and recorded it in about two hours. I think the immediacy of the song is evident. We didn't overthink it. We made it happen as soon as it wanted to be heard. I didn't write the words until a couple months later.
I was up all night reading about what happened in Matamoros, Mexico, about Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, murdering and sacrificing people and animals for a religious cult and drug cartels. His six-foot-one partner was the high priestess. He sacrificed lion cubs. Some messed up shit, man.
His mom said he was psychic because he predicted Ronald Reagan would be shot. The dude had a cauldron and raided graveyards, then needed live humans to sacrifice. He also sacrificed zebras. What drew you to the story?
Something different about that place for sure. A friend of mine told us a story about visiting a little beach town in Mexico with his girlfriend. They met a guy from Matamoros there, and hung out with him for a while. Then they got sick. When they got home, they developed their pictures, and the guy appeared to be a demon. He had a demon face in all the photos. It scared the shit out of them. He told us the story while we were making the song, and then I told the story about Adolfo Constanzo. I remember reading about it in the late '80s. After we finished the song, the engineer asked what it was called and I just said "Matamoros." It was a fresh topic. There are some strange circumstances that happened outside all the sacrificing. He believed the sacrifices would protect him and help him not get caught selling the drugs.
A cartel member displeased him, so he removed his spine. What the fuck? Black magic, but fascinating. Similar to your music in a way, how it taps into darker forces. You kind of have a wraith inside you, a bard-wraith.
There's a wraith inside all of us, my friend. It's whether you have a dialogue with it or not that depends.
But you don't sacrifice people, or lion cubs.
That's true; I don't do those things. I write songs, and take pictures [laughs].
The upcoming book I Apologize in Advance for the Awful Things I'm Gonna Do coming out on Sub Pop with your photography, Danny Bland's haikus, and Exene Cervenka's calligraphy looks great. When you're taking a picture, what do you look for? What catches your eye?
I think a picture presents itself. For me, photography and songwriting both seem to start with a strange inspiration. I don't necessarily go around looking for photographs, I wait to find them. [Pauses] It's hard to quantify it exactly. Catching a picture is the same kind of spirit as catching a song. You hear a melody in your head, you start to interact with it—that's what photography is to me.
Who chose which photos would go with which haikus?
Danny. Danny did all that. I found some that I'd never shown anybody before and gave those to him. I've known Danny Bland for many years. He's an immensely talented, funny writer. I loved reading the haikus when he proposed the idea. All he had to do was ask.
Describe one of your photos.
There's one I took of a woman in a bar in New Orleans with really low light. You can't tell what's happening, but in the photograph she's crying. She was crying because she was happy. It was a moment that I happened to be there for. I think somebody gave her a gift, she was moved by it, and she started to weep. I thought it was really beautiful, and took a picture of her. She saw me taking the picture and asked if she could have it. I sent it to her. So I have it, she has it, and now the world has it.