Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli Talks the Making of ‘How Do You Burn?’ and the Loss of Mark Lanegan

“I think it just kind of popped out of his mouth,” says Greg Dulli, remembering how his late friend, longtime collaborator, and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan came up with the title for The Afghan Whigs’ ninth album. The christening of the band’s record was a full circle moment since one cold night nearly 20 years earlier when Dulli blurted out a phrase Lanegan would end up using as the title of the 2003 EP, Here Comes That Weird Chill. “In a way, he returned the favor,” quips Dulli.

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Lanegan’s contribution to The Afghan Whigs’ release stretched beyond naming the album How Do You Burn? since the singer, also a bandmate of Dulli’s in The Gutter Twins and The Twilight Singers projects, sings backup on two tracks—one of his final recordings before his untimely death on February 22, 2022.

How Do You Burn? basically means what turns you on,” says Dulli of the band’s third album since reforming in 2014 after an 11-year hiatus. “What makes you go? What turns your crank? It’s almost like a jazzman term. As soon as he [Lanegan] said it, all of my senses came alive, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna take that one from you buddy.’ “I said ‘Can I have it?’ and he said ‘Yes,’ so it’s not stealing when they give it to you.”

Working out the songs as the cloud of the pandemic had yet to lift, Dulli made a regular pilgrimage, along with drummer Patrick Keeler, from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, California, to flesh out the 10 tracks at the studio of Afghan Whigs and founding Blind Melon guitarist Christopher Thorn. Recording on “Pro Tools” and FaceTime, parts were then disseminated to the rest of the band, including bassist John Curley in Cincinnati, guitarist Jon Skibic in New Jersey, and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson in New Orleans.

Playing off the first song the band initially recorded together in 2019, How Do You Burn? began building around “Take Me There,” which Dulli initially wrote in 2018 before starting his 2020 debut solo album, Random Desire. “It was the last song that we played in the same room together,” says Dulli of the hypnotic march, offering its harmonized gospel chant take me there / whatcha waiting for—and also one of the two songs featuring Lanegan. “Once my tour was canceled, and canceled again, I decided to make a Whigs record because I had done it before this way. We did The Twilight Singers’ record Powder Burns [2006] in a similar way, because we were in New Orleans just after [Hurricane] Katrina, and we had to farm stuff out.”

Dulli at first contemplated an Afghan Whigs double album, but that thought dissipated as he whittled the 24 songs he had already written down to the now-remaining 10.

How Do You Burn? is the question, and the spontaneous burst of the rocker “I’ll Make You See God” is the band’s opening retort—Come kiss the night awake / Closer now as the wind…Closer still as the room / Reveals your disguise. “‘I’ll Make you See God’ is very bare bones but that is its power,” says Dulli. “There’s not a whole bunch of stuff on it. When you overload a track, when you go all in on tracks, it can lessen the effect. That song is very powerful and nimble because of how stripped down it is.”

Photo by John-Curley / Courtesy-The-Afghan-Whigs

Dulli’s soulful croon sizzles around the pleading Please, Baby, Please”—a song he likens to the 1970 Brook Benton R&B classic “Rainy Night In Georgia”—and the tribal race of “Catch a Colt.” How Do You Burn? lightens up with the fist-pumping “A Line of Shots,” then melts again around Marcy Mays, who sang on Gentlemen‘s “My Curse,” returning on “Domino And Jimmy,” a restless story of a lovesick duo swelling around I am your sadness baby / Your light of day / Like a living ghost / You get lost inside my head and Dulli’s opposing notion I am your madness baby / Your light of day / I can see the smoke / And you are lost inside my head. 

Before the hazy organ and explosive close of “In Flames,” the shortest track, “Concealer,” runs less than two and a half minutes and leaves behind a gentler stroke on the album. “I wrote it quickly, and I didn’t ask a lot of questions of what was going on, but it wanted to be done that way and in the words,” says Dulli, who wrote the song off a simple acoustic line then freestyled the vocals over. “I pretty much sang most of those lyrics off the top of my head. ‘Concealer’ is instinctual, and I love it because of that.”

Lanegan, who passed away the day the band released their first single, “I’ll Make You See God,” for the album, also appears on the futuristic swelter of “Jyja,” a song Dulli says was inspired by a story he read about a Japanese man who built a sex robot girlfriend. “Her name was ‘Ja Ja,’ so I asked a friend of mine who had some knowledge of the Japanese language, and he said it would probably be pronounced ‘Jyja,’” laughs Dulli. “I’m not gonna tell you it’s about a Japanese sex robot, but I’m not going to tell you it’s not about a Japanese sex robot.”

Regarding Lanegan’s two featured tracks, Dulli can almost hear his friend asking if his vocals were even in the songs. “If he was still around, he would be like, ‘I can’t hear my voice,’ and I’d be like, ‘But I’ll tell you what buddy, you would hear it if I took it out,’” jokes Dulli. “He [Lanegan] used his sub-voice on there, the deepest voice he had, almost like a deep bass frequency.”

Still sore from his loss, Dulli remembers Lanegan as the consummate artist and human he was. “As a singer, Mark was without peer,” he says. “I’ve heard people say he’s one of the great voices of his generation. He’s one of the great voices of any generation. He was born to sing. He was one of the most beautiful people that I will ever know—kind, incredibly funny, loved animals, always stayed curious, consummate artist, and was coming into his own as a writer. It’s sad, but Mark had nine lives and he used all of them.”

Assembling more old friends and voices along with Lanegan and Mays, Susan Marshall, who appeared on the band’s 1998 album 1965, appears on “Catch a Colt,” while R&B singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Van Hunt, who toured with the band in 2012 and appeared on their 2014 album Do to the Beast, slips into “Jyja” and “Take Me There” with Dulli and Lanegan. “I can’t say enough about Van’s contributions to the record,” says Dulli. “He’s sort of like a shadow or a ghost of me through the songs, echoing me. In regards to ‘Jyga’ he’s almost stalking my vocal. Van has genius level skills vocally.” 

Mixing was an integral part of the album, Dulli says, resulting in some “headphone action” from the string section and ambient guitar on “The Getaway” to a section on “Catch the Colt,” which he admits was loosely borrowed from the KC and the Sunshine Band’s 1975 disco hit “Get Down Tonight.”

“If you put headphones on, we are fucking with you at all times,” says Dulli, proud of the layered arrangements. “Sonically, each song presented a blank page. ‘Please Baby Please’ has some hip-hop and hi-hat mixes with a lot of sub-bass surges and surreal organ. That song is probably my favorite headphone experience on the record because there’s a lot of left and right [sound] going on.”

Throughout How Do You Burn? there’s some essence of escapism, reflecting the times the songs were written—the isolation around the pandemic. “It’s based on the situation that most of us found ourselves in,” adds Dulli. “Even if you just had to visit it in your mind, you had to get out of your head, and that’s definitely what created a world that I could inhabit. Sometimes I don’t know what a song is about until months later. Oftentimes, it will come to me while I’m singing it live, but songs are up to you to decide what they’re about. They’re always open to interpretation.” 

Nowadays, Dulli says he’s more of an abstract songwriter. Pain and heartache still occur, but the channel has switched to something less cathartic when it comes to telling those stories. 

“I don’t want to have to lean on whether something bad happened to me to be able to do art,” says Dulli of how he prefers to write now. “Working within my imagination has been incredibly rewarding. I also have a lot of experiences backed up so if I have to tap into something by this time in my life I’ve felt most of the feels. Bad things will still happen. They just do.”

All the written psalms of doomed and toxic relationships and trials of love and lust, self-loathing, and lingering regrets that were a habitual theme of many Afghan Whigs albums in the ’90s left an emotional toll on Dulli. Loss is also prevalent on Dulli’s second album with The Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle (2003), a collection of songs he calls an “emotional exorcism” that was written as a tribute to his close friend, actor and director Ted Demme, who died of a heart attack at 38 while playing a game of basketball in 2002. Random Desire followed the loss of Gutter Twins and The Twilight Singers bandmate and Afghan Whigs guitarist Dave Rosser, who died from colon cancer at 50 in 2017. 

“On Random Desire, I can feel my sadness for missing Dave Rosser,” shares Dulli. “There is more than one moment where I know that I’m singing about him, but I’m also celebrating that I knew him. If you sit around and wait for some sort of need for emotional catharsis, that’s not a healthy way to live. If you can write a sad song on a sunny day or a happy song on a sunny day, now you’re moving into artistry.”

Now, as 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the band’s third album Congregation, and nearly three decades since the fourth album, Gentleman, Dulli says some songs still connect and others don’t. The latter just never get any live play. For instance, Dulli says he still loves performing one of the band’s earliest songs, “Son of the South,” which was written a year or two after the band formed in 1986 and later released on their second album Up In It in 1990. “I absolutely love it to this very day,” says Dulli, adding that there’s plenty on Congregation, Gentleman, and the other albums that he still enjoys playing. “The songs that don’t necessarily resonate with me now—or if they don’t at a certain time—I just don’t perform them,” says Dulli. “It’s not like I have a bunch of smash hits that I absolutely have to play.”

Dulli adds, “I’ve been very blessed with a group of people who have followed our work and inspired us to continue to keep pushing the envelope. We can go out and play music, but I also never forget how they found us in the first place. And you can’t turn your back on those things.”’

Main photo courtesy Afghan Whigs.

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