Greg Dulli on "Random Desire" - The Hot Hand | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Greg Dulli on “Random Desire”

The Hot Hand

Feb 24, 2020 Photography by Maciek Jasik Web Exclusive
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Greg Dulli, frontman for The Afghan Whigs, has just released his first-ever solo record, Random Desire, via Royal Cream/BMG. The 10-song album, which was written and recorded almost entirely by Dulli, features his signature beseeching, powerful voice and the songwriter’s intellectual heft that comes along with it. Random Desire, which is comprised of tracks that feel both forlorn and triumphant, is reflective. Solemn piano playing blends with howling vocals, snare hits and flashes of electric guitar. The album, which follows The Afghan Whigs’ latest release, 2017’s In Spades, distinguishes Dulli as a solid solo performer while also adding two handfuls of well-crafted songs to his long catalogue of heartfelt, personal music. We spoke to Dulli about the writing and recording of Random Desire, as well as the surprising influence of Bob Fosse.

Jacob Uitti (Under the Radar): What music did you grow up with?

I grew up with a lot of music. My parents were teenagers so they listened to whatever was popular at the time, which was probably a lot of Motown.

Did you find yourself singing along; was music important to you when you were younger?

Of course! Music has always been extremely, extremely important to me. When I first got turned onto music, it was to escape. It was something to enjoy, something that moved me. I wasn’t thinking anything past that, you know?

Yet, fast-forward to today and you’re releasing your first solo album. What made you feel that 2020 was the right time for this?

Well, I had no plans for making a solo record until probably about a year-and-a-half ago. Patrick Keeler, who is the Whigs’ drummer, he also plays in The Raconteurs and they got back together and made a record and did a tour. So, knowing that he was going to be busy and that John Curley, the bass player, went back to college, I needed something to do. Once I wrote, like, four or five songs that I was playing everything on, I was like, “Oh, maybe I’m making a solo album now!” Then I just kept doing it and it turned out that I was making one. But, honestly, it came out of necessity. I was looking to give myself something to do because the guys in my band were preoccupied and I decided to join the preoccupation.

The music on the record is full, dense. The songs often build to a climax like a lifter raising a weight over his head. How did you think about the album’s production and composition?

I never thought of it that way but I like that idea. A couple of the songs I could absolutely see as that. I’ve approached songwriting pretty much the same since I was a teenager. I come up with a riff that I like and I scat a melody overtop of it and I phonetically look how to put the words into the song. I got a “hot hand” last February. And anybody who has been a writer of any type knows what a hot hand is, when you’re just constantly delivering, at least to yourself, what you’re looking for. Getting on a hot streak, for me, was an opportunity to see what I could do as a solo musician. For the most part, I am the band on the songs. Occasionally, I would bring in someone to color it or play better than me. Once I became comfortable with those boundaries, I was well on my way.

Was it liberating to do this so much on your own?

I don’t know about liberating because I have done things on my own, but it was fun. Like, I had a good time. Christopher Thorn, the guy I was working with [on the record], he was engineering and producing and making suggestions and telling me I could sing something better. He was pushing me to do my best and I felt like I was in safe hands there. So, I honestly really enjoyed the process. I had a great time. I loved the music that I made. I felt like it was different enough to stand alone as my own. I had a blast.

There is this beautiful, spare piano on some of the album’s standout songs, like “Slow Pan” and “It Falls Apart.” How did that instrument become so prominent?

I started playing piano probably about 30 years ago and went from terrible to mediocre to rudimentary to not terrible. As my confidence in my piano player grew, I felt more comfortable using it as a writing tool. Mostly, that’s what I use it for, to sketch something out. But in the case of “Slow Pan,” “It Falls Apart,” and “Scorpio,” which is the other piano-led song, those were all—by default piano became the main instrument. Those songs sounded really good with it as the lead instrument. I feel like there’s an intimacy with piano songs. I also love the byproduct of the percussive nature of piano. You’re striking the key not unlike striking a drum or a string.

The record incorporates ideas of sadness and melancholy. Did you find it difficult to mine these emotions?

I think, like any person, there’s several emotions going on through the record and I feel like it’s—you know, I just let it happen. If I was sad, I was just sad and I would be sad. If I was creating in a melancholy space, it was probably a catharsis for me and a way to comfort me. A lot of times that’s what music or any kind of livelihood is for me, or probably for most anyone. If you have a way to escape a feeling that you’re not enjoying, maybe try to find a way to process it and put it into some sort of artistic setting.

You made Random Desire essentially on your own. Were there emotions or thoughts you experienced during the recording that you hadn’t when making other albums?

No. I mean, as I’ve gotten to my ripe old spot in life, I feel like I’ve felt most of the feelings. I think now I tend not to let them overwhelm me as they might have in the past. So, if anything, I’ve maybe learned how to successfully surf my emotions.

The video for the record’s lead single, “Pantomima,” touches on a theme you’ve talked about before: the consequence of addiction and of a physically taxing life. Can you talk about why this idea is important?

“Pantomima,” the song, reminded me of a show tune. So much so that I went back and watched the movie, All That Jazz. I was watching it and I was like, “Wow, what a great idea for the video for this song!” I will do anything to not be in the video. So, if I can keep coming up with ideas that don’t have me in it, that’s ideal for me. But Bob Fosse, who the movie is loosely based on and who directed the film, he struggled with addiction. So, that was more Bob Fosse’s addiction than any kind of allusion to my past.

When you’re about to undertake a big project like this solo record, do you ever worry about how much you have to invest personally?

I’m a really private person. So, entering these moments where you’re probed and inspected, it’s a little bit—like, I’m wildly protective of myself because you have to be. And by “you have to be,” I mean everyone should be. And I am in particular. I’m comfortable to a point. Then when I’m not, I feel like if I’m going to stay in this situation, I have to be able to have some sort of understanding with whomever I’m talking with. Being out in public, there’s a degree of objectification, you know? Most people are cool about it, but it’s still—I’ll put it to you this way: I’m eminently comfortable on the stage. When I’m performing and everybody is in their place—it’s the same as when I’m an audience member. I love being there and then when I’m done, I go home.

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