Musical acts that defy categorization and are difficult to describe are rare, fascinating creatures. While so many artists’ styles and sounds can often be compared or harkened back to a musical ancestor or predecessor, a few make it extremely difficult to determine their musical lineage.
Take, for example, The Afghan Whigs. The band formed in the mid-80s in Cincinnati, and have been releasing superb (albeit hard-to-categorize) records since the latter part of the decade of their arrival.
Led by charismatic, passionate singer and songwriter Greg Dulli, it was almost inevitable that the group’s sound would evolve into a mélange of genres, textures and styles. Raised and reared simultaneously on heavy doses of R&B, punk-rock, jazz and rock and roll, Dulli’s appreciation for music as a whole is clearly evident both through his recorded works and in conversation.
After a long hiatus (the band’s last full-length album, In Spades, was released in 2017), Dulli and The Afghan Whigs are on the verge of kicking off a new tour in advance of a brand new studio album—How Do You Burn?— that’s due Sept. 9.
Below, Dulli addresses a variety of topics from his base in California ahead of the band’s live dates.
A lot of artists have their own unique version or their own take of what the pandemic did for them in terms of creativity or what having time off from touring was like for them. What did the pandemic do to you? Did it give you more time to write or to reflect? What was that like for you personally?
Well, I had just put a record out the last week of February of 2020. I put out my first solo record [Random Desire]. I was getting ready to fly to Ireland to start a tour when it was like, “It’s the plague! Everybody stay in your house!” and I was like, “Oh my God,” you know. So in regard to that, it sort of really knocked the wind out of my sails because I had worked really hard on a record that I loved and was excited to go out and play it and then obviously, the world shut down. So, nobody knew [when the pandemic would end] but were saying “It’ll be done by June,” or “It’ll be done by July,” so I rebooked the shows for the fall of that year and then it became pretty clear that it was not going to go away. So I filmed a couple shows where I played alone and in a friend of mine’s club, and I did pay-per-view for those.
As soon as I was done with that – that was August 2020 – I called my manager and my booking agent and I said, “Cancel those fall shows. They’re not going to happen. I’m going to make a new Whigs record.” We went from September of 2020 and finished it in December of 2021. So, it was written and recorded in about a year and, you know, with me and Patrick [Keeler] the drummer, living in California, and then we went out to Joshua Tree where our new guitar player [Christopher Thorn] has a studio and the three of us worked on it there. And then sent it to the other guys in New Orleans, Cincinnati and New Jersey. That’s a long answer to your question.
I’m always intrigued by bands that defy categorization. With the Whigs, you can’t really pinpoint what the origin is or what the exact influence is of the music. I’m always fascinated by bands like that. But, from your side, is that kind of by design? Or is that something that just comes out naturally? I’ve heard and seen your band referred to or associated with grunge and with all these other sub-genres, but I think you guys are kind of in your own sort of category. What’s your take on that?
Well, I mean I’m an omnivorous music person, so I listen to a lot of stuff and always have. I grew up listening to Motown, pop music, Rolling Stones, whatever the older neighbor kids were listening to, Zeppelin and AC/DC. But my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, they were [in] Kentucky and West Virginia, so I was listening to a lot of country music. And then when I got to college, like, I got turned onto jazz, I got turned onto punk-rock and all that. And not to mention my high school metal years and my absolute love of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of my favorite bands of all time. So I was the kid who listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, and George Jones, so I like a lot.
I just like a lot of different stuff. So that’s the best way I can describe it. My songwriting is like a bird, making a nest: there’s some newspaper, there’s some hay, there’s a fucking fast food bag – whatever I can find to get myself a styling vehicle or home or a place to rest. That’s how it’s going to happen. So I feel like, first of all, thank you for saying so, but I can easily say we sound like The Afghan Whigs and nobody sounds like us. So that’s how I answer that question.
I have to give my condolences for the loss of former bandmate Mark Lanegan. That had to be pretty tough. I know you’d done so much work with him in the past.
One of the greatest people I’ll ever know. One of my absolute most beloved and beautiful friends and friendships that I have ever or will ever have. But, you know, in the words of Theodor Geisel, “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.” [Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, said, ‘“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”] And that’s how I’m going through this particular thing. I will miss Mark forever. He just was such a good friend of mine – such a kind, intelligent, incredibly funny, wildly talented person. One of the greatest singers to ever fucking walk the planet. I appreciate your condolences.
So it’s been awhile since you guys have done a tour of the extent of the one you’re about to embark on. Tell me a little bit about the show and what you have planned. Are you going to focus on the newer stuff? I know you always like to go back and throw some surprises in your setlists. What can the audience coming to see you at Bogart’s expect?
Notwithstanding, I haven’t played a concert in front of people in four years. That’s the longest since I was 20 years old…even longer than that probably – since high school. Keep in mind, I was about to do a tour two years ago and it got pulled out from under me, and then we had basically two years off. So, yeah, it’s been four years, but, to the point of your question, we have the album coming out in September. We have this second song coming out before the album.
And, while I love to play new stuff, I don’t want to drown people in it and say, “Hey, what the fuck is this?” I mean, by the time that we start playing on my birthday, the world will have been able to hear two of the songs, and we’ll play both of those, and we’re going to play one other one from the new record and then stuff from the last two records. I’m going to slip a song from my solo record into the show that everybody in the band wants to play. There will be a generous helping of some ‘90s highlights from almost all of the old records.
The Afghan Whigs will perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 11 at Bogart’s, 2621 Vine St., Corryville. Info: theafghanwhigs.com.
This story originally was published by CityBeat sister newspaper Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.