In talking with Greg Dulli, songwriter, frontman and founding member of Cincinnati-spawned Modern Rock icons The Afghan Whigs, it’s clear that with the new album In Spades, fans are hearing a true representation of today’s version of the band. They’re also seeing a different Dulli than the one they encountered in the 1990s, when the intensity of his emotions — which translated into some particularly self-lacerating lyrics on albums like 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s searing Black Love — coupled with some unpredictability as a performer helped make The Afghan Whigs a fascinating and seemingly somewhat combustible presence on the music scene.
The Afghan Whigs lasted for one more album after Black Love, splitting after the 1998 release 1965. Dulli went on to work with his Twilight Singers project, as well as The Gutter Twins with Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees fame). It was during The Twilight Singers’ run that Dulli began to deal with various demons and habits before emerging as a more settled person.
“I think the absolute kind of height of the torture was probably Blackberry Belle,” Dulli says, referring to the 2003 Twilight Singers album. “This was mostly self-inflicted and I think unchaining yourself from unhealthy behavior and giving yourself a chance to be hopeful or optimistic, or allowing yourself to be loved, (are) probably all steps I’ve taken in the latter part of my life that I did not allow in my younger days. I have my moments, but I live a life of relative serenity.”
As Dulli worked his way through the next decade with The Gutter Twins, Twilight Singers and as a solo artist, he maintained that he didn’t see an Afghan Whigs reunion in his future. But things changed when Dulli did an acoustic tour in 2010. For that tour, he was joined on some shows by bassist John Curley, who co-founded The Afghan Whigs with Dulli in Cincinnati in 1986, as well as multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and guitarist Dave Rosser, who were some of the many musicians who contributed to Twilight Singers albums. After Dulli reconnected with guitarist Rick McCollum in 2011, another original member of Afghan Whigs, the idea of a reunion began to take hold.
Dulli says the acoustic tour was the catalyst that led to an eventual full-time return. “There are the seeds of the reunion right there,” Dulli says. “John had never met Dave or Rick (Nelson), and they all got along really famously.”
The Whigs, with Nelson and Rosser on board, reemerged in 2012, playing a few headlining shows and festival dates.
That first post-reunion album, Do to the Beast, arrived in 2014. Dulli and Curley took the lead with songwriting, and the album included guest appearances from a number of notable musicians, including Mark McGuire, Clay Tarver and Alain Johannes. The tour that followed, which included Nelson, Rosser, guitarist Jon Skibic (replacing a departing McCollum) and new drummer Patrick Keeler (once a member of fellow Cincinnati band The Greenhornes) further cemented the chemistry of the new Afghan Whigs lineup.
When the tour ended, Dulli and his bandmates were so enthused about the shows that they decided to get right to work on the album that became In Spades.
“It’s just an incredibly hot band,” Dulli says. “We were over doing the last European tour in 2015 and just decided that we sounded great, (so) let’s book some studio time and go in and keep the hot hand going. We got off the road and went in and recorded half the record in a week. We put ourselves in a circle and started to hammer it out, figure it out. That’s why I think (In Spades) sounds so vibrant and alive, because it was essentially played live in the studio by the touring band.”
The approach to the album, especially during that initial recording session, allowed all of the band members to make their presence felt in the songs, which took shape from the ground up in the studio.
“Honestly I walked in and I didn’t really have anything. I just started winging it,” Dulli says. “I would work on something the night before — I had a couple of riffs on my telephone — and I would come in and show it to (the band) and get an arrangement down and then they would start to decorate the house… I would give limited suggestions to people, but I’d have to say it’s a band record in every way.”
With its signature mix of raucous guitar Rock and a tinge of Soul, the band sounds energized on In Spades. The Soul influence is most pronounced on “Light as a Feather,” which puts some swing and groove into the band’s gritty sound. “Arabian Heights” and “Copernicus” deliver terse and punchy Rock, with edgy guitar lines and Dulli’s impassioned vocals. The band widens its instrumental scope on “Demon In Profile,” “Oriole” and “Toy Automatic,” using horns and other orchestration to build considerable drama.
Live shows in support of In Spades, Dulli says, have found the band varying the song selections a bit from night to night (sets have included early Whigs tunes like “Turn on the Water” and “Amphetamines and Coffee”), with an emphasis on the more recent music.
“The last two records are getting pretty good play. We go all the way back to Up In It (the band’s 1990 debut for Sub Pop Records). And we’re playing a few covers, too,” he says.
While life in The Afghan Whigs is good in almost every respect, a significant element of sadness has accompanied this current period. Last fall, Rosser was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. In June, the guitarist succumbed to the illness. The band is making sure fans know about Rosser and his impact. “It is our duty to go out and celebrate our friendship with him and the music we made with him,” Dulli says.
Rosser wasn’t only a big influence on The Afghan Whigs’ music — he also had an incalculable effect on a personal level.
“He was absolutely one of the most incredible spirits I’ve ever met while I’ve been on earth,” Dulli says. “I’ll miss him forever. I’ll celebrate him forever. I’ll think about him every day. He’s absolutely one of the greatest friends I’ve ever known.”
THE AFGHAN WHIGS play Thursday at Bogart’s. Tickets/more info: bogarts.com.