hese days, musical comebacks seem inevitable, but few are successful, philosophically satisfying or even welcomed.
That is most assuredly not the case with The Afghan Whigs, as frontman Greg Dulli, bassist John Curley and their current band of brothers return home on their triumphant circuit to promote their acclaimed new album, Do to the Beast, while simultaneously revisiting their revered catalog.
“If you look at (setlist.fm), you’ll see that we have sort of a core of older songs that we do,” Curley says via cell phone on a rare day at home. “I’m sure Greg’s thinking about (the set) because he’s always thinking about stuff. For me, I’m ready for anything. The U.S. tour is going to be different from the European tour, but how, I don’t know yet. That’s part of the fun for me. I’m not really sure what to expect myself sometimes.”
The Whigs’ brilliant 1998 release, 1965, the last album issued during their initial run, was almost universally praised as a near-perfect synthesis of Modern Rock and noir Soul. Instead of signifying the next phase in the Whigs’ creative evolution, 1965 was their exit strategy, the flag planted atop their personal Everest with muttered asides indicating a reticence to return.
But even as Dulli, Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum forged new careers of varying styles and profiles, there were hints of a potential reunion. The Internet encouraged long-distance collaboration; two new songs appeared on the 2007 retrospective Unbreakable; and Dulli began performing Whigs songs on his 2010 unplugged tour that he hadn’t revisited in years. That teed up 2012’s wildly received reunion tour, this year’s critically acclaimed Do to the Beast and its current live translation during the tour behind the new album (the MPMF tour stop will feature a special guest; Dulli says it’s “an old friend … I’ll leave it at that.”).
“The acoustic tour set up (reconstituting the Whigs),” Dulli says. “I played a bunch of Afghan Whigs songs, and I enjoyed playing them. When I came to Cincinnati, John played with me, then he got in the car with us and went up to Chicago. Then he did the West Coast when I got back from Europe. The gigs we did in 2012, the planets aligned. Everybody was in the right place.”
Equally influential on the Whigs’ reunification process was last year’s South by Southwest gig with Usher, an unexpected but perfect pairing of musical talents.
“There was something really spontaneous and innocent about how we put a show together in two days and then played on the third day,” Dulli says. “It reminded me of how we started out. John and I talked at dinner that night, and we said, ‘Let’s go in the studio and see what happens.’ We booked time in May of last year and by New Year’s Eve we had a record in the can. The fact that it only took seven months to write, record and mix, that let me know that it wanted to be there.”
As Dulli notes, Curley’s road absences were no longer so much of a family liability, giving him the latitude to commit to the recent slate of activity.
“John and I have remained friends over the years, but to travel together again, play music and do the things you do the day of the show, that was cool,” Dulli says. “His children were old enough to understand and support him and that was crucial to whatever happened later.”
This iteration of the Whigs is only a partial reconstruction. Dulli and Curley are joined by some of Dulli’s bandmates in The Twilight Singers (as well as Greenhornes/Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler), while McCollum is notably absent, in studio and on stage.
“Rick was not asked to participate,” Dulli says evenly. “Nothing but love for Rick McCollum, but (he was) not up to the task of performing or making a record. As soon as John and I decided to go on without Rick, what are we going to call it? John and I started The Afghan Whigs. He joined my band, The Black Republicans, when we were 19, and I left town for a little while and then I came back with some songs and we started the band. No discredit to what Rick, Steve Earle, Paul Buchignani, Michael Horrigan, Harold Chichester or anyone who played with The Afghan Whigs brought to the table; it was always a cool group dynamic. But at the core of that, it was always me and dude.”
Even with substitutions, Do to the Beast rages and roars with the visceral power of the best of the Whigs’ catalog. In fact, Beast’s sonic and lyrical profile is so close to classic Whigdom it’s feasible that Dulli came across an archival trove of Black Love-era compositions or he’s been setting aside anything remotely Whigs-tinted for the last decade.
“No, you know what? When we started in May, I had the riff to ‘Parked Outside’ and a skeleton of ‘Algiers,’” Dulli says of the new album’s content. “That is all I brought to the table. And all those songs, and the fleshing out of those two songs, happened in those seven months. So it was providence.”
“I know Greg writes differently for The Afghan Whigs than he does for The Twilight Singers, so I think it comes from there,” Curley says of the album’s sound. “In terms of which songs sound like the Whigs, that’s probably going to be different for everybody. To me, they’re all Whigs songs. For better or worse, we’ve always been diverse, even within the thing we do.”
Part of the process was knowing when to walk away from something that wasn’t working. During the Whigs’ sessions for the album in Cincinnati, a song that Dulli felt would be the album’s focal point ground to a halt and couldn’t be revived. The band nearly called it a night when an irresistible hook snapped everyone back to attention.
“We were about to chuck it and go to dinner, and the riff for ‘Matamoros’ happened,” Dulli recalls. “Everybody ran back in and it happened in a couple hours. Just when we thought something was a wash, we got one of my favorite songs on the album. It was really cool for that to have happened in (Curley’s Cincinnati studio) Ultrasuede.”
Another longstanding tradition that the rejuvenated Whigs have maintained is the deft use of reimagined covers. They recorded and posted online their take on Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes” as well as Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ “See and Don’t See” on their website two years ago, and they recently streamed a dark Whiggy version of The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” from the Beast sessions.
“I think we’re a pretty out-of-the-closet closet cover band,” Curley says with a laugh.
The Afghan Whigs’ most impressive feat on Do to the Beast is crafting a set of songs that mirrors their original adrenalized vibe while investing that classicism with a contemporary energy. Dulli doesn’t hesitate when asked for the secret behind that particular magic trick.
“You have to be unafraid of what came before you,” he says. “It’s the definition of staying true to the moment and what is currently happening to you and turning you on. There was a lot of forward movement.
“Again, I’ll point to the seven month gestation of the project. It’s the fastest record I’ve done since (major-label debut) Gentlemen. That says a lot to me, because we made (final indie album of the initial run) Congregation, (the covers EP) Uptown Avondale and Gentlemen in 18 months.”
Equally important to Beast’s physical presence is the fact that the band cut much of the material live in the studio. That energy emanates from the speakers like a palpable entity.
“A lot of these songs had the immediacy of being played by five or six people that laid the basic track down,” Dulli says. “I think we made a great record and we’re playing great shows. That’s all you have to do. There’s nothing else to think about. You can argue me up and down … and I will destroy you.” ©
THE AFGHAN WHIGS headline the Washington Park stage Friday at the MidPoint Music Festival.