The Afghan Whigs brought a moody elegance and dark poetics to the alternative music scene of the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
The band emerged as indie upstarts out of Cincinnati before quickly being embraced by a wider audience, signing to Sub Pop for their Jack Endino-produced second album, Up In It, and eventually moving on to major label success with Elektra Records for their feisty 1993 masterpiece, Gentlemen.
A series of stellar records followed – as did label disputes and band shakeups, which led to the group breaking up in 2001. Following some high-profile live performances in 2012-2013, the Afghan Whigs re-signed to Sub Pop for their inspired 2014 comeback album, Do to the Beast. The world tour in support of that record went so well that the band kept that momentum going right into the studio for In Spades, which was released in May.
Ahead of the Afghan Whigs show in support of In Spades tonight at First Avenue, we had an engaging chat with Dulli where he opened up about how the band’s reunion has gone, how he’s dealing with the loss of bandmate Dave Rosser, and how Babes In Toyland’s Lori Barbero kept the band from breaking up during an early Whigs show in Minneapolis.
City Pages: Was there ever a thought that Do to the Beast was going to be the only reunion record, or did you keep the momentum and good vibes going right into the new album?
Greg Dulli: I tend to stay in the present as much as I can. So, you make a record, you tour it, you enjoy it, and then you decide what to do next. We did a pretty good, long tour for Do to the Beast. I think the last show was in Spain, and we were all out to dinner and we just collectively thought we were really playing well together. So we just booked some studio time a month later. And went in and were rewarded with eight songs in eight days, and five of them made the record. That’s how that worked out. We got five of the songs in eight days, then the other five took about 14 months. [laughs]
CP: How has your approach to your music – and making a record – changed from the first phase of the band to this new iteration of the group?
GD: Honestly, making records really is about getting the songs, you get people to play them, you go into the studio and you make them. You’re not reinventing the wheel. The one thing that we did on this record that we weren’t really able to do on Do to the Beast was eight of the ten songs were done with the touring band standing in a circle and we recorded them mostly live. That was a luxury that I have not really had since probably Black Love or 1965. Most of the Twilight Singers records and Gutter Twins records were made kind of piecemeal over a period of time. But this particular record was six guys in a circle and doing takes until we got on that we liked. And usually we would get one within four takes.
CP: The new record really does capture the tension, mood, and atmospherics of the band’s live show. Is that due to how you recorded it, or are you guys just really hitting that groove together as a band?
GD: Most of us have been playing together now for five years, so that’s half a decade of playing together all the time. We definitely have hit our stride, but we’re also guys who have made a lot of records and know how to do it. But I really can’t say enough about immediately going into the studio off of a tour – that really kickstarted this record in a way that if we’d taken a year off instead, I don’t think we’d be having this same conversation.
CP: I just want to extend my condolences about Dave Rosser’s passing. I’m so sorry about that loss. How are you and the band doing now? The Pleasure Club cover was such a lovely tribute to him. Are you guys all doing OK?
GD: Thank you. We’re doing all right. I’ll miss Dave Rosser for the rest of my life. And I’m sure I can absolutely speak for the other guys when I say that. He was such a special, unique, singular entity. I will never not miss him. But, he left us a lot of great memories. I can tell you that the first run that we did to Europe, he was really sick and beginning to prepare for his next voyage. That was tough being that far away from him.
This last run was bittersweet but a little more relaxed because he had moved on. He visited the shows though, I’ll tell you that. In particular, I was talking about him on stage at the last show at Pukkelpop [a music festival in Belgium] and there’s like 25,000 people in front of us. It was an overcast day and it had started to rain a little bit right as I began to tell the story, and as soon as I said his name, I’m not even joking, the rain stopped and the sun came out. And the crowd realized it, the band realized it, and it gave me one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever had in my life.
CP: His work on the new record is just fantastic.
GD: Nobody played like Rosser. He was the package. He was my harmony singer. I’ve played 600 shows with Dave Rosser, and it will always be a little strange to turn around and not see him there.
CP: Your distinctive voice and your mercurial lyrics have consistently anchored the band’s sound and style over the years. Has that been a challenge for you to keep up, both artistically and emotionally?
GD: I don’t think so. I’ve been writing songs since I was 14. I just write songs, it’s what I do and it’s what I love to do. I do my best every time. This is the 15th record I’ve made, and it’s where I’m at right now. That’s the best way to describe any record at any time that I do one.
CP: You’ve always managed to put so much heart and emotion into your music, and I’ve really identified with that over the years.
GD: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
CP: You recently reworked and rereleased Black Love for Record Store Day. And you reissued Gentlemen back in 2014. What are your thoughts when you allow yourself the luxury of looking back at your career and your accomplishments over the years? Those are a couple of brilliant records – do you allow yourself to revel in that a little bit, or are you always looking forward?
GD: I’m always looking forward. But being afforded the luxury of having the interest of someone wanting me, or us, to do that is beyond flattering. It’s an honor. You get to look back and say, "Wow, that was me at 27-years-old." You get to remember who you were at that time in your life. But the clock keeps moving, bro. But with Black Love, in particular, there was a whole lot of extra stuff that we unearthed. That was really cool to check out, all this stuff that we had that we never put out. In particular, the “Going to Town” demo, we’ve been doing that song in the demo style in our shows lately. That was a nice blast from the past that has found its way into our current show. That was a nice surprise.
CP: Those unreleased Black Love tunes were a great completion of the creative package around that album, to share with fans all of the magic that was going on in the studio at the time. You guys were really at a creative peak there.
GD: It was cool to do that. And we’ve already been contacted because the 1965 anniversary is next year, so I’m about to wrap my head around that one. [laughs]
CP: How crucial and nurturing has the Sub Pop label and family been to the band over the years, both in your early days and now for the reunion records?
GD: Megan Jasper, who is the CEO at Sub Pop now, she was the receptionist when we first signed in 1989. They’ve definitely promoted from within. Megan and Jonathan [Poneman, Sub Pop’s co-founder] have been my friends now for, fuck, coming up on thirty years now. We were all kids back then. But even when we signed to the majors, and when I turned around and did Twilight Singers, they were always remarkably supportive and always at the shows. And I got back together with Sub Pop when I did the Gutter Twins record, and since 2008, the Gutter Twins, the last Twilight Singers records, and the last two Whigs records, I’ve made the last four records with Sub Pop. They really are like my family. Jonathan and Megan are two of my best friends. I can’t imagine a better place for myself or my group.
CP: You’ve had a long history with Minneapolis and First Avenue – performing and visiting here multiple times over the years. Have you developed an affinity for Minneapolis during your career?
GD: The Whigs were breaking up back in late ’88, early ’89, right when Sub Pop started coming after us. Lori Barbero, who was working at the Uptown at the time, talked me into doing another show at the Uptown. And Joe Shanahan at the Metro [in Chicago] talked us into doing another show. And those two shows kind of got us back together. In a lot of ways, Minneapolis saved us. I was living in Minneapolis for most of ‘92, over on Colfax with [music video director] Phil Harder, and Lori had the apartment upstairs. So I lived in a house with Phil and Lori for just shy of a year in ’92.
It’s one of my favorite cities, truly. Not the least of which because of all the great music that has come out of there. Prince and Hüsker Dü in particular. Those two groups formed my worldview, and I’ve been probably trying to shove those two sounds together for the past 30 years. I can’t say enough about what Minneapolis means to me. It will be cool to share the stage with Sean Tillman [Har Mar Superstar], who I know has moved back to town. It will be cool to watch him do his thing there.
CP: You’ve mentioned the Gutter Twins a couple times. Mark Lanegan has hinted that there potentially might be some new Gutter Twins material in the works. Is there any truth to that?
GD: Mark is one of my best friends. We’re both kind of blazing our own trails right now, but I imagine at some point it will happen. We both enjoyed the experience, and if we find some time to get together we’ll carve it out. I wouldn’t say the near future, but I would be absolutely surprised if there wasn’t another Gutter Twins record again someday. At least by 2025. [laughs]
CP: I’ll definitely try to hold you to that. I loved Saturnalia, and would love to hear more collaborations between the two of you.
GD: I love it too. A couple years ago, I was on a long drive with someone and they had never heard it, and asked me about it. They were like, "Hey, can we play it." And I said sure. So we put it on, and I hadn’t heard it in such a long time. And I absolutely enjoyed listening to it strictly as a music fan. That was a cool experience.
CP: I definitely enjoyed listening to it as a music fan as well, Greg. So, thanks for that. And thanks for all the other great records you’ve made over the years, man. You’ve really soundtracked some good times in my life, and I’m really appreciative and thankful to you for that.
GD: My pleasure, man. Thank you for the kind words. That’s really kind of you.
The Afghan Whigs
With: Har Mar Superstar
Where: First Avenue
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Sept. 21
Tickets: 18+, $30/$35; more info here