An interview with frontman Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, a huge '90s-era alt-rock group that — after 13 years out of the limelight — is returning to the stage.
The Afghan Whigs, often cited among the 1990s’ greatest musical risk-takers, have re-emerged from a 13-year slumber. The seminal Cincinnati band’s Saturday gig at Showbox is sold out.
Playing alternative rock that actually emphasized the “alternative,” the foursome made three rough-and-tumble independent LPs (two for Sub Pop) before raising its profile with the 1993 big-label debut “Gentlemen.”
On that record, frontman Greg Dulli found his voice as a true rock ‘n’ roll libertine, while the band found its sound, the aural equivalent of film noir. Over a fiery sonic template owing equally to punk, classic rock and R&B, the singer-guitarist spun sinister, soul-baring stories of cheating, addiction, guilt and revenge, shifting from sultry whisper to velvety croon to tormented howl.
“Birds make nests of whatever they can find,” said Dulli over the phone from his New Orleans home. Growing up in Southern Ohio, what he found was everything from “Al Green to Patti Smith … Led Zeppelin to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ “
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A cult act before “Gentlemen,” the Whigs’ ascent was hastened by radio and MTV airplay for the title track, and “Debonair” put them atop the alt-rock heap. Incendiary follow-ups “Black Love” and “1965” ensured they stayed there. And the band’s unhinged live shows were all-night marathons.
“We were crazy people,” Dulli said, “playing like 200 gigs a year.”
A decade-plus of partying like the Rolling Stones while touring like Black Flag took its eventual, inevitable toll. They quit, seemingly for good, in 1999.
Now, against long odds, they’ve returned.
Unlatching the gate with a 2006 hometown reunion show, Dulli and bassist John Curley swung it open in 2010, playing the first out-of-town Whigs gig since the breakup. By last November — with guitarist Rick McCollum back in the fold — “the planets finally aligned” for a full-on comeback.
With discernible confidence, showmanship and catalog-spanning setlists — plus new covers, including “LoveCrimes,” by current hit maker Frank Ocean — 2012’s Afghan Whigs might be the biggest, baddest incarnation yet.
Dulli thinks so. “We’re playing our best shows ever right now, because we have the perspective of having walked away and come back. I played over a thousand gigs with those guys. There’s an unspoken, invisible thing that happens when that goes down.”
Still, he hasn’t decided whether this is a one-off tour, or the beginning of a new era. He’s busy co-owning three bars, fronting two bands — Sub Pop mainstays The Twilight Singers, and Gutter Twins, with Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan — and “staying in the moment.”
“We learned from our craziness to take each day as it comes,” said Dulli. “If there’s something to say later, I’m sure we’ll say it.”
Charlie Zaillian: firstname.lastname@example.org