The Big Issue story: ‘Rise of the Afghans’, July 2012

A story for The Big Issue #411: a profile of reformed US rock act the Afghan Whigs ahead of their July Australian tour.

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IT WAS LAST MAY on US national television that the influential 1990s alternative rock group, the Afghan Whigs, finally made their long-awaited comeback. Guitarist and vocalist Greg Dulli, bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum took the stage on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to play a cover of ‘See and Don’t See’ by Marie Queenie Lyons before launching into a muscular rendition of ‘I’m Her Slave’ from their breakthrough 1992 album, Congregation.

There was a palpable moment during that second song when the band members, sharing the front of the stage, looked between each other, nodded and smiled. They had disbanded in 2001, and reappeared briefly in 2006, but now the Afghan Whigs were back.

“[‘I’m Her Slave’] was, to me, when the Afghan Whigs sound was born,” Dulli explains over the phone from a tour stop in Rome. “That was when I got a handle on who we were going to be. So it was a shared moment with my friends. That it had happened again on television was kind of funny. It was a private, very public moment.”

The TV performance had been the culmination of six months of preparation. In that sense, their onstage reaction was understandable. “It was really strange,” Dulli, now 47, recalls. “We said yes [to a reformation] back in November, and then we didn’t play until May. It’s pretty much an army marching around looking for a fight. Now we’ve finally got one, so it’s good.”

The Afghan Whigs formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1986, but it took the inking of a contract with Seattle’s legendary independent label, Sub Pop, in 1989 to thrust them into the alternative rock spotlight. The deal also ensured they were lumped together with a nascent grunge movement headlined by Nirvana and Soundgarden. But the Afghan Whigs would turn out to be more of a counterpoint to that scene: their inflections of R’n’B and soul were a stark contrast to the grittier appeal of their contemporaries.

“We were on that label and certainly shared guitars, bass and drums with all of [those other bands], but at that point we parted ways,” Dulli explains. “To me, it’s all rock’n’roll. We were all rock’n’roll bands – of different styles and stripes, but rock’n’roll. Grunge? Sure. Whatever.”

As the 1990s wore on, the Afghan Whigs increasingly ran in their own lane, tearing through four exceptional, if occasionally flawed, albums – Congregation, Gentlemen (1993), Black Love (1996) and 1965 (1998) – before disbanding amicably in 2001 to concentrate on their own projects.

Dulli poured himself into the Twilight Singers, in which the songwriter played with a rotating roster of musicians, dabbling heavily in covers. Which raises the question: why not just play the Afghan Whigs songs as the Twilight Singers?

Dulli answers firmly: “It’s the combination of the personalities involved [in the Afghan Whigs]. I mean, John Curley – I was the best man at his wedding; his wife is one of my best friends. In particular, it’s my relationship with him. The fact that we grew up together: I never had a brother and he was my brother. That’s really it.” He quips, “Nothing against Rick – lovely guy.”

He continues: “I’m the only constant in the Twilight Singers. I was able to helm it from more of a songwriter position… The last Twilight record, I think I started to get a little bit more rock’n’roll. Maybe that’s why it was the right time [to reform the Afghan Whigs], because I had moved back to full-blast rock’n’roll.”

Of course, there are other reasons to get back together, most pointedly to fill a hole left by Guided by Voices at the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in New Jersey next September. The Afghan Whigs proved the perfect replacement for their fellow Ohioans, who cancelled for personal reasons. But Dulli also sees it as an opportunity to do his original band justice: if the Afghan Whigs were flawed, they were only reflecting their frontman, whose past battles with cocaine are well documented.

“The last Whigs tour [in 1999] I only have vague memories of,” he admits. “I was absolutely in and out of presence. I kinda feel like I get a chance to vindicate the monster band that we could be when we were present. Playing the songs the way they deserved to be played, instead of a sloppy mess.”

The band’s world tour includes their first ever gigs in Australia (Dulli was in the country in 2009, however, performing as one of the Gutter Twins with Mark Lanegan). The whistle-stop visit includes the Splendour in the Grass music festival in Byron Bay, as well as shows in Melbourne and Sydney. As for the future once the trio returns to the US and finishes touring, Dulli refuses to be drawn.

“People keep asking if we’re going to stay together: I don’t know. You’re not my child and we’re not your parents,” he laughs. “I don’t have to answer that.”

by Matt Shea

The Afghan Whigs tour Australia 25–27 July.

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