It’s a bit of a stretch to credit the R&B singer Usher with inspiring the Afghan Whigs to record their hard-hitting new album Do to the Beast, but not as much as you might think.
After years of circumspection about getting back together, Greg Dulli and co. reunited in 2012 for a far-ranging world tour that included dates at Primavera Sound in Barcelona and Lollapalooza in Chicago. And when it was over after a New Year’s Eve gig in the band’s hometown of Cincinnati, that seemed to be that.
“We all just walked away,” Dulli says.
Dulli, for one, went pretty far away indeed: he was in Australia working with Steve Kilbey from the Church in late February or early March of 2013 when his manager called to ask if the Afghan Whigs wanted to play the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Dulli says. “And he said, ‘Do you want to play with Usher?’ And I said, ‘Have Usher call me, and I’ll tell you.’ And Usher called me.”
A couple weeks later, the Afghan Whigs played the Fader Fort in Austin, Texas, where Usher joined them to sing his song “Climax,” their song “Somethin’ Hot” and a handful more. When Dulli and Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley had dinner after the show, they began to talk seriously about recording a new Afghan Whigs album—seriously enough that Dulli booked studio time for May.
“We had 48 hours to create a show, and we did it,” Dulli says. “And it really reminded me of being a teenager, like battle of the bands is on Saturday and it’s Thursday and we had to get a show together. I really enjoyed the energy of that process.”
Dulli was a teenager in Cincinnati when he started his first band, the Black Republicans. (Naturally, their gig posters often featured images of former Cincinnati Mayor Ken Blackwell, an African-American Republican, whose interpretation of election laws as Ohio’s secretary of state sparked controversy during the 2004 presidential contest.) That band eventually evolved into the Afghan Whigs, which released its debut album, Big Top Halloween, in 1988.
With their second album, 1990’s Up in It, the Afghan Whigs became the first act from outside the Pacific Northwest to sign to Seattle label Sub Pop. Their timing was excellent, and the alt-rock surge that swept through the early ’90s carried the band to a major-label record deal, critical acclaim and a fervent cult audience for their brooding, rugged songs. Following the group’s 1998 album 1965, though, the Afghan Whigs seemed to lose momentum. After touring for a few more years, the rockers split in 2001, and Dulli went on to other things, including the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, a project with former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan.
Returning to the studio with the Afghan Whigs for a new album 16 years after the band’s previous release was not something Dulli took lightly. “The fact that that amount of time had gone by between Afghan Whigs releases, and the fact that I had made like seven or eight records in the interim—while I was aware that I was engaging a legacy, I refused to be imprisoned by it,” Dulli says.
Instead, he wrote songs at a brisk pace, starting with the pounding album opener “Parked Outside” and the vintage-style girl group sound of “Algiers,” the first single. Dulli was joined in the studio by the current incarnation of the band, which features Curley, guitarists Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and drummer Cully Symington, along with various guests including Mark McGuire, soul shouter Van Hunter, Usher’s music director Johnny “Natural” Najera and members of Queens of the Stone Age. (Original guitarist Rick McCollum was not invited to participate. “Rick is capable of being a great guitar player when he’s present,” Dulli says. “I noticed right away when we got the band back together that he wasn’t.” McCollum told Rolling Stone recently that he agreed with Dulli’s assessment and was dealing with personal issues.)
The musicians recorded the songs in batches as Dulli wrote them. By the end of the primary recording sessions, the band had 15 songs—but no lyrics. Though Dulli says he always writes music before lyrics, he usually doesn’t write quite so much of it before adding words. Suddenly the singer, who had given himself until the end of 2013 to completely finish the record, was feeling the pressure.
“I was in uncharted waters,” he says. “I had never put myself in that position before. It was a mix of fortitude and mass desperation. Sometimes I was writing lyrics for three songs at a time.”
Somehow, he finished, mining the sound of the song for the words to accompany it. “These Sticks” turned into a “vivid and satisfying” revenge fantasy, while “Lost in the Woods” is a harrowing deathbed reminiscence that emerged from snippets of two separate ideas that played sequentially when someone inadvertently hit shuffle on a playlist they were in. Dulli regards the song as the centerpiece of the album.
“The original piece of music, it was just this piano piece. I sang along with the piano. It reminded me almost of Cab Calloway, like ‘Minnie the Moocher,’” Dulli says. “When that other piece of music kicked in, it felt like another part of my life. Like I was interrupting the kind of melancholy of the first part of the music with a flashback from my childhood. It’s almost me talking now to the young person I was. It’s sort of like my duality in five minutes.”
Dulli’s ability to write songs like that, and Sub Pop’s long history with him in the Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, prompted Sub Pop to offer to release Do to the Beast without hearing it first, says Megan Jasper, the label’s executive vice president.
“I don’t feel like we needed to hear it,” Jasper says. “I had total confidence that he would deliver something interesting and wonderful.”
Jasper says her confidence was well-placed. “Every record that Greg makes has its own intensity,” she says. “This one is intense, but it’s also all over the place, and I feel like he explores so many moods and emotions in it. I’m hearing him sing in ways I’ve never heard him sing before.”