With 30 years under their collective belt, give or take a couple of breakups and reunions, The Afghan Whigs could be forgiven if they chose to simply coast on the fumes of their ‘90s, Alternative Nation-fueled successes. Enough of their contemporaries have proved that you can ride the wave of nostalgia for a good long while and make a healthy living on the touring circuit. Studio albums may arrive, but they’re almost afterthoughts, or at least excuses to stay on the road, playing the hits for a graying audience.
Sounds lucrative enough, but it’s nothing head Whig Greg Dulli wants to be a part of.
“Dwelling, unless you’re living in one, is a negative word to me,” he says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “As someone who has dwelled, I can say it’s wildly unhealthy for you. Visiting your past from time to time, I think that’s a good thing. It’s all part of you, so if there are experiences in your past that can light your way at times, that’s healthy. Who you are as a young person is something you should always try and stay in touch with.”
How that has connected to the Whigs’ music all these years is how this former Cincinnati-based group has translated a youthful obsessions with rock, soul and R&B into the taut, sexy sound that has driven such masterpieces as 1993’s Gentlemen and their 1998 pre-breakup album 1965. It’s a mood that has carried over into the work that they’ve done in the years since deciding to finally reconvene in 2011.
“Visiting your past from time to time, I think that’s a good thing. It’s all part of you, so if there are experiences in your past that can light your way at times, that’s healthy. Who you are as a young person is something you should always try and stay in touch with.”
Their first foray, 2014’s Do to the Beast, was a nasty piece of work, with snarling numbers like “Parked Outside” and “The Lottery” wedging themselves up against more tender moments. Great as it often was, it was still an unsteady step forward, as they were forced to make up for the departure of founding guitarist Rick McCollum and attempted to squeeze in a bunch of new voices, like soul singer Van Hunt and singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur.
The more cohesive and potent post-reunion statement by the Whigs has now arrived in the form of their new album, In Spades. The 10-song LP still carries an excitable air as the now six-member group (which includes only one other original member, John Curley; former Raconteur Patrick Keeler is on drums, and longtime Dulli sideman Dave Rosser is on guitar) pour a variety of genre touches into the boiling mix. Opening track “Birdland” has a minimalist classical air, with a hiccuping melody and slowly rising string section. “Arabian Heights” tries on a Madchester beat, while “I Got Lost” is the piano-driven last-call torch ballad perfect for both late-night dalliances and bouts of introspection.
What glues all of this together is not just a solid Whigs lineup but also that the group worked on almost all of these songs from scratch in the studio they own in New Orleans.
“We got together four or five times over the last two years and carved this out,” Dulli says. “I walked into the studio and had an idea in my head, played it for them and they began to play along. It was a very organic situation. It was incredibly spontaneous. The guys added their innumerable talents upon the material.”
Dulli himself dared to get spontaneous with his lyrics in the studio as well. Long one of the key components to the The Afghan Whigs aesthetic, he let his mind fly when tracking “Birdland,” recording his ragged croon in one take. Though, naturally, he found his way back to his usual lyrical concerns of tempestuous, unhealthy relationships and the many deadly sins that we all indulge in. “Whatever it is that’s kept us together,” he sings early on the album. “I look to the sky and it’s gone.”
If there’s a cloud that hangs over the release of In Spades, it was the news that Rosser was diagnosed late last year with inoperable colon cancer. The band responded as quickly as they could to help their friend, organizing a pair of benefit shows where they performed the 1996 album Black Love in its entirety. But even months later, Dulli is wrestling with how to continue to support Rosser through this while still doing his promotional duty for a new album and an upcoming tour.
“It was a very organic situation. It was incredibly spontaneous. The guys added their innumerable talents upon the material.”
“For the last 11 years, I’ve not played a show in any iteration without Dave,” Dulli says. “We’ve done a couple of shows and it’s never gotten any less strange not seeing him over my left shoulder. I think the whole band felt that way. It’s just strange, but I refuse to grieve for the future. Nobody knows what the future holds in that regard.”
Amid all of this, The Afghan Whigs also have to reckon with releasing more new music into a marketplace that seems skewed toward not only the nostalgic, but also a decided lack of interest in physical media. It’s a world Dulli has had to navigate on his own as a solo artist and with other projects like the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, his on-again-off-again collaboration with Mark Lanegan. Treacherous as that artistic journey can be for any artist, Dulli at least keeps a clear head about his progress.
“You do it because it’s what you do,” he says. “Finding ways to make a living in your life, that’s up to you as an individual. I make my art for me and I always have. Anyone else who enjoys it along with me, that’s gravy.”