Afghan Whigs came back for all the right reasons

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There’s no point coming back from the dead if your sole motivation is a paycheque. As one of the few who subscribe to that theory, singer Greg Dulli didn’t put ’90s alt greats the Afghan Whigs back together again because he needed the money.

When the Georgia Straight reaches him by phone, he’s in the middle of dealing with water damage to the Los Angeles house he owns. The fruits of his quarter-century-plus of labour in the music business don’t stop there. Dulli has stakes in two bars, one located in L.A. and the other in New Orleans. Also helping out with the bottom line are the various artistic endeavours he’s been involved in since the Whigs pulled the plug back in 2001, including the long-running Twilight Singers, the Gutter Twins (with Mark Lanegan), solo shows, and film appearances.

But forget all that for now. What Dulli is rightly fixated on at the moment is the Afghan Whigs, who have just released their first record in 16 years. Arriving on Sub Pop, Do to the Beast is a rarity—a comeback that adds to a great band’s legacy instead of making one wonder why anyone bothered. The singer wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve gone to see things and been like, ‘Wow, I really didn’t like that as much this time,’ ” Dulli says. “On the flip side of that, though, when Dinosaur [Jr.] came back it was really fun—I went to watch them and was like, ‘Oh fuck, that reminded me of the first time that I saw them, and they came up with some good, new songs.’ My Bloody Valentine made a great new record too. In this case [the Whigs’ return], I’m very protective of everything that I’ve done. And I was beyond certain that we had made something that could hang with the rest of our stuff.”

Those hoping for the titanium-tipped guitars that served as a calling card in the past will lock right onto the rumbling savagery of “Parked Outside”. What makes Do to the Beast such a great piece of art, however, is the Afghan Whigs’ willingness to experiment, whether it’s the snake-charming six-string and soulful trilling that mark the hypnotic “Matamoros” or the candlelit piano and purple-haze synths on “It Kills”. As a vocalist, Dulli is once again more obsessed with dirty R&B and druggy funk than boring old alt-rock, which gives tracks like the majestic “These Sticks” a vibe that’s as sexy as it is dangerous.

What might be most surprising about Do to the Beast is that no one saw it coming. The Afghan Whigs never hit as big as Nirvana or Pearl Jam, but their 1993 masterwork, Gentlemen, was one of the most harrowing, fiercely original, and utterly essential records of the fabled postgrunge alternative gold rush. Six years later, it was all over.

“We’d been on the road for 10 years and probably played a thousand gigs, maybe even 1,500,” Dulli notes. “I’m trying to remember back that far, but I think we were just tired. I certainly was ready to get off the tour-record-tour-record Habitrail. I was a little scorched. You’re away all the time. And also we were a pretty hard-living band. It wasn’t like we’d drink tea after a gig, get a good night’s sleep, wake up, and do yoga. And the hard living caught up with at least a couple of us.”

The return of the Whigs started off with a series of 2011 reunion shows that weren’t supposed to lead to anything permanent. Then came a well-received 2013 gig backing Usher at South by Southwest, after which Dulli and bassist John Curley decided they had something new to say.

“The act of building that show from nothing, and from two disparate sources, was really energizing to me in a way that I wasn’t prepared for,” the singer says. “When it was done, I think I was still highly adrenalized.”

And that continues today, which is why fans should be as excited about the return of the Afghan Whigs as Dulli is. Coming back from the dead isn’t easy, but you’d never know that from the triumph that is Do to the Beast. Welcome back—and thanks for showing the rest of the world how it’s done.

The Afghan Whigs play the Commodore Ballroom next Friday (August 29).

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A. MacInnis
You know, I kind of forgot about these guys, but I've been listening to bits of Up In It (which I used to have back in the day) and the new one and I think I might go to this show. This is a good band! (I'd see'm over pretty much any of their grunge compatriots 'cept the mighty Tad Doyle).
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