Afghan Whigs join Sub pop alumni with a major label debut, “Gentlemen”
by Michael Azerrad
Rolling Stone Magazine
“The theme is love,” says the charismatic Afghan Whigs singer-guitarist Greg Dulli of his band’s dark major-label debut, on Elektra, Gentlemen. “Lack thereof, problems with it, the sadness when something kind of beautiful turns ugly.”
The album – a song cycle about Dulli and three of his friends as they coped with various personal disasters – addresses things like sadomasochistic relationships, drug abuse and harrowingly profound alienation in stark, honest terms. “It felt strange to bring some of that stuff to a public forum,” Dulli admits. “Some of it made me kind of wince when I heard it.”
In fact, “My Curse” was so intensely personal that Dulli couldn’t bring himself to sing it. Instead, he called in Marcy Mays of Scrawl, who delivers a tour de force, her vocals resigned yet soaring, aching with hurt as she sings lines such as “And there’s blood on my teeth – when I bite my tongue to speak.” On other tracks, such as “When We Two Parted” and “Now You Know,” Dulli spins tales of self-loathing and recrimination over music that conjures up both rueful menace and violent desolation.
Moody and cathartic, Gentlemen is hardly the album full of alterna-hits the band could have made – in fact, marketing the album was the subject of an entire panel at a recent College Music Journal seminar. Gentlemen is a grow-on-you record populated by troubled characters, given life by Dulli’s passionate vocals, which range from a husky croon to a Ralph Kramden-esque howl. His raspy, soulful style recalls some sort of indie-scene Joe Cocker, but Dulli demurs: “I think Camel cigarettes are a big influence on my voice,” he says, taking a drag as he kicks back in a corporate conference room high above Manhattan.
The Whigs were one of the first non-Seattle bands to sign with the fabled Seattle indie label Sub Pop. but several factors distinguish the Cincinnati quartet from the grunge pack: unusual rhythms animated by the elegant bludgeoning of bassist John Curley and drummer Steve Earle, the way Rick McCollum’s slide work spurs the already dramatic music to ever higher emotional peaks and, most of all, the staggering candor of Dulli’s lyrics. “I think we’re trying to write songs,” says Curly. “There’s more going on than a couple of distortion pedals and cranking it up and making some noise.”
The Whigs had released one album independently and two on Sub Pop, Up In It (1990) and the superb Congregation (1992), before they took the major-label plunge. Dulli says because of the classic indie distribution problem, fans just couldn’t find the Whigs records. Besides, they were the last of the old guard at Sub Pop, and it was time to move on.
They quickly became the object of a vigorous post-Nirvana bidding war involving more than a dozen labels, but most of the band’s suitors balked at its unusual demand that Dulli produce the Whigs’ album and direct their videos. Besides ponying up a reportedly huge advance, the label even agreed to bankroll an independent film Dulli has written. “it’ll be a movie about six people in varying states of despair and varying states of hilarity,” Dulli says. “It’s got everything in it but a shark attack.”
Earlier this year, Dulli joined a one-off supergroup for the soundtrack of Backbeat, an upcoming film biography of star-crossed former Beatle Stu Sutcliffe. Dulli sang the part of John Lennon, backed by R.E.M. Bassist Mike Mills, guitarists Don FLimng and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl as they tore through such favorites of the Fab Four as “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Slow Down.” Dulli enjoyed the hoary materials, except for one thing – “every song I sang had the words baby and rock & roll,” he says.
Even that was a rare concession from the hard-nosed Dulli. “I’ll take advice, I”m a reasonable guy,” he says, stroking his requisite slacker goatee, “but if it comes down to what you want and what I want, I’m going to win.” Besides directing their videos, doing most of the interviews, writing and singing the songs and producing each of their albums, he even managed the Whigs until recently. Is Greg Dulli some kind of control freak? “Some people might call me that,” he says. “Some people might call me smart. That’s what I call myself.”