The Afghan Whigs
by Keiron Mellotte
The Afghan Whigs take the stage of the sold-out London Astoria in tailored suits. The crowd go wild and despite the swelteringly hot temperature there would appear to be magic inthe air. Greg Dulli, lead singer, smouldering front man and vicious song writer smiles and casually lights a cigarette. He knows exactly how hard they’ve worked to get there. Years of playing toilets in America, of writing gut-wrenchingly emotional songs and coasting them with the most soulful voice you’ll have heard in years. This is the stuff of legends. The terse bitter sentiments of human experience and the raw soul of Motown, served up by the devils own bar band. Steve Earle plays the opening drums from Gentleman, the song kicks in and you can feel it; actually feel the magic.
The is not the pale cack soul of Paul Young or the shit cover version hell of Michael Bolton. The Afghan Whigs have got it all. The spirit and attitude, the swagger, the talent and a bunch of cracking pop tunes. Gentleman, the LP is absolutely dripping with achievement and Greg knows it. He leads the band through a breathtaking set chainsmoking and swigging an inordinately large amount of red wine. Hard to believe this man has a raging stomach ulcer. Later on in the tour I ask him about his health.
“Oh, its not that bad. I’ve been drinking a lot less and resting as much as possible. I guess I’ve probably just been working myself too hard. Things are going well and I’m going to have plenty of opportunities to rest once this tours finished, but it’s been quite a slog.”
Since the Afghan Whigs formed one Halloween many years ago they’ve had just that. The first LP “Big Top Halloween” and second “Up in It” were sandwiched between an exhausting tour schedule. This led to strained relations inside the band and layd the foundations, undoubtedly, for Greg’s health problems.
“At the time I was really disillusioned. I was playing in this guitar band, signed up to Subpop and working like crazy. So when I sat down to re-evaluate my position I was listening to all these old Stax and Motown records. The music I love and thinking `hey guy, why don’t you make music like that’.
Thankfully they did, and the LP that resulted “Congregation” brought them wide spread acclaim and considerably better sales. It was much more mature than its predecessors and though very much an underground College radio sort of band, they were still the most un subpop band on Subpop. This was the time of Nirvana “Nevermind”; Pearl Jam were in the charts and grunge was very much the flavour of the month. The Whigs however, were covering the Supremes and Freda Payne without even a plaid flannel shirt in sight!
“Yeah, I suppose we’ve never been a fashionable bunch of guys really. It just seemed more natural to be doing our own thing. I cut my hair off just as the whole Nirvana thing started, and I think with a suit that I look smart. But it’s not a conscious thing, it’s just seen as some stax fan who couldn’t move forward. Plus, although we use our influences we’re not trapped by them. So if Gentlemen is a Soul LP then its soul for the nineties.”
Jon Curley’s altogether funky bass playing heaves testiment to this theory. Its the framework from which they hang their complex songs. Takes of sadness, anger and woe that can be as bleak as they are uplifting.
“Songs are about love. Anybody who has ever been in love can tell you – it hurts. Relationships get fucked up and confusion, lack of communication causes all sorts of problems.”
But some of the characters in your songs are pretty undesirable. There are dark thoughts in there and sometimes the violence of the male psyche is exposed all too plainly. On “Be Sweet” you sing `She wants love / but I just want to fuck” and then later in Debonair theres a line where you warn “I’m not the man my actions would suggest”. Does this show a fascination for the darker regions of the love/hate experience?
“Absolutely. Its that point where things go wrong. When you start arguing all the time and you get mean, thinking pretty shitty things. Then the wells full of poin and you know that no matter whats good for you that you are going to go right back in there for another drink. You might think of all the beautiful songs Marvin Gaye wrote in his life. I think everybodies got their dark side to them. The little bastard in side who going “Go on, fuck her, no ones oging to know, just do it”.
Do you give in to the voices in those songs, or are they seperate characters?
“I don’t know. I suppose we all do, I mean, we write from our own experience. I’ve had my heart broken and may have broken others. Life stinks and music reflects the experiences!”
But what save the Afghan Whigs fom being downright depressing is Rick McCollums guitar. It turns torrid love and loss into an upliftingly passionate soundtrack. The band are so together and tight. Songs are bent into new shapes and colour infuses their most dark moments.
After the Edinburgh show Gred regails us will stories of a mad woman who `Stalked’ Steve Early; skiing on acid in Switzerland and his favourites, the true tale of Afghan Whigs fan Martha Reeves oining them live on stage in Detroit. Even in conversation he is the master story teller; washing down each anecdote with whiskey (and water).
Rick and John sit quietly mulling over this evenings show. They’re tired, happy and satisfied with the way things are going for the band.
“I think people are starting to get into what we’re doing. We used to be seen purely as another Subpop band, but now that we’ve stamped our individual identity on our records people are more ready to listen.”
And listen they should, for the Afghan Whigs are important. Music you could sell your dreams for, Music with magic. Only Steve Earle (is still with us) from the Afghans, we sit nursing our drinks, arguing about the Jukebox and trying to fathom what makes good music. Steve has his own ideas – but when it comes to his own band he remains puzzled and awestruck.
“I don’t really know what it is we do. But when we’re up there on stage and we’re doing it, it scares the shit out of me. The guys are so good and you can feel something. Gregs voice is so good – you should hear him singing on the Backbeat soundtrack. He does “Money” with Thurston Moor, Don Fleming and Dave Grohl. Its so good, you wouldn’t believe how fast they recorded it. Everytime I hear it I head different things. But I think the secret of good music is soul, playing from the heart and meaning it. That’s the magic.”
Thus as the lights go on and it’s time to go home, we shove Steve into a taxi and head off into the night. My ears still ring from the gig and my heart is full. Music has never been so life affirming, and I have never been so in love with an LP.