Don’t wait for Whigs reunion
Dulli helped compile greatest hits, but won’t be playing them again
When you think of a band getting the retrospective treatment from Rhino Records, the California record label specializing in archival reissues, you think of long-gone or antiquated bands like Foreigner, the Doors or the Doobie Brothers. You wouldn’t think of the Afghan Whigs, Cincinnati’s greatest rock band that disbanded recently enough that many supporters hold out hope they’ll get back together.
Whatever the future does or doesn’t hold for the band, the Afghan Whigs certainly have the credentials to be remembered with a best-of. Between their 1,500-or-so live shows, which included gigs with bands such as the Flaming Lips and Aerosmith and dozens of headlining tours, or their recording catalog, highlighted by releases on the landmark indie Sub Pop and major labels Elektra and Columbia, the Whigs stand as one of the premier alt-rock bands of the ’90s.
But lead singer Greg Dulli reminds people that it has been six years since the band called it quits, and in a phone interview about Rhino’s 18-song “Unbreakable (A Retrospective),” which arrives Tuesday, he makes a reunion sound far-fetched.
Question: Why is the retrospective confined to one disc?
Answer: That was Rhino’s decision. It could have been two discs. It could have been a (expletive) box set. (Bassist) John (Curley) and I chose the songs given the limitations that we had.
Q: Why isn’t it programmed chronologically?
A: ‘Cause that’s boring. I wanted to do it like a set list of a show that I would pay to see.
Q: Why no songs from “Big Top Halloween” (the band’s 1988 debut record)?
A: Because it’s terrible.
Q: There wasn’t one worthy song?
A: No. That was the (band’s) unanimous opinion.
Q: The Whigs are often remembered as a grunge band, in part because of your association with Sub Pop. Is that tag fair?
A: That sounds like a really easy designation to me. We were a great rock ‘n’ roll band, and that’s what we’re being remembered for. We made two records for Sub Pop and four records for other people. My experience at Sub Pop was positive and certainly propelled us to bigger and better things, but I don’t really feel tagged by the grunge thing.
Q: What was it like playing original rock music in Cincinnati in the ’80s?
A: It was depressing. You were in a desert, which is why we left town and didn’t really play a lot in Cincinnati in the early days or period for that matter. I’m happy to see it has improved considerably, but in the ’80s? Dark, dark. We’d go to Louisville; Lexington; Detroit, Chicago; Pittsburgh; Athens, Ohio; Columbus; Cleveland – we’d go everywhere else. We started pulling crowds in Cincinnati when word started getting out from other places.
Q: Was it a burden to be from a town that was not on the rock map at the time?
A: You’re from where you’re from. You don’t get to pick that. We could have packed up and moved somewhere and eventually we all did. It was a great place to base ourselves. It was cheap to live and we were able to get around to a bunch of towns without driving all that far.
Q: Any satisfaction of being the biggest rock band in Cincinnati history?
A: Isn’t that the Lemon Pipers, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, the Isley Brothers? Again, you’re from where you’re from. I was born and raised in southern Ohio, and I couldn’t have picked a better place to grow up.
Q: Was there a moment in the early days when you sensed the band was on the brink of success?
A: When we started playing the Metro in Chicago, we’d play in the middle of the week. The first time we were the third band, second time we were the second band, and the third, fourth and fifth times, we were the headliner, and we had 500 people in there. At that point we were drawing 50 people in Cincinnati. The shows in Chicago let me know personally that we were special. That was probably 1989.
Q: What were your goals at that point?
A: Get somebody else to put out our record, buy a van and keep touring. Modest goals that we could meet and exceed.
Q: Did your goals change when you signed with Sub Pop and later Elektra, and you saw the success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam? Did you ever consider the possibility of getting that big?
A: I never really thought that. I thought we were too eccentric and herky-jerky and weird. I always just wanted to roll into a town, have 1,000 people come, and blow the roof off. I really had nothing bigger than that in mind. When we started playing bigger places and playing festivals for 50,000 people, it was pretty mind-blowing. Starting something in a basement in Fairmount and getting to go around the world and see places you’ve only read about was thrilling.
Q: Why end it then? Did you feel the band reached a plateau?
A: My reason for leaving the band was we had done what we were gonna do. There was no plateau. There was a beginning, middle and end.
Q: No regrets?
A: None. To be honest with you I don’t have any regrets in life. I feel for people who do.
Q: If there are no regrets, does that mean there’s no reason to ever do a reunion?
A: I don’t feel the need for one. I don’t think any of us do. I think we did what we did and we loved what we did and the sheer factor that we’re still friends is miraculous.
Q: So this is likely the last Whigs record?
A: That would be a fair assumption. We gave it hell for 14 years. That’s probably three times as long as most bands are together anyway. I have fond memories, but I also have a future to look forward to.