buy the afghan whigs in spades

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New Album: In Spades

Mute Records Bio

From Mute Records:

The Afghan Whigs were born in a jail cell in Athens, Ohio. Greg Dulli had spent Halloween 1986 getting drunk at a party, so stealing policeman’s hat seemed like a good idea at the time. Only the cop could run faster. When he landed in the tank, he met a fellow shady character, fellow Cincinnati native Rick McCollum. There was nothing to do put play cards and scheme until morning. Afghan Whigs, named after a Florida-based white Muslim biker gang from the Sixties who were into love, not war, finally got it together a year later, with Steve Earle on drums and John Curley playing bass.

They stepped right out onto a stage, cranking out covers of the Stones’ ‘Cocksucker Blues’ and Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’, and released an album whose title was either a testament to the night they founded or the title of a long lost Harry Crews novel, ‘Big Top Hallowe’en’ in 1988. Released on John Curley’s newly formed Ultra Suede label, the record was later described by Greg as, “Quite forgettable.” Maybe that’s because those were days that tended to pass in a blur of drinking and fighting as the Whigs roadshow hauled around America. “When we were all drinking way too much and taking drugs all the time, travelling around, trying to compete with each other’s egos and shit…twice somebody got punched out onstage, John and I got into a big fight,” remembered Dulli in 1993. “It carried on into the dressing room – and then the promoter came in and said if we didn’t play another 20 minutes we wouldn’t get paid, so we had to go back and play after the fight or we wouldn’t have any money to get to the next town. So we did. I didn’t want to be stranded in Boston with those fuckers!” Pointedly, the singer was residing in LA, where he had gone to study film, while the rest of the band were in Cincinnati.

Come 1990, the band got a call from Sub Pop, who released the ‘Up In It’ album, from which it could first be discerned that something extra-ordinary was rattling forth from Dulli’s ravaged tonsils and the wrecked and glowing songs the Whigs had rescued from the ruins of rock. It was clear from tracks like ‘Retarded’ that this band were using reference points far removed from the garage/metal concerns of their peers; ones that would emerge ever more clearly in their subsequent releases. But, while on a low key UK tour in 1991, a cold that Greg caught from spending nights freezing on people’s floors refused to get better and he finally came down with pneumonia. The Whigs were back in the badlands of their own making, more band disputes erupted into fist fights and Greg was eventually dispatched to hospital for urgent medical care. The sickness was an obvious shock to the singer’s psyche; he got paranoid and refused to leave his apartment in LA, instead he stayed in writing stories, a screenplay and a new album’s worth of brilliant songs.

‘Congregation’, 1992’s Sub Pop released collection, mirrored Greg’s fraught moods and tapped into his obsession with the tragedy wrought soul classics of the Stax/Motown vaults. Sultry piano’s and a cool vocal appearance from Ruby Belle added to the Whigs’ disembowelled Spector-isms, and the harshly revealing lyrics of ‘Turn On You’ and ‘I’m Her Slave’ were a testament not only to Greg’s personal experience but his storyteller’s powers of observation in others. The line, “I’m gonna turn on you/Before you turn on me,” actually came from an argument he heard one of his female friends having with her lover. ‘I’m Her Slave’ delighted in turning traditional relationship models on their head. Dulli the demon lover, voyeur and detective was coming into the fore. And no one, in those days of Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin inspired grunge, sounded like The Afghan Whigs.

‘Congregation’ was closely followed by two singles releases which would put paid forever to any comparison between the Whigs and their Sub Pop peers. The first, a ghostly and powerfully emotive version of The Supremes’ ‘My World Is Empty Without You Babe’, with Greg singing in Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto over a bare boned, clattering backdrop astonished everyone who heard it. The second, the ‘Uptown Avondale’ EP of covers – dark, troubled laments such as Al Green’s ‘Beware’ and Percy Sledge’s ‘True Love Travels On A Dusty Road’ unravelled through bleeding guitars and Dulli’s hoarse and ravaged vocals – firmly established that the Whigs were, in the words of one reviewer, “A soul band.”

And the turbulent life of their vocalist was to again inspire what would be the record to consolidate that epithet once and for all. A long term relationship was coming to an end, and Greg Dulli was leaving Los Angeles: “I got my stuff out of our apartment in California and kinda said goodbye,” he explained in September 1993 “I came back to Cincinnati and the Whigs actually started playing together as a band again, rehearsing and hangin’ out, which we hadn’t done since we first met and started doing it.

“When we began working on ‘Gentlemen’ I started thinking that the songs might be too personal – this might be my own trip, and I don’t wanna bring three of my friends into my own melodrama. So I said, ‘Look, let’s scrap this and I’ll clear my head out, we’ll go for something else,’ and they were like, ‘No man, we’ll help you.’ For all the crap in the past, all the bickering and fighting, I found out why I loved these guys in the first place.”

‘Gentlemen’, released in October ’93 on Blast First, was recorded in Memphis, where Greg would spend night times cruising through the mists that rise of the Mississippi, listening to Elvis’ unnervingly eerie version of ‘Blue Moon’ (“He sounds like he’s singing it from beyond the grave”) like a Method actor in training for his greatest performance yet. Certainly, the opening ‘If I Was Going’ captured the ghost town ambience perfectly, as, against a backdrop of moaning wind, Greg intones, “And it don’t bleed, and it don’t breathe/It’s locked it’s jaws and now it’s swallowing/It’s in our heart, it’s in our head/It’s in our love baby, it’s in our bed…” a refrain he takes up again in the groovestruck abandon of ‘Debonair’. By now, the Whig’s musical dexterity was more than a match for the marathon Catholic guilt pouring out from their frontman. Perhaps the most beautiful moment was when Scrawl’s Marcy Mays took over on vocals for ‘My Curse’, the most vicious the alcoholic’s venomous curse ‘Fountain And Fairfax’ (where AA meetings take place in LA). There was only one cover on ‘Gentlemen’; Tyrone Davis’ ‘I Keep Coming Back’, which adroitly complimented the mood of the Whigs’ originals.

At the time, Greg said he was singing in characters and that, “They’re not happy either. They’re plagued by a lust that won’t go away – or, like on ‘If I Was Going’, it’s somebody who sticks with something that was dead a long time ago, just for the affection for the other person. To me there’s nothing sadder than that, a relationship that drags on for way, way too long. That’s what ‘When We Two Parted’ is about. And ‘I Keep Coming Back’.”

‘Gentlemen”s most celebrated line was from ‘Be Sweet’ – “Ladies let me tell you about myself/I’ve got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” Said Dulli: “Guys don’t say that but that’s the way a lot of guys walking down the street are thinking, including myself a few years ago. I should have walked around with a sign round my neck saying that shit.” He also made two important points on the nature of his songwriting: “The thing to lose right away is that I wasn’t gonna be politically correct for the sake of being so. That would be dehumanising. I’ve got a lot of friends who don’t subscribe to the New Man theory. Not that I don’t have a little of that guy in me myself. But I know where I stand. I respect women.”

It would be three years before their next album, in which time Steve Earle left the band, to be replaced by Paul Buchignani, and the Whigs moved from Blast First to Mute. John had been steadily building up his Ultra Suede studios in Cincinnati, producing and recording bands like the Ass Ponys, while Greg also produced and championed another local band, Throneberry. The Whigs made a cameo appearance in Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, as a bar band providing the soundtrack – a cover of Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough’ – to an exchange between Michael Rapaport and Uma Thurman.

But the forces that would shape the next LP took hold of Greg in the first months of 1995. Suffering from another bout of overwhelming paranoia, Greg once more became a locked-in reclusive, and this time he retreated to a place he could easily call a second home; the world of noir fiction. When not sitting in a darkened room watching the Coen Brother’s classic film debut Blood Simple over and over again, he was re-reading the brilliantly paranoiac and amoral crime fiction of Jim Thompson and James Ellroy’s epic, four-novel journey into LA’s hidden past, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and, in particular, White Jazz. His final redemption from depression came in the form of a play called The Gospel At Colonus, the story of Oedipus set in a black Pentecostal church, and starring Clarence Fountain, of The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama, as the ill-fated Oedipus. “I have wild mood swings,” Greg later explained. “High highs and low lows, and it was kind of a low time. I don’t go to church any more, but I came out of that thing feeling cleansed. I went back and read the Oedipus Trilogy again, and that combined with all the crime novels I was reading, all the noir films I was watching and my generally twisted state of mind, crystallised into what I wanted to do.”

‘Black Love’, the resultant LP, released in March 1996, was structured like a novel and resounded with the redemptive qualities of gospel. Using the same device Ellroy employs in White Jazz, it opens with a narrator taking stock, calling back the past, in the aptly named ‘Crime Scene Part One’, and then proceeds to unfold the story, so as you come full circle back to the beginning. In between, Dulli gets to vent some rage on those who have betrayed him (“Got you where I want you, motherfucker” – from ‘Honky’s Ladder’) and indulge in a romantic, Bonnie and Clyde type fantasy about burning a town down on the Morricone-esque ‘Going To Town’. “It’s does start as a flashback,” confirmed Dulli. “It’s set up like an adaptation of a crime novel – if I had the money to make it into a movie, this would be the movie; these would be the lines that people spoke, these would be the sounds that they heard, the acts they carried out. It’s tough to talk about that without sounding pretentious, but I’m trying to do something different.”

Stepping back from the intensely personal ‘Gentlemen’, Dulli had found the perfect medium in which to investigate other people’s motives, actions and secrets by drawing on the inspiration of noir; a genre totally infused with layers of secrets, paranoia and fear. The sound the Whigs summoned for this material was that of a slowburning fuse, darker denser and more opulent than ‘Gentlemen’, but, by the time you reach the closing splendour of ‘Faded’, by way of the soothing and tender ‘Step Into The Light’, ultimately more uplifting. “I think the thing that pervades this record is ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances,” Greg opined. “Which is probably what I’m most interested in. Cos I’m often an ordinary person trapped in extraordinary circumstances.”

The buzz of a life of crime didn’t stop for Dulli with the making of ‘Black Love’; he has also bought the film rights to Ann E. Imbrie’s intensely personal True Crime book Spoken In Darkness, and intends to start work on an adaptation with partner Ted Demme after touring ‘Black Love’ has finished. The book concerns a school friend of Ann’s called Lee with whom she gradually lost touch, and who ended up the victim of a serial killer. Imbrie’s search is not only into the events leading up to Lee’s last days on earth but also into why an exceptionally bright schoolgirl became a junkie, thief and prostitute, and how she could be missing for a year before her body was found without anybody missing her. “It’s so powerful,” says Greg. “It’s going to be a real challenge to make it; a lot of it is going to occur in flashbacks. Ann got the title of this book from the Bible (Luke 12:2-3), where it says, ‘Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light.’ She went and took away the curtains from this dark room and illuminated this girl’s life that nobody knew about. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. And that’s probably the next thing I’m gonna do, I’m co-producing it, and I’m gonna score it as well. I’ll start as soon as the tour is over.”

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