Bob Gendron Q & A
While reading your book, it’s obvious that you’re coming from the point of view as a fan, as well as a journalist. How were you first exposed to the Afghan Whigs? Did you ever have the opportunity to see them live?
BG: I first heard the Afghan Whigs at an indie record store that I worked at while I was in high school. We had a promo copy of Congregation that I put on the store’s stereo, and from that point on, was enthralled. It’s quite possible that I’d heard Up In It before this time (we stocked all Sub Pop records before alt-rock broke), but if I had, it didn’t make a lasting impression, perhaps because my favorite Sub Pop artists from the late 80s were Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Tad. And yes, I’m grateful for the many times I saw the Whigs live. I attended every Chicago area show they played from 1992 through 1996, including the two 1995 Double Door gigs the band used to test Black Love material. I also saw the fateful Austin show at Liberty Lunch after which Greg Dulli was attacked. Having been there, and having visited Greg in the hospital, allowed me an inside perspective that I used to construct the book’s opening chapter. I don’t think most people understand how serious the situation actually was.
One of the key elements of the Afghan Whigs was their live show. How do you think their touring and road ethic shaped the band’s overall sound during the period between Congregation and Gentlemen?
BG: The live show definitely played a large role in shaping the sound. Rather than go into detail here, I’ll note that I address this issue in-depth in the book in the third and fourth chapters. In addition to forcing the band to get better and evolve, the shows also provided a platform to flesh out new pre-Gentlemen material in front of live crowds. The Whigs were never afraid to try something out even if it wasn’t yet completed or perfected.
Many of our reader-submitted questions were concerned with why the Whigs didn’t break through to a larger mainstream audience. What do you think was the main reason for this? Was it simply a marketing dilemma or was it something bigger?
BG: When writing the book, this was a question I really wanted to explore as it’s usually at the forefront of every fan’s mind. And as a fan myself, it always struck me that the band should’ve at least had a gold record and been a presence on the radio. Alas, it wasn’t to be. The tricky part of trying to address this issue is that any possible explanation might sound like a case of sour grapes or whining. And in most instances, a band’s lack of success is because it simply wasn’t good enough or didn’t play accessible music that could catch on with the mainstream. Of course, those reasons didn’t apply to the Whigs, particularly during the alt-rock era. I devoted the sixth chapter of the book to present a case for why the Whigs didn’t break to a larger audience. In addition to presenting the record’s standing among critics, record charts, and media outlets, I also got the band members and label representatives to talk about what they think happened, and why. One of the highlights in writing the book was digging for reasons to intelligently answer this question and coming up with hard data and surprising revelations. This led to an exploration of larger issues such as race, taste, bias, budgets, character, and marketing, as well as black (or black-sounding) music’s place in the rock world. Without giving too much away, the Whigs were also the victims of an internal conspiracy. All of these tangents are discussed in the book.
The soul, R&B and funk influences exuded by the Whigs are a common theme when critics describe their work. Do you feel this is a general statement to cover the band’s sonic vibe and swagger, or are their specific artists or records that directly influenced Gentlemen? In your book you mention the Supremes songs the band was covering as well as (of course) “I Keep Coming Back.” Are there any others that deserve special mention?
BG: As a band, the Whigs were definitely four unique personalities that came from somewhat related albeit very different backgrounds. That’s why I felt it important to provide mini-biographies on each member, and talk about their individual musical tastes and influences. In addition the Supremes, you can add most of the Motown catalog, Prince, and a whole host of other musicians ranging from Stax artists like Big Star (Gentlemen was recorded at Ardent for a reason) to Al Green to more obvious bands such as the Stones. None of the band members named any specific records as literal influences, but, as discussed in the book, Greg Dulli was listening to some classic break-up music at the time, not the least important of which was Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time” 45rpm single.
The Afghan Whigs were truly in a class of their own during the Alternative-90s era. That being said, who do you feel are their contemporaries? Are there other bands from that period (or before, or now) that can stand beside the Whigs and claim the same territory?
BG: You said it best: The Whigs were truly in a class of their own, and I’ve yet to come across a band that can stand alongside them in their field or claim the same territory. That said, there are other artists that were/are great in similar stylistic veins: the Replacements, American Music Club, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, some Nick Cave. And I think that Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is worthy as a deserving contemporary of Gentlemen, not for the sound, but for the groundbreaking content and naked candor. But as far as the Whigs’ soulful and R&B sound, and especially their music’s sexual nature and intelligence, no one comes close. The uniqueness was both an advantage and a curse. It’s also one of the key reasons, I think, that people are still drawn to the band.
Many fans cite Black Love as their favorite album from the Whigs canon. In your book, Dulli mentions that he felt it was perhaps too self-indulgent of a record and that it should have been reigned in. What’s your personal take on Black Love? While it was an expansion on the themes in Congregation and Gentlemen, it’s arguably much darker and the music is more ambitious. Did it cross a threshold that limited its potential for wider appeal? If 1965 would have been the follow up to Gentlemen could that have provided their breakthrough?
BG: I’ve heard some of the Black Love demos and prefer them to the finished record. The album contains some undeniably genius songs: “Faded,” “Bulletproof,” “Summer’s Kiss” among them. Yet I think the songs tend to drown in overly complex arrangements which, at times, kill the sense of melody. To me, there are also a few tracks that haven’t held up as well (“Honky’s Ladder,” “My Enemy”) as most Whigs material. I also think the writing, both lyrically and musically, isn’t as focused or consistent. But I do like the record. And I agree that in many ways, it’s a darker album to the degree that it’s joyless in spots. It was also meant to be tied into a film Greg was working on, and I think that played a role in its construction, which in hindsight might not have been the best approach—it seems to cut looseness out of the music. And as Greg discusses in the book, he wasn’t exactly in the best mental state when making the record. Then there are all of the issues with Elektra that played a part in further limiting the record’s potential exposure and reach. Put in proper context, I see Black Love as an album the Whigs had to make in the wake of Gentlemen before being able to do something like 1965. It actually still stuns me that 1965 didn’t do better, either, but that’s another story. For the Whigs, no matter what they did, it seems that major mainstream success just wasn’t in the cards. While frustrating, I think it’s a condition that’s only added to the Whigs’ mystique, uniqueness, and importance as time has passed.
The distinct talents and abilities of the Afghan Whigs as musicians has always been something that appeals to me as a guitarist. While it’s ultimately that combination that creates any band dynamic, the sound of the Whigs is the sound of four different trains coming from different stations traveling along the same track. Curley’s only basis for comparison is Entwistle from The Who (which you rightfully note in the book). However, I’ve always had a problem finding a touchstone for McCollum. His style, phrasing and taste in riffs is completely unique in my experience. From your conversation with Rick, did you get a feel for his direct influences or the method to his playing?
BG: Talking with Rick is a trip; there’s a reason he’s nicknamed Moon Maan. He’s a really nice guy, his thoughts often drift, and while he’s opening up more now than in the past, he remains shy and a bit withdrawn. I think Greg Dulli said it best when he called Rick a savant. I asked Rick directly about his guitar influences and methods, and he basically says that he just does what he does. I’m not even sure he knows how or why he plays a certain way. I think his comments in the book regarding 70s R&B provide a window into where he comes from on the guitar: he fixates on the grooves where most guitarists favor the rhythm or riff. Again, like the Whigs as a whole, McCollum has few contemporaries that sound like him. I think that you’re right in saying his phrasing and style is completely unique.
During your research for the book, did you stumble across any particularly great live performances? Did any shows or songs single themselves out as being among what you consider the band’s finest moments?
A few favorites that come to mind: 5/15/92 in Chicago, 6/10/93 in France (Steve Earle told me he actually prefers the sound of this bootleg to the production on Gentlemen!), 11/3/93 in Champaign (that 20-minute-plus covers medley is one of the band’s finest moments and epitomizes its onstage abilities), 4/5/94 in Boston (the Dulli-sung “My Curse” is savage), 4/9/94 in New Jersey (a very weird vibe hovers over the show due to Cobain’s death and what was happening in and to the band), 5/11/96 in Seattle (a great Black Love-era performance complete with a ton of cover-song snippets), 11/27/97 in New Orleans (the Whigs get reborn), and 11/22/98 in DC and 2/24/99 in Baltimore (phenomenal revue-style shows). That said, there are a few concerts out there I don’t have and would love to hear. It’s hard to go wrong, really. Even when the band was off (and this was rare), there was something interesting happening.
The Afghan Whigs were masters at creating myth. In your book, you set the record straight on two of the biggest mysteries (how the band met and the origin of the band name). How important was legend-building to the overall concept of The Afghan Whigs? Is it simply something that fell on the band, or did they actively promote these ambiguities to emulate the cults of Zeppelin and Sabbath?
BG: I think the band was smart in knowing that people love mystique and great stories. Does it get much better than telling journalists you met in a jail cell? It’s brilliant and hilarious. I also think it’s safe to say that Greg Dulli seemingly delighted in playfully bullshitting people and getting a kick out of it. While this is one question I didn’t ask him, it’s possible that he used myth-making to deflect from what was going on in his head and in his life at the time. But I think a more likely explanation is that these guys just wanted to have fun and stave off boredom. Greg’s a very intelligent guy, and his outgoing persona is such that he can easily persuade and convince. If he wasn’t a musician, he’d make a great con man. He’s a natural storyteller and narrator. And the band is obviously going to get further if they can attract attention via outlandish tales, true or not. And if you look back, Sub Pop used this tact while promoting most of its roster. The label’s press materials from the time all made wide-eyed boasts about these small bands. It was noticeably tongue-in-cheek, but also savvy, enjoyable and charming. And it worked. I think the Whigs picked up on this idea and ran with it.
What would you consider to be your personal favorite Whigs song and why? Which song would you consider to be the ultimate representation of the band?
BG: Tough questions. I can’t name just one favorite or a single song that is the ultimate representation. Yes, I’d be a failure if I had to make the ubiquitous desert island list. But I will call attention to a few live performances currently on YouTube that illustrate the band’s spirit:
“My Curse” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ1oCw8ROlo
“When We Two Parted” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYC4HjDla6U
“My World Is Empty Without You” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYa3nZ5UYRY
“Miles Iz Ded” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJbYhRp-evM
“Beast of Burden” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwGoW8QSvm0