Afghan Whigs Break The Mold Again
by Adam Jackson
From the recording of Big Top Halloween in 1987 to the release of Gentlemen in late 1993, the Afghan Whigs were considered one of the best underground bands in America. When Gentlemen hit the streets, the Whigs instantly proved themselves one of the best bands anywhere. Period. They had stepped out of Sub Pop’s shadow and created an album that stated their intentions of playing with the big boys. Gentlemen is a masterpiece.
So, it’s 1996 and Black Love is here. Black Love is the Whigs’ followup to Gentlemen. It answers the big question: Can the Afghan Whigs maintain the level of artistic achievement they reached with Gentlemen? That’s a tough one. We can be sure, however, that Black Love sounds good now, especially to the fans who have waited two and a half years to hear new music from the Whigs. During that time the band toured extensively in support of Gentlemen, wrote and recorded the new record, appeared in and provided soundtrack music for the film Beautiful Girls, split with drummer Steven Earle, and replaced him with Paul Buchignani. Bass player John Curley took time to fill us in on all the details.
“Every time we make a record, we spend twice as much time as we did on the last one. I think that’s a good way to be. Starting with Congregation, we got a little idea of what we could do if we put some effort into it, and Gentlemen was a bigger step, and this, Black Love, is the next step. We’re not gonna break the mold on every record, but if we can improve whatever it is the Whigs do, then it’s cool. I always want to feel like the album we just finished making was better than all the others.”
Along with the band’s ever-improving songwriting, Black Love is also unique for the introduction of significantly more instruments than the standard guitar/bass/drum set-up. With organ, cello, pedal steel and various percussion instruments dominating many songs, I asked whether Curley felt there’s a limit to how many changes they can make and still be the Afghan Whigs.
“Well, I don’t see us going off and putting out techno records with humpback whales singing the lyrics. Techno, I guess, would come before the whales, but I associate the two. But seriously, Black Love has got a couple of songs off the path of what one might expect on a Whigs record. Like on ‘Night by Candlelight,’ there’s no bass. F**king bastards. [laughs]. Of the couple of B sides we’ve done for this record, there’s one with no guitar; just bass, drums and piano. But if you’ve heard any of our records before, as soon as you hear the guitars, you’re going to recognize the Whigs.”
More significant to Black Love than new instruments is the new musician. Curley was pretty straightforward about the exit of Steven Earle: “He quit.”
And Paul Buchignani? “He worked at Ardent Studios in Memphis where we recorded Gentlemen and mixed Black Love. We met him when we were doing Gentlemen. Then Greg went back to Memphis and saw Paul playing in a club with a pickup rockabilly/blues thing. They started talking and Greg brought him back to Cincinnati. It was important to the band that we are a band, not just Greg, Rick and I and a hired-gun drummer. That’s not the kind of band we want. We want our own little gang.”
The Whigs will be on the road in April and May and then again in the fall. “We’re gonna bring a keyboard player and a cello player with us. We’re gonna try to put on a little more of a show for people. We’re still gonna play the bass, drums and guitar rock songs, of course. The rest has yet to take shape, but those are our intentions.”
So, on record and on stage, the Afghan Whigs keep expanding their emotional and musical range. With Black Love, they’ve further solidified their position as one of the most powerful, ambitious, consistent bands around. If this sounds like excessive praise, check back in a few years. Black Love and Gentlemen will probably still be lingering close to your CD player, long after the techno/whale fad has come and gone.