Sweet Sons of Bitches

Alternative Press #124
Wiretapping

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t cigarettes, whiskey and wild women that sidetracked the AFGHAN WHIGS. STEVEN CHEAN kicks trash down frontman Greg Dulli’s street.

You can hear it in the long, languorous drags he takes off the hour’s third cigarette, the way he rolls his remarks in that raw, white soul man’s scrape of a voice. Greg Dulli is a contented man. But his is a precarious state of contentment, and no one knows better than Gentlemen Dulli himself. During the past two years he’s gone toe-to-toe with his demons, and for the time being at least, dropped them to the mat. Was it easy? Put is this way: “Fuck no.”

Anyone who knows the Afghan Whigs knows Greg Dulli. He’s the latter-day Man in Black, the devil’s mouthpiece whose sexual predators stalk the nightmarish soundscapes of the Whigs’ 1993 major-label bow, Gentlemen, and 1996’s somehow darker follow -up, Black Love, with breathtaking ruthlessness. He’s the neo-noir songscribe whose heartbreaking shitheels give vengeance and self-destruction on a more sinister context. But, really, those are just characters, and beneath all the grit, Dulli is, as he so aptly puts it, “one sweetheart of a guy…”

“…who just happened to be an ungrateful bitch.” He chuckles ruefully. “There was a period of time when I was miserable, a total masochist – basically not a whole lot of fun to be around.”

Sometimes truth is bleaker than fiction, as Dulli discovered during the months leading up to the Whigs’ latest long-player, 1965. His “spiritual rebirth,” a scenario worthy of inclusion on Black Love, dates back to the spring of ’96. The Whigs had just released the album, which they felt might garner them the commercial success they’d nearly achieved two and a half years prior. It didn’t happen.

“We’d just made the most honest record of our career, and our label was fucking us,” he grumbles. “The heads of major radio stations were telling me our album was over; Elektra had buried it. Meanwhile, the label’s lying to my face: ‘No, we’re still pu shing it.’ They weren’t giving us a fair shot, and yet they wouldn’t let us go. They were bleeding us slowly.”

Fed up with the business, the group split for more than a year – the longest hiatus in their 10-year history – bassist John Curley heading back to Cincinnati and guitarist Rick McCollum to Minneapolis. Dulli, meanwhile, drifted into the N ew Orleans night life before finally seeking treatment for clinical depression. “It was just time to get happy – either to quit or make music that’s celebratory.”

The new, improved Gentlemen Dulli has spent the past year immersed in music, recording his side project the Twilight Singers’ Twilight, which he describes as “beautiful, s oothing make-out music,” followed by 1965 – the birth of a bigger, brassier, and, yes, sassier Afghan Whigs. Released from their contract with Elektra, the Whigs entered the studio a reinvigorated unit. Recording on Dulli’s dime – before striking u p a promising new deal with Columbia – they kicked out a batch of tunes that’s as loose and funky as it is tightly woven and richly textured.

Dulli laughs. “This time out, baby, it’s all about fucking. There’s no concept, no theme – just a bunch of big, fat, nasty rump-shakers.”

Well, kinda. Boasting a three-piece horn section, keyboards, strings, backing vocals galore, and the sure hands of new drummer Michael Horrigan, 1965’s got just about all the between-the-sheets jams and booty-bumpin’ bombs you could shake a stick at. But its giddy lustfulness is tempered by the knowledge that “fucking” is passion, and passion has it pitfalls. Between the sound of a match striking wood on “Something Hot” and the orgasmic screech of “Sweet Son Of A Bitch,” the Whigs carve a path for subtler explorations of the heart. And it’s here in this middle ground that Dulli finds his greatest contentment.

“Happy can be hard,” he concedes. “I wanna find that point where I can be a total rock star and at the same time not lose my sense of self – my true self. Nowadays I can handle that. Nowadays I’m a real sweet son of a bitch.”

– STEVEN CHEAN

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