These days ’90s alt-rock band reunions are a dime a dozen. Then again, there really wasn’t another ’90s band like The Afghan Whigs. When its major-label debut, Gentleman, dropped in 1993, the group’s sprawling soul-and-R&B-inflected rock histrionics and dapper style stood out among a crowded field of flannel-clad grunge upstarts. The Greg Dulli-led outfit went on to have a commercially and creatively successful run of albums and tours before its dissolution in 2001.
After disbanding, Dulli barely missed a beat, turning his Twilight Singers side project into his primary vehicle and expanding on the thematic preoccupations that subsumed his Whigs output: noir-ish explorations of self-loathing, violence and desire. And while the music tended to be a bit more low-key and range further afield, much of it maintained the Whigs’ best features, including Dulli’s swaggering vocal persona and soaring, spine-tingling choruses.
Now that the Afghan Whigs are back in action (the band plays The Orange Peel on Wednesday, Oct. 8) and touring behind a new record (this year’s excellent Do to the Beast), plus a reissue of Gentleman out this month, you would think Dulli might be reflecting on his lengthy career.
But you would be wrong.
“Since I kept making records after the Whigs stopped, it has felt pretty continuous to me,” he says. “I never stopped touring, and I’ve being doing this for half of my life.”
Aside from dusting off his older material, Dulli feels refreshingly free from the burden of nostalgia. “It’s similar players, but at a different place in life,” he says. “It’s really about the depth of your experiences as time goes by. Every record I make is a reaction to the place in my life I’m at then, so it feels more like a constant evolution of a life that I’ve cultivated for myself.”
He’s even relatively blasé about the fact that Gentleman, now considered a seminal rock record that has inspired a whole generation of followers, is getting the deluxe reissue treatment for its 21st anniversary. “We got asked about that earlier this year and became involved in it,” Dulli says. “I wasn’t aware John [Curley, the band’s bassist] still had all the demos. I was glad we were able to make it special; otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.”
The album’s legacy looms large for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the carefree way the band, and Dulli in particular, blended the lumbering heft of alternative rock with the evocative rhythms and performance style of R&B and soul singers. This, coupled with provocative lyrical material that commented on the masculine ego, made the band feel both darkly ambitious and more than a little bit dangerous. Dulli played those effects up a bit with real-life substance abuse problems and off-stage high jinks, although he has since sobered up.
The musician explains the omnivorous set of influences are simply because he “likes good music no matter who makes it” and argues he’s always been comfortable with his songwriting’s artistic merits. “I’m always trying to provoke a thought or emotion, and I’m never doing anything that’s actually hateful or inappropriate. If that makes people uncomfortable, so be it,” Dulli says.
The singer does admit that there’s been something fun about giving the Afghan Whigs a second life. “I’ve seen a [broad] mix of fans, and I love it,” Dulli says. “Particularly in Europe, where we sort of broke all those years ago, it’s been really cool to see parents coming with their kids to the shows.”
Above all, Dulli loves being a performer, as is clearly evident from the rave reviews of his band’s latest incarnation some 25 years after starting up in the first place. “Really I’m just so happy to be doing this all these years later,” he says. “This is all I ever wanted to do!”
WHO: The Afghan Whigs with Joseph Arthur
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 9 p.m. $20 advance/$25 day of show