On January 24th, Saul Goodman finally broke something that wasn’t bad. That day, Bob Odenkirk — who immortalized the notorious “Better Call Saul” character on the acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad — announced to the world that the Afghan Whigs were releasing their first new album in 16 years. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, the Afghan Whigs proved one of the most individual bands to rise out of the post-Nirvana musical landscape. The group’s masterpieces — 1993’s Gentlemen and Black Love — forged brutally personal song cycles out of kinetic hard rock, soul swagger and outsider abandon in a way that didn’t resemble the grunge ubiquity of their brethren.
The Whigs dissipated following what seemed to be its final release, 1965, in 1998, with frontman/leader Greg Dulli concentrating on his solo-driven collectives the Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins. The Whigs returned for a 2012 reunion tour, however, that was as successful as it was unexpected. After that jaunt, though, new music didn’t seem likely from the combo — that is, until, of all things, a surprise joint show with R&B hitmaker Usher at 2013’s South by Southwest conference lit a new creative fire beneath them. The resulting new Afghan Whigs album, Do to the Beast (due out April 15th on Sub Pop), proves a piece with the band’s classic material — yet with fresh, unpredictable shadings that indicate its contemporary genesis.
That’s partly due to the cast of characters behind Do to the Beast: it’s the first Whigs album that doesn’t feature the band’s original lead guitarist Rick McCollum, yet highlights contributions from various compadres from the band’s past, present and future — including members of Chavez, the Raconteurs, Squirrel Bait and Queens of the Stone Age (in fact, much of the album was actually recorded at king of Queens Josh Homme’s Pink Duck studio). Indeed, it may be the only record to ever simultaneously feature Usher’s musical director, a member of Ohio post-rock experimentalists Emeralds, and Van Hunt! Rolling Stone sat down with Dulli and bassist/co-founder John Curley to take us inside Afghan Whigs 2.0’s belly of the. . . Oh, you know. (And check out the video for the band’s new track “Algiers.”)
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After such a long gap, how did a new Afghan Whigs album come into being?
Greg Dulli: The first time we discussed it was after we played with Usher in Austin last year. It was some time after the reunion tour had ended, and we hadn’t thought about playing together again; then we were approached with such a cool idea, so we figured, “Why not?” It went so well, we were like, “Maybe we do want to continue this.”
John Curley: That was the moment that crystallized moving forward — it opened our eyes to what a unique thing we’d put together. Greg and I had dinner that night: we talked about how much we liked the band that we had, and decided to make a record with that incarnation.
That possibility never came up during the Whigs’ reunion tour?
Greg Dulli: Not really! We just stayed in the moment and enjoyed ourselves. There was no pressure. We just had to put on great shows with material that was already there. We never really talked about continuing on. We did a couple new songs together during that time — we put out covers of “See and Don’t See” [a 1970 soul chestnut by Marie “Queenie” Lyons] and [Frank Ocean’s] “Love Crimes” — but those were more cool projects just to keep the show fresh. Past that, doing a new album never came up — never in the 14 years prior, either.
What was Usher like to work with?
John Curley: Usher may be a big superstar, but that wasn’t the vibe. He came in like he was part of the band. He was enthusiastic, totally open and practiced harder than anyone.
Greg Dulli: Usher actually got to rehearsals before I did! He’s a cool cat — he sent me a Christmas card this year. He was playing bass when I walked in. He immediately took it off, walked over and shook my hand, and we got right down to business. We did one of our songs, “Somethin’ Hot,” and then “Climax,” and “OMG.” It was just really cool; he liked how we were playing his songs. When we took a break, Usher was like, “What are you listening to lately?” I played him “Runnin'” by [electronic artist/producer] Sinkane, and he really liked it — so much we actually got in touch with Sinkane and played it with him during our set! Doing that Usher show was like starting a band for the first time — just inviting someone over and working on songs. Usher, along with Mark Lanegan and Björk, is one of the three best singers I’ve ever seen sing up close. He can do things with his voice that are just effortless. I’ve listened to Michael Jackson my whole life, and Usher has that Michael thing. It was thrilling.
The Usher show didn’t feature Rick McCollum; Do to the Beast also represents the first Whigs album to not have Rick playing guitar on it. Why?
Greg Dulli: Rick’s personal problems got to the point where it wasn’t about music anymore — enough so that it became clear we couldn’t continue on with him. We wish him well, but until Rick confronts some very real things in his own life, I can’t play music with him.
[“I respect and have deep admiration for those guys,” McCollum says in regards to his departure from the Whigs. “I’m excited to hear what they came up with, but I have to get my personal life back into gear. I have to work on myself, and my personal issues. I want to do stuff on my own, too; my band, Moon Maan, is doing an album. We’re brothers, and we’re going to have discrepancies, but it’s good. It’s not like we hate each other; it’s a positive thing on all ends.”]
How does Do to the Beast fit in with previous Whigs’ efforts — and transcend them?
Greg Dulli: I’m very aware of the legacy that we’re engaging, because I helped create it. But if we wanted to keep going, we had to go further. Once we decided to do this album without Rick, I felt set free to do whatever I wanted — revisit sounds I used to like and mix them with sounds I’m exploring now. Whether or not someone agrees with my methodology — well, there are no rules in rock & roll. And if there were, I would’ve surely broken them.
Do to the Beast expands on the darker themes that resonate throughout your work. It’s alternately narrative, imagistic, fictional, confessional. . .
Greg Dulli: It’s all those things. As you move on though life, the specter of mortality begins to loom. I’ve certainly explored that idea in the past, but it’s more present here. For the first time ever, I wrote all the music first; then I wrote the words after — a big mountain to climb. I walked around through the neighborhoods of my life, using my imagination to create environments that I could move around in.
What did the new blood in the band bring to the proceedings?
Greg Dulli: What it was isn’t what it is now. Live, we reinvented a few songs: we retooled “Son of the South” and “When We Two Parted,” which was refreshing. We were able to do that because we had the perspective of outsiders — new ears and players who weren’t there the first time around. Then again, from Gentlemen on, we’ve always added to the core lineup; at one point during the 1965 tour, we had a 10-piece band, including three backup singers! So expanding the band isn’t unlike anything we ever did anyway, and that gave me the freedom to do things as I saw fit. I was writing these songs for the sole purpose of putting together the best possible band to play them, which is what I’ve always done. I’ve made 15 or 16 records: they’re all different, and this one is all about John and I trying things we’d never done before.
What new colors do you explore on Do to the Beast?
Greg Dulli: The players on this record all contributed their points of view, playing to their strengths — trying new things, getting fresh sounds. It was really gratifying, especially working with people I’ve had so much history with. Alain Johannes creates so many cool atmospheres out of so many different instruments. I got to know him well when we worked together on the Gutter Twins with Mark Lanegan. I’ve loved watching Alain play on The Desert Sessions and with Queens of the Stone Age, but I’ve followed him since he was in What Is This? [the trio featuring future Red Hot Chili Peppers Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons] — I loved their amazing cover of “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners. Meanwhile, Clay Tarver [of revered indie-rockers Chavez] adds a characteristically tense part to “Parked Outside” that’s classic Chavez. I’ve known Clay for 25 years. We met on the Whigs’ first national tour. He was in Bullet LaVolta. We were both opening for Mudhoney, and we’ve been close ever since. I actually named Chavez; I also gave them their first show, opening for the Whigs in New York on the Gentlemen tour in ’94. I remember it well: that was the night before the world heard about the death of Kurt Cobain.
What do the younger players, who are new to the Whigs’ world, bring to the party?
Greg Dulli: I love the Bernard Sumner sound that Mark McGuire puts on “The Lottery” — and the womblike textures he puts on half the album. I loved his band Emeralds, but I was obsessed with Mark’s solo album Living With Yourself. His playing doesn’t sound like guitars, but alternate worlds — and he’s from Ohio, too. We’ve become good friends: Mark actually lived in my house while I was out of town and watched my cats. And [Usher’s musical director] Johnny Natural did this wah-wah thing when we played with Usher that I’d never heard before. It sounds like a bird — a mourning dove coming out of a synthesizer — so I asked him to do it on “It Kills.”
I can’t imagine another record that features a member of Emeralds and Usher’s musical director.
Greg Dulli: And Van Hunt! I’ve actually been a fan of Van’s since his first record. When [the Twilight Singers] were doing [covers album] She Loves You, I’d considered recording one of his songs, “Seconds of Pleasure.” We were able to bring Van out on the final West Coast leg of the Whigs tour, and we started doing his song “Mean Sleep”; Van did a version with Nikka Costa — so I sang Nikka Costa’s part. Each night, he’d make this sound that reminded me of Bobby Womack and Prince in the same room. I implored to him to do that sound again on “It Kills”; he obliged, and then some.
The Afghan Whigs are famous for doing wholesale reinterpretations of classic songs. What can we expect in that department?
Greg Dulli: We did a cover of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by the Police. I was coming back from one of the sessions we did in Joshua Tree with Mark McGuire; we started talking about how I’m a big fan of [classic Police albums] Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity — those are my jams. Mark said, “I’ve never actually heard the Police,” and I was like, “Wow, you must be kidding me.” I put on Ghost in the Machine, and “Every Little Thing…” came on; I remember thinking, “This song is really desperate and longing before it modulates up to the happy part — what if it just stayed there?’ We got back [to L.A.], went to Pink Duck and put it down. It came out sweet.
So, how did Bob Odenkirk come to reveal to the world that there was a new Afghan Whigs album?
Greg Dulli: I was having lunch with my friend Mike Brillstein [a.k.a. L.A. DJ Thee Mike B] on our way to play golf. This guy came in and started talking to Mike, asking him what he’s up to. He said, “Oh, I just did a remix for the new Afghan Whigs album my friend here made.” I turn around, and it’s Bob Odenkirk! I loved Mr. Show and Breaking Bad. Then he asked me, “So, a new Afghan Whigs record, huh? It’s been a long time!” Bob then took a picture of the two of us together — me looking like a deer in the headlights in my golf shirt, not my finest hour — and said, “I’m going to tweet this. People are going to freak out!” I started saying he shouldn’t, that the label wants to announce it first. But then he did it anyway, said, “Okay, Greg! Good luck!” — then split. It was hilarious — such a Saul Goodman moment!