Published Apr 11, 2014You're going to have to thank Usher for indirectly being the impetus behind Do to the Beast, the first album from alt-rock vets the Afghan Whigs since the late '90s. While spending 2012 playing a series of reunion shows may seem like the most logical point for the Cincinnati-bred act to have started making another record, it wasn't until months later, during a one-off performance booked with the R&B singer at last year's SXSW, that they even considered making new music.
"There was something really inspirational to me of just putting that together so quickly and making it happen, and that we did it successfully," vocalist Greg Dulli tells Exclaim! of the performance setlist, which was strung together only two days earlier and featured a belted-out duet between him and Usher on the latter's "Climax." "[Bassist] John Curley and I had dinner after the show that night and we just acknowledged that we enjoyed the experience and talked about recording some new music. That was last March, we booked studio time in May and we were done by December. It all happened very quickly."
Four months after wrapping the sessions, the Whigs have unveiled the latest chapter in their darkly romantic songbook, which comes 16 years after original swan song 1965 and 13 years after calling it quits. Do to the Beast is a natural in the catalogue, weighing in with a mix of booming rock guitars and Dulli's distinct, smoky and soulful cries detailing various levels of relationship drama on tracks like "Parked Outside" and "It Kills." Despite the band's time off, Dulli has been in top shape, having cranked out a series of records in the meantime with his Twilight Singers project and the Gutter Twins collaboration with Mark Lanegan.
"Honestly, in the time between the Afghan Whigs ending and this record, I made seven records in the interim. It's business as usual for me. I'm a songwriter: I write songs and make records."
Despite the prolific output, Do to the Beast arrives with a different set of expectations, a fact Dulli happily acknowledges. "I was well aware that I was engaging a legacy; it was a legacy that I helped create. As soon as I decide to do something, I jump off the cliff. But there's water down there, it'll be okay."
While the album brings back the beefy guitar sound of '90s rock on driving tracks like "The Lottery," Do to the Beast also had the Whigs experimenting with their sound, whether via the band proper or through guest appearances from the likes of ex-Emeralds guitar hero Mark McGuire, vocalist Van Hunt, Joseph Arthur, Usher's musical director Johnny "Natural" Najera and more. This heads anywhere from the bluesy snarl of opener "Parked Outside," to the dust-raising arrangement of acoustic guitar strums and castanet snaps on wild west-conjuring "Algiers," or "Lost in the Woods," a song whose mix of downtrodden torch verses and emphatic, almost bubblegum chorus only came to co-mingle by accident.
"A friend of mine had put on shuffle play and those two pieces of music, they played one after the other," Dulli explains of the moment of chance. "They were never meant to be together, but I heard them and was like 'wow!' I went to the piano and mashed them together and 'Lost in the Woods' was born. They were very different pieces."
Coming off the first day of rehearsals, Dulli hints that it may have taken over a decade and a half to get Do to the Beast out of the band, but it will be a while before they settle back down. Though dates have not been confirmed, some Canadian stops are expected in the coming year.
"We played side one yesterday, it sounds fantastic," he says enthusiastically. "We've got another 10 days and then we play Coachella. After that it's on. I know we're booking shows into next year. It looks like it's an ongoing concern."
Do to the Beast arrives April 15 via Sub Pop.