As the frontman and principal songwriter for '90s alternative rock band the Afghan Whigs, singer Greg Dulli has spent the past decade or so on other projects, most notably the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins (with another grunge-era icon Mark Lanegan, formerly of the Screaming Trees). Now the Afghan Whigs are back following an invitation from the organizers of All Tomorrow's Parties to reform to headline and curate its prestigious annual festival running from September 21 to 23 in New York.
Having already played a bunch of festival dates, Dulli and co. have been taking the reformed Whigs (featuring three of the four original members) back on the road this fall.
"We started out agreeing to two shows," Dulli tells Exclaim! from his part-time home in L.A. "And by the time we're done, we'll have done 60 [laughs] but that's cool. It's been fun to watch it evolve and really fun to do."
Nevertheless, the reunion has left many fans still wondering why the Afghan Whigs chose now to reunite, especially as things have been going well with Dulli's solo projects.
"I felt like we, as people, were in the right headspace to do what we were being asked to do [by the ATP organizers]. And it seemed like a cool way to spend the summer," Dulli explains. "We disintegrated at the end of the '90s because we just flamed out. We played for 12 years. We were really crazy people on the road. We lived kinda wild lives, and it became unhealthy at the end of that run. Everybody went off in their own direction and did their own thing."
Despite being signed to Sub Pop, the home of grunge, the Whigs always stood out from their labelmates and plaid-shirted peers with their heavy Motown influence and earnest, as opposed to ironic, performances.
"Well, we weren't from Seattle," laughs Dulli, as he explains, "We're from Cincinnati, OH, so it's a different aesthetic I think. And we wore nicer clothes too."
The Afghan Whigs are known almost as much for their covers of R&B and soul songs, having recorded covers by artists ranging from Diana Ross & the Supremes to TLC, so it should be no surprise that they recently released a cover of "Lovecrimes" by Odd Future's R&B star Frank Ocean, who Dulli also chose to headline the band's ATP festival.
"It's a story song in a way, it's very poetic, the lyrics are very deep and it's got a hook that I would kill for," Dulli says of Ocean's song. "I'm a huge fan of his, but that was the song I felt like I could make my own, so I did. He does not have a bad song on his two records... and that's pretty rare for me to say that about anybody. "
Probably the two albums that stand out as the jewel in the Whig's crown are 1993's Gentlemen, subject of a 33 1/3 book by Bob Gendron, and its successor, the film noir in audio form, 1996's Black Love. "Some nights we play over half of Black Love and I feel the pageantry around those songs. One of the favourite things I've ever done is that record."
However, Gentlemen, the Whigs' dark masterpiece of love gone wrong and self-hate, must be a hard record to perform songs from almost two decades later. Dulli is light-hearted about it, coming across as the seasoned professional that he is.
"It's a different headspace, but when you get into a concert it is theatre, you know. Death of a Salesman is a sad story, but actors go out and play that role every night. And I'm not saying I'm acting, but I have a job to do, and if I have to feel that feeling again, well, there's a lot harder jobs than singing songs from Gentlemen [laughs]."
And the question on the lips of a lot of fans will obviously be if the Afghan Whigs plan to record any new material.
"I'm kinda leaving the door open to whatever's going to happen," says Dulli. "I'm not making any grand pronouncements about this or that."
However, he goes on volunteer, "We've already been playing a new song sometimes in the shows. We haven't recorded it yet, we're just playing it and it changes every night. So, you know, the door is open and my answer is open to interpretation."
You can see the Afghan Whigs' complete list of upcoming North American shows here. As previously reported, the band will play their sole Canadian date in Toronto on October 3.