It's inevitable that the first question you ask a band that's recently reunited after a decade-long absence is "Why?" As recently as 2011, Afghan Whigs front man Greg Dulli wrote off the chances of his Cincinnati-based alt-rock band ever re-forming in an interview he did with MTV. So now the question provides an opportunity for a joke.
"I received a request from a higher power, and I answered the call," he says via phone from his L.A. home. "Such is my duty as a servant of the Lord."
Taken aback, we inquire as to whether that statement is intended to be a joke. "Vaguely," he responds. Dulli might just be messing with us, but his answer suggests the often random nature of rock reunions. Dulli attributes the Whigs reformation to "a series of circumstances" that amounted to something like a "perfect storm." In a way, it's fitting, since the band's formation in 1986 came about in a similar manner.
Prior to forming the Whigs, Dulli and bassist John Curley played in a band together and tried to make the best out of a Cincy scene that had very little going on. The Whigs' first gig, as a matter of fact, was at the Jockey Club located in Newport, Kentucky.
"I saw the Damned, the Vibrators, the Ramones, Husker Du, Violent Femmes, the Replacements, Johnny Thunders and Bad Brains at that club," recalls Dulli. "That was where everyone on that circuit came. The guys putting on the shows there were responsible for keeping us on the cultural map. They influenced me more than they'll ever know just with their daring booking schemes and going broke in the process by bringing unknown bands to a largely conservative area."
With Dulli's soulful, R&B-inspired vocals, the Whigs were an anomaly even by alt-rock standards. The band's strange mix of music can be attributed to Dulli's upbringing.
"My mom was 17 when I was born," he says. "She listened to Motown in the '60s. By the time I was five, she was 22 and still listening to 'young people' music. Being introduced to that and being a curious fellow, I started to seek out other stuff. I loved music really quickly. The older kids in my neighborhood turned me on to Zeppelin and the Stones and AC/DC. I heard Patti Smith, and by that time I was reading Creem. I started to listen to New York-y stuff. I worked backwards to the Velvet Underground and all that. My grandparents listened to country music. I was pack-ratting a whole lot of styles."
That "pack-rat" mentality carried over onto the Whigs' debut, 1988's Big Top Halloween, which caught the attention of the upcoming indie label Sub Pop, which quickly signed the group. At the time, Sub Pop mostly catered to bands coming out of its Pacific Northwest home base. Adding the Whigs to the roster was a sign that Sub Pop was willing to branch out from the grunge sound it was cultivating with acts like Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Nirvana. And it gave the Whigs instant cred.
"I liked them all," says Dulli when asked about the Sub Pop roster. "They were cool bands. They all put on great shows. When those bands would come through Cincinnati, they would stay at our house. Tad stayed at our house and Nirvana stayed at our house. They're part of a great community of like-minded people. When we first went to Europe, I'm sure people assumed we were from Seattle, so we started playing weird cover songs. We got weird quick, and the English grabbed onto the outsider status first. We were the red-headed stepchild, and I always liked being the new kid in school. You didn't know what I was going to do. My expectations were my own and not yours to have on me."
After a couple of records with Sub Pop and a few high-profile tours, the band signed with a major label in 1993 and issued Gentlemen, a dark and moody album that really resonated with college radio.
"I think it's a good record," says Dulli when asked whether it's the best release in the band's catalogue. "I think [1996's] Black Love is a good record. I think [1992's] Congregation is a good record. They're all good records. Gentlemen struck a chord in people. It did in me when I wrote it. Better than the others, no. Absolutely not."
After the band dissolved in 2001, Dulli devoted more attention to the Twilight Singers, an electronica project that paired him with a slew of indie rockers, and the Gutter Twins, a band featuring Dulli and Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan.
"I started the Twilight Singers when I was still in the Whigs," says Dulli. "I was exploring electronic music. When the Whigs collapsed, I didn't play music for a couple of years. When I restarted it, I started to merge what I liked about electronic music with what I liked about rock music and pushed them together. The record I made with Mark [Lanegan] was a long-gestating project, and when we got on the same page and started to write together, that was my favorite things I have ever done — to work with a friend as good as Mark is and an amazing songwriter. It was probably the easiest collaborative effort. He's one of my favorite singers. Those things were all great."
While the Whigs have yet to release any new original material, they have been delving deeply into their back catalogue for the current tour, which will culminate with a New Year's Eve show in Cincinnati.
"The first shows we did, we played mostly the last three albums," says Dulli. "We played a couple of songs off Congregation, and we started to expand the Congregation sound, and toward the end at [Chicago's] Metro, we pulled out one from Up in It. We have five albums to pick from, and that's about 50 or 60 songs. We're getting around to them. It's a work in progress."
Dulli, who says he's noticed an improvement in his voice since he stopped smoking some four years ago, admits that his trademark soulful delivery is simply an attempt to emulate his musical heroes.
"I just try to do my best version of something I heard somebody else do," he says. "I shot really high, and more often than not fell horribly short of the mark. My ambition outran me often, but I have made peace with my ambition and can meet it on level ground. I'm living in the moment right now and trying not to think too far ahead. That's gotten me in trouble in the past. I try to stay out of trouble. If it turns out that's the right thing to do, then I'm sure I will arrive at the conclusion at the appropriate time."