"Oh my God, there's a whole parade of little kids walking down the street, all in their Halloween costumes. That's awesome!" Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley enthusiastically mentions the trick-or-treat festivities taking place outside of his Cincinnati home. "There's a little Indian, a cowboy, but nobody really outrageous--no devils or witches, so it must be a Catholic school. I don't see any South Park characters either. That would be a mortal sin."
Without all the modern-day, pop culture influences (no one dressed as Puffy or Marilyn Manson) it sounds as if the event Curley is witnessing could have taken place thirty years ago. A time when Curley and his bandmates--Greg Dulli (vocals, guitar), Rick McCollum (guitar), and new drummer Michael Horrigan--were entering the world. On the band's superb new release, 1965, the Whigs attempt to turn back the clock with an album that crosses rock and soul effortlessly and effectively.
The Whigs have always walked with a bit of soulful swagger, but on 1965, the swagger turns into a downright nasty slide step. Complete with horns, female backing vocals, and boogie-woogie keyboards, 1965 doesn't tiptoe around its purpose. In fact, the album originally had the working title of Stand Up to Get Down, implying a certain groove would be in place, but Curley explains why 1965 stuck.
"It was the year that Greg and I were born, and Rick was born in '64, so it was the first year we were all together," Curley begins to reason. "Then you can find all these metaphors and weird connections, and once those start happening, then you kind of know it's the right title. Right off the bat, we discovered that 1965 and 1999 have the same calendar days."
The similarities don't end there. "A lot of the things that were going on in 1965 musically, with the first melding of R&B music with white British Invasion stuff. Politically and internationally, with the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the sexual revolution and the beginnings of the space program, which has kind of led to the Internet and all that stuff." When asked about Ohio's own John Glenn returning to space, Curley ponders the trickle-down theory. "It's kind of a benefit for us. Maybe we'll get some of that coattail PR. How all those things shaped what we've become as 33-year-old people who have been in the same band for a third of our lives, and the songs on the album all have subtle connections to all that."
Flipping forward, if in time only, 1998 seems like a step backward when comparing the musical climate. In 1965, the Afghan Whigs' album would be the type of release that could be a crossover hit on both the R&B and rock and roll charts. The fierce snapback of the opener "Somethin' Hot," the silky-smooth pop of "Crazy," and the street smarts of "Uptown Again" are dynamic examples. To even consider they could hit an R&B audience now is quite a stretch, not to mention a shame.
"That's part of what is wrong with radio today. It's just so segmented that you can't play something like 1965 on an urban station--and you totally could," Curley says. "And a lot of the stuff they play on the urban stations is better than 90 percent of the so-called 'alternative rock' that you hear on the alternative rock station, which is basically now metal light. The most demoralizing thing about being in a band and putting out records right now is just the state of radio."
Though Curley owns and runs a studio, Ultrasuede, in Cincinnati, 1965 was recorded in New Orleans. Dulli lived in the French Quarter for about a year; the other guys in the band were in town a month to cut the tracks. Plenty of the Louisiana city's atmosphere seeped into 1965. Local musicians as well as some longtime friends fill the corners of the album. One guest's name quickly catches the eye: Alex Chilton.
"We met him awhile back when we were on tour with Teenage Fanclub, and I guess they wrote a song about him or for him, so he went up and played a couple of songs with them when they played in New Orleans," Curley explains. "I actually didn't meet him that night, because I had pinkeye and was just sitting in the van trying to get the other one red enough to match it. As it turns out, Jeff Powell [the Whigs' engineer] did a record with Alex, so he came over to just kind of hang out with Jeff and say hi, and Greg asked him to sing on 'Crazy,' because he had this vocal part in mind for him."
Dulli also drifted toward the lore of the South to come up with the closing instrumental "The Vampire Lanois," which Curley says is "something about searching for vampires in the Bayou." The other members found enough intrigue and mischief in town, and Curley had to bail McCollum out of jail during their stay. "That's how they make all their money down there: selling liquor, locking up the drunks, and then towing their cars away."
Numerous side projects keep the individual members busy. Dulli recently bought the rights to a book that he intends to turn into a movie. When with Elektra, the band had the intention of making an album that would coincide with a Dulli movie, but now that they're with Columbia, Curley says that project has been shelved. "It was the kind of deal where [Elektra] said, 'You spend the money, and we'll pay you back.'" Dulli also has finished a record with Shawn Smith of Satchel/Brad and Happy Chichester of Howlin' Maggie; the project is supposed to be released next year under the moniker of the Twilight Singers.
With everyone in the band free to do their own thing, the Whigs have survived quite nicely. "I haven't been there for a mix of an Afghan Whigs album since Up in It. I'm happy with the way they all turned out; it's just a case of too many chefs spoiling the soup. Greg has a different way of approaching it than I do, and if we're there at the same time, we're gonna wind up butting heads. We're smart enough to know that."
Some of the most possessive and obsessive music fans belong to the Afghan Whigs. Since the band continues to evolve on each album, many Whiggers seem to pine for the days of Congregation and Gentlemen, feeling alienated by the slicker, full-throttle attempts like 1965. "Every record, there are going to be a certain number of people who believe that we're never going to do anything better--and that's great that somebody would feel that strongly about a record that you put out," Curley says. "Part of being a music fan is getting to talk about stuff like that. I'm always interested in what people have to say, even if they are not sometimes entirely positive. If it's delivered in an intelligent way, then that's cool; you're entitled to your opinion. More often than not, though, it's delivered in a really spiteful way that makes it really easy to write off and not take personally."
Afghan Whigs. Friday, November 20, the Odeon, 1295 Old River Rd., $12.50 ($15 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.