In talking with Greg Dulli, frontman and founding member of the Afghan Whigs, it’s clear with the latest album In Spades, fans are hearing a true representation of today’s band and the sound it creates when it gets together to make music.
They’re also seeing a different Dulli than the man they encountered in the 1990s, when the intensity of his emotions (which translated into some particularly self-lacerating lyrics on albums like 1993’s Gentlemen and especially 1996’s searing Black Love) coupled with some unpredictability on stage as a performer and self-destructive behavior helped make the Afghan Whigs a fascinating and seemingly somewhat combustible presence on the music scene.
The Afghan Whigs lasted for one more album after Black Love – the 1998 release 1965 – before breaking up. Dulli went on to work with Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees fame) as the Gutter Twins and then as leader of the Twilight Singers, a band that released a half dozen albums between 2000 and 2011. It was during the Twilight Singers’ tenure that Dulli began to deal with various demons and habits and emerged as a more settled person.
“I think the absolute kind of height of the torture was probably Blackberry Belle,” Dulli says, mentioning the 2003 Twilight Singers’ album during a recent phone interview.
“This was mostly self-inflicted and I think unchaining yourself from unhealthy behavior and giving yourself a chance to be hopeful or optimistic or allowing yourself to be loved is probably all steps I’ve taken in the latter part of my life that I did not allow in my younger days. I have my moments, but I live a life of relative serenity.”
As Dulli worked his way through the next decade in the Gutter Twins and Twilight Singers, he maintained that he didn’t see an Afghan Whigs reunion in his future.
But things changed when Dulli did an acoustic tour in 2010 as a solo artist. For that tour, he was joined by bassist John Curley, who co-founded the Afghan Whigs with Dulli in Cincinnati in 1986, as well as multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and guitarist Dave Rosser, who had been part of the Twilight Singers. And after Dulli reconnected in 2011 with guitarist Rick McCollum, the third core member of the original Afghan Whigs, the idea of a reunion began to take hold.
The group re-emerged in spring 2012, playing a handful of festival shows and in 2013 decided to take the next step by recording new music.
That first post-reunion album, Do to the Beast, arrived in 2014. And the tour that followed, which included Nelson, Rosser, guitarist Jon Skibic (replacing a departing McCollum) and new drummer Patrick Keeler further cemented the chemistry of the new Afghan Whigs lineup.
When the tour ended, Dulli and his bandmates were so enthused with their shows that they decided to get right to work on the album that became In Spades, building the songs from ground up as a band in the studio.
“It’s just an incredibly hot band,” Dulli says. “We were over doing the last European tour in 2015 and just decided like that we sound great. Let’s book some studio time and go in and keep the hot hand going. We got off the road and went in and recorded half the record in a week.”
The band sounds energized on In Spades – its signature mix of raucous guitar rock mixed with a tinge of soul very much intact on a strong collection of songs. “Arabian Heights” and “Copernicus” deliver terse and punchy rock, with edgy guitar lines and Dulli’s impassioned vocals setting the tone. Meanwhile, the band widens its instrumental scope on “Demon In Profile,” “Oriole” and “Toy Automatic,” using horns and other orchestration to help build considerable drama in these songs.
The current live shows, Dulli says, have found the band varying the song selections a bit from night to night, while emphasizing the band’s more recent music.
“The last two records are getting pretty good play. We go all the way back to Up In It (the band’s 1990 sophomore album). And we’re playing a few covers, too. So there’s lots to choose from,” he says. “It’s a cool show. We keep it interesting.”
While life in the Afghan Whigs is good in almost every respect, a significant element of sadness has accompanied this current period in the band’s history.
In fall 2016, Rosser was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer, and in June he succumbed to his illness. The band is celebrating Rosser’s life on the tour.
“Speaking for myself, he was absolutely one of the most incredible spirits I’ve ever met while I’ve been on earth,” Dulli says of Rosser.
“I’ll miss him forever. I’ll celebrate him forever. I’ll think about him every day. He’s absolutely one of the greatest friends I’ve ever known. He taught me a lot and watching his absolute fearlessness in the face of the diagnosis really made me a lot less afraid to die. He was just completely unflappable and philosophical and spiritual and brave until the end. I’ll never forget.”
Built to Spill and The Afghan Whigs w/Ed Harcourt, The Van Buren, 401 W. Van Buren Street, Phoenix, thevanburen.com, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 8, $29.50-$135.