For a guy who specialized in writing poisonous songs about disintegrating relationships while in the Afghan Whigs, Greg Dulli sounds positively upbeat about his reunion this year with his combative bandmates, namely Whigs bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum.
“The best way I can describe it is to say I’ve had a lovely summer playing with my friends,” he says. It’s hard to tell if Dulli is smirking on the phone, but the band’s recent shows suggest the Whigs are in top form after a decade-long hiatus. Through six studio albums from 1986 into the late ‘90s, the Afghan Whigs were a swaggering soul-rock juggernaut with a reputation for finding trouble both on and off stage. Besides constant in-fighting, the band – particularly Dulli -- would get into it with audience members and anybody else who got in its way. On one ignominious occasion, a bouncer at a Texas club left the singer with a fractured skull.
The Whigs played about 1,500 shows, Dulli estimates, and broke up countless times before finally pulling the plug in 2001.
“We drove it till the legs fell off,” the singer says. “We lived pretty hard too. We almost said no to Sub Pop (the label that initially signed the band in the ‘80s) because it was getting in the way of breaking up the band back then. We were breaking up in 1989. (Metro owner) Joe Shanahan got us back together. Him and Lori Barbaro, who was working at the Uptown in Minneapolis, heard we were breaking up and asked us to play two final shows. We played the Uptown, then Metro, and got back on track. But we fought all the time. There were physical altercations on the stage, on the side of the road, in the van. People were thrown out of the van while it was moving. But for all the punches being thrown, we had a cool sound together.”
Dulli says the mix of combustible personalities, self-taught musicianship and heavy soul influences had a lot to do with why the Whigs stood out from the wash of grunge bands that dominated the early ‘90s.
“The Temptations’ ‘Psychedelic Shack’ was one of the first songs we ever played,” he says. “The Norman Whitfield era of the Temptations -- psychedelic, symphonic, edgy, ‘Ball of Confusion,’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ ‘Cloud Nine,’ that wah-wah guitar sound -- we were huge fans of that and we were always trying to stick some of that in our music. A song like ‘White Trash Party’ (from the 1990 album ‘Up in It’) was our bastardization of ‘Psychedelic Shack,’ played way too fast. We also liked the funkier parts of Led Zeppelin, like ‘Custard Pie’ and ‘Trampled Underfoot.’ We wanted stuff you could dance to even at our most hard rock.”
Dulli says an acoustic tour two years ago in which he was occasionally accompanied by Curley planted the seed for a reunion. When he was asked to reunite the Whigs for a couple of festival shows this year, he gave the go-ahead to a Whigs tour, which included blazing performances in August at Lollapalooza and Metro. The Whigs return to Metro for two more concerts Friday and Saturday.
The character Dulli played in many of the Whigs songs redefined nastiness, though many of his portraits of relationship hell also seethed with black humor. Is it tough for Dulli to channel that guy now that his personal life is a bit more stable?
“I’m doing ‘West Side Story,’ my own way,” he says with a laugh. “Hitting my marks, which is cool. If I feel uncomfortable doing something, I won’t do it. But we’re pulling out a lot of songs we’ve forgotten about and there are lighter shades in a lot of those songs that people sometimes miss. I’ve done a couple songs on this tour that we’ve never played before, especially off (the 1998 album) ‘1965,’ in which I defy you to find the inherent darkness -- they’re actually very joyful songs. I think there is a bunch of speeds in the car that is the Afghan Whigs.”
Whether the band will continue is an open question. They’ve recorded covers of Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ ‘70s soul song “See and Don’t See” and Frank Ocean’s “Love Crimes,” but there are no firm plans to do more recording or shows in 2013.
“We’re trying to think not too far ahead,” Dulli says. “We’re having a good time, trying to stay in the moment. We’ve been fairly successful when doing so. I’ll know the moment it’s time to make the decision.”
But he’s not interested in turning the Whigs into a nostalgia act. “If it goes on past this very reasonable point,” the singer insists, “I won’t be doing it unless there is something new to play.”
Afghan Whigs: 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., $35; metrochicago.com.