“It was definitely an amicable split. I don’t think we’d be here otherwise. Greg and I are very close friends – we’re like family really."
The hyper-literate, soul-specked rock'n'roll of Cincinnati, Ohio outfit The Afghan Whigs made them one of the most lauded bands of the '90s alternative explosion. They were beloved by discerning music fans and critics but never quite crossed over into the mainstream enough to make any serious impact, even after they left Sub Pop – their home for two albums before and during the grunge explosion – for the realms of the major labels.
When the band split in 2001, with six albums under their belts, it looked like that might be the last that the world would hear from this groundbreaking act. Frontman Greg Dulli quickly upgraded his side-project The Twilight Singers to a full-time concern – later also teaming with Mark Lanegan to form The Gutter Twins – and for a long time he was publicly adamant that there would never be an Afghan Whigs revival, even though in 2006 they recorded two new songs for a retrospective compilation that seemed to be about as much as fans could hope for from the band.
This stance always hit Australian fans of the Whigs the hardest, because despite the long tenure of their original incarnation they'd never made it down to this part of the world. Then last December there was a collective holding of breath within those circles when it was announced that The Afghan Whigs would be reforming for ATP events in the UK and America, those shared dreams becoming a reality earlier this year when it was finally announced that they definitely would be coming to Australia for the first time in their career.
“It's the most fun I've ever had playing music, really,” founding bassist John Curley marvels of the band's second phase. “Back in the day I think I may have in some ways taken it for granted and in other ways taken it too seriously – it's nice to have a second chance to relive it.”
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Fittingly it was Curley teaming up with Dulli once more for some Twilight Singers shows that provided the spark for an Afghan Whigs reunion, even if that wasn't the intention at the time. “I sat in with The Twilight Singers for one song here and one song there when they would come to Cincinnati – not every show when they would come through, but a few. But I think a big step would have been when Greg did his solo tour, which was mostly just him on acoustic guitar and piano. I played six shows with them on that tour – I did Cincinnati and Chicago, then I went out to the west coast and played four shows out there – and that was a really good time too, just relaxed and fun. I guess that really planted the seed for both of us; it just reminded us of how much we enjoyed playing together and that we enjoyed playing these songs and that it could be really fun.”
Once the hurdle of getting the band back together had been overcome, the chemistry that made The Afghan Whigs such an exhilarating prospect came flooding back.
“It did actually. Surprisingly,” Curley shakes his head on reflection. “We talked in November, 2010 and then about a year or so ago I was in California – a friend of mine got married out there – so I came down to LA and spent some time with Greg. That was the first time that we'd really talked about a reunion in any serious terms, where the conversation didn't immediately turn to, 'We'll never do it!' It was kinda like, 'Well maybe we should think about this? Maybe we should do it? It'll be fun playing together.' Then about six months after that we got together down in New Orleans – Rick [McCollum – guitar] and Greg and I and a drummer – and we ran through some stuff just to try to see if the chemistry was still there. And it was. It was amazing to see how well everybody remembered the songs, how quickly it came back, how fresh they felt; it was cool. I honestly expected us to kinda stumble through them and have to stop and start and relearn parts and everything, but we played about twenty songs that weekend and all but a couple really just went off without a hitch.”
The Afghan Whigs had a completely distinctive sound, a fluid yet distinct tone that evolved remarkably over their career, but according to Curley, it wasn't the result of any distinct plan.
“You know, I don't know – I don't think we were trying to emulate anybody. I think every kid who picks up a guitar wants to play the songs that they like – and we'd certainly play other people's songs, but we knew early on that we wanted to write our own stuff. I think the combination of Greg being sorta new to guitar but having really unique ideas about songs and a pretty vast musical knowledge that he was drawing from even in his early-twenties, then Rick's totally unique guitar style – he's self-taught – and then me trying to find some common ground between that. I dunno, I think we had four unique personalities – and four unique musical personalities – and there were definitely points of reference like soul music and Led Zeppelin, plus The Church was a band that we listened to at the time, and The Replacements. But there was no particular movement or style of music that you could hang it on. I think maybe the wide breadth of stuff that we liked individually and collectively informed a lot of what we did.”
When the band split it certainly wasn't because they'd been victim to the law of diminishing returns – their final album, 1998's 1965, is considered a masterpiece in some circles – but it wasn't because of any major falling out either.
“It was definitely an amicable split. I don't think we'd be here otherwise. Greg and I are very close friends – we're like family really – and we've maintained our friendship over the years; we talk regularly. Certainly we split up a bunch of times when it wasn't amicable, but we got back together all those times,” Curley laughs. “I think it was just time. Personally for me, my wife and I had just had our first child and it was seeming hard for me to be away – I didn't want to be away on the road when my daughter was learning how to walk and talk and all that stuff. I didn't really think that that was the kind of parent that I wanted to be. And I think everybody was ready to move on. In retrospect, Greg had done a Twilight Singers record and was writing songs for another one... I dunno, I guess everything is for a reason and that was the right time for us to be done and now is the right time for us to be back.”