Ask Greg Dulli about the set lists he and his bandmates in the Afghan Whigs—the Cincinnati soul-punk outfit that released a string of sucker-punch ruminations on bad love during the alt-rock gold rush—are putting together for their reunion shows, the first of which takes place at Bowery Ballroom on May 23, and he’ll play coy; he’ll note that all of the songs in his band’s back catalog are special and hint at the presence of a cover or two. (He did let drop that the band opened its initial rehearsals for the reunion jaunt by ripping through a Thin Lizzy song, but which one and whether or not it would come to life on the Bowery stage next week remained mysteries.)
From Tupac’s Coachella-greeting hologram to the rebirth of Newt, the past year has seen an interest in the Clinton era that threatens to turn Generation X into the second coming of the boomers. But the return of the Afghan Whigs, who blended the throat-blasting emotion of soul music with the pummeling guitar rave-ups of what Beavis and Butt-Head might have called “college rock,” will offer a much-needed shot in the arm to the pillowy, unsure-of-itself landscape offered by indie in 2012. The music that Dulli and his bandmates released during the 1990s offered up example after example of love gone wrong, with lyrics that threatened to dive below the soul’s depths and the occasional moment where shards of light made themselves visible—just long enough to provide a contrast to the other songs’ dark hearts.
Time has passed, and the events that evoked those emotions have receded into the background. But the charge provided by his lyrics, which include the matter-of-fact declaration that he’s “got a dick for a brain,” remains, in a slightly removed form.
“I felt connected to that person, I did. In a lot of ways, [revisiting the back catalog] was emotional anthropology,” Dulli says. “You’re going back and examining someone who used to live and breathe and feel those stories.”
Despite the despair that permeates the band’s catalog—even their choices of covers, from their menacing take on Al Green’s “Beware” to their mournful version of the Supremes’ “Come See About Me,” had a specific sadness to them—some of the lyrics’ true meanings didn’t open up to Dulli until they were brought back into his life.
“I think depth showed up in every aspect of my life, whether it was a song or a photograph or a painting or anything I did,” he says. “You have to walk away from anything, really, to have perspective. Sometimes I’ve written a song and [been intrigued by the lyrics’] vowel sounds—[the way] words come off my tongue. But later I’ll go, ‘No, the words.’ The reveal is not always instant, in most ways, especially if you’re dealing with any abstraction in your lyrics. In a lot of ways, you could be fooling yourself—or at the same time, laying bread crumbs for yourself to discover something.”
One of the most devastating blows in the band’s catalog comes on their fourth full-length, the masterful yet soul-destroying Gentlemen. The withered lament “My Curse,” an aching confession of vulnerability sung by Scrawl’s Marcy Mays, is followed by “Now You Know,” a spat-out condemnation of a relationship that has been rotten from the start. In contrast to the broken-down blues of “My Curse,” “Know” barrels through its four minutes, razor-wire guitars playing a circular lick as Dulli’s acid voice ticks off his own sins as well as those that seemed to rise naturally from the toxic-waste dump created by the song’s two principals. By the time the song is over, he’s taunting his probably-ex-paramour by asking, “We bit into a rotten one, now, didn’t we?” and by the time the song collapses to a heap, with an echoed-out Dulli declaring “now it’s through,” the bruises left by it are nearly audible.
“I certainly remember writing [‘Now You Know’] because it was the last song that I wrote, and I wrote it on the spot,” he recalls. “Rare is the song that comes out complete, and that one did. Gentlemen was written very quickly—maybe the fastest [album] I ever did. We were on tour all the time and just kind of on a roll. We were 26, 27 years old, and feelings were coming together right. By the time ‘Now You Know’ showed up, we figured it was time to wrap up the recording, and I knew that there was still one emotion that needed to be expressed.”
The band’s reunion was announced earlier this year, when they were revealed to be one of the headliners of this fall’s I’ll Be Your Mirror USA festival, the Asbury Park–blanketing series of concerts produced by the British outfit All Tomorrow’s Parties. Dulli got to select the lineup for one of the festival’s days—”it’s like throwing a party, you know”—and among the performers who said yes to his request was the comedian/TV mogul Louis C.K., whose darkly on-point observations about the worst things humanity can do could easily serve as a B-side for an Afghan Whigs single.
“The great thing about comedy is the honesty and the personal catharsis that they’re having,” he says. “They’re telling you things about themselves that, most likely, you recognize, not unlike a songwriter. Anyone who connects with the part of your soul that you recognize, you know—that is a guide. We’re all carrying each other. It would certainly be a lonely place if there weren’t other people there.”
In concert, Dulli has proven to be pretty funny, his spot-on asides about baseball (he’s a Reds fan) and Daft Punk providing a sort of emotional ballast to the lyrics. But don’t expect him to go into comedy anytime soon: “That is the loneliest, scariest job in the world,” he says. “I can’t imagine that. I really can’t. It’s one of the greatest art forms. It’s observational, it’s personal—it moves between the two poles. You pick up on things about yourself that you recognize in others.”
It’s a calculus not dissimilar to that put forth by Dulli’s work—though don’t ask him exactly how he balances between the two.
“If art was an exact science, I certainly wouldn’t be in it.”
The Afghan Whigs play the Bowery
Ballroom on May 23. I’ll Be Your Mirror USA takes place September 21 through 23 in Asbury Park.