Oct. 14 2014 07:14 PM

Soulful rockers are fueled by a sensual darkness

Greg Dulli (second from right) says that most of his songs are written for cathartic purposes.
Photo by Piper Ferguson

In August, during a live session for KCRW radio's Morning Becomes Eclectic, The Afghan Whigs closed out a seven-song, in-studio set with their cover of The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." It's a much different-sounding version than the original, turning the upbeat new-wave classic into a more haunting, hypnotic dirge.

When host Jason Bentley asked the group's frontman, Greg Dulli, to introduce the song, he wrapped up the backstory by revealing part of the motivation behind the aesthetics of the band's music: "I like melancholy and sex."

Indeed, sex and melancholy are two of the most prevalent characteristics in the Cincinnati band's songwriting, dating all the way back to their aggressive 1990 Sub Pop Records debut, Up In It. And there's more than a little darkness to their new album, Do to the Beast, their first new full-length in 16 years, following two years of reunion shows. 

Kicking off with the booming, T. Rex-style glam sleaze of "Parked Outside," Do to the Beast finds the band ending its lengthy hiatus with a return to the push and pull of muscle and sensuality that's defined classic albums like Gentlemen and Black Love. On highlight "Algiers," Dulli sings of "heavenly demons outside my window" against a "Be My Baby" beat that's touched up with the clack of castanets. And the cryptic "The Lottery," driven by abrasive, yet melodic guitar riffs, finds the Whigs at their most accessibly intense.

In a phone interview from Cincinnati, Dulli has a much more laid-back and positive demeanor than his songs would suggest. The darkness, he says, is there for a reason.

"I can honestly say that I usually write songs as some sort of... cathartic thing," he says. "If I'm in the middle of a happy period, I'm not writing a bunch of songs. Songwriting has always been a bit of consolation for me, where I'm kind of looking after myself. I try to figure out what's making me feel a certain way. If I'm happy, it's pretty obvious what's making me happy, and I try to stay present in that."

In addition to the uniquely dark and sensual aesthetic that permeates The Afghan Whigs' music, one of the characteristics that's set them apart from other indie- and alternative-rock groups of the '90s and beyond is the heavy soul and R&B influence in their music. It's an influence that Dulli & Co. have always worn on their sleeves, whether in their cover of TLC's "Creep" or in the more explicit funk sounds of 1998's 1965. And just last year, the band played a show at South by Southwest in Austin with Usher, which sounds strange on its face but makes more sense the deeper you dive into the band's catalog.

"I grew up listening to R&B music, because my mom loved it," Dulli says. "I kind of inherited my mom's record collection. When I was growing up, that music was very present on the radio. So it was just kind of what I knew. By the time the Whigs started, early on, we would play Temptations songs, usually of the Norman Whitfield variety—that kind of psychedelic Temptations. The wah-wah stuff. The dark and stormy stuff."

There it is again: the dark and stormy stuff. And no album in the band's history is as dark and stormy as 1993's Gentlemen. Often regarded as their greatest work, as well as one of their most successful (with more than 160,000 copies sold), Gentlemen launched a handful of alternative hits, including "Debonair" and "Gentlemen," the videos of which you might have actually seen during daylight hours on MTV's Alternative Nation. Accessibility aside, the album is one of the most emotionally intense moments of the band's career, riddled with tales of empty sex, self-loathing and drugs.

The Afghan Whigs play Oct. 24 at Belly Up Tavern

The intensity is part of what made it a classic, and on Oct. 28, the album is getting a deluxe 21st-anniversary reissue, with rare and unreleased bonus tracks. For years, Dulli didn't touch a lot of the songs on the album, but with a little time and distance, he's become more willing to work them back into the set list.

"I could never be as close to it as when I was writing it," Dulli says. "And even before writing it, the year before it, that's as close as I'll ever be able to get to it. I'm not going to get up and do songs that I don't want to do just for other people. So, I had to go through [the songs on the album] and see where I was at.

"Like, the song 'Gentlemen,' after the Gentlemen tour, we never played it again," he continues. "I just couldn't—I didn't want to do it. But I enjoyed doing it two years ago, and I enjoy doing it now. So, it was a process of being able to be separated from the initial feelings. There's a lot of negative emotions in that record. Putting yourself in that headspace every night—I had to figure it out."

For as much catharsis as there is in the band's music, there's no drama off stage. Dulli, bassist John Curley, guitarists Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and drummer Cully Symington keep in touch regularly when not performing together. ("It wasn't like waking up 10 years later with your ex-wife," Dulli says of the band's reunion in 2012.) And no matter how melancholy the material, or how much negativity there once was behind it, Dulli keeps a pretty positive attitude about making a career out of sharing his music—and by extension, parts of his life—with audiences. 

"All of the records that I've done are like journal entries in my life," Dulli says. "I can listen to them and I can see things, smell things, remember things. They're touchstones of me. 

"I get to roll out my life every night that I play and reconnect with things or remember things, or joyously play something that was part of me."

Email jefft@sdcitybeat.com or follow him at @1000TimesJeff