AFGHAN WHIGS: A Restless Year
The Afghan Whigs have yet again received widespread acclaim for their current album, 1965. Life, however, has been far from painless for the band . MICHAEL LOCK reports.
It's seven in the evening in the States and, if truth be known, this interview really shouldn't be happening. The Afghan Whigs should by rights be cooped up in their sleeper bus or soundchecking one of the last dates of their American tour, on the back of their recently released album, 1965. Instead we find guitarist Rick McCollum snowbound in his hometown Minnesota with some unexpected downtime, due to a little incident that occurred two weeks before Christmas in a club called the Liberty Lunch in Austin, Texas.
It's alleged that after an initial exchange of words regarding The Whigs banging too loudly on the club's loading doors, Greg Dulli (vocalist/guitarist) was knocked out following the gig by a certain off-duty staff member, kicked in the head twice and ended up in hospital with a fractured skull, thus cancelling their remaining tour. The conflicting accounts of the event at times resemble a 90's southern gothic, with staff members called 'Porkchop' and 'Taiter' leaving the scene after claiming Dulli attacked them with a baseball bat (which they were unable to produce later as evidence, and later changed to a four-by-two) and other staff refusing to call an ambulance. With a hearing date set for the Grand Jury, a somewhat cagey McCollum is reluctant to expand on the incident beyond the official statement issued by the band.
"To be honest I wasn't there at the actual time of the incident," he says." It was after the venue had closed, and our publicist has advised me to direct all the questions on the Liberty Lunch thing to our website." Even so, he continues, "Greg got out of hospital about a week after the incident, he's getting stronger all the time, so we're all doing the press 'til he's fully recovered for the rescheduled tour in February.
"Then we go to Europe, where we strangely do better than the states, and then probably Australia," McCollum enthuses, glowing at the idea. "I mean we've been going for 11 years now and we've never been there and so many friends in other bands say it's great, so we'll definitely make it for this tour."
During those 11 years the Whigs, increasingly drawing on a diet of Stax and Motown, have sold a body of sexual mastery, one night stands and lustful encounters like no other rock band. It comes as no surprise, then, that they decamped to the Mecca of lust, New Orleans, to record 1965. Having soaked up plenty of Tennessee rhythm oil recording the last two albums at Ardent studios in Memphis, their love of southern soul has now become so inseparable for their own grooves, that they have become one of the last sexy white rock 'n' roll groups.
Unlike their last album, Black Love, the darker moments are matched with a good time feel (like the Stones circa Gimme Shelter), partly due to Dulli responding to treatment for clinical depression, and partly to the mystical boogie the Crescent City infuses in all its visitors.
"Greg was in New Orleans six months before us working on his side project the Twilight Singers, then we all hired a house and a studio and for three months was just hung out and jammed before we began recording because we had a new drummer, Michael Horrigan, to work in," McCollum says.
"New Orleans, the bars, the clubs just kind of have a way of drawing you in, but at the same time there's so much music going on everywhere, on every street, that it seems natural to combine the two... that's how we hooked up with Roderick Paulin of The Re-Birth Brass Band who assembled all the brass for the record."
Ironically, it was the notoriously mild mannered McCollum who could finally answer Dulli's harrowing scream from the song off 1993's Gentlemen album, What Jail Is Like when he found himself thrown in jail on the last night of Mardi Gras, only to be bailed out by bass player John Curley.
"That whole thing has spiralled into this mythic event," he says, "when all I did was spill some beer on a policeman's foot, then he cuffed me, took me in and I was banged up for a couple of hours."
The distractions of New Orleans also gave time for the ensemble cast of locals, collectively known as The Royal Orleans Revue, to drop by and add some gris-gris to the mix. The most striking of which is the lascivious backing vocals Susan Marshall delivers on the first single Somethin' Hot, and the sordid Stonesy romp, Neglekted.
"Susan's actually our engineer Jeff Powell's wife, so we didn't have to go far to find her," McCollum explains. "He's from Ardent and worked with us on the last three albums and suggested we get Alex Chilton to sing backing vocals Crazy." Greg had met Alex a couple of times before and we'd had Jody Stephens who's also in Big Star with Alex, singing backing vocals on Gentlemen a few years back. We were trying to fill the sound in lost of different ways, apart from listening to a lot of soul I'd been working on the soundtrack to Broken Blossoms, playing a theramin and listening to Django Reinhardt. So I guess it all comes out somewhere on the album."
Following that McCollum's voice trails off. Unaccustomed as he is to doing press, someone forgot to advise McCollum against the pitfall's of smoking a joint before a run of telephone interviews. Hence any sound from outside his house results in frequent runs to the door in search of the elusive pizza he ordered. I asked him when he ordered it. . .
"1965," he chuckles.