The Afghan Whigs' Black Humor in a Gray World

Frontman Greg Dulli navigates the Afghan Whigs through darkness and light

Funny people use humor as a mask. It’s a way to deflect sadness, to lighten the heavy load on their shoulders. Examples range from stand-up comedians like Robin Williams and Louis C.K. to musicians like Kurt Cobain, who, according to the documentary “Montage of Heck,” was notoriously funny and mischievous.

The dark humor of much of the Afghan Whigs’ output finds its source material in the complex emotional life of frontman Greg Dulli, who has remained at the center of the band since its inception in 1986.

“I don’t think that I’m Hamlet, that I sit around like a dejected crowned prince or anything like that,” Dulli told me over the phone last month.

“I’m a multidimensional human being,” he added.

The Whigs, who are originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, were Sub Pop labelmates with Nirvana during the heydey of grunge. And once they signed with the purveyors of the Pacific Northwest sound, Sub Pop immediately became a family to them, according to Dulli.

Even when the band made a lucrative deal with Elektra Records, Dulli stayed in touch with his former label, and he was the only other musician (besides former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, of course) to appear on Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album.

However, the partnership with Elektra was short-lived, inimical and, with the release of their fifth album “Black Love,” it crystallized the Whigs’ flirtations with black humor. By the time the band parted ways with Elektra, Dulli was being treated for depression.

But it’s never been all black -- or white -- for Dulli.

“If anything was completely black and white, it would be incredibly uninteresting. You’d be lying to yourself,” Dulli said. “The grays give it the color, the fluidity to move between the poles.”

That fluidity of color is what has allowed the Whigs to age with such grace. Even at the height of Sub Pop grunge, the band found a way to stay interesting, always sounding smarter and more soulful than their peers. On their new album, “In Spades,” they continue to play with the grays by drawing more heavily on orchestral R&B influences.

“I think it was there in raw form from the beginning. I grew up listening to R&B -- a lot of that was Motown. I think it was just very organic the way I got into it,” Dulli said. “My expression of it was no different than when the [Rolling] Stones or the Beatles heard black music for the first time.

“I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I smash it all together,” he explained.

The new album holds a special place in Dulli’s heart for a number of reasons -- and not just because of its ability to navigate between poles without falling apart.

“This record was special because it was made by the band that toured the previous record. For eight out of 10 of the songs, we were all in same room playing in a circle. When you do that, you’re essentially playing live in the studio. It has a group energy, whereas not all of the records that I’ve made in this century have had that dynamic. It was a lot of the group hanging out and making the record together, and I think that enhanced the emotional quality of the music. There were moments of group transcendence ... camaraderie and shared emotion on the record,” Dulli said.

“As far as the mood of the record, those were the sounds that appealed to me this time around. Once you catch a vibe, you begin to enhance the vibe … One song begets another,” he added.

Unfortunately, that ecstatic energy was interrupted by tragedy very suddenly.

“My headspace was pretty good, and it wasn’t until the end of the record where our guitar player [Dave Rosser] was diagnosed with colon cancer, and that’s sort of when the mood shifted,” Dulli said.

Rosser passed away on June 28 of this year. Rather than let the darkness get the best of them all, the Whigs carried on -- not in spite of death, but in celebration of life.

“First of all, he’s not suffering anymore and not a day goes by where I don’t think about him. Bittersweet is the best way to describe it. It’s sad he’s gone but ultimately I can tell you that us being together was great, and I can also tell you that Dave Rosser has shown up more than once on tour. People visit you from beyond in strange and wonderful ways,“ Dulli said.

“I think it’s a great thing for us collectively that we’re going to go out and celebrate his life. We’re not throwing a wake; we’re throwing a party for his life."

The Afghan Whigs headline the Belly Up on Thursday, Oct. 12. Get tickets here, and go early for Har Mar Superstar.

Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford poet-neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. He now fronts the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.

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