Interview - Afghan Whigs
By: Brett Spaceman
Legendary 90’s band The Afghan Whigs combined their angst-rock with groove, soul and a showmanship unrivaled by their alternative music scene peers. Last month we inducted their third album proper, ‘Gentlemen’ into the [sic] Magazine Hall of fame, the ‘Classic Album Revisited’ section.
Sadly, The Whigs are no more, although they did reunite briefly in 2008 to bring us their retrospective collection ‘Unbreakable’. In Europe we at least have the opportunity to see Greg Dulli (former frontman) from time to time, performing with his Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins projects. The other members are much missed, so [sic]’s Brett Spaceman caught up with John Curley (bass player and far right in our lead photo) and Rick McCollum (guitarist and far left in photo) to talk about those compelling days, about Gentlemen plus the other acclaimed albums, and inevitably about the break up and beyond.
Brett Spaceman: For me, Gentlemen is the first moment that you guys hit upon the Whigs sound and carried it through an entire album. There were signs before, notably on Turn On The Water and Miles iz Ded (from Congregation) Did it feel that way to you too?
John Curley: It did. Gentlemen was 90% done when we went into the studio. We had already recorded demos of all the songs except Now You Know and Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer. We had also been performing many of the songs live while touring for Congregation. We even knew what the album cover was going to look like. All of those things helped focus the sound and the songs.
Rick McCollum: It takes time for the same musicians to develop and get their own original sound so we apparently reached it at that point. It is almost extinct in today’s world of ‘solo’ artists with the package deal right there on the table to sell to the audience since no one has patience to grow with a band thru their life at all today. Also at that stage having a larger budget thru the major label allowed us to capture a better quality sounding piece of work which I never thought we hit on till then and to get a steady engineer to the table Jeff Powell, who has worked wonders after that point ..the sound we had was one from playing a lot together at that point, half way thru the Whigs existence of 7 yrs so it was obvious we could reach a coexistence with each other at that point in songwriting -it was Dark Side of the Moon.
Brett Spaceman: Did you all have similar musical loves?
John Curley: When The Afghan Whigs formed, we had a lot in common musically; the ‘classic rock’ we heard on the radio growing up. We also had individual tastes that we shared with each other. Rick was into some free jazz, experimental and Indian music. Greg’s love of Motown, hip hop and soul music is well documented. When I met those guys I had been listening to a lot of blues, new wave and punk that I heard in college. We were always competing with each other to find new music that the others hadn’t heard or unearth an unknown track by a familiar artist.
Rick McCollum: Yeah that’s definitely the reason that our sound was such a melting pot of everything we grew up from the baby boom generation alongside every original source of music available that hasn’t been retread enough now.. physically we were born the middle of the spectrum of all the pop music that exists up to today so the richness of the music was very wide in every style … it seemed it lost its way along with saturation and unoriginal ideas as the last decade has evolved and its all about the bling .. I had been into r- n –b with some friends when I started at first playing drums but also I had my rock friends .. I loved I remember distinctly at first were the cool parts of songs that made me dig those first and I think that eventually brought the riff/pop mentality to the forefront of my songwriting ..something memorable or transcendent would be suitable .. but along the way in growing up I experienced different attractions to all styles and that grew in knowledge from all of us sharing the best qualities of each of those thing s which goes with life .. we were just growing up together be it movie soundtracks thru Duke, Miles, Motown, ACDC, Dolphy, Sly, Prince, anything that seemed original and time sustaining was easier to pick out over time like a piece of clothing that u knew u loved over everything else .. hence make the best work u can and don’t be too prolific
Brett Spaceman: Rick, you’ve declared a love for Sly and Hendrix. There’s another famous Minneapolis resident musician who idolises those same two Have you ever encountered His Purple Holiness, Prince?
Rick McCollum: No, not at all .. I do like purple though
Brett Spaceman: Can we surmise that Gentlemen is a logical progression of Congregation and Black Love a further development of Gentlemen?
John Curley: I think we can. From my point of view, each record seemed like a logical procession from the previous one.
Rick McCollum: It is but it isn’t …after Uptown Avondale, with Earle leaving as one of the original members that contributed to the sound and the rest of us dispelling in different locations to live along with deadlines to continue what we started was evident that the next album became a more focused objective in a concept album that was easier to piece together in that style since it wasn’t a group of guys growing up in the same town playing music but a group of adults in a profession …it was a logical step from the Gentlemen course ‘cause the positive side of the maturity was the passion that the three of us had to get it done and not be unsuccessful at what we started .. we were unbreakable ..
Brett Spaceman: Were The Afghan Whigs a close unit? Was Gentlemen a high point or a low point?
Rick McCollum: I think so in the most passive way that unconditional love for one another can grow into from living and playing together ..it seemed like a very steady incline to that point and with the exposure that comes with a major label it was somewhat of a high point but one that wasn’t felt deserved which at this point was halfway thru our existence as a band .. there was never a low point of the band .. the train was moving ….
John Curley: We were close and we remain close. We’re family. When you’re in the middle of something, it’s impossible to know if it’s going to be the high point. Only time will tell. Low points are a lot easier to identify in the moment! The making of Gentlemen was definitely not a low point, though. We knew we had a solid collection of songs for our major label debut. Musically, the constant touring had turned us into a great band. I think we all knew we were about to do something special.
Brett Spaceman: How did The Afghan Whigs write songs?
John Curley: Most songs would start as a riff or a drum beat. We’d jam on the idea as a group and try to come up with changes and turn it into a song. Sometimes we’d record the part(s) we had and Greg would take it home to work on it. Greg always knew right away if he wanted to chase an idea. It was extremely rare that we’d work on something that didn’t actually become a song. Not every song made it on to a record but if Greg didn’t have a visceral reaction to the riff or the beat, we didn’t waste time trying to convince ourselves.
Rick McCollum: Different way depending on what evolved being a riff brought here a riff brought there a series of happening s from jamming together as a whole .. the overall direction of the song is always from the singer’s point of view if there are vocals involved so getting a riff going to inspire Greg to sing over was my contribution and a mind to mimic melody lines in the course of the dynamics was very prevalent as done with some slide guitar etc .. also , taking a solo and making it a story within a story was key .. I mean if u can remember a solo from a song then yr doing good …its back to the nursery rhyme which is the strongest message in time.
Brett Spaceman: Gentlemen is pretty heavy, suffocating stuff. What was it like on tour promoting that dark material night after night?
Rick McCollum: I never really thought of it as suffocating but I wasn’t down the other end like u were I guess .. playing music is fun and if u are playing to full houses every night there’s nothing negative about that at all ..it might have been more suffocating to Greg since he wrote the words. But its all entertainment …
John Curley: As a musician, I could appreciate playing songs with such deep content. It didn’t get boring because the emotion was always real. It took a toll on Greg and as a friend, that was hard to watch. It was personal, dark and painfully honest music.
Brett Spaceman: Was Greg battling addiction at that point?
John Curley: Probably. I kind of put my head in the sand and tried to do my job. When I read the 33 1/3 book, I learned a few things. None of us were choir boys. The traveling and exhaustion could be a grind. We all dealt with our problems as best we could. If you could get on stage and play a great show, that was what mattered. At a certain point during the Gentlemen tour, Steve Earle was no longer able to do that.
Rick McCollum: Y’ kno, everyone has addictions in every form and that’s what makes each individual an original specimen not just Greg
Brett Spaceman: Gentlemen is clearly a very personal record and listeners will invariably experience that aspect through Gregs viewpoint. But what about you? What were you going through at the time? In other words, from your point of view were there similar (or other) factors influencing your contribution to that record?
Rick McCollum: I honestly can’t remember what was going on 15 years ago … I was growing up playing in my first band as I was growing up with these guys as friends too so a lot of doubt, a lot of trust, and a lot of wandering thru dark caves were prevalent as I shined some moments of brilliance which was my conduit at that time – it takes a long time to catch on to everything in life but I master it with a very clear picture in the end looking back.
John Curley: Greg and I will joke that he is Kirk and I am Spock. Kirk is impulsive, mercurial and passionate. Spock is unemotional, logical and quiet. Obviously, these are caricatures. Greg has a firm grasp of logic. I can be quite moody. I can’t really remember what was going on on my life at that point. The Afghan Whigs were a big part of it. I got married to my wife in Feb. 1993. We had been together for 7 years. We are still together. I guess my point is that I spend my life trying to avoid situations that would provide me with the kind of experiences that would inspire a record like Gentlemen. I watched Greg live through it and then I watched him turn it into a record. I’m in awe of that. It’s something I could never do but I’m glad I was part of it.
Brett Spaceman: I recall a comment by Greg along the lines of – he only wrote his own songs because his voice wasn’t up to Motown standards. If his pipes had been better he would have happily covered Soul classics his entire career. Were you all in agreement over the songs that the Whigs did cover?
John Curley: I thought Greg was joking about a Supremes cover the first time he mentioned it. The Temple was my introduction to Jesus Christ Superstar which is one of my favorite albums to this day. I learned early on that Greg had pretty good taste and if he wanted to cover a song there was a good reason for it even if it wasn’t immediately apparent.
Rick McCollum: Yeah I liked that music as much as any other music out there and his voice is perfect for that ..
Brett_Spaceman: Black Love is a colossal achievement. Do you think of it as your masterpiece? Did it get its dues from the critics?
Rick McCollum: No its not our masterpiece but it sounds like it’s the cool underrated one that got away .. it didn’t get it’s dues probably cause they didn’t know how to push it but that occurred at the same time as the merger of the labels so the support had dwindled .. and critics are just opinions of people who get paid to do so and may not even be musicians at all but that album definitely didn’t get the props it deserved.
John Curley: I really like Black Love. At times, it has been my favorite AW record. It has some of my favorite songs on it: Crime Scene Pt. 1, Faded and Blame. Did we get our props? I would have to say yes. The people that liked our band loved it. We had, and continue to have, passionate fans. I only ever saw a couple bad reviews. We never broke through commercially but we definitely got our props.
Brett Spaceman: And then with 1965 your sound became a lot more commercial. Were those songs and those gigs as fun to play as they looked? What caused that shift in direction?
John Curley: The songs on 1965 were great fun to play live. We played every song on 1965 live at one point or another. The shift in direction was a natural one. We knew we wanted to make a party record so we relocated to New Orleans to write and record. Greg was already living there. Rick, drummer Michael Horrigan and I were there for about 10 months. Another great thing about the 1965 tour was that we had a deep well from which to draw when it came to choosing songs. Being able to change the set list from night to night helped keep the shows fresh.
Rick McCollum: Well personally I think we put out the best album with 1965 it captured all the nuances that we adopted in writing songs together thru our whole life and we finished it properly with the best work ..it wasn’t a shift in any direction ..it was a logical step we meant and that was to make a pop album that was timeless and had the best quality throughout and we accomplished that which I’m proud of .. every album before that u could’ve written off a couple of songs from each of them … this one u couldn’t .
Brett Spaceman: And then the split – which I gather was mainly due to Geography, right?
Rick McCollum: It was due to that which leant to everyone having to live their own lives which goes along with age and maturity .. change is good , like death ,which Ive learned thru my life.. it can lead to the next step of the big picture and it only makes everyone better individually and best of friends ..
John Curley: Geography was one of the main reasons we called it quits. Looking back on it, I think we were also running out of gas as a creative unit. People were ready to move on. I had become a father in Feb. 2000 and the idea of leaving for months at a time was unbearable. It’s funny because we had “broken up” a dozen times. Everyone had been fired. Everyone had quit at some point or another. When we actually broke up for real, it was friendly and respectful. And sad, of course.
There was a TV show a couple years ago where they would reunite bands that had broken up. Most of the bands had a couple members that hadn’t spoken in years. Most of them couldn’t remember why they broke up. I remember thinking what a drag that would be – to have spent so much time together and shared so many experiences and not be able to remember it without being angry or bitter.
Brett Spaceman: Do you remain in touch with each other? Were there any discussions about re-uniting to promote Unbreakable? Could The Afghan Whigs ever play together again?
Rick McCollum: Not as much as I like but we do stay in touch if a comet flies by … No there has not been talk of reuniting and it won’t happen .. it was good to see each other during those recording sessions but time has moved on and other priorities exist .. I enjoyed every minute with those guys when we played and it was an astounding amount of time we held it together but just enough in the scheme of things and I will take that to my grave but its time to move on …
John Curley: We stay in touch. I spoke to Greg on his birthday a week ago. Rick just sent me his new CD. Michael lives here in Cincinnati so I see him all the time. He plays bass in a band called The Hiders. Will The Afghan Whigs ever play together again? I don’t know. There’s no reason why not. We’re all happy with what we’re doing so it hasn’t been a priority for us.
Brett Spaceman: Tell us about your latest projects? What are the intentions there and what can Afghan Whigs fans expect from Moon Maan and Staggering Statistics?
Rick McCollum: Well Moon Maan has been around for 5 years now so its not new .. we’ve had one cd out two years ag,o,just released a few new songs a few months ago digitally on Itunes so all our stuff is out there … the first line-up was a four piece with two bass players and a lead guitarist who all left after the first cd three new songs were recorded last year as a duo with Erik Mathison on drums and now currently have a new bass player, Rashard to hopefully take this into the next full length in mind to record in the fall as a trio …
John Curley: Staggering Statistics ended about 2 years ago. We began in late 2003. Most of our shows were in Cincinnati. We did a short midwest stint opening for the Violent Femmes. Ultimately, we weren’t able to muster the energy (buy a van, tour constantly) to get to the next level and it became difficult to sustain creative momentum. Comparing The Afghan Whigs and Staggering Statistics, I would say my role as bass player was different in each band. In the Gentlemen-era Afghan Whigs, I felt like I was riding three runaway mustangs. Rick, Greg and Steve played furiously so I tried to find bass parts that would help hold it all together. As The Afghan Whigs evolved, I found a little more room to improvise. Greg and Rick have such unique guitar styles so I was trying to write bass parts that would provide a context for what they were doing. The Staggering Statistics began as a three-piece. Our guitar player wasn’t into solos so I took over that role. Later, Staggering Statistics added a 4th and I had to reign it back in a bit.
Brett Spaceman: I was surprised when I first heard Staggering Statistics. It’s quite lo-fi and art-rocky. Not unlike Pavement. I don’t know why but I was expecting something more bluesy.
John Curley: Staggering Statistics got the Pavement comparison a lot. We all liked Pavement so that’s OK, I guess. Most people can’t talk about music without comparing it to something else. People struggled to find comparisons for The Afghan Whigs. Maybe that worked against us commercially? Now, I see bands being compared to The Afghan Whigs.
Brett Spaceman: What now? What next?
John Curley: Staggering Statistics’ final CD, “I’m Thinking About Changing”, never got released but you can download it for free at www.staggeringstatistics.com
Unless something really special comes along, I’m probably done with playing in bands for a while. I have a recording studio in Cincinnati called Ultrasuede Studio where I record and produce a lot of great bands and talented artists. It’s creatively rewarding. My wife and I have 2 girls in grade school and I get to spend a lot of quality time with them. I still play bass for fun and sometimes in the studio on other people’s songs. I’m also trying to learn how to play drums and piano.
Brett Spaceman: And Moon Maan?
Rick McCollum: Right now finally have a stable force on bass to hopefully continue this project as a trio in recording the next full length over this fall .. stay tuned ‘cause it’s the tip of the iceberg ..
[sic] Magazine wish to thank John and Rick. Further information on Moon Maan and Staggering Statistics can be accessed from the links below. The retrospective Afghan Whigs collection ‘Unbreakable’ is available now on Rhino Recordings. Finally the excellent Summers Kiss release their Afghan Whigs tribute compilation very soon. Keep watching.