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Members include: Paul Buchignani (born in Memphis, TN, joined band, 1995), drums; John Curley (raised in Washington, DC), bass; Greg Dulli (born c. 1966, in Hamilton, OH), vocals, guitar; Rick McCollum (born c. 1966, in Cincinnati, OH), lead guitar. Former member: Steve Earle (born c. 1966 in Cincinnati, OH), drums, late 1980s-1995. Addresses: Record company--Elektra Entertainment, 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 123, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
In 1996 Gina Arnold of the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle called the Afghan Whigs "one of America's best and most underrated bands." Many critics voiced the same opinion, considering the Afghan Whigs to be the best thing to come out of Seattle's grunge movement. As the first non-Seattle based band to sign to the famous indie label Sub Pop, the Whigs quickly made a name for themselves as more than just an alternative rock band.
Entertainment Weekly reported that frontman Greg Dulli met guitarist Rick McCollum in an Athens, Ohio, jail cell. The truth is that as a film student at the University of Cincinnati, Dulli was trying to write a paper for a friend when he was forced to ask the guy in the next apartment to turn down his stereo. That man was John Curley, a photographer for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Dulli introduced Curley to his other college buddies and they eventually formed a band.
Dulli grew up in Hamilton, Ohio, 20 miles north of Cincinnati. He was raised on R&B radio and his mother's Motown 45 singles. He loved music, but Hollywood beckoned, so after a year of film school, acting lessons, and homemade movies, Dulli moved to Los Angeles. He worked in music stores to support himself, but while he was there he discovered musicians and styles that he had never heard before. He knew he wanted to play guitar when he heard the band Dream Syndicate. The acting went nowhere, so in the late 1980s Dulli moved back to Cincinnati where he hooked up with college chums McCollum, Steve Earle, and their new friend Curley. Together they started the Afghan Whigs, with Dulli on guitar and vocals, McCollum on lead guitar, Earle on drums, and Curley on bass.
In 1988 the Whigs self-released their first LP. Big Top Halloween stirred the buzz that was already building in the underground around the band's live shows. It was then that Jonathan Poneman of the burgeoning Sub Pop label signed the Whigs to a deal. The band remained in Ohio, but their sound was similar to the first string of Seattle bands that was making itself known in underground haunts across the United States.
In Request magazine Harold DeMuir pointed out some reasons why the Whigs weren't like the other grunge bands with whom they were lumped together: "The Afghan Whigs make nasty guitar noises because they want to, not because it's the only thing they know how to do. With a sense of history that sets them apart from most of their underground peers, they've always valued song structure and emotional clarity over gestures." Dulli's dad dubbed them grunge-soul. With a deep unabating love for Motown, funk, and the musician Prince, Dulli just called them soul.
Both of their next albums, up in it in 1990 and Congregation in 1992, received good reviews. "Previous Whigs records--particularly Big Top Halloween and up in it--pasted together elements of early Replacements, Johnny Thunders and Stooges for a likable but undistinguished sound," reported the Los Angles Weekly. "Congregation, however, saw the outfit emerging with a cohesive sound and vision of its own." Rolling Stone's Michael Azerrad called Congregation "superb." Jason Cohen wrote in Details, "Congregation really saw them developing their own identity, equal parts gothic atmosphere, tearful melodrama, and sweeping stadium-rock throttle."
By the early 1990s Sub Pop and the grunge scene were huge. Grunge music was everywhere and major labels were hungry for new bands after the success of the kings of grunge, Nirvana. Although they continued a great relationship with Sub Pop, the Whigs were continually frustrated by the distribution problems inherent in small label recording. So they decided to sign with Elektra Records. Elektra even agreed to finance a full-length feature film when and if Dulli ever found time to direct it.
When Gentlemen came out in 1994, the Whigs had made a major name for themselves. Heavy touring for their Sup Pop albums and a live show considered volatile and thrilling had already built up a sizable and near religious fan base. A somewhat bizarre range of cover songs made absolutely new by the Whigs mixed in with their own dynamic music made their concerts an event worth seeing. When a doubtful Eric Weisbard went to review the Whigs for Spin-- "Gentlemen is quite a drama, but it feels too much like a slacker version of those pandering television talk shows"--he quickly changed his tune, calling the concert "transcendent."
Most reviewers praised Gentlemen immediately. Rolling Stone's Azerrad described Gentlemen as "a grow-on-you record populated by troubled characters, given life by Dulli's passionate vocals." Jancee Dunn in Rolling Stone called it a "corrosive yet very soulful masterwork." The Los Angeles Weekly wrote that "without ever sounding sloppy or untuneful, the band never ceases to sound like its collective hair is flying rhythmically up and down in unison over its instruments."
Again, the Whigs set themselves off from their contemporaries in that their influences, from soul classics to the Who's Quadrophenia to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, shine through reverently. Dulli told Bradley Bambarger in Billboard that they "take a cinematic view to recording, with albums having a beginning, middle, and end. In a world that wants only singles, we strive for something whole, that's of a piece."
For side projects, Dulli was much lauded singing for the John Lennon character in 1994's Back Beat, a film about the early Beatles. In 1996 the Whigs appeared in Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls, and contributed songs to the soundtrack, of which Dulli was the executive producer. It was also between albums that drummer Steve Earle left the band, citing the usual personal and creative differences. The band kept a lid on the circumstances behind Earle's departure, and replaced him with Memphis, Tennessee, native Paul Buchignani.
In 1996 the Whigs released Black Love. USA Today didn't find it "as grand as" Gentlemen, but found it "outclasses" much of their competition, saying, "The under-appreciated foursome has created a sly concept album without pretensions or theatrical cheesiness." In the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle Gina Arnold thought it was a better album, and both Spin and Details rated Black Love an eight out of ten. The critical results were pretty evenly mixed. Most reviewers found much to praise, though few gave the album a blanket thumbs up. Details's Rob Sheffield thought the problem might be that "despite their reputation as a great live band, the Afghan Whigs have always had trouble getting their great live sound on tape. But on Black Love, they've loosened up their music until they sound as genuinely soulful as they've always wanted."
The Afghan Whigs, as well as fans and critics, believe that the band has grown with each of its albums. They got their start in the grunge scene, but as that trend died out, they rose above the label, developing their own unique sound. An overtly creative bunch, the Whigs will surely continue their slightly left of center brand of alternative rock music, perhaps eventually garnering the prestige critics call long overdue.
by Joanna Rubiner
Afghan Whigs's Career
Band formed in the late 1980s in Cincinnati, OH. Self-released first LP, Big Top Halloween, 1988; signed with independent label Sub Pop, c. 1990; signed with Elektra records, c. 1994; major label debut, Gentlemen, 1994.
- Selective Works
- Big Top Halloween, 1988.
- up in it, Sub Pop, 1990.
- Congregation, Sub Pop, 1992.
- Uptown Avondale (EP), Sub Pop, c. 1993.
- Gentlemen, Elektra, 1994.
- What Jail is Like (EP), Elektra, 1994.
- (contributor) Beautiful Girls (soundtrack recording), Elektra, 1996.
- Black Love, Elektra, 1996.
- Billboard, October 16, 1993; February 3, 1996; March 16, 1996.
- City Beat (Cincinnati), March 15, 1996.
- Details, May 1994; March 1996.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994; March 15, 1996.
- Hits, March 18, 1996.
- Guitar Player, January 1994.
- Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1996.
- Los Angeles Weekly, November 5, 1993.
- Melody Maker, September 18, 1993.
- Musician, April 1994.
- New Music Express, January 22, 1994.
- New York Times, November 25, 1993.
- Request, October 1993.
- Rolling Stone, December 9, 1993; January 27, 1994; June 16, 1994; September 8, 1994; January 26, 1995; November 16, 1995; March 21, 1996.
- San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, March 10, 1996.
- Spin, March 1994; April 1996.
- USA Today, March 26, 1996.
- Village Voice, November 30, 1993.
- Additional material for this profile was obtained from Elektra Records press materials, 1996.
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