The Return of the Afghan Whigs: Alt-Rock Icons are Back 15 Years Since Last Release With Distinctively Different Sound

"You can't listen to a legacy"

"Whenever you can, be first in the lane."

So instructs Greg Dulli to the driver who has arrived at Los Angeles International Airport to pick him up on a sunny Friday afternoon. That advice also applies to Dulli's rock career. For him, life is currently imitating art and vice versa: Dulli just returned to his adopted L.A. hometown from New York, where he shot a guest role in the pilot for Denis Leary's prospective FX series, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. In the show, Dulli plays a reformed version of himself, reuniting the flagship band that propelled him to frontman notoriety in alt-rock's '90s heyday, The Afghan Whigs. Likewise, in real life, he's rushing back to L.A. for rehearsals for the Whigs' Coachella debut on April 11. Days later, on April 15, Sub Pop released "Do to the Beast," the band's first full-length effort in more than 15 years.

"It's fun working with Denis -- he's like a brother -- but we start rehearsing Monday," says Dulli. "I'm looking forward to hearing the new songs live."

He's not alone. From the band's beginnings in Cincinnati, the Whigs carved out their own distinctive berth -- rising from the '80s indie underground into the '90s alt bubble, climaxing with what was supposed to be the group's swan song, 1998's Columbia Records release "1965." They split in 2001, after which Dulli released projects solo and with Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, but the Whigs were still missed.

"We're children of a certain era of college rock, where the Whigs held a lot of mystique," says Jason Bentley, music director at L.A.'s KCRW, which has been leading a charge of tastemaker-radio support for "Do to the Beast." "It's a remarkable mythology."

A new Whigs album isn't just a big moment for the fans; it's also a full-circle benchmark for Sub Pop. Since its Nirvana heyday the indie label has been home to diverse successes including The Shins and Fleet Foxes. But when Sub Pop signed the Whigs in late 1989, it was its first expansion outside of the Seattle grunge that put it on the map. "We're overjoyed to have the Whigs back," says label head/co-founder Jonathan Poneman. "It's a career-defining album -- they've thrown down the gauntlet."

Indeed, "Do to the Beast" makes it clear the band isn't just coasting on its golden-era laurels. First single "Algiers" is a surprise -- its pensive country-rock-meets-Fleetwood-Mac lament is unlike anything the band has ever done. "You can't listen to a legacy," says Dulli. "I steered away from making a record until I was ready to reinvent and try new things."

One of these new things? Healthy living. Dulli was once infamous for his debaucherous ways, but today, he's a different man: He's quit smoking, cut down on drinking, and slimmed down, thanks to regular gym visits. "I'm attracted to evolution," he says. "I've continued to push myself and see what I'm capable of."

But a new Whigs album wasn't always fated: Despite the band's successful 2012 reunion tour, plans to take things further didn't solidify until an unlikely collaborative performance at South by Southwest in 2013 with R&B superstar Usher. "Turning that idea into a show over just a few days really opened my eyes to what a unique group of players we have," says Whigs bassist/co-founder John Curley.

"I have such an amazing amount of respect for the Whigs," says Usher, "and to know that I had any part in inspiring their album is mind-blowing."

Johnny "Natural" Najera, Usher's musical director, plays guitar on the Whigs' new Philly-soul epic "It Kills," featuring soul singer Van Hunt. Multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes and guitarist Mark McGuire also appear on the album. One gaping absence, however, is original Whigs guitarist Rick McCollum, whose "personal issues" and solo project kept him away. "It's sad to think I'm not on the album, but in the long run, it's the right thing to do," he says. "I have to take care of my own thing."

"When people get stuck, I'm all for helping them out of the mud," Dulli says. "But if someone is comfortable in that mud, I've got to leave them there."

Some die-hards have questioned the personnel change, but Dulli is confident in what he has created. Besides, a little divisiveness has always been a part of Dulli and the Whigs' DNA. "I will forever be misunderstood," he says with a laugh. "Even by myself."


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