16 years after The Afghan Whigs released the celebratory masterpiece that fans eventually came to embrace as their swansong, the reactivated Cincinnati outfit's principal offers a beginners guide to its soul searching latter-day sequel
There was a gulf between our last album, 1965, and this one. At that point you need to reinvent. I think we always confounded expectations – it’s the band we were, it’s the band we are. The records we made were wildly out of step with what other people were doing, so welcome back to that. Of course, we're engaging a legacy too, but at this point in life you do what you want and you do it the best you can. As this record began to build and the pieces started to fall into place, it became clear that we had something special.
A lot of records I’ve made were precipitated by an event in my life – a series of circumstances that I found myself in, whether by my own creation or thrust upon me. This record here, from a songwriting point of view, is in part my imagination and partly my memories of things. It’s a different record in that I’m drawing on everything rather than just one experience – it’s sort of omnivorous and it was liberating to write. I create characters – sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s not me.
Because I live a kind of vagabond life, I pick people up along the way. Mark McGuire [of Emeralds] for instance was a very integral player on this record. A lot of the time, what he does isn’t even overt – sometimes he’ll create droning womblike environments. If you took them away you would notice it. The first song we did together was Lost in the Woods. It’s a very stark song where he’s using the guitar almost like a synthesizer. The guitar guitars, that’s Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic. They’re dudes I’ve played with for a long time so I know what they can do. And then John Curley’s the man, he’s my favourite bassplayer. So this is a pretty solid band record.
I’m not in the business of telling people what my songs are about – I really do feel that that’s the listeners’ experience, but I can give you bones to put the flesh on. The first and last tracks are the poles, and then each song has a partner. Matamoros and It Kills, Algiers and Lost in the Woods, The Lottery and Can Rova, then finally Royal Cream and I Am Fire are partners. The mother and father are at the beginning and end.
"The records we made were wildly out of step with what other people were doing, so welcome back to that"
1. Parked Outside
This song was started in Joshua Tree at Rancho De La Luna – Dave Catching’s studio. This is one of the older riffs I had in the can before we started the Whigs record. I go out to Dave’s place to work on ideas a lot – I played the drum beat here, and as I was tinkering with that I thought ‘Wow, this is sort of a stripper song.’ Then I laid down the guitar and the bass and started to think of what to sing. It was so loud I remember thinking ‘Man, I’m gonna have to scream this one.’ I hadn’t screamed like that in a while. Parked Outside is good fun; it has sort of a stalkerish element to it. It has pathos to it, which I really enjoyed. As soon as I sang the line ‘If they’ve seen it all, show ‘em something new,’ I knew this had to be the first song. It chose itself to open the show.
We did this one in Cincinnati while my friend Manuel Agnelli [of Afterhours] was visiting from Italy. When he showed up I didn’t see him come in – I was busy beatboxing in the studio. Afterwards he said ‘That was crazy, it sounded like you were saying "do to the beast what you do to the bush."’ I remember looking at John Curley and I’m like ‘Man, I think he just named the record.’ Later, he told us this story about going to Mexico and meeting this man from Matamoros who got sick while travelling with his girlfriend. She developed her film from the trip and the dude looked like a demon. I thought ‘Wow, well, Manuel named the album and the second song.’ He did that all within the first ten minutes of arriving. So hats off to Manuel.
3. It Kills
Whereas the first two songs are very mechanical and driving – for the first seven minutes of the record it’s just relentless – Matamoros gives way to the first crossfade into It Kills. This song is, I think, a kind of crystallisation and distillation of everything I’ve ever loved about soul music, the soul ballad and the middle eight with the Gamble and Huff orchestral string section vibe. We had Van Hunt bringing his vocal ease to the middle of that. It Kills is one of my favourite songs that I’ve done in a number of years – it came really fast and it came really naturally. I love the hell outta that song.
Once this song was done, to me it sounded like a Spaghetti Western – it reminded me of Roy Orbison or even Elvis Presley. I had a hand in the treatment for the video, the director is my dear friend Phil Harder who worked on a lot of the early Afghan Whigs videos – he did Debonair, Sister, Brother, Milez Iz Ded, Turn On The Water, Conjure Me – all my favourite videos too. So his involvement was pretty logical. I only just ran into Phil recently after many years and said ‘So hey man, wanna do us another video?’ It was great fun. We both vibed with the Spaghetti Western idea, and went for a homage to High Plains Drifter. We were just out to have a good time and make something cool. Four or five songs were suggested as the first single. When they picked Algiers, I had nothing to do with it. And I never do, by the way.
5. Lost in the Woods
This is my favourite song on the record, and that’s not at the exclusion of everything else – I just have a great affection for this. I had these two disparate pieces of music, I had the piano part, then I had a lift part, and they existed on their own. I was pondering what to do with them, then when I finally smashed them together, I thought ‘Wow, that was meant to be.’ That song is like a five minute journey through the neighbourhoods of my mind. I absolutely positively love Lost in the Woods. It’s one of the all-timers for me.
6. The Lottery
I find it funny when people say this song reminds them of The Twilight Singers because it’s the one I’m hearing that sounds the most Afghan Whigs! So there’s where you start to blur the fact that I’m the songwriter in both those bands. Where one ends and the other begins, you don’t really know. But The Lottery is a jam and it was raised as one of the candidates as the lead single.
7. Can Rova
I started this one in Joshua Tree also. That happened one night as I was sitting on the porch and could see the Milky Way. I just began playing guitar, making sounds that soothed me and I started to come up with this melody. It was rather matter-of-fact and instructional: ‘start the car, check the mirror.’ That song became very vivid to me very quickly, it’s another journey song. From starting the car to the fiery end. Once Can Rova begins, it’s the start of a journey towards the end of the record – it’s on after that.
8. Royal Cream
My favourite parts of any record, I always call them the arm that stops the elevator doors. You think the record’s done then something says ‘wait for me.’ As I’ve gone through those moments throughout the years, they’ve become some of my favourite songs. Royal Cream and I Am Fire were the last two songs written for Do to the Beast – they were the hand in the elevator songs and they were also conceived in Joshua Tree. With Royal Cream, I had a riff and went out to the desert with Patrick Keeler [Raconteurs/Greenhornes] – who was the drummer on that song – and laid down the demo. We ended up keeping his drums.
9. I Am Fire
After we did Royal Cream, Patrick passed out on the couch and I started pounding on this table that Dave Catching has out there until I came up with this rhythm, which became the basis of I Am Fire. It’s the same chords and tempo as Royal Cream, completely different vibe. That became the companion, in some ways the continuation and evolution of the song. It becomes another experience. Those two, in the long line of latecomers to records, are up there for me with Martin Eden and Esta Noche, which arrived late in the day for [second Twilight Singers LP] Blackberry Belle.
10. These Sticks
I didn’t intend this to be a cliffhanger; it’s a clear revenge fantasy. I have an idea of who it’s about – I dropped some very specific clues that were specific to my relationship with that person – and she’ll figure it out if she ever hears it. All in good fun.