Music News

Whigged Out

His band has just completed its first national tour, signed a major-label record deal with an RCA subsidiary (ATO Records), and earned some impressive plaudits from the likes of Rolling Stone. So the Whigs' Parker Gispert might be forgiven for letting success go to his head. But the recent University of Georgia grad and indie-rock frontman is either genuinely grounded or too polite to let on otherwise.

"As of now, we're still pretty much college kids smashing around, except that we're doing it in front of more people," Gispert says. "Honestly, I'd be a little concerned if I was thinking of it another way, because if I was feeling like I had accomplished something after putting out one record, I'd probably be in deep shit."

Of course, other bands encountering the difficulties that plagued the Whigs while recording their debut full-length — the combatively titled Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip — might have gladly called the release a victory. Over the course of two years, the Whigs entered the studio on four separate occasions to record tracks. And each time, the band left dissatisfied. Ultimately, the guys decided the problem wasn't them but rather the studio recording process itself.

"We wrote these songs in a living room, and everything wasn't perfectly audible and pristine," Gispert says. "Every time we'd get in the studio, it would sound really glossy. It didn't make sense. It didn't sound like what your first record should sound like."

So the Whigs, armed with their meager student budgets, bankrolled a recording session in familiar environs: a UGA fraternity house. While the frat brothers were on summer recess, the band convened with the football team's backup place kicker, who handled engineering duties, and within weeks had recorded the coarse, scrappy Fat Lip. The record may hew closer to the band's live sound than the ditched studio sessions. But the budgetary constraints also leave many of the songs thin and brittle. Still, the brass at ATO was either able to hear beyond the record's obvious limitations or, perhaps more likely, they caught one of the band's explosive live shows.

While the band was having its periodic struggles in professional studios, the Whigs continued to play live — as often as a full course load would permit. By necessity, their performances were geographically circumscribed. Georgia, Alabama, and Northern Florida were the extent of their universe, assuming they wanted to get back for Monday classes. Although continuing to play the same cities over a long period of time might spell a slow death for most bands, fatigue, remarkably, did not set in for the Whigs' audience. Crowds continued to pack Atlanta venues like the Earl and Smith's Old Bar for the band's headlining sets, drawing both locals and UGA students who had trailed the band to the city. The devotion was even more surprising when one considers that the Whigs were earning their ticket sales on live prowess alone — the band had no recorded material to distribute throughout this period.

Watching the Whigs perform live, it's easy to understand what kept the fans coming back and why ATO snapped up the band. The Whigs play gloriously unpretentious rock 'n' roll — the kind that packs a visceral punch even as its pop inclinations remain perfectly explicit. The sound is not an altogether unfamiliar one to anyone acquainted with Athens' musical heritage. Strains of the collegiate rock of early R.E.M. can be heard in songs like "Violet Furs" and "OK Alright"; however, the Whigs are clearly well-versed in all manner of indie rock. The band gleefully appropriates the childlike naiveté of Built to Spill and the slacker ethos of the Replacements. On stage, the band's infectious enthusiasm bridges these disparate elements to construct its own novel entry in the indie-rock canon, a good ten to 20 years removed from the genre's heyday.

Part of the band's appeal certainly lies in Gispert's warm, raspy tenor, which ranges between hoarse bark and wounded howl, but no doubt of equal attraction is the uncommonly strong rhythm section of bassist Hank Sullivant and drummer Julian Dorio. Together, they give the Whigs the kind of bracing, biting rhythmic thrust that is sorely lacking among many of today's young acts. Unlike many bands, who make the guitar the focal point, the Whigs instead use Gispert's battered six-string to balance their attack, which endows them with a far fuller sound than one would expect from a threepiece. Perhaps most important, the band has developed an impeccable sense of pace and timing. Over the past three years, the Whigs have rotated songs in and out of the set, but rarely do they perform longer than an hour.

"The shows are about the length of the first record," Gispert says. "My optimal length is 45 minutes." The set reaches its climax at the midpoint as Sullivant takes over guitar duties on "Half the World Away," one of the band's few bona fide epics, punctuated with a monstrous two-minute solo befitting Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis.

Although most bands with the Whigs' positive word of mouth and ability to draw local crowds are quickly seized on by labels, Gispert says it was important to the band that they earn their college degrees before pursuing their rock 'n' roll dream. "It's been perfect, really," he says of their signing to ATO Records, home to artists like My Morning Jacket and David Gray. "Hank and I took our last exam, we signed the deal, and left on tour the next day, July 5. We've been on the road ever since."

At first blush, signing with ATO might not seem like the most logical move given the Whigs' organic brand of indie rock. But Gispert feels the label was as good a fit as any. "We're not a very hip band. We don't dress the part," he says, tacitly acknowledging the fashion consciousness of today's indie elite. "But at the same time, I don't think of us as a top 40 band."

Without any clear preference for an independent or major label, the Whigs based their decision to sign with ATO on the simple fact that it was one of the very few labels that didn't try to coax the band to rerecord its debut in a professional studio.

Instead, ATO rereleased Fat Lip in its original form on September 19 with an eye toward a proper major-label debut some time next year. That plan is fine by Gispert, even if it does mean giving up the frat house for album number two. "For the same reason the first record made sense, to be on our own dollar and recording it in a house, it makes sense that the second album will be recorded in a studio," Gispert says. Asked if he dreads returning to the place that has caused the Whigs so much anguish in the past, he laughs before adding, "If someone is going to give me a budget, fuck, I'll go use it."

Spoken, if only for a fleeting moment, like a true professional.

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Jon Garrett