When R.E.M. released their EP Chronic Town in the early '80s, for many it was an introduction to Athens, Ga., a town they may have only known as an answer in fifth-grade history tests: "List at least three U.S. cities named for Greek gods."
R.E.M.'s move from cult status to the fathers of college rock guaranteed Athens a place in the canon of rock music cities alongside the likes of Nashville, Austin and Detroit. It also meant that any Athens band garnering commercial success would undoubtedly be compared to the bands that came before them. Whether a new band actually sounds anything like R.E.M., The B-52s or the Drive-By Truckers is almost irrelevant. The comparisons will pop up. A new band may also be the subject of press hype—deservedly or not—based more on their base of operations than their musical creativity. The Whigs are the poster-child band for this process—Parker Gispert, a tall, drink-of-water singer songwriter with impassioned, scratchy vocals, energetic bassist Tim Deaux and drummer Julian Dorio, who knows the value of not filling space for the sake of filling it—are making a noise all their own, securing themselves a place in the pantheon of Athens rockers.
It's been a busy year for The Whigs already and, at least through August, there are no signs of things slowing down. Dorio, jumping in the band's van en route to Flagstaff, Ariz., for their next gig, said he's humbled by all of the attention the band has garnered during the last couple of years. A Cinderella story, the band self-released their 2005 debut full-length Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip, recording it in a sweltering, run-down Georgia frat house. That release caught the attention of Dave Matthews' label ATO Records and the band was signed. For their 2008 sophomore release, Mission Control, the band set up shop at L.A.'s Sunset Sound studio and was placed in the capable hands of producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith).
"The environment—geographically and the condition of the studio—were really different. But at the same time, we weren't at all uncomfortable," Dorio said. "We had the same mentality [as when recording the first record]. We just wanted to have as much fun as possible and, of course, yield the best results for the record."
Part of what made recording at Sunset Sound such a pleasure was not just the terrific equipment and climate control, but Schnapf himself. "He's a really down-to-earth guy and doesn't have that vibe you think of when you think of L.A.," Dorio said.
Though they were thousands of miles from home, they didn't feel like fish out of water. They certainly felt inspired by the well-equipped studio, but more relaxed because this time around, they didn't have to be producers and engineers and financiers. They were allowed to just play. And play is what they do best.
On the heels of a 2007 Esquire Magazine accolade, which named Dorio the best drummer of the year, they were slated for a spot on Late Night with David Letterman. An 18-hour drive from Athens after a festive CD release party put the trio at the Ed Sullivan Theater at around 1:30 a.m. A 5:30 a.m. load-in time and an afternoon performance meant the three were running on fumes. Coupled with a studio kept at a cool 50 degrees and not only performing on the legendary show, but taping the whole thing in real time gave the whole event a very surreal quality.
"It's not like they tape it for three hours and then edit it all together," Dorio said of the experience. He said when viewers are watching a three-minute commercial; everyone on the set is waiting for that three minutes to pass as well. What could have sent a less hearty band into the ether seemed to act as an infusion for The Whigs. Other than a second-hand-store-attire look they've cultivated, and a faraway look in Gispert's eyes near the song's close as he stared at the ceiling through the long fringe on his forehead, the band was in primo condition and "Right Hand on My Heart" off of Mission Control sounded much as it does on the CD. The drum-only opening of the song actually sounds as if it contains musical notes and sets the stage for a rock assault changed up only by Gispert's vocals, which sail high as he holds the chorus' final word "heart" for several beats. During the Letterman performance, Deaux keeps his energy high throughout and Dorio's head nodded so hard and so fast, he may have been playing the cymbals with his wavy locks.
A comparison of videos on YouTube.com—as cell-phone-camera-crappy as some of them are—with a live performance, reflect a band whose music is consistent from CD to stage and gig to gig. At a live show, you're likely to see Deaux hop and jump in his corner of the stage, see Dorio's hair fly as he bangs his head over his drum kit like a fan at a Metallica concert and watch as Gispert's long-legged lunges threaten to knock mic stands and amps off the stage. Their two-performance stop in Boise last fall showed a band in charge of their own future, an ideal they had in mind when titling Mission Control (also the name of the final track on the CD).
Dorio said naming the album went back to the band's beginning. "The name of the album," Dorio said, "is really a small mission statement about taking control.
"We started the band in college and had enough success to keep it going," he said. "Then, we got to the point where we had graduated and had to decide if we wanted to continue on doing what we were doing."
At that time, original bassist Hank Sullivant had left the band, forcing Gispert and Dorio to look at themselves and ask, "What are we going to do here?"
"We wanted to keep going, but had a dysfunctional band at the moment," Dorio said. They made the decision to keep moving ahead, finding success that may guarantee them a spot right next to their Athens rock forefathers.
May 22 with the What Made Milwaukee Famous and the Dead Trees, 8 p.m., $9 adv., $11 door. The Bouquet, 1010 Main St., 208-345-6605.