Enjoy The Company:
Fourteen Years In, Priorities Have Changed For The Whigs
It took me a few years to warm up to The Whigs. The first few times I saw them, which must have been while I lived in Athens in 2003 and 2004, shortly after the band had solidified while college students at UGA, I did not like them at all. Granted, part of that was a knee-jerk personal backlash against all the hype I kept hearing about the newly formed trio. “Best new band in Athens!” “Best new band in America!” “Development deal with RCA!” Yeah, whatever. I saw them a couple times and declared them precocious little dorks not worth bothering with, end of story.
Except it wasn’t. Admittedly, I’m still not sold on that first album, 2005’s Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip, and didn’t pay much mind to their second, 2008’s Mission Control, although in listening back now, I can’t find much wrong with it. It was 2010’s In their Dark, the last of their three albums on ATO Records, that roped me into their ranch, and I haven’t left. By that point, these weren’t college dorks anymore but three guys pushing 30 who’d lived enough real life and fused into such an instinctive musical force that (especially given the seemingly shrinking importance of rock ‘n’ roll in mainstream American culture) were something I could believe in. Two first-rate albums, 2012’s Enjoy the Company and last year’s Modern Creation, have followed on New West Records, and stand as the band’s best to date.
Now based in Nashville, The Whigs do nothing remotely groundbreaking or trendy, but they play solid, meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll with lots of catchy, likable songs that get stuck on repeat in your noggin, and they put on great shows that rely not on gimmicks but on straightforward energy, exemplary musicianship and the devoted enthusiasm of their fans. All three of those elements were on full display during their recent weekend run at Aisle 5 in Little Five Points, where they recorded a pair of full-tilt shows for a planned live album to come out in the spring. The performances, especially the sold-out second night, were rousing, intense, career-spanning tours de force.
“[New West owner] George [Fontaine] Sr. has always thought that a live album would be a great thing for us,” vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Parker Gispert explained as I met with the band the evening before the Saturday show. “We’ve been a band fourteen years, and we’ve never recorded a live show. And we’re just like, ‘Cool, let’s try it.’”
Touring will make any band better, and The Whigs have toured a ton in those fourteen years, playing shows the world over with the likes of Kings of Leon, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Hold Steady, The Black Keys and numerous others, while gaining notoriety through appearances on nearly all the late night talk shows, including four times on Letterman alone. So, they’ve had great opportunities, a lot of people like ‘em, and they’ve benefitted from much industry and media support. But it also seems like they’re perpetually sort of in that nebulous sort of neverland between obscurity and household name. They can handily fill clubs, especially in the South, but they’ve never really taken off in a huge way. Whether that continues to be enough for The Whigs, or whether their notoriety will grow, remains to be seen. Though they’ve recorded nine songs for their sixth studio album, expected to be released this fall, both drummer Julian Dorio and bass guitarist Timothy Deaux have also been playing with other, higher profile (and subsequently, higher paying) bands of late, limiting their time to devote to The Whigs, who as of now have no tour dates scheduled for 2016 beyond this month’s homecoming show at the 40 Watt on January 23rd. “I don’t know exactly how it’ll all fall together,” cautions Gispert, “but I guess I have faith that it will.”
Gispert met Dorio while both were junior high students at Christian private school Westminster in Atlanta. “I remember Julian,” says Parker, “‘cause I came in 6th grade, and I was new, and I was taking notice of everybody, and sort of internalizing all these new people that I was meeting. There weren’t a ton of people who were playing music, who were into being in a rock band or seemed like they might have musical skill that wasn’t like cello. One of [Julian’s] great friends… was playing the same talent show I was. I did The Turtles’ ‘Happy Together,’ and did all these moves. And [Julian’s friend] did Bob Dylan songs, and played guitar and sang. And it was so much cooler than my act that I was like, man, I need to figure out how to play guitar and sing.”
Dorio, on the other hand, had been pounding drums since first grade.
“Thanks to my dad,” he confirms. “My brother’s older, four years older, [and] wanted to play guitar, and I just wanted to be like him, so I said I want to play drums. My dad was convinced that this was a great idea, so… he bought us instruments at Christmas, and said, ‘I’ll get you lessons, and if you practice, and you do a good job with this, next Christmas we’ll get rid of these…’ – it was starter, no name stuff – ‘we’ll get real stuff, and then so on and so forth every year.’ So we did. We loved it. We took lessons, all this stuff. So through elementary school, junior high and even high school, I never played with anybody. I played with my brother, and I just practiced at home all the time. I just was obsessed with playing this instrument. And that was that. And then I went to college, and at that point, I was like, ‘OK, well I’d love to start a band or do something…’”
Julian’s older brother Michael went on to play with Trances Arc, and more recently has been a member of Quiet Hounds. The Whigs were Julian’s first band, and were certainly Parker’s first serious band. And that is something that definitely set The Whigs apart from most other Athens bands – they were ambitious and serious about it, from the get-go.
“I had played with some people in high school and it was so nonchalant and just for the fun of jammin’ in a room, that the prospect of making it something that hopefully we could keep doing after [school], that was exciting to me,” recalls Gispert. “I always wanted to tour, I always wanted to get on television and play my song on a late night show. I thought that looked cool, that was something I wanted to make happen for myself.”
Similarly, Dorio says that “I think I’m a little bit of the nature that if I’m gonna do it, then I’m gonna do it a hundred and ten percent. So even in the beginning, when we were playing, I took it seriously, like I’m not messing around. I’m doing this thing. I tend to think it’s almost a fault of mine just to be a little too serious! But otherwise, I’ll just go, ‘Let’s stop this and start something else that is gonna work. ‘I don’t wanna waste the time.”
“I mean, we had plenty of growing pains,” Gispert continues. “We had drunk shows, we had very unprofessional moments, just ‘cause we were having fun, too. So I don’t want to make it sound like it wasn’t a good time. But then we had conversations where it was, ‘Are we doing this? Are we kind of messing around, or what?’ And [original bassist] Hank [Sullivant] should be included in that. We all took it seriously.”
RCA Records took them seriously, too, enough that they offered them a development deal before they’d ever recorded or released an album. Despite their ambitions, it put a lot of pressure on the three guys fresh out of college. And ultimately, nothing came of that first nibble.
“It just didn’t feel right at a certain point,” explains Dorio. “We weren’t really comfortable with it, and it was that balance of believing in your own music, and also being open mined to listening to a producer, making changes.” Instead, they recorded Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip in an Athens fraternity house and released it themselves, which worked out just fine in the end since ATO Records (a division of RCA co-founded by Dave Matthews) loved it and signed the band in 2006, re-releasing the debut nationally as well as their two subsequent albums.
By the time Mission Control was released, however, Sullivant had departed to focus on his own project, Kuroma, and do production work. (He also toured as a guitarist with New York band MGMT in 2007 and ’08.) While Deaux had befriended The Whigs while attending the University of Florida whenever their tours hit Gainesville, and had moved to Athens by 2006, he didn’t immediately join the band as Sullivant’s replacement.
“We did that thing where we went to L.A., the label took us out there, and we played with, like, 40 bass players. Like, people just come in, they play the same two songs, to audition. Which was totally freaky for us,” remembers Gispert, to which Dorio adds, “It got to the point where we had to tour – the record was going to come out in January, and the tour started in, like, two weeks.” Deaux, who had moved to Athens and just recently started learning bass after playing guitar in numerous nameless bands, suddenly seemed like a pretty good choice.
“I remember it was like a cram session,” Deaux recalls of the subsequent rehearsals.
“We would be in a little rehearsal space, and there wasn’t even really any air conditioning,” remembers Dorio. “I’d walk in and there’s a dry erase board, and all the songs, or at least the ones that we were going to play, we’d written up there, and [Tim] would be in there with a keyboard in front of him and his bass, and he was shirtless, sweating…”
“I do remember it being really hot in there…” says Deaux, who grew up while his father was in the Air Force, resulting in the family moving all over the world.
“The point is, he was working around the clock. It was hard to find someone that really cared,” says Dorio. “He was really stoked, and we needed a guy that really wants to do it. The diligence, the work ethic, was what I appreciated.”
Julian got the call in October. Josh Homme, who was looking for a drummer for the upcoming European tour by his band Eagles of Death Metal, which he would not be along for, had gotten Dorio’s name from Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who had been producing songs for the next Whigs album. It was another case of short notice – the tour was to begin in two weeks.
“I flew to LA, and had three days of rehearsal with them,” says Dorio. “It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. Never been a hired gun thing. It’s not like I’m running around trying to do that, but I have bills to pay too.”
The tour began on Halloween in Leeds, England, and proceeded for two weeks throughout the UK. The first show in continental Europe was at the Bataclan in Paris on November 13th.
I hesitated to bring it up during my conversation with the guys. Ultimately, I felt that avoiding the subject would be absurd and dishonest. I was sitting across from a man who barely escaped (along with the rest of EODM) an absolutely horrific Islamic terrorist attack, one that would leave 89 dead inside the venue. It’s a nightmare I pray the rest of us never have to go through. How does someone process such an experience? How do you even ask about it? But I just did.
“Honestly, I really don’t wanna get into it,” he replied bluntly. As was mentioned earlier, although Julian’s friendly, he’s also, he will admit, a pretty serious, intense person, and my broach of this subject sent his mood southward quick. I felt terrible, but how could we not talk about it?
“Well, we don’t actually have to, to be honest. I mean, that kind of remains up to me,” he fired back. Eventually, cautiously, he opened up a bit more.
“I’m not trying to be distant or cold or anything, but, you know, part of working through this is… it is a part of me. I can’t make it go away. It’s not over for me… There’s not really a guidebook for this… Very few people have gone through something like this. So it’s hard to look to somebody and say, ‘Hey, what do I do?’ So I just have to keep myself kind of healthy, mentally, emotionally, focus on the positive, and be as present as I can for things that I wanna do, or committed to do. Like tonight’s [show.]… Last night was my first full show since… I mean, [EODM] went back, [did] the whole U2 thing, but other than that, [the first Aisle 5 night] was my first full show. And it feels good to play, especially with my guys, and all I can really say about it is that… I witnessed a lot of things, but I witnessed humanity at its finest, in about two seconds after seeing humanity at its worst. And that was reassuring. That is what I’m trying to walk away remembering.. The fans, the Parisians, they showed us levels of compassion and love and bravery that I didn’t know existed.”
Parker Gispert has three solo shows lined up in the next three months – on the first three Wednesdays of January, February and March at Eddie’s Attic, a venue he’s not only never played, but never even been to. In fact, aside from a couple during the early years of The Whigs, the only solo shows Parker’s done were a hastily arranged run of three shows in Savannah, Augusta and Chattanooga in November.
“I loved it,” he says of that mini-tour, during a quick telephone follow-up with him a few days after the Aisle 5 shows. “It’s something that I’d like to explore a little more. Just to play new songs and challenge myself to perform in a different capacity would be cool. I do Whigs songs with different arrangements, and they sound probably completely different.” He says he “can’t tell” if he has any intentions to record a solo album yet.
But I have to wonder if part of this is because it’s getting increasingly difficult to schedule things with The Whigs. Parker says he doesn’t know what Julian’s future plans are with Eagles of Death Metal, or even if he’s planning to accompany the band on their upcoming rescheduled European dates in February and March. (“It probably sounds weird,” admits Gispert, “but we haven’t even talked about it.”) Deaux, on the other hand, has been touring with Grace Potter & the Nocturnals of late, and that group will be touring the US from mid January through mid-February, with Australian and New Zealand dates booked in March. For the upcoming show at the 40 Watt, original Whigs bassist Sullivant will be filling in.
“I think it’s healthy for everybody to challenge themselves and if they want to, to do other things,” Gispert advises. “I guess at a certain point, you just have to trust the trajectory of the group. Even if it seems unconventional.”
But everyone’s all in, as far as the band and everything, right?
“You know… I don’t know, in terms of what capacity, um, everybody… I’m not sure what… I don’t know. I don’t even know what… I don’t know,” he stammers.
You guys don’t talk much, do you?
Gispert laughs. “Well, it’s weird, it’s like, you know, you spend so much time together, and when you do get together, I think more and more, maybe the older we get, or the more that we’ve done it, the priorities of the time we spend together have changed. I feel like it’s more important than ever just to have fun and enjoy each other’s company, and maybe do some of the things that you used to do before you were making more professional plans. Just like, ‘Hey, let’s go eat some hot wings!’ Or just work on this new song. You’d think some of this stuff might come up, maybe, but I think it’s all good. Like, Tim and I were texting the last couple of days about how big my brother’s daughter is. And I feel like that, oddly, is more pertinent conversation, or a better thing for us to talk about.”
Another new factor: while Parker remains unhitched, Tim and Julian both got married in 2014, which adds another priority to their lives.
“Totally! And a beautiful one,” Gispert emphasizes. “You know, I don’t personally have that, but once again, I recognize how those relationships with their new wives might just be more important than… I don’t know. I think that it’s actually better for the group to give everybody…”
…Let everyone have their own lives and not have The Whigs be the center of everyone’s life?
“Yes,” he says. “I think what has carried us through is just being patient and being open minded, just letting things fall.”
Photo by Adam Smith.