music_2 (2006-29)

Whigging Out

The toast of Athens makes its Knoxville debut

by Leslie Wylie

It sounds like an especially brutal SAT question: If there are seven notes in a major scale, and there are three musicians in a rock band, how many different combinations of sound can that rock band produce? How many combinations of melody?

Parker Gispert, singer/guitarist of Athens, Ga.’s The Whigs, just graduated from college with a degree in philosophy. His two bandmates, bassist/guitarist Hank Sullivant and drummer Julian Dorio, majored in English and psychology. They’re not equipped to answer arithmetical inquiries like these.

Gispert seems perplexed. Will the end of original music as we know it boil down to finite mathematics? At some point, will catchy hooks just go extinct, like dinosaurs? “That’s a really valid fear when you’re writing music. At some point, do you just use everything up?” Gispert wonders aloud into his cell phone.

The band is in Annapolis, Md., right now on tour, and all this talk of cultural apocalypse must seem at odds with Gispert’s idyllic seaside surroundings—a maritime city of sailboats and all-you-can-eat soft-shell crab. Gispert regains his footing. “You always find a new way to make the same thing different,” he says with a renewed sense of confidence.

The Whigs’ music stands as proof. It’s got a familiar vintage-y undertone, a golden-tipped essence that pairs well with bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Killers, for whom The Whigs have previously opened. But there’s something wholly original at work as well—not self-consciously original, or original for the sake of being original—just catchy, in an impulsive sort of way. Gispert’s voice is equal parts drowsy and desperate, swinging around between fuzz-edged guitars and no-frills percussion, declaring with an unmistakable Southern barstool swagger that there’ll be no shortage of highly addictive songwriting anytime soon. For whatever reason, it just keeps coming.

“It’s a diverse thing. Whether it’s a good song that rocks really hard, or whether it’s a good song that’s softer, like a ’70s soul song, we’re happy,” Gispert explains. “We just want to make sure we’re writing good songs, and whatever that calls for, we’ll do it.”

The band’s self-released debut, Give ’Em All A Big Fat Lip , is one of those gems that by the second spin sounds like it’s been going strong in your CD player since the beginning of time. It’s garage pop recorded in a historic Georgian mansion, and it’s as solid as the columns holding up its makeshift studio’s paint-chipped façade. Despite its homemade, rough-around-the-edges production, the album leaves little question as to why Rolling Stone speculated that The Whigs “may well be the best unsigned band in America” and included the group on the magazine’s annual list of “Top 10 Bands to Watch.”

And The Whigs’ are reputed to be much better live than their record lets on. Pre- Rolling Stone recognition, in fact, word-of-mouth buzz is how the band made a name for itself in Athens—an impressive feat considering the fact that the historically music-drenched city probably has more bands per capita than anywhere else in the South, or perhaps even the county. Of course, Gispert’s explanation for their notoriety is significantly more humble: “The main thing in Athens is just staying together. The lifespan of bands here is pretty short; because everyone is in so many bands they’re not really focused on any one project,” he says.

Will the underground buzz die down now that The Whigs seem to have gotten the music industry’s attention? “The second we sign to a label, we’re in deep shit,” Gispert jokes. He’s not opposed to the idea of being backed by a label—so long as they “jump on board and let us keep doing what we’re doing”—but he also seems proud of the fact that they’re doing this on their own.

“There’s a misperception that you need a label and money to do a record,” he says. “No one was paying attention, so we did it ourselves.”

The recording equipment they needed, for instance, they bought off eBay, then re-sold on eBay after they were finished. A friend functions as their publicist, and Gispert says he doesn’t see the point in having distribution in cities where they haven’t even played.

These days it’s refreshing, if a little paradoxical, to hear of an indie band with national notoriety still managing itself independently. Or maybe The Whigs’ patience, for a band of 23- and 24-year-olds, is owed to the fact that it hasn’t yet realized its own potential. They’re just post-grads going along with what’s working for now, and what’s making them happy. After all, college degrees don’t have expiration dates.

“My parents are like, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I tell them, well, I’m going to get in this large white van and go play music. It’s like, Parker has long hair and he’s playing in a band. Great. From a parent’s perspective, it’s not the safest path,” he says. “But it’s getting better. I think we’ll be OK.”

What: The Whigs w/ She Hit the Ground and Swingshot