It began, R.E.M.-style, with a few University of Georgia students jamming together in an old abandoned house. Calling themselves The Whigs, the trio of singer/guitarist Parker Gispert, drummer Julian Dorio, and bassist Hank Sullivant was soon generating more racket than a Millard Fillmore cabinet meeting, and they funneled their combined forces into a self-released 2005 LP called Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip. Soon Rolling Stone proclaimed them "America's Best Unsigned Band" and a whole new Whig Party had been established.
"Well, it's not like we were on the cover of Time or made millions of dollars or anything like that," says Gispert, who has since graduated from UGA with a degree in philosophy. "Any buzz we might have had, that's great. But, you know, I'm still living in a kitchen and touring in a van. I'm the same person I was a few years ago."
That being said, the Whigs are not the same band they were a few years ago. No longer the mightiest of the unsigned, they have joined Dave Matthews' rapidly growing ATO roster (Radiohead, My Morning Jacket, Gomez), and have added bass player Tim Deaux in place of the departed Sullivant. This month, they'll be unveiling their 2008 platform on Mission Control, a new album recorded in the famous Sunset Sound studios in Hollywood with hotshot producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith). On paper, it looks like a far cry from the DIY spirit of the Whigs' debut, but Gispert and his partners were determined to prove they could be one of America's best signed bands without sacrificing the raw energy that had defined their emergence.
"We made a definitive effort, from the start, to make this record as rockin' and raunchy as possible," Gispert says. "So for the songwriting, we kept things pretty simple, just staying with what the band does best—straight-ahead guitar, bass, and drums."
To put it another way, the Whigs came to Los Angeles fully intent on remaining an Athens band. That's why they recruited Schnapf, a producer with a track record for helping artists embrace their natural instincts.
"It was much easier being in L.A. and working with someone like Rob," Gispert explains. "For the first album, we were in a house, recording it with a friend and ourselves, and you were always kind of scared that you'd do a good take and it wouldn't get down, or that it wouldn't sound how you'd want it to sound. This time, we were able to relax a little bit and concentrate on playing. You know, sonically, Rob took care of a lot of stuff that we had to previously worry about. He's also a really relaxed, down-to-earth person. So for us, coming into this great studio and getting all excited about making the record, Rob did a good job of just bringing a calmness to the session."
Just as the best referees are usually those you don't notice during the game, Schnapf's hands-off approach in the studio helped the Whigs transfer much of the power and immediacy of their live shows into the melodic, minimally overdubbed gems on Mission Control. As with their debut, the band's sound—for all its stylistic variety—tends to conjure up the same alt-rock touchstones time and again: early Pavement, the Replacements, the Lemonheads. "Already Young" could almost be a mid-'90s Foo Fighters tune, and lead single "Like a Vibration" sounds a bit like Richard Buckner fronting Guided by Voices with Keith Moon on the kit.
The references come easily, but Gispert doesn't take offense.
"I think the comparisons are flattering," he says. "It's just the natural way people talk about music. Even in recording, you might say, ‘This part should be more Pink Floyd,' or something like that. It's normal, and I've never thought it was a bad thing for people to describe us in terms of other bands, especially considering that the bands that usually crop up are bands that I'm humbled to be even close to the same sentence with."
R.E.M. is certainly another such band, but when asked about the Whigs' kinship with Athens' illustrious musical past, Gispert needs a moment to think it over.
"Well, it's always been important to me to have the music sound somewhat geographically relevant," he says. "Walking around town, you see people who've been in Athens bands, who've played the same clubs as you, and you do feel a connection with those people. So, yeah, I'd say that I feel a part of Athens."