You can always tell when David Letterman likes a musical guest on his show. It’s not so much what he says, but his body language, which conveys either a polite no-comment or an effusive thumbs-up.
When Athens, Georgia, power trio The Whigs performed on The Late Night with David Letterman on January 28, the host’s opinion was clear. Rushing up to the band after they’d ripped their way through the droning “Right Hand on My Heart,” he put out his hand and gushed, “That was cool!”
“It’s so surreal,” Whigs drummer Julian Dorio says of the Letterman experience. “You’re standing there talking to him and you don’t know what’s going on. But he seemed genuinely excited about it. And everyone behind the scenes on the show was really excited to have us, which was surprising. We’re not like a huge band, of course, so we were really flattered about that.”
In a way, The Whigs should be used to generating this kind of way-above-their-station enthusiasm. They experienced it two years ago when Rolling Stone magazine cited them as the “best unsigned band in America.” The plaudit, coming only months after the band’s self-released debut album, Give ‘Em All a Fat Lip, hit record stores, seemingly came out of nowhere, but the band took it in stride.
“We didn’t let it bother us or anything,” says Dorio, Esquire magazine’s 2007 drummer of the year. “It was a huge compliment and we definitely took it as that. I like how that came about, because it came from us just touring and playing a show in New York, and a writer came out and really enjoyed it. We were just doing what we do and having a good time, so we didn’t really need to change anything or put pressure on ourselves.”
With the January release of their sophomore album (and ATO Records debut) Mission Control, The Whigs continue their slow climb out of obscurity, but by now they’re aware that if they can simply get people in the door to see them play, those people will walk away converted. The Whigs simply possess the kind of trend-resistant appeal that goes with three young believers bouncing around the stage with wild abandon and playing hard-riffing, brain-hooking, pulverizing rock ’n’ roll.
They’re not punks, though their rhythmic aggression can match most punk bands. They’re too sleek, buoyant, and pop-savvy for metal, but the high-volume mayhem stirred by guitarist-singer Parker Gispert can satiate your average metal fan. They’re too young and fresh to be classic-rock revivalists, but their no-frills echoes of the early Who qualify as musical comfort food for baby boomers like Letterman.
The Whigs are a new-breed answer to AC/DC in the ’70s, the Smithereens in the ’80s, and Foo Fighters in the ’90s: Bands whose only objective was to rock out, and who managed to be semi-acceptable to every wing of the hopelessly polarized rock audience.
Dorio and Gispert went to high school together in Atlanta, but they didn’t really think about playing music together until Gispert followed Dorio to the University of Georgia, after Dorio’s freshman year in college.
“I think he grew up listening to different stuff than I did,” Dorio says. “I kind of grew up on the classic-rock kind of thing, listening to my dad’s vinyl. He heard a lot of ’80s metal stuff, whether it was Pantera or Megadeth. The ’90s was kind of our wheelhouse, but I was a little slow to pick up on some of that stuff. I was stuck in my classic-rock world.”
With (since-departed) Hank Sullivant on bass, the band became a fixture on the Athens club scene, and in the summer of 2005, they took advantage of the college’s summer break to spend a month at a vacant frat house recording their debut album on the cheap.
“The university has a big Greek system and these huge southern mansions for every fraternity and sorority,” Dorio says. “You wouldn’t believe the size of these places. So we had this mansion to ourselves, that really wasn’t intended to be recorded in.
“We didn’t have enough money to go to a studio, so we took any money we had and bought equipment off the internet. When we were done with the album, I put a couple of auctions on eBay, so we got all the money back and then some.”
Give ’Em All a Fat Lip was long on pop-rock charm, but it felt small next to the anthemic rush of the band’s live shows, so they turned to proven producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) to give the proper big-screen scale to their three-piece lineup. To Schnapf’s credit, he captured the band’s sonic force (the sheer wallop of Dorio’s drums is a major kick in the head) without sacrificing the tuneful essence of their debut album. And the band never succumbs to strings or horn sections or any elements that they can’t reproduce live.
“It was wonderful,” Dorio says of their sessions with Schapf. “We were really pumped to work with him. He’s an awesome guy, an awesome personality, and great to have in the studio. He’s very calm and collected, and we’re young and excited and neurotic and all that, so it’s kinda nice that he’s there seeing the bigger picture.”
With a full touring schedule set for this year, and raves continuing to come in for Mission Control, the only hiccups facing The Whigs might come from longtime fans of indie-rock favorites the Afghan Whigs, confused/annoyed about these young southern upstarts with a similar moniker.
“To be honest, it was a true coincidence,” Dorio says. “I mean, we’re not 10 years old, but … we’ve really never listened to them. They were never a part of our CD collections. So I didn’t even know they existed. To me, it’s not that different from the Counting Crows or the Black Crowes to the Stone Roses and the Rolling Stones: bands that just have similar things going on `with their names`.
“The only time you hear about it is if you’re in Ohio, ’cause that’s where they’re from. And they have a real cult following in Ohio. Some people get offended and some say, ‘That’s a crazy coincidence. Awesome.’ And they move on with their lives. Like anybody should.” •
with Spinto Band, Birdmonster, and Big Soy
8pm Tue, Mar 11
Rock Bottom Tattoo Bar
1033 Ave. B