Songwriter Interviews

The Whigs

by April Fox

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Remember when you were young, and weekend nights were all about hanging out on the back of somebody's car, sipping something from a can (definitely not a cheap beer, because you were too young to drink), and running down the car battery playing a mixtape of all your favorite rock n' roll songs? The Whigs are that feeling of nostalgia you're having right now. They don't sound exactly like anyone else, although their influences are crystal-clear in places, but their music takes you right back to those carefree days when the music was all that mattered.

Hailing from Athens, Georgia and now based in Nashville, The Whigs have released five studio albums (Give 'em All a Big Fat Lip, Mission Control, In the Dark, Enjoy the Company, and Modern Creation) and traveled the world with bands like The Black Keys and Kings of Leon, earning them a solid following among fans eager to embrace their straightforward garage rock sound. Their first live album, Live in Little Five, is set for release November 11.

I had a chance to talk with drummer Julian Dorio and guitarist/lead vocalist Parker Gispert during a recent stop at the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. Just as their music suggests, they were down to earth, funny, and more than willing to reminisce about some of the musicians who inspired and influenced the songs they create.
April Fox (Songfacts): You guys have a new live album coming out soon. Tell me about that.

Julian Dorio: It's 10 songs total. Eight songs are from our previous five records, and two are new. We've been working on those two for another new studio record, coming out next year. We always talked about doing a live record, and for a band that loves to tour and spends most of our time on the road, I think it made good sense to do it. We consider ourselves a live band, and we finally got around to it. It took some time, but we did it last December, with two shows in Atlanta.

Songfacts: How did you decide which songs to put on the live album?

Julian: It's trying to pick what you think are the best songs to go on the record. Obviously you're cutting a lot if you're only putting 10 songs on there, and hopefully the best songs coincide with the best performances. You can have a song that you think is essential to that live record, but maybe we didn't play it as well as we hoped. Hopefully, over those two nights, you'll get what you need.

It worked out. I think we felt good about the performances and we could put what we wanted on the record.

Songfacts: You guys do tour a lot, and even though you haven't put out a ton of singles, you have a pretty big following and have sold a lot of records. Is there a trick to how you promote yourselves?

Julian: It's mainly AOL chatrooms. [Laughs]

Parker Gispert: We'll take anything that promotes the group and gets our music out there. It's great. We've been lucky with maybe getting an article in a magazine, or getting a song on the radio for a hot second, maybe getting on a bigger tour where we can play to a lot of people. We've been doing it for 14 years at this point, so it's little things over time, and you'll just take any break you can get.

Songfacts: I've been listening to you since your first album, and I don't even know how I found you. I don't remember.

Julian: AOL chatroom.

Songfacts: It wasn't a chatroom.

Julian: It's off the record, it's okay.

Parker: Maybe it was MySpace. We were on there.

Songfacts: Whatever it was, it was one of those things where I heard the song and I had to go look up the lyrics to see who it was, because I loved it. I think it's great that even though you aren't all over the radio all the time, people still find you and love what you do. It makes me feel like there's hope for bands that aren't just writing songs for the radio. That's meant to be a compliment.

Parker: Thanks, I appreciate it. We just like doing what we do, and we're glad when people want to hear it.

Songfacts: There's a song called "Hit Me" on your last album, Modern Creation. The video is hilarious, by the way. And there's a guitar part in there that reminds me of something from the '80s, and I can't quite place it. What is that influence that I'm hearing?

Parker: When I started working on it, it was The Clash. I wanted something danceable that was still rock, and maybe at the time I'd been listening to a little bit of disco, which I think was fallout from the previous album - we had a song called "Staying Alive." That video was directed by the same guy [that directed the video for "Hit Me"].

Songfacts: Who was that director?

Parker: A guy named Scott Carney, from Louisville. He has a band called Wax Fang, who we've played with through the years. They're a really cool group. But yeah, it was just something fun and danceable.

Songfacts: "Friday Night" [from the album Modern Creation]. I'm definitely hearing The Misfits in that.

Parker: Definitely.

Songfacts: Was that deliberate?

Parker: Hell yeah. You're definitely hearing Misfits on that one - it was a deliberate Misfits effort. What a great group. Amazing singing, too.

Songfacts: Your records are all pretty eclectic. It can be hard to pinpoint your influences, and you don't sound like anybody else, but when I put on one of your records, I feel like I'm a teenager again, listening to a favorite playlist. At the same time, your music still feels very current. So who are some of your other influences?

Parker: It changes periodically. Today we listened to the Bob Seger album, Ramblin' Gamblin' Man. I had never heard it, but it is out-of-control great. It was blowing my mind. Check it out.

We listen to a lot of different stuff, and I know that's a tried and true answer, but it's true. We played a couple nights ago and somebody couldn't believe that I had never listened to Blood, Sweat & Tears. So we listened to it.

Being a child of the '90s, '90s music is what we grew up on and then I discovered the classics later, which is something that Julian turned me on to: classic rock.

Songfacts: That was going to be my next question: What did you guys listen to growing up that might have shaped your songwriting?

Parker: It started grungy, and then in the later '90s when I was in my mid-teens, it became like Pavement and Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, and then old groups like Velvet Underground. Bob Dylan was always there.

Songfacts: What about you, Julian?

Julian: I didn't get into the grunge stuff immediately - I don't know why I was slow to that. I guess that's not really true. I liked Pearl Jam and I liked Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, but I didn't gravitate toward Nirvana. It wasn't long after that I fell in love with that music, but I probably wasn't ready for it. I wasn't understanding it.

And of course, Guns N' Roses and some bands from the '80s we all liked. My father's records that he still has are all classic rock records from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and I had an older brother, so I just did what he did. That was listening to everything from Pink Floyd to The Kinks and all the names that you know very well. That was great, listening to Bowie or Mott the Hoople. It wasn't just the biggest names. All the records my dad had, it was all rock stuff. It wasn't really folk-y, it wasn't jammy. It was Velvet Underground, The Clash, The Police, and for my dad, that was more modern.

I felt like all those bands, no matter how different they were, the one thing they had in common was that every member was a crucial member and carried so much weight. It wasn't like there was some bass player that you never heard of. John Entwhistle [of The Who] was incredible, and as huge a part of the band as the singer. Or at least, that was how it felt. So inadvertently, that might have shaped how we felt when we formed the band many years later. We ended up just being a trio, and that dynamic means that everyone has to carry a lot of responsibility and a lot of weight, because there are only three people trying to make all that noise. We don't have lead guitarists and an organ player and all that. Trios are hard, they're tricky.

In March 2016, the North Carolina state legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, more commonly known as HB2, or "the bathroom bill." The bill was seen by many as a blow to the LGBTQ community, as it required that transgender persons use the restroom designated for the gender listed on their birth certificate, rather than the gender with which they identified.

As a result, several artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Pearl Jam, Boston, and Ringo Starr cancelled their North Carolina appearances in protest. Others, such as Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Cyndi Lauper, and Brandi Carlile, kept their tour dates in the state and used the performances as a platform to speak out against the bill.
Songfacts: You guys don't write a lot of political songs, but you've no doubt heard about what's going on here in North Carolina with HB2, what people are calling the "bathroom bill." A lot of bands have been boycotting the state, in protest of that bill.

Parker: Yeah, I saw that.

Songfacts: I don't know what your politics are, and that doesn't really matter, but did you take that into account when you decided to play here in North Carolina?

Julian: Nashville almost passed the same thing. It came to Nashville after North Carolina, and I don't know why we were shocked. It was in the press so much about North Carolina. It's one of those things where you want to say, "It can't happen here." People were so upset about how it was hurting the transgender community, and it wasn't long until it was there in Tennessee, and it almost passed there. People, at least our friends, who are typically musicians and a little more liberal minded, couldn't believe it. It's sort of sad.

Without being as well-versed about it as I probably should be, I guess the fear is that a transgender person is going to walk in while children are using the restroom, and do some awful thing. What I've heard from all those fears seems so outlandish and so insane, and all the stats point away from that, and the people who actually do heinous crimes like that are not the transgender community whatsoever. I can't sit here and say that every transgender person is incapable of a crime, but I don't think that's what that community is looking for.

I personally will always lean toward tolerance, so I would tolerate that. It doesn't make me uncomfortable as a male who has always lived as a male, but if it did, and I walked into that bathroom, I would just say, "I'll tolerate this." And frankly, I think it's sad that people even have to talk about "tolerating" such a thing, but if you are just wired that way and it makes you uncomfortable, you should tolerate rather than discriminate. Every time. There isn't that big of a sacrifice.

I don't have children yet. I actually have a child on the way, and maybe when I become a parent in two months I'll see it very differently, but I can't imagine I will.

Parker: I don't think we were touring when all that was first happening, but we didn't consider a boycott.

Julian: No, we didn't consider it. We love North Carolina, and we do understand. Springsteen cancelled his show, and I get it, and I'm not saying the artists who boycotted should have played. It's to each their own, and you know, we're here. I think we do have a chance, a platform - although we're not nearly as well known as those bigger bands - to make a stance, but at the same time we also play music to bring people together. Tonight is all about that. It's hard to turn our backs on North Carolina. We love it here. We played Raleigh last night, and we love Asheville, Charlotte. I'm sure we'll be back.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some of your older songs. Tell me about "Technology" [from Give 'em All a Big Fat Lip].

Parker: That was one of the first three songs we recorded. The night before we recorded it, I was in my parents' house in Roswell, Georgia, and wrote the lyrics. They're kind of Pavement inspired. It was about getting sucked into your television. At the time, cell phones had been around, but it was the early 2000s and we weren't nearly as consumed as we are now. It was about somebody being more attached to the television than to the person who was sitting next to them.

And there's like little references to talk shows. At the time I was thinking more like Jerry Springer, and there's a reference to Rudy. I say, "We watched on CBS as Rudy made his network TV debut."

Songfacts: It's almost like a follow-up or an update to Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives."

Julian: Such a good song. We just played that.

Songfacts: "Give 'em All a Big Fat Lip." Tell me about that one.

Parker: It became the title track of our first album. We had signed a record deal, and it was nobody's fault - it was basically somebody who was trying to help us progress in a way that we weren't comfortable progressing. It felt at the time like we had been tormented or abused. We were young and felt angsty about it, and it's about taking something like that, where you are feeling injured by somebody else, and feeling like the proper way to retaliate is to keep going, and to not quit.

Songfacts: What about "Sleep Sunshine"?

Parker: We had two piano songs on our first album, and coming into the second one, we wanted to keep that thread going. It's the last piano song that we have, actually. We didn't do any after that. You know, I can't come up with something as tangible as I had for those first two, as far as what it's about.

Songfacts: It's not as tangible a song as the others.

Parker: Yeah, it's not.

Songfacts: What are your favorite songs to play live?

Julian: It really varies, because I feel like they evolve a little bit. I feel like "Technology," for instance, in some ways is exactly like the record, but in some ways it isn't. Over the years, I feel like the way they've evolved is good and healthy, and then they become more fun as you try to keep being creative with them.

Anyway, to answer your question, we've been on tour the last couple of weeks, and "Written Invitation," from our first record, I've enjoyed playing that lately. I shouldn't be excited about playing that song compared to a new one, but sometimes it's just fun. That one's been fun lately. "Production City," from the second album. "Waiting" is a good one too.

Parker: There's a new one that's called "What's the Point if There's Not One." I've been really enjoying playing that one, and "Staying Alive." I'd say those two for me.

Songfacts: Are there any that you're sick of playing?

Parker: Not for me.

Julian: I don't think so. If it ever gets to that point, or you feel like it just needs a breather, you can take it out of the setlist. You can't help that. There is some monotony in touring, and so maybe it just needs a break, and then you can bring it back and it's fresh again.

Songfacts: Which songs do your fans scream at you to play at every show?

Parker: Some people will yell for "Kill Me Carolyne," which is on our third album. It was a single, but we'll go years without playing it. That's one that sometimes we'll play it for a month, and then maybe it won't come back for another year and a half or something. But other than that, I feel like the more popular songs and the songs that people want to hear, that they come to the show for, we play those consistently. I don't tire of them personally.

A lot of the times they'll be new songs that weren't on an album yet, say, "Staying Alive," or "Right Hand on My Heart" before the album came out, or even "Technology" or "Written Invitation," and lots of times we're playing the material before the record is released. You get on stage and you play the song, and even though people don't know it, they just react instinctively to the song in a way that feels really satisfying as an artist to write something that people really connect with. It seems like those are the songs people want to hear, so they'll like never leave the set and the crowd gets what they want to hear. I can't think of anything that people come to the show and really want to hear that we aren't already playing.

Julian: "Free Bird."

Parker: Yeah, "Free Bird." Really, I think if it ever got to the point where fans were consistently wanting to hear a certain song that we weren't playing, we'd add it to the set.

Songfacts: Have you ever played "Free Bird?"

Julian: I have not played "Free Bird."

Parker: We've never played it. I love that song, and I saw Built to Spill play maybe in the early 2000s and they were getting that thing where people were yelling for "Free Bird." They launched into it and they just crushed a great cover version of it. They still do it every now and again.

Songfacts: Julian, you have a little one on the way very soon, which is exciting, congratulations.

Julian: Thank you. We're looking at sometime in early November.

Songfacts: I assume there's going to be a break in the tour around that time.

Julian: We're touring till mid-October, so I'm cutting it close. I hope that it all works out - it should be fine. Our bass player [Timothy Deaux] had a baby and that baby came two weeks early. I'm not worried right now, but she's going to be really pregnant, and I feel bad. But I'll get home the middle of October, and then I'll be there for however long I need to be.

As far as the rest of the year, I really don't know. I don't know when the baby will be here and when we'll begin the no-sleeping, your-life-is-going-to-change thing that everyone keeps warning me of, so we'll see.

Songfacts: Parker, what are you going to be doing after the tour ends?

Parker: Starting mid-October we're blacked out. We might try to see what we can come up with for December. Not a ton of shows, but maybe a few. It's just hard to know what the timetable is going to be.

That's kind of the rub for me: trying to figure out what to do during those time periods. I feel most comfortable when I'm out touring and playing shows, and I love it so much. It's so fulfilling to do it that when I'm not, I really miss it, so I started doing some solo shows. I played at the Evening Muse here [in Charlotte], which was a good show. It's been cool because at a lot of the venues like the Evening Muse, the band has never played there. I'm playing by myself, and at least so far, it tends to be venues in cities that I've been to a lot, but maybe I've never been to that venue before. Maybe it's more of like a singer-songwriter venue.

So that's been exciting, but I don't have an album, so it's been a struggle because I'm a brand new name. I don't have a brand. Nobody knows what my name is. They might know the group, but they don't know what my name is, or if they do, maybe they don't care to see me by myself. Maybe if I had a record that they were into, they might come see me. My priority had been getting the band album done and staying focused on that, and maybe I can get on tour opening for somebody else.

Songfacts: Who would you like to open for?

Parker: Great question. I know it sounds stupid, but I really like playing with all sorts of people. I think I could open for a rock band, and I think I could play with a more sedated folk solo kind of person. I could maybe open for a country person. I could fit in a lot of different contexts.

Songfacts: Okay, let's go back to when you were like 15. Who would you open for then? What would have been your dream tour back then?

Parker: When I was 15? That was tangible, like someone who was alive and touring?

Songfacts: Anybody at all. Alive or dead, just anyone that would make you giddy at the thought of sharing a stage with them.

Parker: Ooh. At 15, it would have been Pearl Jam, who was out then. Kurt Cobain had been dead for a little bit, so it would have been Pearl Jam or Bob Dylan.

Songfacts: What about you, Julian?

Julian: I guess in '96 I was getting into more modern music, but I was so stuck on my dad's records that it would have been Zeppelin, The Police, or The Clash. I think The Clash would still be up there for a band that would be amazing to play with but also I think I'd fear just getting mocked off the stage. But I think that would drive you to do your very best. They're so vicious.

Parker: That would be so amazing.

Julian: It would be great. Those are probably the ones that I'd pick. Elvis, I'd love to play with Elvis.

Songfacts: Costello or Presley?

Julian: Presley. I love Elvis Costello too, but the king of Rock n' Roll? Yeah.

Songfacts: I can see you guys doing well opening for The Clash.

Parker: That would be amazing. Like Julian said, it's always good to tour with someone who is going to push us, or elevate our own group, and I think that would be the pinnacle of that emotion. I think we'd really have ourselves in check for that tour. You should talk to their agent for us.

October 27, 2016
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