Athens’ Rich Pageant: The Whigs Breathe New Life into the Famed College Rock Capital

The Whigs (left to right: Parker Gispert, Julian Dorio, and Hank Sullivant)

Photo: Sarah Ianacone

“Like this.”

The Whigs’ bassist and secondary guitarist Hank Sullivant has his bended knee propped up on the back of the chair in full hurdler’s pose. His torso is completely stiff as his lower body awkwardly twitches to some imagined beat — a perplexing contrast. “I swear, this was Michael Stipe at The Glands’ show — sunglasses on, arms folded.” The rest of the band bursts into laughter.

This about sums up the status of local legend Michael Stipe in Athens, Georgia — now perceived as the distant eccentric or mysterious has-been. Once the undisputed kings of Athens, not to mention the standard-bearers of college rock circa 1987, R.E.M. has become something of a punchline in 2004, the American equivalent to the blustery self-importance of U2. In fact, on this very Saturday night in Atlanta, the band will take to the stage not in Phillips Arena, which they would have sold out handily just three years prior, but will instead play the much cozier Gwinnett Arena. Humiliation, thy name is R.E.M.

And yet while The Whigs, an almost impossibly young three-piece from the same sleepy college town that birthed the famed Southern band, are all too aware of R.E.M.’s descent into absurdity, they still express a strong, impassioned reverence for their elders. “I saw them last summer,” says Hank Sullivant, slumping back into his chair. “It could have been one of the top five shows I’ve ever seen.” Singer and guitarist Parker Gispert adds: “No matter what you think of their new material, go see their show and they will whip your ass.” He and the rest of the band, which is rounded out by drummer Julian Dorio, are clearly grateful to R.E.M. for putting the Athens scene on the international radar screen. “I ran into some guy in Europe and he thought it was the coolest thing that I was from Athens, GA,” says Sullivant.

But truth be told, Athens has been coasting on legacy; the town has remained mostly dormant since R.E.M.’s emergence. Aside from the shortly-lived twee movement, bastardized hippie folk courtesy of best-forgotten label Kindercore (notable exemption applying to the much-beloved Jeff Magnum-penned opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea), Athens has contributed little to the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon — Southern, indie, or otherwise.

But something strange is afoot in the idyllic college town once again. Only a couple hours after our interview here, The Whigs will play across the street to a packed house at the Drunken Unicorn. The audience will know the words to every song. Many of them will have driven an hour from Athens to catch the band. This is remarkable not only because R.E.M. is playing across town on this very evening, but also because The Whigs have no recorded music, let alone merchandise. This audience has been built on pure live prowess and word-of-mouth alone. The ones who know the lyrics, it’s safe to say, have seen this band more than a few times.

The young band’s steady ascent has not gone unnoticed: a month ago The Whigs were invited to open for both Franz Ferdinand and The Killers at an Atlanta radio show. They were the only in-state band on the bill, and, of course, the only band without any CDs or T-shirts to affix their signatures to in the signing tent. Not bad for a group that played their first gig two years prior with their friends sitting on their amps.

“We always get compared to bands I’ve never heard, like the Replacements and Archers of Loaf,” says Gispert. He lets out a long sigh, a sure sign he’s fielded this “who-do-you-think-you-sound-like?” question more than once. But it undoubtedly gets asked, time and again, because The Whigs are notoriously difficult to place. Sure, there is some of R.E.M.’s trademark jangle-rock in their DNA. But The Whigs take a broader view of Southern rock — borrowing some of Superchunk’s suburban punk and even incorporating some of the Yankee guitar heroics of J. Mascis. The Whigs work at an odd, compelling intersection, where the neo-hippie fringes occupied by Built to Spill and Pavement meet the more pop-leaning, bright hooks favored by The Dismemberment Plan and Jawbox. It’s all held together by Gispert’s rugged rasp, part Westerberg but clearly emitting a character of its own design as well. “Our manager said he wouldn’t be working with us if Parker wasn’t the singer,” confesses Dorio. Indeed, in Gispert’s gravelly yet warm tenor lies much of The Whigs appeal.

With Dorio recently graduated and Gispert on an indefinite hiatus from classes at University of Georgia, The Whigs are finally ready to retire the weekend jaunts to Alabama and Florida and make the leap onto the national stage. But first, The Whigs must conquer the studio; few bands can hope to eat during the weeks-long stretches across the U.S. without something to shill city to city, whether it be an album, single, or EP. Unfortunately, The Whigs’ recording efforts thus far have been met with disappointment. Not once, not twice, but four separate times The Whigs have entered the studio only to scrap each session. Gispert explains it this way: “Every time we’ve entered the studio, it’s never been to record an album. It’s always been: ‘I have a studio, why don’t you cut some tracks?'” If they couldn’t record a few tracks, what makes him so optimistic that the band can commit an album’s worth of material to tape? Gispert shrugs. “I can tell you that if we just walked in the first time and recorded the album, it would be nowhere near what we can do now. Each of those experiences has been valuable.”

Indeed, there is reason to believe Gispert’s confidence is well-founded. On stage tonight, the band tears through a lean set, under 10 songs. They’ve been traversing these songs live, exploring their various nooks for well over a year — and it shows. Sullivant’s fingers lithely slide up and down the bass neck. Gispert keeps his guitar close, riding high up his chest Albert Hammond Jr.-style, leaving plenty of room for lunging kicks. But it’s when Sullivant shanghais the guitar for “Half the World Away” that The Whigs really take off. His hands move furiously in tandem, bridging from one feverish crescendo to the next. He is bowed, huddled over the guitar, as if he’s afraid it’s about to burst. There are knowing glances and smiles all around. This is too good to be kept a secret for long. Athens is alive again. Just like that.