The Graduates

A post-college shake-up remakes Athensís the Whigs

Adjusting to life after college can be tough, even for a band. The Whigs, birthed in Athens by three friends and University of Georgia students, Parker Gispert (guitar, vocals), Hank Sullivant (bass, guitar), and Julian Dorio (drums), were in many ways the quintessential college band, playing every bar, club, and campus in the southeast that would have them. They even recorded their self-funded debut album, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip, in a frat house.

The band was rewarded with a devoted following from the Carolinas to Florida. The kids lined up for the Whigs' deceptively simple brand of jagged yet infectious indie rock. Their sound could be traced back to the original standard-bearers of college rock, Athens's own R.E.M. However, the Whigs also drew from less likely sources, liberally borrowing the compressed crunch of Guided by Voices and the guitar heroics of Built to Spill. It was all held together by Parker Gispert's wounded rasp (Minnesotans will no doubt note a resemblance to a certain former Replacement) and the frighteningly precise rhythmic punch provided by Dorio and Sullivant.

The band looked more than ready for their impending graduation. Following the release of Fat Lip in late 2005, the band toured nationwide, earned fawning write-ups in Fader and Rolling Stone, and signed a record deal with ATO Records (home to My Morning Jacket and the North Mississippi All Stars). But life beyond the campus gates can get complicated, as the Whigs quickly learned. While writing for their proper ATO debut and preparing for their second national jaunt, Sullivant announced that he was leaving the band.

The Whigs, who recorded their first album in a frat house, and their second at an off-campus kegger
Big Hassle Media
The Whigs, who recorded their first album in a frat house, and their second at an off-campus kegger

"It wasn't like there was any big fight," says Gispert, on his cell phone from Athens. "He just wanted to do something else." But Gispert, and presumably Dorio, were far from indifferent. "It was definitely a bummer, both because of the timing and because [Hank] was so good."

Aside from leaving the band without a bassist and second guitarist, Sullivant's departure also made Gispert the band's sole songwriter. While he had written lyrics and vocal melodies throughout the band's existence, Gispert had only contributed about half the music on Fat Lip. But the Whigs were in no rush to add a new member. Instead, the band found temporary replacements to fulfill their touring obligations, and operated as a duo in the studio. Gispert, meanwhile, acclimated to his new role so well that on the forthcoming record, tentatively titled Mission Control, only three Sullivant-penned bass lines remain. (Gispert and Dorio only recently settled on a permanent replacement for Sullivant, multi-instrumentalist and Gainesville, Florida native Tim Deaux.)

But the most immediately noticeable change on Mission Control will undoubtedly be the equipment upgrade. No longer forced to subsist on meager student budgets, the Whigs ditched the UGA frat house in favor of Sunset Sound & Sound Factory Recording Studios in Los Angeles. And Billy Bennett, the backup college placekicker and band friend who helmed the Fat Lip sessions, was replaced by the decidedly more seasoned Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices).

"It sounds a lot better because of Rob and the studio," explains Gispert. "But oddly, it's rawer than the first record. There aren't a whole lot of overdubs. It's guitar, bass, and drums. If someone hears the new record, they'll know what we're going to sound like live."

But before anyone hears that record, the Whigs must learn to play both the new songs and the ones co-written by Sullivant with a new permanent member, a prospect both exciting and daunting. Asked whether he and Sullivant are on good terms, Gispert says that they still talk "a fair amount. We've even been emailing a bit as of late. I'm just glad we were able to stay friends. The band, you know, isn't the most important thing in the world."

Sounds like the Whigs' education has really just begun.

 
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