The first time I saw The Whigs frontman Parker Gispert was last year prior to a gig at Spaceland. He looked very intense and little bit shy, but that all changed when he hit the stage. He was like a man possessed, jumping up and down, thrashing his guitar and growling out vocals reminiscent of Kurt Cobain and Paul Westerberg.
When I met him last month at Avalon Hollywood, he and his bandmates [Drummer Julian Dorio and bassist Tim Deaux] had been stuck in rush hour traffic on the I-10 and were late for soundcheck (recurring R&G theme). I was expecting a hurried, five-minute interview. To my surprise, it was the exact opposite. Parker was laid-back and generous with his time.
The Whigs are one of the hardest working bands out today. They play with such high-level energy and enthusiasm you would think they were playing either their first or last show, a style similar to the Avett Brothers. They open for the Kooks this Tuesday at The Palladium (Buy Tix), marking their their fourth visit to Los Angeles in less than a year.
R&G: It’s been well-documented that you guys recorded your first album in a fraternity house with equipment that you bought from eBay and then resold for a profit after the recording sessions were over. Tell me about the experience of self-producing your album “Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip”.
Parker: I think it was the logical thing to do, considering it was our first record and we knew what we wanted the songs to sound like. It gave us the opportunity to create a record without interference from anybody. We actually thought that it was a pretty amazing thing that we could have a dream recording studio for free with any equipment we wanted and we weren’t on the clock.
R&G: Were there any industry people in Athens [Georgia] interested in signing you?
Parker: Not really. There wasn’t a ton of interest. We had a small run-in with a label that turned sour quickly and we were kind of reeling from that. To be honest with you, we weren’t looking.
R&G: You guys formed in 2002. Why did you wait until 2005 to record “Give ‘Em All A Big Fat Lip?”
Parker: Well, for starters we were in school. It was important for all of us to graduate. We didn’t want to put out a record and not tour behind it. We wanted to wait until we could give it the proper treatment. We looked at it as a blessing. It gave us more time to write songs. There easily could have been a couple albums in there.
R&G: In 2006 Rolling Stone magazine named The Whigs the best unsigned band in America. What was your reaction to the news?
Parker: I remember I was about to take a quiz and Josh, our manager, called me and told me about the article. You have to realize, at that time we had recorded and put the album out ourselves. To be in Rolling Stone was strange, but it felt good. It was a nice compliment from the writer. We didn’t let it go to our heads. It was just one article.
R&G: How did you get on their radar?
Parker: We were lucky. We were playing shows up in New York while we were in school. We had Tuesday/Thursday class, so we’d tour Thursday, Friday, and Saturday out of town. The New York shows we would do during the week – drive up and then drive back. During one of our trips there was a Rolling Stone journalist at the show and he was impressed.
R&G: It wasn’t long after the Rolling Stone piece that the labels came knocking on your door. Why did you choose ATO Records [Dave Matthews' Label]?
Parker: The guy who signed us was named Jonathan Eshak. He saw us play at Pianos in New York a couple of times and he liked our music. The other labels we met with were like “We love the band. The band’s great. So let’s re-record the album and change the songs around,” and that didn’t really make sense to us. ATO was the only label that came to us and was like, “Hey, we love what you’re doing, so we just want to re-release the first album and we like all the new songs you’re writing. Let’s talk about making another record.” That was exciting.
R&G: In January you released your second album “Mission Control.” Shortly after the release you guys played on the Letterman show. He loved your performance. He growled “Yeah” and then said, “Nice Going. God, that was cool. Good to see you. Thank you very much. Power trio, Paul?” And Paul responds, “Love it.” How did that make you feel?
Parker: It was awesome. We played in Athens on Saturday night and then had to load up our gear at 5 a.m. Monday. It’s just the three of us, so we got in the van, drove straight there, got in at 2 p.m., and slept for a couple hours. We headed over to the show to load in our gear at 5 p.m. It was all such a blur because we were so tired and you get on the stage and it’s freezing in there. I don’t know if you’ve heard, apparently it keeps the audience lively. Also, the stage was so close to Dave’s desk. I thought it was weird. The lights go down, you’re playing, and there’s a silhouette of a man six feet to your left. He’s sitting at the desk and its like, “Whoa, Dave Letterman is right next to me.” The guys in the band were really cool to us. They played “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones during the commercial break and that got us all excited.
R&G: Were you nervous before your performance?
Parker: I was scared because I didn’t know how it was going to come off. There are some –intangibles – the guy doing sound for the show, the lights; there’s any number of things that are outside of your control. We actually went back to our hotel to watch it and the cable didn’t work, which sucked, so we sprinted down the street and went into this bar and the guy turned it on for us, which was a little embarrassing. We watched it and we were like, “Oh wow! We did good!”
R&G: You’ve been touring your ass off for the past year and a half. How many days do you think you’ve spent on the road?
Parker: I don’t know. It would probably be easier to name the days that we’ve been at home. Since September 2007 I’ve been home a total of three weeks. Home sweet home – my bedroom consists of a mattress in our kitchen [laughs]. We also had a month earlier this summer that was considered “off,” but we played shows Wednesday through Saturday.
R&G: In 2008 you’ve opened up for My Morning Jacket, The Drive-By Truckers, MGMT and Kings of Leon. Have these experiences helped you as a musician?
Parker: You learn a lot when you see bands like that up close, when you have the opportunity to kind of sit on the stage and see what they’re doing. It’s just such a learning experience. So that part of things has been pretty remarkable and it definitely gives you confidence in ways that you wouldn’t expect. It’s like, “Oh, that guy has the same distortion pedal I do.”
R&G: Have you received any positive feedback from other bands?
Parker: Recently, Ben (Bridwell) from the Band of Horses has been real supportive and vocalized to the band that he likes the record a lot. When we were overseas he went out of his way to see us each time that we played. That was really impressive and that made me feel really good. The Kings of Leon guys told us how much they enjoyed our shows.
R&G: Do you have any war stories from the recent tour?
Parker: Yeah [laughs]. When we were in the Pacific Northwest Hertz made a mistake with our rental van and all they had was this big white obnoxious Hummer. I think we had the car for maybe two hours and we were changing lanes and almost wrecked it. This guy was screaming at us to pull over. So we pulled over, he comes up to the car yelling, “It doesn’t matter if you are reckless because you’re in a Hummer!” We got to experience what it would feel like to be “that guy.” It was really funny the way that we were treated, like, pulling up places and people just staring at you. We were at a stoplight and this guy was cocking a shotgun, fake, at us, like, “I’m going to shoot you. You’re an idiot.” It was amazing how infuriated people were [laughs].
R&G: When do you plan on writing songs for the next album?
Parker: Thanksgiving we’re going to hopefully get some quality time to write. The band is pretty primal in the sense that we have to all play the songs for them to come together. I mean, that’s kind of the sound of the band, we like our music to sound if it’s live. I try to write as many demos as I can on the road, but none of them can take shape until we have time to rehearse. Then hopefully we’ll play those songs on the road after the New Year and record our album next spring or summer. However, we have already recorded two Ramones covers. I’m not sure what we are going to do with them. We may release them to our fan club.
R&G: BitTorent, a la carte digital downloads, music blogs, YouTube and other new technologies are disrupting the music business. What’s your take on this?
Parker: I think it’s all positive. I’ll say that. I don’t see any of it as being a plague on the music industry. I feel like it gets brought up negatively so much. It’s just going to take a little while for people to figure out how bands should be compensated for these things and the right way to do it. We are coming from a time where not too long ago you’re walking into retail stores and CDs were $17.99. I think it’s all going to work out. I’m excited about it. But it’s probably not the best time for musicians to be making money.
R&G: So as a songwriter you don’t care if your unreleased tracks are leaked?
Parker: No. To be honest with you it doesn’t really bother me. When you start making music, you make it because you want people to hear it. That’s your first instinct, especially if you’re going to play shows or record anything. If you didn’t want people to hear it you would just play by yourself in your room, never record anything and never play a concert. So any way that it reaches somebody, I’m cool with it. As far as the financial compensation, I think the first thing you have to be comfortable with when you are an artist of any kind is knowing that it’s not going to be something that’s going to be lucrative. You know? I made my peace with that a long time ago.