The Whigs: Missionary position 

Athens band plays it straight despite quirky hometown influence

It's rare to find the Whigs at home in Athens. Usually, the three young men – guitarist Parker Gispert, drummer Julian Dorio and bassist Tim Deaux – are playing concerts in nearby or faraway towns. The Whigs thrive on the road; it's how they grew from a college-town favorite to one of the most promising rock bands in the country.

"It's a romantic way of looking at traveling all the time," says 25-year-old Gispert at his modest duplex house, which he shares with Dorio, 26. Deaux, who is 27, lives two houses away. But traveling so much has its downside. On "I Never Want to Go Home," the best song from their new album Mission Control (ATO Records), Gispert sings of teary goodbyes with loved ones, and going to "too many towns" where he sleeps in a van or under the stars. It's the price he pays for being what Rolling Stone magazine called one of "10 Artists to Watch" in 2006.

With Mission Control, which arrives in stores Jan. 22, the Whigs fulfill the music industry's expectations and that Rolling Stone list. But they unapologetically remain a straight-up rock band, nothing less and nothing more. There are no conceptual tricks or lyrical genius to make Mission Control truly stand out as an album. But there are a handful of great tunes, such as "Need You Need You" and "Production City," that make it worth a listen.

It makes you wonder if that's enough, though. When compared with the rest of the Athens music scene – an eccentric collection of ambitious psychedelic-pop artists such as Of Montreal, punkish math-rock bands such as Cinemechanica, and ambitious rock giants such as Drive-By Truckers – the Whigs are relatively simple and uncomplicated. It's a no-frills Southern rock trio that, ironically enough, stands out because it's so normal.

Gispert motions toward the clothes he's wearing: a simple colored T-shirt and jeans. "This is what I'm wearing right now, and so naturally this is what I would wear on stage," he says. "Hopefully the music that we make is what attracts people to the band."

For Gispert, writing memorable tunes such as "I Never Want to Go Home" is more important than crafting avant-garde noise. "Songcraft is more important," he says. "All that people have to measure you by is the songs that you create." He sings his songs with a twang, and his voice is so soft that you sometimes can't hear his lyrics. He has what classic rocker Tom Petty once called a "Southern accent."

Gispert and Dorio grew up in Atlanta, and moved to Athens to attend the University of Georgia. They co-founded the Whigs in 2002 with bassist Hank Sullivant, who has since departed the group. Deaux, a self-described "Army brat," joined the band last year.

The Whigs started out doing gigs in between studies, but they were never satisfied with being just another UGA party band. The following summer, the group entered Open Mic Madness, a newly formed talent contest at Smith's Olde Bar. The club's security staff wrote "X" with markers on the underage trio's hands so the bartenders wouldn't serve them alcohol. The band had never played Atlanta before, but it managed to win the competition and beat several dozen other competitors.

After the Whigs signed a six-month "development deal" with RCA in 2004 – which called for the band to write and record several songs in the hopes of securing a long-term contract – the group realized it didn't want to suffer through what amounted to an extended audition.

"The whole process is like a slap in the face," Gispert says. "It's like, 'Record these songs, and then we'll think about it.' What is that? If you like us, then put us on the label."

Frustrated, the Whigs terminated their deal after only three months. The next summer, they self-produced a debut, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip, at a friend's house in Athens. The RCA disaster was an inspiration, hence the confrontational title. But the sound of Big Fat Lip was upbeat and spirited, not angry and bitter. Dorio says having fun with the recording process "was really important at that time because we were really beat down from that whole experience."

Big Fat Lip proved to be their redemption. In 2006, the Whigs played major rock festivals such as Bonnaroo and South by Southwest, and drew a proper recording contract with ATO Records. Much of that industry attention came from the band's great live shows. On stage, the trio's songs came alive as it bashed out chords and growled out choruses.

With Mission Control, the Whigs have made an album that approximates that experience. It roars out of the gate with "Like a Vibration" and "Production City," two raucous and noisy alt-rock stormers. It cools down with "Sleep Sunshine," a simmering ballad, and picks up steam again with "Already Young." Like a Whigs concert, it shifts tempos with ease, and runs just less than 30 minutes. "It's high-energy, compact and brief," Dorio says.

Mission Control's release will power a new round of international tours. The Whigs played 100 concerts last year, and will probably top that in 2008.

"There's something about what we do that's bittersweet," says Deaux about going out on tour. "We leave the comforts of home – our friends, our girlfriends, and the restaurants and places we like to be at – to go on these adventures, and it's great. But even when you're having these adventures, you always miss certain things."

To hear a song from Mission Control, click here.

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