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[dl] Music

After a year of high-profile gigs like opening for Kings of Leon in sold-out stadiums, Southern rockers the Whigs are poised to break out with their new CD, In the Dark.

AS FAR AS TRADITIONS GO, the college town of Athens, Georgia, has a pretty impressive musical legacy. This small city of 100,000 people, located in the shadow of the University of Georgia, has produced a steady stream of acts from R.E.M. and the B-52s to jam-band favorites Widespread Panic and indie-pop great Neutral Milk Hotel.

The latest in the long line of Athens talents are the Whigs. The trio, led by singer/guitarist Parker Gispert, has been winning over critics and fans — including musician Dave Matthews, who signed the band to his ATO label in 2006 — with a catalog of pop tunes, played with a punk intensity and rock-and-roll punch. The group, bubbling under the radar for the past five years thanks to a pair of LPs — Give ’em All a Big Fat Lip and Mission Control — seems poised for bigger things with the just-released In the Dark.

Dedicated road dogs, the Whigs came home after an intense year of touring in mid-2009 to begin recording In the Dark at Chase Park Transduction studio in Athens, just a mile or so from Gispert’s house. With the sessions eventually stretching into studios in Nashville, the band also expanded its sonic palette. “We were talking about the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet a lot, and that [was an] influence when we were making the record. But, of course, the finished record sounds nothing like Beggars Banquet,” Gispert says, laughing. In fact, the record flashes a wide array of influences, from the Stones to the horror punk of the Cramps to the twang of country music.

For Gispert, the process of writing and reworking the songs in the studio revealed what kind of record In the Dark would ultimately be. “We wrote way more songs than we recorded, and we recorded way more songs than we needed for the album,” Gispert says. “I think it was really smart for us to do — it gave us a lot of options.”

While the Whigs have been seen as being in thrall to 1990s indie-rock groups like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf (and even Nirvana), Gispert says In the Dark should do away with those comparisons. “This is the most current-sounding record we’ve made,” he says. “That was definitely a goal; we didn’t want to sound like we were 1990s revivalists or anything like that. We wanted to make something that sounded like 2010.”

The past two years have given the band plenty of opportunity to show off their songwriting wares to increasingly large crowds, as they’ve become a favorite on the outdoor festival circuit. They also served as arena openers for fellow Southern rockers Kings of Leon. While some bands chafe at the warm-up role, the Whigs instead reveled in it.

“It really is a different beast than headlining your own show,” Gispert says. “We actually like playing for people who don’t know who we are. Trying to win a crowd over is a personal challenge that we enjoy.”

Such flirtations with the big time have given Gispert a view of what massive success would look like. But for the Whigs, whether or not fame and fortune follow, their plans will remain the same.

“For all three of us, playing and writing songs is something that comes really naturally,” Gispert says. “We’re just lucky we have the opportunity to be touring and making records.”

Left of Reckoning

Check out these three great groups, all of which hail from the Whigs’ hometown of Athens, Georgia.

Although contemporaries R.E.M. earned the lion’s share of the attention, this group of art-schoolers — named after a William Faulkner novel — created the template for Athens’s signature jangle-pop sound. Their discography was recently expanded and reissued by the hip DFA label.

This early-1980s art-pop combo featured Linda Hopper and Lynda Stipe, the sister of R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. Their small but influential output was collected on 2002’s Oh-OK: The Complete Recordings.

Although the band fell off the radar soon after the release of its second album in 2001, the Glands’ hooky, shambling take on rock and roll made them one of the more beloved acts to emerge from the city in recent years.