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You'd think that when a young band has the good fortune to see its self-produced first album re-released on a big label and then be sent to a proper Los Angeles studio to record the second, the results would be something like a kid in a GameStop store.
But after the Athens, Georgia, trio The Whigs landed on Dave Matthews' ATO imprint—home to My Morning Jacket and Radiohead—and it came time to craft the follow-up to 2005's homemade debut, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip, the Southern gentlemen approached producer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Guided By Voices) with a more modest aim in mind.
"Having great engineers encourages us to keep it simple instead of complicating it," says drummer Julian Dorio, who founded The Whigs with singer/guitarist Parker Gispert halfway through college. "We didn't want to do what seemed predictable, like having string quartets sit in on every song. We had the goal of making the album more live and indicative of what the show is like."
Released in January, Mission Control is just that—a raw, throttling rock record that's not nearly as gangly and pop-minded as Big Fat Lip. Comparing the two, Dorio says the first album is "more veiled," production-wise, whereas the second is bigger and just "jumps off the speakers." True enough; the opening "Like a Vibration" drills a hungry beat, ropy bass and dirty riffing into the listener's brain before there's a chance to resist. Then comes the chorus, then another anthem, and soon it's a forgone conclusion to start the album over again.
If there's a mission to Mission Control, it's to embrace The Whigs' role as an urgent rock trio, instead of trying to gloss over any perceived gaps. Armed with a regular bassist in Tim Deaux, who also plays keys and sings backup, the band has ended a constant rotation of low-enders that plagued their early days. "The [transitional period] wasn't something we wanted," Dorio notes.
He's satisfied with The Whigs being a trio in an indie scene in which bands are increasingly packed with more and more members. "We particularly like that and stuck with it," he says. "We weren't looking for a fourth member. We think there's a lot of cool things about a trio. It requires us to be creative. It presents different dynamics, and we seem to just take to them."
The three-piece setup is certainly a good fit for Gispert's convincing growl and nicely straight-forward lyrics, which are vague enough to be relatable but cathartic enough to ring true. Factor in the guys' urgent playing, and it's easy to understand why they're most at home on the stage, sweating bullets and barreling ahead at audiences.
"We do love being in the studio," explains Dorio, "but the idea of being in a band is being onstage and playing as much as we can. We absolutely love it. If we go home for any [extended] period of time, we get bored and want to go on the road again. To promote the album and get in front of people—that's the legwork. Anything on top of that, like radio or TV, is the icing."
While Mission Control is very much an accurate depiction of The Whigs' live potential, there are passing studio flourishes, from the horn section on "I Got Ideas" and the title track to the pedal steel on "Sleep Sunshine." Between the twang of the latter and the R.E.M.-ish "Already Young," The Whigs at times sound very much from the South.
Other times, not so much.
"We're obviously proud of where we're from," Dorio says, "especially with Athens being such a music town. We don't consider ourselves overly Southern, but I hope people can sense where we're from. Most music we like, you can hear where it's from, whether it's Seattle or New York or London. It's not something to avoid."
Approaching the final months of a nearly yearlong stretch of touring that kicked off in January and ends around Thanksgiving, The Whigs haven't had time to write new material, but the group has certainly become tighter musically.
"Getting the opportunity to get out this year, I hope, has made us better," says Dorio, acknowledging the band's string of high-profile festival appearances. "Being a sort of loud garage-rock band, it's a challenge to get on these massive stages and do this kind of thing. But it all helps, whether you're playing a tiny room or the main stage at a festival.