American indie rock is a three-decade-old style whose development, for better or worse, has followed a pretty straight path. The first-generation indie-rockers, in the 1980s, were a diverse, grungy lot. From California's Minutemen to Arizona's Meat Puppets to Minnesota's Replacements, these were "garage bands" as a fact of life rather than as a genre — the wily, working-class outgrowth of local punk scenes.
By the 1990s, indie went to college, bands such as Pavement, Superchunk, and Archers of Loaf building on their '80s forebears but formed in or around college campuses and drawing much of their audience from the culture of college radio. As befits the change, these bands tended to be cleaner-cut and more pleased with their own cleverness than the Reagan-era road warriors who birthed the scene.
But indie rock in the current decade makes the '90s variety look salt-of-the-earth by comparison. Indie rock circa 2007 is, if anything, post-collegiate — more rarefied, more insular, more alienated — even as many of the musicians themselves lead lives of comfort that a young D. Boon (Minutemen) or Paul Westerberg (Replacements) wouldn't have recognized.
It's odd and refreshing, then, that Athens, Georgia's the Whigs, one of the most buzzed-about young indie-rock bands around, feel like such a throwback. Rising out of the University of Georgia a couple of years ago and touring this month in support of their soon-to-be released second album, Mission Control, this straightforward three-piece is reminiscent of the transition from first- to second-wave indie rock in the early '90s. They evoke the grounded pleasures of bands such as the Replacements or Archers of Loaf (or even Nirvana) without quite sounding like any of them. This is beery, catchy rock music from an unpretentious T-shirt-and-jeans crew that might make you feel as if you've been transported to a 1993 basement party.
Speaking by phone from Athens on the day his band was set to begin their first tour in support of Mission Control, singer-guitarist Parker Gispert, who grew up in the small town of Roswell, Georgia, says that he targeted the venerable Athens music scene when making his college decision.
"I guess the last thing a lot of local kids want to do is go to the big state school where everyone goes," Gispert says. "But I wanted to play music, so I looked at the music scenes of towns I could be spending the next four years in, and Athens made the most sense."
Athens may be most famous for launching the B-52s and R.E.M. a quarter-century ago, but, in recent years, the town's music scene has been better known for the psychedelic indie rock of the Elephant 6 collective or the rootsy jam-band sound of Widespread Panic.
"When I was in high school, all the Elephant 6 bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power and Neutral Milk Hotel were favorite bands of mine," Gispert says. "So, that's definitely why I came here."
In Athens, Gispert hooked up with drummer Julian Dorio, a friend from high school, and started writing songs, though the rock sound they crafted owed less to Elephant 6 than another Athens band, the Glands.
"The Glands have always been the local band we identified with the most and took the most from," Gispert says, noting that Glands bassist Craig McQuiston contributed to Mission Control.
After about six months of working on songs together, Gispert and Dorio met guitarist Hank Sullivant, a Memphian in Athens for school, and, with Sullivant moving to bass, the Whigs were born.
"Julian and I had been playing and had some songs," Gispert says. "When Hank came along, he was a guitar player, but we knew we didn't want someone who was a traditional bass player. I'm a real strummy guitar player, and it ended up that a lot of the melodies were carried on the bass. That was something that we were all into. We realized we could have a full sound. We didn't want to have the traditional lead guitar player throwing in melody lines. It was kind of a cooler thing to have the bass carrying a lot of those and the guitar just holding down some jangle. I think after playing together a month or so we all realized that a three-piece is what we were all into."
From there, the Whigs dove into the Athens club scene. Eventually, hard touring built a following, and the band's self-produced, initially self-released debut, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip, became an unlikely subterranean hit. In April 2006, Rolling Stone proclaimed that the trio was possibly "the best unsigned band in America."
In the journey from that rush of initial attention to the January 22nd release of Mission Control, the band's first album recorded for a label (ATO Records) and in a real studio (Hollywood's Sunset Sound Studio), Sullivant left the band and recorded a solo album under the moniker Koroma. He is currently touring with former high school bandmate Andrew VanWyngarden (son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden) in another alt-rock buzz band, the MGMT.
Despite losing one-third of the band, Gispert says that he and Dorio didn't let Sullivant's departure change the band's sound.
"When Hank left [replaced on bass and backup vocals by Tim Deaux], we had been playing together for three and a half years, so we kind of had down what the band was and how we wanted to do it. The people who stepped in and helped us with the new record were all fans of the band and understood how the band worked," Gispert says.
Listening is believing on Mission Control. Dorio's drums are as much a lead instrument as anything, as witnessed by the explosive tom rolls that propel the opening "Like a Vibration" or the way he both drives and twists the rave-up "Need You Need You." Meanwhile, Gispert provides a hooky set of smart, relatable songs.
The end result evokes the best of no-frills indie-rock past, though Gispert so far lacks the verbal gift of the Replacements' Westerberg or the vocal gift of the Archers' Eric Bachman (much less Kurt Cobain). Of course, the same could be said for former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, whose band the Foo Fighters will showcase a similar sound as headliners at FedExForum later this month — proof that simple, pleasurable post-punk rock still has a pretty high ceiling.