In this world of post-hyphenated micro-genres, describing the Athens, Ga., trio The Whigs — if they have their way — is startlingly simple: The Whigs play rock music.
"There's very few straight-up rock bands, and that's something we hold dear," says bassist Tim Deaux.
Being one of those very few bands, though, has served The Whigs well since their self-released 2005 album, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip — which was later re-released by the band's current label home, Dave Matthews' imprint ATO Records. 2007's Mission Control was something of a breakout, launching Deaux, drummer Julian Dorio, and guitarist Parker Gispert onto late-night TV appearances and tours with, among others, The Drive-By Truckers and The Kings of Leon.
And it's that live element that has been the bedrock of The Whigs' operations since day one. "The creative process really starts with the stage in mind," says Deaux. Between shows, the band is currently putting the final touches on its third album, In the Dark, which is scheduled for a March 2010 release. Like Mission Control, says Deaux, In the Dark, was written to be performed live, but unlike its predecessor, it has offered the opportunity for the band to flex its sound a bit more. "Going into the studio, though, I think we were all really excited about having the opportunity to play with sounds."
Producing the album was Ben Allen, known for his work with art-rockers Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo Green, and Christina Aguilera. And judging by "In the Dark" and "Hundred/Million" — both released as a free digital single via thewhigs.com — Allen has indeed helped the band stretch its sound without losing its soul. "Mission Control really kind of accented the live performance. Maybe not a lot of dynamics, but that's kind of how the band is — it's just a loud rock band," admits Deaux. He says In the Dark aims to combine the "energetic, raw power" of Mission Control, with the expressive dynamics suggested by Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip.
"It's not going to seem like a drastic left turn for the band," he promises. "It's not like we went in there and all of a sudden turned into Pink Floyd or something."
But by issuing those teaser tracks, and putting new material — as much as they can get away with, says Deaux, usually four or five new songs per set — into their current live shows, The Whigs are giving fans a glimpse at the record months before it becomes available.
"We were anxious to have somebody hear what we've been working on," says Deaux. "When you spend so much time making something, you want to see how people respond to it."
That 20 percent of the yet-to-be released new album — which will settle in at 10 or 11 songs — is already available, for free, is no longer anything noteworthy in the music business. Most likely, the whole record will be floating around the internet before it reaches stores. But for The Whigs, who are content to just make music and let somebody else handle the business end of it, this matters not a whit.
"The record's going to come out and basically, whether the record sells five copies, 500 copies, we're going to tour until the cows come home," says Deaux. "We probably won't come home for a year and a half. This band is a performing band, and we love being on-stage and we love playing shows."
One hopes this will be The Whigs' saving grace, that there are enough devoted fans out there to keep a band whose motives are so pure and whose music is so charmingly unadorned on the road. Though, judging by the pre-released songs, In the Dark might well be the best sales pitch The Whigs have ever delivered. They're dynamic, but simple, and catchy in the best ways. The sounds are more complex, but the sentiment is not.
"When you're young and you get a guitar, you start a band because you love playing," says Deaux. "You want to show up at your friend's party and turn up your amp and just rock."
"It's about playing, and it's about that energy and that satisfaction you get from just making music live."