Originally published: The Stool Pigeon
Is a blue-collar work ethic enough for a band to win a fanbase anymore? Does it help going on tour with a mega-band? We take to the road in Germany with The Whigs, Kings Of Leon’s almost official support act.
It’s December 7, 11:15am and a black, two-tiered Mercedes tour bus is being cautiously pulled into the car park of the Columbia Club, Berlin. Yesterday, six inches of snow fell and it’s still –4ºC, but roads are clear and traffic moves smoothly.
For the past eight hours, while being driven 650km from Munich, The Whigs — a three-piece rock outfit from Athens, Georgia — have been hidden from the gelid conditions in coffin-like bunk beds that line the bus’s shell. They’re waking now and nursing the effects of their own ventures from the night before.
Less than 12 hours ago, Parker Gispert (lead singer and guitarist) was being “savagely beaten” at table tennis by Caleb Followill backstage at the Olympiahalle, a 14,000-capacity venue that Kings Of Leon sold out as part of their current world tour. The Whigs were supporting.
“It was humiliating,” Parker says sleepily, before slumping back into the bus’s cream-coloured leather chair and splaying out his appendages like a Marionette puppet that has had its strings cut. His lank, greasy hair sticks to the outline of this gaunt face. A pair of black Wayfarers hides his eyes.
“Where’s that nug?” he mumbles, patting himself down like a club doorman. “Dave [Price, tour manager], have you seen that nugget?”
Dave steps onto the bus and pulls a sweetly scented, respectable eighth of dope wrapped in cellophane from his coat pocket. He hands it to a smiling Parker, sitting upright like an obedient dog waiting for a treat. Dave then surgically removes half of the core of an apple with a Biro before forcibly piercing its skin again at a right angle so the two channels meet in its centre.
“It’s way safer like this,” Parker says as he’s handed nature’s unassuming bong. He loads up the top of the apple with a bud, introduces a flame and inhales. He holds the smoke in his chest for a few seconds, then sinks back, exhaling slowly and ritually at first, only to cough out the last with a lung-cleansing splutter. A herbal fug invades the bus like an airborne influenza virus.
“You want some?” he offers.
“I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
“Want an apple?”
Today, Kings Of Leon are having a day off in Munich. They will have a chance to see the city’s sights and recuperate in their hotel rooms before they board a private Learjet bound for Hamburg tomorrow. The Whigs (Parker, drummer Julian Dorio and bassist Tim Deaux) will meet them at the city’s O2 World arena for the show, but they won’t be able to enjoy such repose between now and then, despite Parker’s leisurely start to the day.
Interviews with independent website bunch.tv and 100.6 Motor FM have been organised to aid publicity for the trio and their own headline gig in the capital this evening. They’ve been booked to play the Crystal Room of the Columbia Club, a humble 150-capacity venue quite unlike the grandiose arenas they’ve been sharing with Kings Of Leon. It’s a potent reminder of where the band finds itself at this point in their career, in comparison to the Kings.
“We are friends and we hang out,” begins Julian. “We have mutual respect for each other’s music and that’s a huge deal for us.”
He says he’s still bewildered by the situation The Whigs find themselves in with Kings Of Leon, even though they’ve become something of an unofficial support act since 2008, when the Followills achieved commercial domination circa-Only By The Night. And regardless of opinions many hold on the band post-Because Of The Times, to have the respect of Kings Of Leon is a big deal. They band netted a reported $9.9 million on the road in 2010 as they became a progressively more commercial entity. The Whigs started out as a college rock outfit in 2002 and are still seeking recognition, not least in Europe where they’re largely unknown.
“They are in the position where they can do whatever they want, and we obviously benefit from being able to have such great exposure,” explains a business-minded Julian.
However, it’s still questionable as to how much this exposure is rewarding the trio. Ahead of their show tonight, supported by The Jim Jones Revue, there have been no advanced ticket sales.
“The only problem is always the question of how many people are we going to play to,” continues Julian, matter-of-factly. “With Kings Of Leon you kind of fast-forward, and instead of playing to 25 you’re there in front of 13,000 people each night.”
The Whigs have been signed to Dave Matthews’ ATO Records since 2006, shortly after Rolling Stone magazine labelled them “perhaps the best unsigned band in America”. Their debut album, Give ’Em All A Big Fat Lip, had been released independently the year before.
“Our debut became a kind of declarative statement,” explains Parker while waiting for the radio interview to be set up. Following a brief spell signed to a ‘development deal’ with RCA in 2004, the band parted ways with the label six months later — tainted by the experience. “It was the kind of thing where they were saying: ‘We love the band! We think you guys are great! But why don’t you change your songs around? Why don’t you sound a little bit more like this…’ It would have probably made more sense if they had signed another band.”
With two further albums-worth of material packed into their suitcase (2008’s Mission Control and 2010’s In The Dark), they have toured the world consistently since 2005, but nearly always as a support act — to The Black Keys, Drive By Truckers, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Band of Skulls, The Hold Steady, The Kooks, Tokyo Police Club, MGMT and Dead Confederate, as well as Kings Of Leon. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride? It certainly seems as if their headline gigs are more like registry office services that take place at clubs on days off between arena, theatre and stadium shows with others.
“We’re not a huge band in the States,” Julian explains as they unpack the bus for soundcheck at the Columbia Club. “We drive around in a big 15-passenger van and pull a trailer with all our equipment. We don’t have a bus like this [gifted to them by Kings Of Leon for the tour] and we work our butts off for every penny. You really appreciate and understand the value of a tour like this and we don’t take it for granted.”
“I can’t imagine what we would do if they hadn’t taken us under their wing,” continues Julian. “It’s such a bizarre thing for a band that big to have a band like us open up for them this much — tour after tour.”
Picking up his guitar, Parker leads the way into the venue. “Here’s the room of missed ambition,” he japes as we walk through the first set of doors into the main room of the Columbia Club. (Its capacity is around the 600-mark, with a six-foot high stage cordoned off by a security barrier. The likes of Bloodhound Gang, Thin Lizzy, Fu Manchu and Gang Of Four are due to play in the coming months.)
“And this is us,” he mumbles as we walk through another set of doors and into the Crystal Room. At one end is a one-foot high, 10-metre wide stage and two sets of four flashing lights. Twenty paces towards the opposite end of the room is a bar.
Backstage, various cheese-based sandwiches have been spread out across a table accompanied by a bowl of fruit and snack-sized chocolate bars. A fridge stocked with Beck’s, energy drinks and water glows brightly against the wall.
Tim pulls out a bottle of Beck’s and examines its label. “No fucking way,” he spits. “I guess that’s what you get if you win a Grammy.”
The label reads “Phoenix Amadeus Wolfgang” — the name of Versailles-based band Phoenix’s fourth album, which caused their sudden rise to fame.
“It’s not as if they don’t deserve it,” he shrugs. “They have worked hard for it — toughed it out, toured hard.”
Julian is on the sofa busying himself on his laptop. A few weeks before they set out on tour, the band amicably parted ways with their manager. Julian, although he will not subscribe to the title ‘manager’, has taken over the role. He’s busting his balls to make things work.
“The people out there don’t care about these things,” he explains. “They just want to be impressed and that’s why they pay a lot of money to come to the shows. They don’t care what it’s taken to get you here.”
During soundcheck, one of Tim’s bass pedals blows a fuse, shorting out the whole backline and rendering his bass amp useless for the show.
“All these things become part of a to-do list that doesn’t stop,” says Julian. “You mark off 10 things, and then there are 10 more to contend with.”
Their show, which ends up pulling a crowd of 60 locals, goes without fault. For a three-piece band, they’re louder than the sum of their parts. The small venue struggles to contain their enthusiasm, and a sound that unashamedly straddles the line between eighties American stadium rock and nineties grunge — full of hooks, hollers, sound, showmanship and simple pop aesthetic. It’s entertaining and enjoyable, and you can see and feel the appeal of their high-energy performances. Maybe touring is their best opportunity of making it. They’re a rock’n’roll band, after all, and they don’t shy away from the fact.
“There are a lot of steps between where we are and where Kings Of Leon are, but the band absolutely wants to get in that place,” says Julian. “We have never tried to be obscure or underground at all. We play the music that we want to play and we don’t compromise it for anything.”
Having spent over an hour packing all their gear away, the band takes rest in the lounge area of the tour bus — a horseshoe-shaped booth centred around a table on which is what’s left from the backstage rider. The apple-bong makes another appearance.
Julian: “I thought that the crowd was, well… I couldn’t quite figure them out at first. I liked them. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but it was such a contrast to playing to 10,000, which is really a wonderful thing that the Kings have let us do. But even at the loudest, those people could have been… it would not have been the same.”
Parker: “I couldn’t tell how many of them were fans of ours.”
Julian: “Some newcomers for sure. I mean it’s our first time here, so you don’t expect much.”
Tim: “There was a point tonight when I was just like, ‘Damn, I wish we could have been playing in an arena.’ Shit is so much easier. Nothing breaks.”
Parker: “I know. We have played those kinds of places a million times and it’s cool, but we’ve just done it a lot. I just wish we could play sweet, cool places more.”
The Whigs’ tour bus docks alongside the O2 World arena in Hamburg the next day. The Kings Of Leon’s crew (40 in total) have been on site since 7am constructing the stage and hoisting lights into place with military timing and precision.
Tonight’s show is being filmed in 3D for MTV and it is the first time the Followills will do their own soundcheck on this tour. Tina Turner’s ‘Two People’ blares from the speakers to test the levels.
Backstage, a maze of brightly lit, white corridors lead to cordoned-off rooms for the bands and management. Kings Of Leon have their own personal games room that only they are allowed access to. It’s stocked with gaming equipment for their downtime. A table tennis table has been set up in the centre, a dartboard with three darts placed in the bull’s-eye stands beside it (there’s a score marked up in chalk on the board showing the Followills being beat at 301 by ‘Coleena’). Another table has a Spalding basketball, two Wilson American footballs, five dice, a Frisbee, two left-handed baseball mitts and a baseball. There is also a full-length mirror, an empty fridge and a sauna that is not turned on. Directly outside the room, four Segway personal transporters are being charged waiting for the quartet’s arrival.
Opposite the Kings’ green room is a canteen that continually serves food throughout the day for the bands and crew. It’s decent grub, too: sweet potato and coconut soup, meatloaf, fajitas, seared cod, chocolate cream puff, fresh fruit — the list goes on.
Julian eyes-up what there is on offer. “It’s pretty impressive, huh?” he comments, before picking out a banana and pouring himself a coffee.
Later, he says: “The three of us… we are ambitious, but the glass is always half empty for us. We are hard on each other and we are hard working, but we understand what a privilege and opportunity this is. All we want to do is capitalise on this tour as much as humanly possible, so going out there and playing an okay gig is not okay because we are not some new band… You don’t want to be an opener all your life — you want to be a headliner, in a big way.”
As The Whigs make sure of their levels for the show, a set of side doors open to the arena floor. Caleb and Jared Followill enter royally on their Segways and begin to circle the sound desk like vultures around prey. Nathan soon follows (wearing a dentist’s surgical mask that he has to wear due to a bacteria infection) with Matt being last to join the boy’s parade. He is more cautious. His heavyset figure wobbles unsurely on its opulent/lazy mode of transport and his face is fixed with the concentration of a child trying to learn to ride a bike to keep up with his peers.
The venue will soon be opening for the show and the band start to discuss a plan of attack with their merchandise. It’s decided that they will sell their new album In The Dark for the small sum of 5 euros. “There is no profit,” points out Julian, “but it’s a bird in the hand.”
There are a few thousand early and eager Kings Of Leon fans waiting to watch their set. They play with all the energy and enthusiasm of the night’s previous gig, but this time they have something to feed off. The crowd slowly warm to their presence, and applause builds with every song.
Then the unthinkable happens. As they lead into ‘Dying’ — their final track of the night — the backline drops out as Tim steps on his ill-fated bass pedal once again. Julian is left holding an acoustic beat. The look on Dave’s face turns from one of a proud father watching his sons take their first formative steps to winning over another crowd to one of shock and dismay as they fall flat on their faces in a bloody, embarrassing mess. The sound fizzles back in for a few seconds only to fail again. The crowd show their support by clapping and cheering, but this isn’t a rock’n’roll ending.
The band leave the stage and head straight to their dressing room with their heads down. They are pissed off and confused. Julian peels off his sweat-drenched shirt and slumps back in a chair. “I thought it was the least energetic crowd of the tour,” he mutters, refusing to take any positives from the show. “I wanted the power to go out, come back in, we finish the song — ta-dar.” He waves his hand like a magician performing a trick. “You know, we have that little moment that we share [with the crowd] and it’s unique. But then it went out again. People are still walking in and that’s what’s hard because… you don’t want to look like amateurs when you’re playing in the major leagues.”
Outside the entrance to the backstage area, four chauffeur-driven Mercedes S350s with tinted windows are waiting with their engines running. The Kings Of Leon have only just started their set.
“I just want to give a big thank you to The Whigs for joining us on this tour,” begins Caleb as the Kings return for their encore. “They are a great band and like brothers to us. Show your support.”
They break into ‘Sex On Fire’. The Whigs regroup and head out to the merchandise stand in the hope that they can put “bird in the hand”.
For a good 45 minutes they chat to fans, have photos taken, shake hands and sign merchandise, and you can see that it really means something to both parties.
The Kings, obviously, are nowhere to be seen. They have proven that they can sell themselves on the night — after all, that’s why everyone is here in the first place — but there’s the feeling that the bigger they get, the more detached from their fans they become.
The Whigs shift 255 copies of In The Dark. There are but a few CDs left by the end of the night. Is this a small battle that they’ve won in the big war for recognition and a shot at fame? Is this their pay off?
“It definitely feels good to know that someone is listening and getting into what you are doing,” Parker chirps as he walks away from the merchandise table. “At the end of the day I can’t afford to pay rent, but we really can’t afford to do anything if it weren’t for these people responding positively to us.
“When I got off stage I was actually really happy and I think that’s because a huge part of rock’n’roll is that it’s not all roll: there are always problems which are going to come up that you are going to have to deal with. Like turning tonight into something to our advantage. You just try and make the best of it and people can relate to that.”
He’s a heady mix of drunk and high as he circles the arena’s foyer trying to find his way to the backstage area, but his stumbling sentences piece together the big jigsaw puzzle that is The Whigs. A band too close to the big time to quit, yet so far away from being able to say that they’ve made it.
Every night that they play under the wing of the Kings, they see success, fame and all that comes with it, and they want that for their future. This is their job, their profession, their business, and their legacy. They’re willing to fight for it, and share it with those that care to listen.
“It’s kind of like if there is a fight at the bar,” concludes Parker. “People are eager to get on a side and rally a lot of the time. So when something goes wrong or if there’s a conflict, a dividing line is drawn and people are forced to support it or be against it. If you can give them a reason to rally on your side and be with you, then that is huge. Because that’s definitely the reality of what happened tonight.”