Q&A With Julian Dorio of the Whigs

The Whigs, a buzz band that gets the profile treatment in the March 6 Westword, plays music of the sort typically identified as indie rock – yet drummer Julian Dorio continues to receive the sort of love from percussion aficionados that’s all but unheard of in the genre. Dorio takes on that topic and more in the following Q&A.

The conversation begins with a discussion of the Flying Dorios, a casual family group that helped Dorio develop his skills and avoid stage fright. Afterward, he talks about the origin of the Whigs, which he co-founded at the University of Georgia in Athens with two fellow students, singer-guitarist Parker Gispert and bassist Hank Sullivant, whose spot is currently filled by Tim Deaux; the musical history of Athens, with nods to R.E.M. and the Kindercore crowd exemplified by Jeff Mangum; the contrast between the group’s low-budget debut recording and Mission Control, a disc made for Dave Matthews’ ATO imprint that found the performers working with big-name producer Rob Schnapf; and his surprise at the attention paid him by two of the nation’s most prominent drumming magazines.

Publicity like that can’t be beaten.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Before we get to the Whigs, I have to ask you about the Flying Dorios.

Julian Dorio: (Laughs.) This has popped up more than once recently. I don’t know how this has surfaced.

WW: It’s called Wikipedia.

JD: Ahhh, it sounds like someone’s having a little fun on Wikipedia. The Flying Dorios… Well, my father wasn’t a professional musician, but he played growing up. And I have an older brother, and my father sort of decided to stop buying us toys when we were really young and buy us some instruments. So he bought my older brother a guitar, and he bought me a drum set. I was six at the time, and my brother was ten. I hardly knew what I was getting myself into, but we started playing and learning, and my father, being a musician, sort of made sure he remembered everything. It was important for him to show us that you didn’t just play by yourself, but also played together, learning songs – the importance of a song and all of that. And sure enough, that’s what started it. It was a play on the Flying Burrito Brothers, which was basically my brother’s idea, and the three of us would sit in the basement and play classic-rock covers all the time. It was pretty funny.

WW: What instrument did your dad play? Was it guitar?

JD: No, he was actually a pianist growing up. From that, he taught himself to play bass. So he’d play either or.

WW: Did he play in bands when he was in his teens and twenties? Or was he more of a bedroom musician?

JD: In college he had a band, sort of similar to the way we got started. That was back in the ‘60s or so. They played tons of shows and even traveled around a tiny bit, but it wasn’t anything he ever pursued as a serious career.

WW: Had you expressed interest in drumming? Or was it more like, we need a drummer, so you’re getting drums?

JD: (Laughs.) I figure I must have had some interest. But to be honest, I was probably doing what I normally did at that age, which was following my brother. We would sit around and listen to my father’s vinyl. He just has a giant, classic collection of all the old, great records and old bands. I think my brother said, “I want to play guitar. This would be really cool.” And again, he’s ten. It must have just seemed like a cool idea – another thing to ask for at Christmas. And I think I probably just followed suit. Like, “If he’s doing that, I’ve got to play the drums.” I had no idea what that meant, and no idea if I’d be good or bad or anything like that. My father, for some sort of strange reason, was convinced that I was a drummer – that I had that in me. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. But he was excited to get us things that could turn into something. Even if it wasn’t a career, it could still be a better way to spend our time than just getting toys and then breaking them and throwing money down the drain.

WW: Did you just play in the house? Or did you actually play shows?

JD: It was mainly in the house. Michael, my brother, had a teacher; he had lessons all the time. And I had a teacher, so I had lessons all the time. And then when we weren’t doing that, we’d have times when my father would think of old tunes: Bowie songs and Zeppelin songs and the Stones and Hendrix songs that we had to learn.

WW: So he would give you assignments?

JD: In a way. It wasn’t necessarily geared like that. He’d say, “Look, this is a killer song. Why don’t we learn how to play this?” So we would all listen to it and figure it out and figure out our parts like a band – kind of like a cover band. Again, we were so young, it wasn’t like we were on the road. We were just having fun, and it was great. And occasionally there’d be an opportunity where we’d have a party or people would be at our house, and he’d have us play. It was probably novel at that point to have kids so young playing songs like that, but at the same time, I think he knew what he was doing. My dad had us play in front of people whenever we had the opportunity, whether it was five people or a hundred people. He would have us play, and that sort of taught us how to play for people and get comfortable with that. And really, I’ve never been nervous once in my life playing any show we’ve played. It’s just never really bothered me, and I think it’s because he got me playing in front of people at a young age and working on that side of performing as well.

WW: It sounds like he kept the focus on fun, instead of it turning into a Joe Jackson/Jackson 5 kind of thing – like, “Michael, you’ve got to dance for five hours or else you don’t get supper.”

JD: (Laughs.) Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. He was definitely good about that.

WW: At what point did the enjoyment of drumming really click in – where you thought, whether we’re doing this as a family or not, I really enjoy this and want to keep doing it?

JD: I did love it immediately. I loved learning and playing, and it came to me quickly enough – I don’t want to say I was that quick. But I knew it came to quickly enough where it kept my interest. Sometimes when you’re young like that, you lose interest after day three and find you’re not actually good at this thing yet. You have to work and think, this stinks. But it kept my interest from the beginning, and I kept with it for several years – I’d say probably all the way up until junior high or the beginning of high school. And at that point, I’d been playing for almost ten years. To say the least, I was dedicated to it, but I think that point you’re making… My older brother was going off to college and it wasn’t so much the fun family band thing anymore, because he was gone. That was maybe a time where I had to make a decision for myself: Was I going to play for fun and continue doing it like that, or was I going to make this something I worked at nonstop? And I had always practiced a lot, but at that point, I started practicing two and three times a day and started really taking it seriously.

WW: And your brother has continued with music, too? He’s in a band now, right?

JD: Yeah, my brother Michael is in a band out of Atlanta called Trances Arc who are doing great. It’s sort of funny that both of us have found a career in music, at least for now.

WW: I’m sure there are a lot of fathers out there who are crestfallen when their kids want to become musicians. Your dad’s probably the exception to that.

JD: Yeah, we’re lucky. He makes sure we’re responsible enough to take care of ourselves and make a living and play the bills and all that stuff. But he’s never said, “Music isn’t a career thing. It’s just for fun.” He’s very supportive. Both of my parents are great.

WW: What does he do for a living now?

JD: Maybe that explains some of it. My parents have both done a variety of things over the years. They sort of made sure that whatever they’re doing is something they really love, and they’ll do it for a while. Not to say they don’t love it anymore, but if they find interest in something else, they’ll pursue it. So I think my brother and I learned from them a little bit of fearlessness in their pursuit of happiness. Before we were born, in the ‘70s, they were clothing designers, actually. That was an interesting career. And as I was born, they’ve always been big culinary people, and they opened a restaurant, and they ran that for about fifteen years. That was basically my childhood: They were restaurant owners. That’s another sort of backbreaking industry that isn’t exactly easy, but they excelled at it and loved it and did it for a long time. And then as I was sort of graduating from high school, they got out of that, and now they’ve moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and my father is the general manager of a country club, which of course has a restaurant and a golf course and all sorts of things that required him to really learn a whole other field. He likes that, likes trying new things. I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to try something else some day.

WW: You and Parker met in high school. Is that right?

JD: We knew each other from Westminster, but we didn’t play together at that time. Not until college.

WW: How did you start playing together then? Was it something you planned out in advance, or did it just happen?

JD: I think it just happened. I’m a year older, actually, so I was already at the University of Georgia, and he was about to come up to Athens from Atlanta for his freshman year. We’d always been friends, and we were chatting. There was nothing too formal about it. We just figured we could start playing, because I wasn’t playing with anybody. Kind of going back to what we were talking about earlier – playing at home and practicing. I’d been doing that through high school nonstop, so I was ready to actually put it to use, I guess. So I ended up starting to drive to Atlanta while I was in Athens on the weekends, sort of just hanging out and playing. Nothing really too formal. It was for the only reason you should ever really start a band, which was just for fun.

WW: At what point did Hank get involved?

JD: It was about six months after Parker and I had started playing together. We’d been putting together songs, and it was really great, and it had worked out nicely. But it was kind of time to form a band. So we met him through some mutual friends and got along. For some reason, we didn’t look that much further. We just found the trio to be something that worked for us.

WW: Were you looking beyond it just being fun? Did you want to make the band a going concern?

JD: Yeah. We weren’t the type who ever walked around saying, “This is going to be our career.” We never did that because, especially in Athens, everyone was in a band and everyone wanted to play. We didn’t want to seem overly confident, and we didn’t know. We hadn’t really done anything anyway. We were so young, I don’t think we had a lot of experience. But at the same time, it wasn’t just a little hobby or a joke of a band. We put a lot of time into it, took everything fairly seriously, and we’ve been lucky that we’re still doing it.

WW: You mentioned that everybody in Athens was in a band. What was the prevailing sound in Athens at the time? Or was it so disparate that you couldn’t pin anything down as the most popular style?

JD: I think the last thing Athens had been famous for was the late ‘90s Elephant 6 collective. That had an impact on probably everybody. We loved all of that. We never really sounded like that, but it doesn’t mean we weren’t influenced by it. Those bands were killer. And I think because of that movement, and because of R.E.M. and Widespread being the most famous bands out of Athens, I think most people assume you either sound like a jam band or you sound like an Elephant 6 band or you sound like college rock, like R.E.M. But there’s much more going on in Athens than just those sounds. I think something that’s exciting about being in Athens is working on your own sound. How you can kind of fit in by creating your own sort of interpretation to all that stuff.

WW: The constant references to R.E.M. in articles about you guys seems to say more about the people asking the questions than the ones who are answering the questions. Is that fair to say?

JD: If you’re in a band from Athens and you’re doing an interview, you almost always get asked about R.E.M. And we’re huge R.E.M. fans, so it doesn’t bother us. But something you’re figuring out is that’s no unique. I think most people in the world are huge R.E.M. fans. But it’s not like what we’re trying to be. Most people just have to bring up R.E.M., but we don’t usually bring it up. The interviewer usually does.

WW: And probably far fewer interviewers, particularly from major publications, know anything about the whole Kindercore scene or Jeff Mangum.

JD: Sure. You’re exactly right. We usually find ourselves mentioning bands from Athens that we like a lot that might not be recognized on the national radar. Like I was saying, there’s a lot of bands in Athens that sound nothing like these other bands. Maybe that’s one of the things that’s great about Athens and Atlanta. There’s a lot of bands that are doing really well, but they don’t mimic each other at all.

WW: When you were putting out your first album, you got a lot of attention for how it was recording – you guys buying the recording equipment on eBay and then selling it back after you were done to help defray the costs. This time around, it’s a completely different story: You’re in there with a guy who recorded Beck, and obviously the budget is a lot higher. For you, does the romance of the way you did things originally go away when you think about working under much nicer circumstances?

JD: No, it was equally exciting. We loved the way we recorded the first record. We loved that experience. But at the same time, it was where we were then. I don’t think we sat around and thought, it’s only okay to record with no budget and no equipment. Those were the resources we had at the time. We had to get clever with the little bit of money we had, and it worked out well, I think. We were really excited about that record. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean we were always going to find a house that was empty and buy some equipment on eBay. That’s just what we had at the time, and it basically earned us the privileges we had the second time around. And working with Rob Schnapf was a huge honor. Working at Sunset Sound was amazing.

WW: What method did you use with Rob? Did he pretty much let you do your thing? Or did he play a big part in shaping the songs on the latest disc?

JD: We take care of all the arranging and writing and putting the songs together – demoing them before we get to the studio. The idea is to have everything in place, so that when you’re in the studio, you’re just executing. That isn’t to say he’s not playing an instrumental role. But something that’s great about Rob, actually, is his ability to make you comfortable and encourage you to do what you do. I think he knows that sometimes you get into the studio – especially a band like us, where we were trying to make a record that was indicative of how we play live – he understands that sometimes bands freeze up a little bit and change how they play. They’re aware of the microphones being on them and aware of someone being on the other side of the glass. And he makes you really comfortable and sort of says, “Don’t think. Don’t think for one second. Just play the song the way you’ve always played it.” And it was great. That really made us enjoy working out of a great studio like that, instead of being spooked a little bit.

WW: On both records, your drumming has gotten a lot of attention – and that’s pretty unusual for the style of music you play. Did that come as a surprise to you?

JD: It was a little bit of a surprise, because that’s not what I’m focused on at all. I think my job is to make the song as good as possible, and if that means I need to play something simple and staying out of the way, that’s what I need to do. And if it means I need to play something a little more intricate or complicated, I’m happy to do that, too. It’s never about the drums or putting on a show by myself. It’s always about enhancing the song. I hope it fits. I hope that people like it and that is good. A reason why someone like Ringo is so amazing is he knew exactly what to play every time. He never got in the way, but also, he wasn’t just back there doing nothing. He’s someone to learn from, obviously.

WW: I understand that you’re going to be featured in an upcoming issue of a drumming magazine. Is that right?

JD: Yeah. There’s two major drum magazines. There’s one that’s actually called Drum magazine, and then there’s Modern Drummer. And somehow, each one of them is doing a feature. It’s nothing I ever expected, but it’s flattering, of course.

WW: So when people from those kinds of magazines interview you, are all there questions like, “What’s your favorite drum head?” Or “What’s your theory on sixteenth notes?”

JD: (Laughs.) I’ve done the Drum magazine interview, and Modern Drummer I’m going to be doing soon. But the Drum interview was actually really normal. I thought it might get more into that kind of thing – like how did you mike your kick drum on this record. And it wasn’t like that at all. I guess it was kind of cool that it focused on songs, and how we approach the songs. I guess they talked about how I approach them as a drummer. But it wasn’t that different from a normal interview about the band.

WW: Do you consider yourself something of a tech-head? Or do you care more about playing by feel and not worrying about all those ins and outs?

JD: I’m more concerned about feel and it sounding right and all that. I’m aware of what works well for me, what equipment I need and what works for this band. You walk into instrument stores and there are so many gadgets that I don’t even know what’s going on anymore. There’s an endless amount of gear. Maybe it would benefit me. I don’t even know. But I think I learned when I was, like, nine years old, that I wasn’t going to be as good as Dennis Chambers [a drummer whose credits include John McLaughlin, John Scofield and Steely Dan]. It occurred to me that I wasn’t [virtuoso jazz-fusion drummer] Dave Weckl or something. I can’t call myself a songwriter at all. Parker is definitely the songwriter. But you start focusing on your parts and what you’re doing to help the songs. That’s always been my focus.

WW: You guys signed with ATO, which is Dave Matthews’ record label, and when I hear your music, I don’t hear a lot of Dave Matthews’ influence in there. When you’re at meetings with the label and Dave Matthews’ music comes up, are you just really polite and then change the subject?

JD: We always joke that we’re waiting to meet him. We don’t know when that’s going to happen. Yes, he’s one of the four partners, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the roster, I don’t think. It has more to do with the philosophy than the actual sound of the bands they work with. I think what’s really important to the label and to the four presidents, including Dave Matthews, is that they work with bands they love, they sign bands that they’re fans of, and in that way, it forms a great working relationship. They don’t sign bands that they then need to change and rework and that kind of thing. We’re beyond excited and really lucky to work with them. It’s been a great relationship so far, and it’s been really easy on us. They go out of their way to facilitate what you already do. When we make more songs, we make them the way we want to make them.

WW: There’s so much attention on this disc. Do you feel pressure for the band to reach a certain level? Or are you fine with where you’re at, and whatever will be will be?

JD: We don’t feel any pressure. I think the only pressure we normally feel is the pressure we put on ourselves. We try to set a bar, set some standards and push ourselves as much as possible. If we write a song we’re really excited about, we immediately try to write one that’s better. You always do that. I’d imagine if we were selling millions and millions of records and the whole world is staring at us, I imagine it would be like that. But we’re not even close to that. So it’s been good times so far. We’re really happy, for sure.