Parker Gispert’s debut, 2018’s Sunlight Twilight, has the intimacy of a whisper as if he’s letting you in on a secret. The album charms with a threadbare grace, its lilting haze giving the wholeness and harmony of a song cycle. The lush, breezy atmosphere is simultaneously homespun and grandiose as the hooks take their time, Gispert’s voice forlorn and wanting, even when he seems to have it all.
The album’s pastoral feel is palpable and earned– Sunlight Twilight is the culmination of his year-long residency at a 100-acre farm, removed from the distractions of not only modernity but also his years as frontman for The Whigs, the garage rock trio that graduated from Athens, Georgia house parties to stadium shows with The Black Keys and Kings of Leon.
Starting with their debut, 2005’s Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip (featuring “Technology”, a song that’s a perennial mix-tape staple for this writer) to their studio swan song, 2014’s Modern Creation, The Whigs specialized in whip-smart, impassioned songs, combing a sophisticated bombast that recalls contemporaries like The Walkmen with the rock-n-roll-as-life gospel of former tour mates The Hold Steady, all of which make Sunlight Twilight that much more singular, sounding as it were a ’60s psych oddity discovered during a record crate dig.
I spoke with him about recording Sunlight Twilight, finding inspiration in the news, falling in love with new bands, and his new record that drops later this year.
Parker, it’s great talking to you. I’ve been a fan for a while now. In fact, years and years ago, my old band opened up for The Whigs in Milledgeville…
I remember that like it was yesterday. I still got your vinyl. I remember you came out into the crowd, got on one of the tables, and shredded. Yeah, I knew it right off the top of my head.
I guess the years have been kind to us– we still have our memories.
I have fond memories of that era. I thought that show was really cool because Milledgeville was close to Athens and somewhere that we wanted to play. I think we might have even played at that spot before. And then when we came in and played that show with you guys, it was like, “Oh man, there are cool local bands in Milledgeville!”
Coming from The Whigs, you released your first solo record, Sunlight Tonight. It’s atmospheric, gentle, and floating, a 180 from The Whigs. What was your headspace like when you were writing for that record? The vibe is ’60s psych-pop…
I felt like it was an opportunity to show some other influences that didn’t really come through in the band. I would say, specifically, The Radar Brothers from the mid-2000s. Also, Beachwood Sparks, maybe.
I actually spoke to Brent Rademaker from Beachwood Sparks a couple of months ago. If you haven’t done so, check out his new group GospelbeacH.
Oh, wow! So, those two bands, and then more classic stuff like Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake, and Ryley Walker, who’s more contemporary. I was just messing with open tunings and both Radar Brothers and Beachwood had some really slow songs, so I was also experimenting with tempos, slowing things down. Also, then some Sparklehorse. I wanted to make a point to make it different than The Whigs just because it was my first solo release, and I wanted to show a different side of myself.
Did it feel necessary, essential to make that record, something you had to do to differentiate yourself from your past?
I just thought it’d be more interesting. I feel like a lot of the time when people do a solo album, coming from a band, it sounds like the band. I’m super proud of everything with The Whigs, so it’s no dis to the group or anything like that. It just seemed like if I’m going to do something outside of the band, let’s make it sound different than the band. That was the headspace. I’d say the album that I have coming out this coming year is a return to rock band. It gave me the opportunity to make that sound different again, as opposed to just doing the same thing every time.
Most bands I talk to who are playing have a new album they’re pushing, but you don’t have anything new yet. What’s the reason for the run of shows?
For whatever reason, even in The Whigs, everything was always backwards for us like that. It was get on stage and play a show, write material for a show, and then the record would follow what we’d been playing at the gigs. I’ve thought of new material as things to perform live and then the record being– not an afterthought, but a…
Yeah, capturing that in studio form. Our record is actually done; it’s going to come out later this year, but I’m just excited to get on stage and play new songs. Playing live is what I love the most though. With the two-year lay-off with the pandemic, I’m just excited to play.
Are these your first shows since the lockdown?
I did Shaky Knees, which is a festival in Atlanta. I’m actually in Florida right now–I just played the 30A Songwriters Festival. I’ve played some solo shows in Tampa and Jacksonville, so I actually have been playing in a little bit. I’m still going back and forth between playing full-band rock shows and playing solo stripped-down acoustic shows. I’ve been dipping my toe and getting back to playing shows.
What was your writing process like for the new record? George [Fontaine Jr. of New West Records] mentioned that you were making a rock record this time around…
I felt like when the pandemic hit, and I was home for once watching the news every day and stuck inside, for the most part, I felt like I wanted to hear a rock record– some fun rock, some angsty rock that was talking about what was going on in the world. Maybe some words of unification in a divided society. I felt like there were some things that I wished I were hearing, and I wasn’t. I’d say the record was essentially me trying [to get] out there what I wished was out at the moment.
What was missing that you wanted to hear?
I think just some angsty rock, some unifying lyrics, just some fun rock, loud rock that you could mindlessly fist pump to, some sweet guitar solos. I was imagining as things start to open up again, I was picturing in my mind once everything did get back to normal, how much fun it would be to play some loud music on a stage. I was trying to write that material for this time.
There’s not a lot of middle ground. Folks’ new records are either acoustic and introspective or something wild. I’m appreciating rock these days after being down for so long.
(Laughs) I know, I do too! And that’s what the first album allowed me to do. It made rocking more exciting again after playing so many quieter shows. It felt like I was doing it for the first time again or something like that. It made it newer and fresher.
How topical are the songs? There’s a lot to tackle and digest with the pandemic and politics. With this record, are you dealing with specifics or metaphor?
I’d say I tackle from more from a bird’s eye view. I try to zoom above it all and have it be both seriously topical and of the moment, but also not confine it to 2020 or 2021. I’d say it more deals with how divided everybody was or is–those kind of forces –and how angry everybody is. And also, I’m trying to put out some more positive vibes of coming together, people finding ways to look past their differences and deal with each other and get along and not hate each other.
The topic of division is an area of focus these days with some of the artists I talk to, specifically their relationship with the South. I’ve been surprised how willing and wanting people are to discuss the region. What’s your relationship with the South?
I‘d say, empirically, I am from the South. I don’t mind being associated with the South. I’ve lived in Georgia or Tennessee my whole life. I’ve traveled everywhere, but I always come back and make the South my home. So, I don’t I don’t mind being associated with the South. I love Georgia, and I love Tennessee. There’s all sorts of people in the South beyond what others might stereotypically think of what Southerners are.
How has your recording philosophy changed over time, from The Whigs debut in 2005 to your latest? Has the sound you’re going after changed?
It’s been pretty different between the first solo record and the one I have coming out this year. I’d say the first solo record is more or less just me and an acoustic guitar, and then we built the arrangements around that. I had a pretty specific sound in mind with all the strings and the arrangements and the instrumentation, but the new record, I’d say that once again, I was focusing on the core of the vocal melodies, the lyrics, and the guitar and vocal. Then I brought in a rock band that played the songs with me in the studio. The guy who produced the new record, Roger Moutenot, worked on the last Velvet Underground release, which was a live album recorded in Paris [Live MCMXCIII]. He also did Lou Reed solo albums and a lot of Yo La Tengo records.
Yeah, it was more of a classic rock vibe that I was trying to put out there. I’d say with both the first and the second record, I’m just super happy with how they turned out. I had a way that I was looking to record, who I chose to record with, and where I chose to record it that I thought was going to produce certain thing, and I’d say in both scenarios my expectations were exceeded. I know I made the right decisions with the band and the producer. That feels good.
After all these years, how do you keep turning corners, surprising yourself, and finding motivation?
I think that I naturally like to make new stuff, and what I was saying about wanting to hear something specific and not hearing it and just making it myself, I think that’s a driver. I go to a ton of shows– I’m at a few shows a week, if not more, for the most part, I’m checking out new music a lot. I think a lot of it comes from just hearing a little bit of a void and wanting to fill it
I still pick up the guitar every day, and I’ve never found myself playing a Jimi Hendrix song. I’m always just trying to make something up myself, for whatever reason, when I pick up an instrument, and I’m always writing down the lyric ideas. I think it’s always happening, and it’s not necessarily so conscious, which I think is good. I’m grateful for that. It’s not such a big effort.
You just answered this question a bit– do you still find yourself getting excited about music the way you did when you were young, first falling in love with music? For instance, many of my friends who described themselves as jaded went total fanboy for the Get Back doc…
Yeah, I love that doc. It was funny because coming from being in a band and now being a solo guy, it does make you nostalgic for bands and the inner workings of groups, even when it’s not so functional. They were pretty dysfunctional for a lot of that movie, and they still made an insanely great album. There were still lots of beautiful moments in it where they were actually working really well together. I think that’s pretty indicative of what being in a group is like– there’s a lot of good and bad, and in the end, you hope that you’re making stuff and that the good moments outweigh the bad ones. As a fan, I love seeing new groups. I totally fanboy out on seeing shows and stuff. The love is somewhere in there and hasn’t really left.
What are some of the groups you’ve seen who’ve captured your attention and affections?
I saw a really cool Hans Condor show right at the beginning of the pandemic. I like this Nashville band Styrofoam Winos. Another Nashville band Twin– those are the three that I would go with. I actually saw a lot of bigger bands this past year, for whatever reason, like the Stones, Bob Dylan, and St. Vincent…
Which do you miss the most about playing– the larger venues or the dives?
I think I like all of it. It’s one of those things where one makes you want the other. You see so many club shows– oh, Sierra Ferrell would be another one– you see people play the shows that don’t have any production and don’t have the pyrotechnics, so then when you do go to the big show, it’s grandiose and so cool, and you see a few of those big shows, and it makes you long for seeing someone in a dive. I think just anything to break up the monotony and have it be a different concert experience each time is what I’m into.
When you’re writing music, are you listening to other bands, or do you cut yourself off from listening to anything, so you’re focused only on your music?
No, I usually have a few records that I’m listening to a lot. I don’t know why that is. I think it helps me to zero in on a few main influences. In this case, they were records that I knew really well and had listened to a zillion times, but when they first hit me, they made a big impact on me. They would be the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, The Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet and Sticky Fingers, and R.E.M.’s Document. I’d say those were the big ones for this record, for whatever reason. For the first two solo records, I’ve kind of found myself going back to younger versions of myself and remembering how exciting some of this music was the first time I heard it and tapping back into that vibe.
Any influences outside music for this record?
I would say for this one, it was more the news, the state of the world, what I was consuming day in and day out on the news. Reading it and watching it, I was just totally consumed. I was watching the White House briefing every day at the beginning of the pandemic– I was news-obsessed. I eventually burned out on that pretty hard, but for a while there, it was just like constant news, and I’d say that’s what came.
As you’ve grown older, what pitfalls have you looked to avoid? Mistakes you’ve seen other artists make?
Maybe early on, I thought about things in terms of the career and thought maybe I would try to steer my career in a certain way. I feel like the older I get, all that stuff is out-the-window for me. It gets back to something internal. Am I having fun? Is this exciting? Am I proud of what I am putting out? Am I challenging myself this go-round?
As long as I’m internally happy with what I’m doing, I don’t really care what happens after that to an extent. It’s more just about me being satisfied, me enjoying it, and me having fun and getting out of it what I need to get out of it. And sure, I would love for other people to dig it, and of course, I would love it if I was able to make money on it and have it continue to allow me to be an artist– that would be incredible– but none of that stuff matters if I’m not into what I’m doing. I try to focus on that, and then anything that happens outside of that, I can live with it.
How did you avoid becoming jaded with the music industry? Or maybe you did, and you’ve recovered?
I think it’s so separate from the thing itself. There’s the music and there’s the art and there’s making the tunes, playing the tunes, and recording the tune– that’s where my head’s at. And then there’s the whole other side, which is the industry. I don’t really deal so much with that side of it. I don’t let those things paint the music itself or any of the fun stuff that got me involved in it. It seems the business has always been a drag to most artists anyway, whether they’re successful or not successful, but I try not to really deal with that side of it too much.
Do you consider this part of your career a second act, a reset, or is this simply a continuation of one long journey?
No, I think it’s the second act. I feel like The Whigs is the first act, and solo is a second act. It does feel different, which is exciting. In a lot of ways, I’m starting all over again, which is cool. It feels good, it feels fresh to be doing a new project, forming who I am as a solo guy. So, yeah, this will be my second record and a second act.