Cleaning Out the Cobwebs
Cleaning Out the Cobwebs
A Q&A with Julian Dorio of the Whigs
By Geoff Gehman
Julian Dorio has done a ton as the drummer for the Whigs, the buzzing, buzzsawing band he co-founded 14 years ago as a college student in Athens, Ga. The 34-year-old Atlanta native has played 10 times for five top TV talk-show hosts, making him a candidate for the late-night hall of fame. He shared a bill with Kings of Leon for 65,000 listeners in London’s Hyde Park, one of the top municipal rock ‘n’ roll gardens. He even mooned like Keith Moon during a music video for “Hit Me” spoofing flamingly flamboyant ’70s groups he avidly studied in the ‘80s as a member of a family trio called the Flying Dorios.
You can trace traces of his adventures on the Whigs’ new album “Live in Little Five,” a collection of concert tracks that New West Records plans to release in November. Dorio, guitarist/vocalist Parker Gispert and bassist/vocalist Timothy Deaux thump the speakers and sweep the cobwebs on such staples as “Like a Vibration,” “Right Hand on My Heart” and “Cleaning Out the Cobwebs.” They’re shifty, explosive and intensely melodic whether they dip into punk, psychedelia or Southern fried rock. Dorio is deep in the pocket and deep in the mix, turn-on-a-dime tight and trampoline loose, a kindred spirit to Moon, Ringo Starr and the Clash’s Topper Headon.
On Oct. 13 the Whigs will perform their second show at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a chat while walking San Francisco to a guest gig at festival, Dorio discusses everything from his father’s classic-rock tutorials to a “Late Night with David Letterman” story as wacky as a scene from “A Hard Day’s Night.” Near the end of the interview he recalled an experience he’d like to forget: performing last November with the Eagles of Death Metal in a Paris hall where terrorists killed 89 spectators, including the band’s merchandise manager.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely slayed you?
A: When we were kids my older brother Michael and I would go down to the basement and listen to our father’s vinyl. What sticks out to me now is putting on “Led Zeppelin I”; my dad of course had all the Led Zeppelin records. I was only six at the time and I didn’t know what to expect; like any younger brother, I just wanted to do what Michael was doing. What strikes me now is how the accessible the musicianship was; even when I was six I could try to copy John Bonham’s drumming.
Q: By nine you advanced to the point where you were drumming along with Bonham while listening to “Led Zeppelin IV” on your humongous Radio Shack headphones.
A: The stereo system was way across the room and I had this headphone extension cord that reached all the way across. It was like 25 feet long; it was the greatest product in the world at that moment. I learned all the best Bonham beats, which I’m sure I wasn’t doing very well but I tried. I had drum lessons but there was no better way to learn than drumming with my father’s records.
Q: You were six when you, Michael and your father launched the Flying Dorios. What was the best tip your dad gave you besides it’s better to bash drums than break toys?
A: When we were taking drum and guitar lessons he stressed the importance of playing with dynamics and playing together. That’s why he started playing music and taught himself to play bass, so he could have this little family band. He never meant to take us on the road; he just wanted to teach us what makes a great song and how can we play it well together. We all know that David Bowie’s good but why is he good? Why do you like “Rebel Rebel”? Probably one of the most important lessons he taught us was to learn what great songs felt like. Not just learning chords and beats but feeling what those transitions are like and what lifting into a chorus is like and what going back to the bridge is like
Q: Are your parents ardent fans of the Whigs?
A: Oh yeah, they’ve been incredibly supportive. I’m very lucky.
Q: Your parents designed clothes before you and Michael were born. Have they ever advised you about your stage getups?
A: They’ve left me alone for the most part. The band’s always been pretty simple when it comes to clothes. From time to time my father likes to remind us that we’re entertainers and that we should dress with a little more style. You look back to his era, to the great bands and great records we were listening to growing up, and those people had a certain amount of flair. The members of Led Zeppelin weren’t wearing costumes but Jimmy Page might have a custom suit and no shirt under his blazer. I think the world is better off without me taking off my shirt [laughs].
Q: You really moon for the camera in that video for “Hit Me,” where you, Parker and Tim play garishly costumed, goofy versions of your fantasy ’70s selves. Are you really doing your best Keith Moon?
A: I looked insane: my hair was flat ironed for crying out loud. When it came to the performance, I thought: You can’t go half way on this; you have to go all the way [laughs]. That was a cool thing about listening to my dad’s old records and growing up with all those drummers like Moon. I know that video is silly but back in the ’60s and ’70s all those drummers and bass players really stood out; they were not just in the shadows. They were so integral to the bands; they were just like front men. You knew who each one of them was; they all carried a lot of weight. I always admired that.
The director Scott Carney is a great friend of ours and a great musician in his own right. He was the one who came up with the idea for a spinoff or a spoof of the “Old Grey Whistle Test” that Bob Harris hosts on the BBC. There have been so many good performances on the show but one of the really great, over-the-top episodes was with Edgar Winter. There was this amazingly ridiculous combination of the weirdest outfits with lots of spandex and huge hair. But the musicianship is incredible; they just kill.
Q: Did you, Parker and Tim have any ground rules while picking the tracks for “Live in Little Five”? I’ve read that you really wanted the sort of you-are-there bells, whistles and warts on some of your favorite rock-concert records, like the Who’s “Live at Leeds” and the Clash’s “Live at Shea Stadium.”
A: You’re always honing your craft when you record a live album. You’re always trying to play as well as possible but also entertain. It’s important to combine those two things, even when you don’t want to, because we live in a world where your shows are going to be recorded by someone on a phone who then puts it on YouTube or some other form of social media. So it’s important to always be playing your best, especially when you’re known as a live band. It’s also important not to overthink, to do what you do best
Q: You and Parker have been playing together for 14 years. Has your relationship changed significantly over time? Have your roles zigged and zagged?
A: Our roles are roughly the same. I play drums and he plays guitar and sings. He’s our primary songwriter and I’ve always had the pleasure of listening to his songs and his ideas for songs, trying to sift through them and hopefully saying: “Wow, that one sticks out; that one’s special” or “They’re all cool, but this is something we haven’t done before.” I offer suggestions and of course I try to offer musical layers when we play together. It’s hard to believe we’ve been performing together this many years but it’s great.
Q: Parker has changed his onstage look 270 degrees, morphing from a preppie punker to a long-haired, long-bearded Southern rocker who could be mistaken for a ’70s Allman Brother or a third Robinson brother from the Black Crowes. How come you’re still recognizable? How come you haven’t joined the bandwagon of image altering?
A: I don’t know. Maybe I’m overdue for a change.
Q: Maybe you’ll change your look after your wife has your first baby. First-time fathers tend to look, and act, quite differently.
A: Maybe I should go on a shopping spree.
Q: The Whigs have played all the major late-night shows. In fact, you’ve gigged so often, I think you belong in the hall of fame for late-night musical guests. Do you have a favorite story of performing on programs hosted by Jay and David and Conan and the two Jimmys?
A: The first performance, on the Letterman show [in 2008], is probably the most memorable. We put out “Mission Control,” our second album, and we had a CD release party in Athens at [the] 40 Watt [Club] on a Saturday night. As you can imagine, it was a late night with a lot of friends. The next day we left early in the morning and drove 14 hours to New York and got in really late. The next day we had to load in at Letterman at 6 a.m.; as you can imagine, we were exhausted and a bit out of our minds. Walking in there [the Ed Sullivan Theater, site of the Letterman show] was so surreal. On one hand, you’ve seen the show so often you know the theater and the stage like the back of your hand. On the other hand, when you see it from the stage, looking out for the first time, you almost feel you’re on a facsimile version of the Letterman show. Everything is so familiar yet so bizarre and the theater is about 55 degrees. The show was in late January, so it’s freezing outside in New York and it’s freezing inside and you can’t get warm. We did sound check and camera blocking and by the time we had to perform we just went out and pretty much closed our eyes and just went for it because you don’t get another shot. We finished in the blink of an eye and the three of us looked at each other and asked: How was that? Did we do okay?
That night we went to our hotel room and we turned on the TV to watch our performance and it was just white noise, just static. We’re flipping every channel and—nothing. So then we’re running around the hotel like someone’s chasing us and still—nothing. So finally we went out of the hotel looking for any bar with a TV. We run into one of them and we’re out of breath and we say [sounds winded] “We’re….on…TV…have to see.” They were nice enough in the bar to change from a basketball game to Letterman and, sure enough we saw ourselves perform. It was an out-of-body experience. The lights, the sound, the production—everything was awesome because, of course, the Letterman crew is such a well-oiled machine. We were blown away and we had absolutely no recollection of what we had done. So it was a happy ending.
We grew up watching Letterman and Leno and of course Conan. I can’t believe we’ve done 10 late-night gigs. It’s just such a dream come true.
Q: I know it’s a strange change of pace with you walking through San Francisco but I just have to ask you about the aftermath of Nov. 13, 2015, the night when you and the other members of Eagles of Death Metal were playing Le Bataclan in Paris when it was attacked by terrorists with automatic guns and explosive vests. I’ve read your social-media messages thanking the man who led you safely to a taxi and the man who gave you his phone so you could tell your wife you were safe. How has that tragedy changed your life? Do you feel more appreciative of acts of kindness? Do you have bad flashbacks?
A: [Answers slowly and carefully]. It’s definitely life changing. At this point I’m trying to move forward and not let it negatively affect the rest of my life, although I’m sure I’ve failed from time to time. I’m trying to take something awful and unimaginable and turn it into something good. I’m sure that friends and loved ones of the people who died in the Bataclan and those who might be injured for the rest of their life would find it hard to think: How could this be something that’s good? It’s not and I’d love to undo it but I can’t But when you get almost tattooed with something like this you try to appreciate every moment that you have. Every moment I have onstage, I try to play like it’s my last show. Every moment I have with my wife; we have a baby on the way, so of course we’re awaiting this miracle.
Hopefully, [the Bataclan tragedy] reminded all of us to be a little kinder and a little more tolerant, especially to people who might not be exactly like us, whose differences tend to scare people. Something I try to remember is that we’re not all the same and that’s all right. This experience brought the worst things in the world to our doorstep all of a sudden. Yet the amazing amount of kindness and community that we all saw and experienced for weeks and months afterwards is reassuring.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I want to travel and play for as many people as possible and all that good stuff. I think the top of my Bucket List would be for my wife and my soon-to-be son to be proud of me. I want to be able to manage a family and provide and care for them all the while doing something that I love, which is playing music and bringing people together.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List? Suzy Bogguss, the country/folk musician, told me that she wished death to all snakes. I told her that she should move to Ireland, where they don’t have serpents.
A: I don’t want to mess with the ecosystem; I know snakes play a vital role in the world. But I might have to be on the same flight with Suzy because I’ve never been a big fan of snakes.
Seriously, I’d like to worry less. I could explain it all day but let’s just say I don’t need to worry as much.
Julian Dorio: The Scoop
His older brother Michael plays in the band Trances Arc.
He and Parker Gispert, fellow founder of the Whigs, first met in 1997 as students at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta.
Esquire magazine gave him a 2007 Esky award for drumming.
He thinks David Letterman is, or was, the most musical of the Whigs’ late-night hosts. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking because we played Letterman four times. But he always spent a little extra time with us. I could always hear sincerity in his voice. I felt a little more effort from him, even though he had spent 30 years in the business. I think he knew a good band onstage and I hope he thought we were one of them.”
He sent the following Tweet on Nov. 24, 2015, 12 days after he and other members of the Eagles of Death Metal survived a terrorist attack in a Paris concert hall: “Home safe & have a new family abroad. To all who went toe to toe against evil using compassion & love as their weapons, you are my heroes.”
Last December he joined the Eagles of Death in performances of the band’s “I Love You All the Time” and Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” during a U2 concert in Paris.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Julian Dorio’s fondness for Keith Moon as a drummer and a comedian. He can be reached at email@example.com.