By Kidwell King
The year is 1993. In Memphis, Tennessee, a band named P.P. and the Naildrivers (What else could the P.P. stand for, but for everyone’s favorite scapegoat, Pontius Pilate?) are playing their debut show. Before the end of the gig, they’ve changed their names not once, but twice. First, to the Gentlemen of Leisure. Right before the last song was played, they announced that they would go by the name we all know and love – the Oblivians.
Now, I’m not gonna waste your time with some bullshit biography on those guys. If you don’t know now, you best do your homework. What’s important is that after they released their last album on Crypt Records Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron, the band split up and the three Oblivian brothers went their separate ways. Eric stuck with Goner Records, and operates the shop and label out of Memphis. Jack and Greg briefly reconvened the Compulsive Gamblers, but then split up again.
What’s important to know is that Mr. Greg Cartwright, the man in question here, has been working his hind end off – as both a producer and with his new band, the Reigning Sound. The Reigning Sound have been making some damn good records, but to this point, they hadn’t made a single one that could rekindle the fire that was extinguished in the hearts of Oblivians fans when they called it quits. This year, the Reigning Sound released Too Much Guitar on In the Red records. With this one, everything was turned around. Greg and the boys have picked up a sound that’ll knock you flat on your ass and blow you clean through a brick wall at the speed of sound, with a rollicking return to a scuffing form.
When I read that the Reigning Sound were playing in Asheville, North Carolina – an hour from little ‘ol me – I picked up my telephone, called my pal Jonathan, and told him we were going. I picked him up, and we headed over the mountain to the Grey Eagle Tavern. We find the club, walk in to ask somebody if Greg’s there. No sign of him. Apparently, he’s gone home for a little while. As we’re walking out the door to grab a bite to eat, this big guy yells my name. He tells me that Greg’s out on the patio. I stroll out there, fighting to keep my composure. I’d talked to Greg through the magic of e-mail before the gig, and we set up the interview. After shaking his hand and dispensing with pleasantries and other bullshit, he tells us to come back before the show to conduct our business.
What follows is a recording of the discussion Greg, Jonathan (denoted by a J.) and I had. Originally, I had questions, and was gonna do the professional thing. That all went to shit. Luckily, instead of getting some crisp Q&A, Greg got to just fucking talk.
The tape starts with us discussing how rock n’ roll is a completely derivative art. Sure, Hendrix burned his guitar onstage, but the Killer set his keys a’blaze years before that whole fiasco.
What inspires you to make the music you do?
The inspiration for me to make music is to communicate. Just to, you know, get on the level… like with other people. Like when you write a song and when you play it for people, everybody says “Aha! I get it.” In a way, maybe it’s not direct, but it’s not exactly the lyric, or it’s not exactly the hook- there’s something in there that gets to people. That inspires me, when that happens, it makes you want to do it again.
Over your career, I guess you would say, you’ve gone from a band like the Compulsive Gamblers, which was sort of country, not as harsh as a band like the Oblivians…
Yeah, it was “bar rock.” That wasn’t my first… at that point, Jack was about 30, and Eric was about the same age, and I was the youngest one in the band. Jack had been in a lot of bands – he’d been in new wave bands in the ‘80s, and I’d been in punk bands in high school… but by the time that I started the Gamblers with Jack, I was already kinda tired of punk. It seemed like I’d exhausted everything that I could say with it, and so I wanted to try something else.
I guess what I wanted to ask was what really influenced each of these stylistic changes?
After we did the Gamblers… the Gamblers was fucked up, but it wasn’t punk, really. I mean it was weird, and kinda edgy, you know… a lot of it was about alcohol. After that kinda wound to an end – we had done that for a couple of years – and I was ready to be abrasive again. You know, I had already kinda explored all these other things, and all of a sudden, being abrasive appealed to me. I had kinda taken a sabbatical from it, and I was ready to do it again.
Just in terms of the Reigning Sound, the first couple of albums, up to Time Bomb High School, were more subdued…
Well, the first one is just like all moody downers…
And then Time Bomb High School – I mean, I like these records; they’re very much like ‘60s pop records almost… a lot of people who I know who are big Oblivians looked at those in a strange way…
I like that though, because the point is to never give people what they want. What people want is for you to endlessly make the same record over and over. The thing is, if you give them what they want, they’re not going to like it. They’re gonna say “He just keeps making the same record over and over again.” The trick is to make something different each time. And even though the people don’t like it at first because it’s not what they expect, if they sit with it and listen to it a couple of times, they’ll realize that it’s really not that different. I’m saying the same thing I’ve always said. The content is not that different.
It’s like just an overall sound…
…Like a shift in another direction. And then we did the first record, it’s all slow and moody stuff, and the next record, I wanted to make something that was more like a pop record with lots of pop songs, partly more rock and roll, but more pop. A lot of the people that liked the first record didn’t like the second one. But a lot of the people that liked the Oblivians that didn’t like the first record, by the time the second record came out, they’ll like the first record. And when the second one came out, the people who liked the first record didn’t like the second record. It’s always… you’ve gotta give people a little bit of time to catch up with where you’re headed. In the next record, you know, I’ve already got one that’s pretty much finished, it’s not going to sound anything like this one. But that, to me, is what making records is all about.
To keep people on their toes…
To keep people interested. It’s to keep you interested. To keep me interested, because if I’m in some kind of rut where I’m making the same stuff over and over again, I might as well quit. There’s no…it’s not interesting to me. I like to feel like I’m on the…that I’m doing something that’s new to me and that feels fresh. You know, I can take some other genre and twist it around and have fun with it.
It seems to me that Too Much Guitar is almost like a return to form, back to that abrasive sort of sound…
What is that change all about though? It kind of even sounds like what constitutes an “In-the-Red” record these days.
The thing was, I was just in the mood. I just felt like I… I didn’t feel like making another pop record, and I didn’t want to make another country record. It’s like when I did the Oblivians for the first time around, I had done the Gamblers and all of a sudden I was in the mood to make rock records, to make something punk again. It comes in cycles with me. The main thing is to stay true with whatever you’re thinking. You know, don’t try to cater to anything because it’s a fatal decision, because you’ll end up making something that you don’t like, and that no one else will like it either. The thing about making this new record was just, it felt like the right thing. All the songs that were coming to me were kind of heavier things, so that’s the way it sounds. I think it’s funny, because now, there are all these people that don’t know the Oblivians, don’t know the Gamblers either, but only know the Reigning Sound, and they only know those two records. And when the third one came out, they were like “What is this piece of shit? I can’t hear the vocals!”
That’s what I had heard from so many reviews, like the vocals are mixed way down and it sounds messy…
Well, it wasn’t really intended, that’s just the way it is. I didn’t make a conscious decision to bury the vocals or anything. It was recorded pretty much live, and it’s just what it is. It’s funny because a lot of those people that don’t like it don’t know what I was doing before the Reigning Sound. So, I think that’s a great opportunity- those people that don’t like it – to try to turn them on to it. To say, “I know you like the ballads; I know you like the pop stuff; but what about this?” Isn’t this just as good, but on another level? I think it took the more punk-minded people a while to turn onto the first Reigning Sound record, but eventually, they did. The people who are into the pop and country stuff will eventually turn onto this. That’s the whole point. Just to, like I was saying earlier, to communicate with people that there’s more ways to communicate than you think – there are more ways to communicate than you’re used to; there’s more out there, and you’ve gotta try it all and look for what’s good in every genre.
If somebody really followed the Oblivians closely, they could notice it. Once you got to “Play 9 Songs…” you guys had really gotten into Gospel, and that affected the feel of the album.
I had been into gospel for a while… I buy a lot of records, and I would go to thrift stores every morning and look for records and stuff. It had gotten to be where I had turned onto some really good gospel records in the early 90’s, and I realized that I could get gospel records cheap. Nobody wanted them.
Nobody sees the value in that…
Well, they do now. I can’t really afford them anymore, but back then, nobody wanted this stuff. I could get it for like a dime, and I just started checking it all out and really getting into it. Jack was putting out his solo record and we still owed Crypt Records a new record, and I was putting together some songs to do a solo record that was going to be all gospel stuff. At the time, the other two guys in the band didn’t have any material for the Crypt record. They just weren’t writing anything in particular at the time, and they said “Well, why don’t we just do your gospel thing and we’ll make it the Oblivians record?” I was like yeah… I didn’t think they’d be into it, it’s kinda weird.
I really love that record, and I know so many people who feel that that is their favorite Oblivians record.
It’s funny too… I met the most resistance not really from the band so much, but from the label. They really weren’t sure what to think…
It’s a stylistic left-turn, really. Straying away from the blues and heading toward gospel.
All that blues and secular stuff, that’s where it comes from; all your favorite R & B groups. You strip it all down, it’s a gospel song and somebody’s changed the lyrics. Wilson Pickett, it’s like “Midnight Hour” – gospel song. “99 ½” – that’s a gospel song. All that stuff…
There’s a lot of power in that…
I know! What gave secular black music its power was gospel. The spiritual stuff is what made R & B powerful. They would be nothing.
I always thought it was ironic to hear you guys sing “Live the Life”. Hearing that from a band who had made really sleazy songs. I mean, on the first record especially…
On all the records. The thing is our songs were brutally honest, and gospel is brutally honest as well. It’s very “cut to the chase,” it’s like “here’s how it is.” It was natural as rain, but a lot of people did think it was strange. I don’t think so, it felt natural to me. In the end, time has proven me right, because lots of people think it’s the best Oblivians record. The other two records are fine records, but I’m glad that people accepted it.
J: Were your musical tastes always so varied? I know you played in a lot of punk bands in high school – were you into the gospel stuff then?
Not really. That came later, once I hit 20 or 21, but when I was 16 or 17 I listened to nothing but the Angry Samoans or the Misfits or the Circle Jerks. Just the bands I was going to see at the time.
Back in their heyday…
We had a good punk club in Memphis called the Antenna. Everybody you wanted to see – Black Flag – played there. I had that on one hand, all the stuff my peer group was into, and then being in Memphis, you have all this great musical heritage. All the blues, rockabilly stuff- which connected in my head to all the Misfits stuff I was into, which was very derivative of the whole Sun Records scene. My dad, who had a great record collection, and he was totally into the 60’s stuff. All the Beatles stuff, all the Stones stuff, Harry Nilsson, all the stuff from that era.
You were talking about Memphis, and I know that Memphis is so well known for the whole garage punk scene, most notably, the Lost Sounds…
(At this moment, a waiter wanders out onto the patio, trying to figure out who ordered the grilled chicken sandwich. Greg gets his bacon cheeseburger.)
I’ll slow down a little bit so you can enjoy your burger, which if I might add, looks really good.
Yeah, it does!
For a band like the Lost Sounds, with Jay from the Reatards- who I think are an amazing band- what do you think of being from Tennessee and from Memphis, the home of Country and the Blues, and how did that influence you?
I think it’s very… the way it influences me is that I listen to it a lot. It’s there in the music. I think it’s pretty prevalent in my music. It might not be as prevalent in the Lost Sounds, but it’s there.
Jay probably wouldn’t be where he is without the Oblivians and Goner. It all comes down to the Memphis sound.
The thing about Memphis that’s great is that it’s a weird place. Economically, it’s very depressed.
Every time I’ve been down there, it’s startled me because it seemed almost desolate at times.
The good thing about that is that you can do whatever you want. You can make whatever kind of art you want, music, whatever you do and nobody gives a shit. The downside to that is that it’s like art in a bubble or something. Like nobody cares, so you’re just hacking away at whatever it is that you’re doing. The good thing about it is that even though you might not have a huge audience in your hometown, you can kinda do whatever you want free from outside influence. There’s not some guy telling you that you have to sound like top 40 if you want to play at the bar down the street. Things can kinda evolve naturally without being fucked up with commercial influence. That’s what makes Memphis cool.
I guess what’s popped up in all these different scenes is that the artists aren’t influenced by the outside world sometimes.
The best scenes are like that.
How do you feel about all of these bands that note the Oblivans as this band that influenced them…
I think it’s great. If something I’ve done influences somebody, I can die happy. There’s really nothing else. I make art for a living, and if that art inspires somebody, that’s the point.
Something I’ve got to wonder is why you moved to Asheville, NC. You walk down a street and see a mass of hippies- that’s what I think of when I think Asheville.
Well, I lived in Memphis pretty much all my life. My wife grew up in Atlanta, and we lived in Memphis. Her parents live here, and her dad has a business right down the street. He’s an engineer and he manufactures and designs telecommunications satellite systems. Its a little cottage industry, he’s got a few people working for him. It’s a family business. HE wanted one of his two daughters to move back and be around and get involved in the business so they can carry on when he retires. He expressed that to us, and I said we could move up there. She said that she was into it.
J: Plus, this could prepare you for that inevitable psychedelic album.
Asheville is such an artistic town. It’s a strange sort of haven in the mountains.
It is weird, isn’t it?
Recently, you’ve produced a lot of albums- for instance, the Porch Ghouls, who are on Columbia…
That was strange. Those guys are from Memphis. And they had played a couple of shows and they asked me if I would record their band. And I recorded them so they’d have a demo tape to get shows with. The lead singer worked at Sun Studios, giving tours. One day, Aerosmith came through and he gave Joe Perry a CD. The guy actually listened to it, and liked it. He called and asked if they wanted a record deal.
He just offered them a record deal… What is it like going from being strictly a player to being in the producer’s seat?
I like it.
Having that control, maybe?
I don’t look at it so much as control as helping. If bands that haven’t been in the studio, if I can help them get the recording to where they want it – not where I want it. A lot of times, I’ll go into the studio with bands who do things I’d never do, but I try to help them retain what they want.
That Oblivians demo record- whose idea was it to put that out?
Eric had that. That was the first Goner release – Goner 01 – there was another local band called Impala. They were like a surf band. We used to play a lot of shows with them. have some recordings of us at our rehearsal space, and they have some too. It was all done on a jambox. We all bought cassettes and made covers and stuff. One side of the cassettes was us, and the other was them. We made like 60 of them, and never thought to make more. They were just something to give people or sell at shows. At that point, we hadn’t recorded anything in the studio. That was the one thing that people always fucking asked me for. “I heard there was a cassette!” We kept telling people that it wasn’t very good, but people asked for it. When we did the reunion show, Eric was like “I’ve got one of those cassettes, wanna press it up? People always ask me for it.” We only made 600 of them. Musically, it’s not amazing or anything – it’s just a document. That was literally the first practice.
A lot of the stuff didn’t change much, basically just refined.
Yeah, it’s not very different. It’s just not completely together yet.
Speaking of the reunion show, what’d you think of playing that?
It was fun. It was good playing with the Cheater Slicks. It was funny, because we only had really one rehearsal. All the songs came back pretty quickly. It was easy.
I always loved the Rock N’ Roll Holiday live album – it was all about dispensing with formalities and just being raw.
That’s what our shows were like. We’d play straight through, and sometimes it’d fall apart. That’s why we thought it’d make a great live record. It’s got some really tight songs… things were strange, but we didn’t care.
I noticed that the Reigning Sound are going on tour with the Hives, or something?
When we get back from this European tour, we’re going with them for two weeks.
That’s right. I had really wanted to see you guys and I considered driving up to DC. So… what’s that gonna be like, touring with a band like that?
We toured with them two years ago and they’re a great band. I really like them. I had heard a couple of songs, and I didn’t know what it was all about until we drove out to San Diego to play our first show with them. I saw them live, and it made sense. Live, they just rocked.
I just always thought it was odd with the Reigning Sound opening up for the Hives. I mean, weren’t they at the Oblivians reunion show? I remember there being a lot of speculation on who was going to open up for you.
They wanted to. They’d asked me about it. They came before they had their band going when the Oblivians played in Stockholm in ’95. They had been fans, you know. They take every opportunity in a magazine or whatever to say how much they like the Oblivians. They don’t have to do that, but it’s really a testament to them. They’re saying, “Hey, look. All you 16 year old kids with white belts and white shoes, I know you think we’re the shit, but these other people were doing it before.” They are a great rock band. At least they’re not afraid to point people in the right direction.
You guys were around in the early 90’s, and it must seem so strange that more interest has come recently. It’s almost like Van Gogh syndrome, where the artist has been dead for years and then he gets popular. What’s that like?
Luckily, I’m not dead yet.
That’s the thing about the band. You can get back together, if you feel like it.
It’s funny that it’s more popular now, but I don’t know. I don’t know how to react to it, since there’s a bigger audience. It’s great that maybe somebody will hear something that’s…
(We all stop to listen to a girl’s cellular phone. The ring is a Hank Williams tune, and Jonathan picks out the title. The girl yells “He got it!” She incessantly talks for another minute or so. )
Oh, sorry about that. When I think about when I was 18 or whatever, I was digging shit that was 10 years old.
That’s the way it’s always seemed, like everything 10 years back is what’s good. Right now, I’m more interested in modern music because it’s harkening back to that era.
Without a doubt, there’s some good stuff out now.
With In the Red, Goner, SFTRI, and Crypt – even Estrus- are all putting out this stuff that’s really good. Have you heard the new Hunches record?
Yeah, I have. It’s really great.
It’s so good. So good. I like it better than the first record. The first record is great, but this one kills.
It doesn’t have as much noise in the songs, it’s a lot cleaner.
You can hear what’s there, but the thing about their new record is that they’re like ballads in disguise. They’re all “rocked out” and crazy sounding, but they’re really just ballads. And they’re great ballads! It’s such a good record.
The first record, Yes. No. Shut It. was good in my opinion because it alternated between the real harsh, grating stuff and the ballads. In The Red has one of the best line-ups in music today, I think.
The thing is that Larry Hardy, who does In the Red, really likes music. And he likes all kinds of different things. He only wants to put out stuff that he really enjoys. And that’s always a sign of a really good record label and you know it’s gonna have killer shit. The guy isn’t trying to make money by selling the most popular thing – he’s just selling what he likes. He might sell records, he might not…
The majority of the stuff on In the Red wouldn’t even fly in mainstream circles…
…Or even in subcultures. I love the Cheater Slicks, but I know that they don’t sell a ton of records, but they’re great records. Larry feels the same way, you know, he took a chance on us. We don’t particularly sound like something that would be on In the Red.
Who do you think would be the best band out there now? Your favorites, mostly.
I can only speak in terms of what I’ve heard lately. The beauty of music is that sometimes you’ll have a good night or you’ll have a bad night. There have been some things, like that Hunches album. I think its way up there. What they’re doing is changing the whole framework. To me, it’s very different… I don’t want to say revolutionary, but I think it’s a bit ahead of the curve. There are other things. I got this single on Spoonful Records by this band, The Griefs. It’s great. I hope they put out an album soon… I really like it. King Louie Bankston. Whatever he’s got going on is always great. I try to listen to new stuff when I see something that looks interesting, but mostly I just listen to old stuff. There’s so much stuff from the past that I haven’t heard yet – there’s mountains.
J: What are some of your favorite classics?
Wreckless Eric and the stuff he did on Billy Childish’s Hangman label in the early 80’s and Empire Records. He had a band called the… all the Wreckless Eric stuff is great and overlooked. I don’t know – when I get put on the spot, it’s hard.
At this point, I run out of tape on my handheld recorder. Greg’s finished his burger and it’s time for the opening band to start up. So, after a quick discussion about the Stooges and how Fun House is great, we let Greg off the hook. That night, the Reigning Sound went on to play a flooring send-off show, the first with their new drummer. Greg looked like he hadn’t lost a step since the old days. Requests were made for some popular favorites, and Greg obliged. The crowd was treated to spot on versions of “Live the Life” and “Static Party.” Although they suffered a few technical difficulties, and a sub par local opening band called the Labiators. (They covered the Misfits’ “American Nightmare”. The verdict? Horrible.)
Many thanks to Greg, the folks at Grey Eagle Music Tavern in Asheville, North Carolina, Betsy at Screaming Peach Media, and In the Red Records.