Friday, June 01, 2007

Jack Oblivian Interview

Jack O in Memphis photo: Theresa Kereakes

By: Rich Tupica

Jack “Oblivian” Yarber has influenced countless bands across the world, released piles of albums, and by popular demand, has toured many foreign countries. To only ramble on about Yarber’s work with The Oblivians and skim over his other bands would be a shame. Beside the stack of gritty garage-punk that Yarber has contributed to, are all of his other records that have consistently become more polished and focused throughout the years. Yarber was born 100 miles away from Memphis in the small town of Corinth, Mississippi. However, by 1987, the bright lights of Memphis called and Yarber became a permanent fixture in the city that arguably invented rock-n-roll. If not for a chance encounter in 1989 with a stranger who insisted that Yarber play music with a guy named Greg, a lot of bands today would not exist, including The Oblivians.
The Compulsive Gamblers was Yarber’s first band that was able to capture the sound that he and band mate Greg “Oblivian” Cartwright were looking for. From then on, it seems that Yarber found his niche in music. Early r&b, rock-n-roll and country were all parts of his equation, not to mention his gift of lyrical story telling. Songs about booze, love gone wrong, murder and sleaze was their motif. Where the Gamblers abruptly ended in 1993, The Oblivians would soon be created. After a short hiatus apart, Yarber and Cartwright recruited local Shangri-La record store clerk (and now owner of Goner Records) Eric “Oblivian” Friedl. The Oblivians were a complete democracy, all sharing duties of song writing, vocals and drums. Switching instruments during their gigs was testament to that. The Gamblers and the early Oblivians tunes are quite different from one another, Friedl recalls this transformation, “The Compulsive Gamblers got so big…they had a horn section and just a huge cast of side people,” said Friedl. “I think we were just looking to do some stripped down stuff. We knew a lot of that music already, and since it was just so simple and I really didn’t know how to play guitar, we just stripped it all the way back to the basics. Instead of a full fledge arrangement for a song, it’d just be one killer riff that maybe changed, maybe didn’t and it worked out really good,” said Friedl. Since his days in The Oblivians, Yarber’s songwriting has been progressing and transforming, never recreating a previous album. “Jack’s records have been really consistently amazing,” said Friedl. “Some people…you get kind of tired of seeing them play after a while, but Jack’s managed to reinvent his music and the latest record is as good as anything he’s done,” said Friedl. Since The Oblivians split, Yarber has kept busy with his current band Jack O and The Tennessee Tearjerkers as well as his solo records. Yarber also worked with many other bands like The Cool Jerks, The Limes, ’68 Comeback, Tav Falco, South Filthy, The Natural Kicks, The Brand New Love Affairs and The Knaughty Knights…just to name a few. Yarber’s new CD, ‘The Flip Side Kid’ was released in late 2006 by his long time record label, Sympathy For the Record Industry. However, Yarber has decided to release the vinyl format on his own, pressing and printing the sleeves by himself under the record company alias Dirt Cheap Date. This is the first time Yarber has done this since his days with The Gamblers…The self-released ‘Flip Side Kid’ LP is now available through Goner Records.

Where are you at right now, and how you doing tonight?
"I’m at home in Memphis, Tennessee. I’m doing pretty good."

How old were you when you first started to write songs and play guitar?
"I think I first got a guitar in the fifth-grade, but I don’t think I actually really started learning, seriously learning how to play it until the seventh-grade. I wrote my first song in fifth grade called 'Alley Cat' but I can’t remember how it goes, it was for my cat. I don’t think I really started trying to write songs until my high school days, really, after high school. I don’t think any of those are really worth listening to at all."

What bands did you listen to back in high school?
"In high school, as a junior, I was kind of into heavy metal like Judas Priest and this is back when Iron Maiden had their first singer Paul Di'Anno, and stuff like that. I didn’t really hear Motor Head until a few years later, I knew of them, I just didn’t have any of their records. I’d never really buy that many records. I had a friend that would buy them and a neighbor across the street that would buy them, because I never really had any money. I was into a lot of Black Sabbath, just kind of what teenage kids listened to. Then I kind of had a new-wave streak with The Ramones which is I guess a little more rock, but I liked The Clash and stuff like that too."

Didn’t you play in a new wave band a long time ago?
"Yeah, it was me and my cousin, ever since we were kids we ran together and then I think by the time we were in seventh-grade we started playing guitars. After like a year or two we were trying to be heavy metal and then when we got turned onto the new wave punk thing, which he never really got into that much but he would do it anyway, because other people liked it and it was easier to play. So we did that for awhile."

What was that new wave band called?
“We went through all kinds of names, we did a 7-inch record under the name The End, but we’d change our name like every year. There was a couple of other bands called The End as well.”

Jack O, Ferris Wheelin' photo: Theresa Kereakes

Do you have any more of The End 7" singles laying around?
"I got one of them. I think Goner every once and awhile has one or two, yeah but it’s not that great, it’s a little too new wave actually.”

How did The End, finally call it quits?
"It was this weird thing. I was first living in this apartment building in like 1989, the end of ’89 is when my cousin who tried living in Memphis met a girl and split town, he just quit the band. Which was kind of a good thing because it was going nowhere. What I wanted to do was totally different from what he wanted to do."

So the band you had with your cousin was your first band then?
"Yeah, it was always me and him and we had the same drummer all the way through high school. It was after that band split up that I met Greg Cartwright.”

Jack in Memphis! photo: Theresa Kereakes

How did you meet Greg Cartwright?
“In like 1989 we met through this guy who came over to my apartment building. This guy popped in and he was real friendly, he just walked up in the yard and I thought my girlfriend knew him and she thought I knew him, we both thought the other knew this guy. So we let him come up to the apartment and were just hanging out with him."

This stanger told you about Greg?
"Yeah, he kept saying, 'I got this guy you got to meet though,' he said 'He’s the dude for you, man,' he kept saying that. Then after he left, his name is Terry, my girlfriend looked at me and said, 'Who is that guy?' I said 'I don’t know I thought you knew him.' Then he shows up like a day or two later with Greg and he was like, 'This is the dude, I’ve been telling you, you gotta’ get together!' Then Greg started calling me, which was different than what I was used to, because I was used to my cousin who never wanted to practice, never wanted to do anything, couldn’t get him to do shit. So I thought, 'Wow, this guy actually wants to play,' that’s how we started playing."

Jack pimpin' a cool hat! photo: Theresa Kereakes

So, this is when you and Greg officially teamed up?
"Just me and him tried getting people we knew to play drums, we went through a couple of drummers, a couple of dudes who didn’t know how to play drums, but we’d try to get them to play anyway. That’s kind of how I started to get pretty good on drums, from just never having a drummer and then Greg always came up with songs more than I could so that’s kind of how it worked out."

You guys were called The Pain Killers, right?
"We were changing our name a lot, that was with this one drummer we had for almost a year, this guy that Greg went to high school with. He was a good drummer but he was real heavy. He liked Nine Inch Nails, it was his favorite band at the time, it was good stuff or whatever but it just wasn’t what we played. Then when we would play with him on the weekend and we'd be jamming with a drummer who’s playing like crazy, really going at it on the drum kit... while we were trying to do our little songs or whatever. We did have some good stuff with the dude though."

I hear you still have some old Pain Killers cassette tapes, is that true?
"Yeah, of The Pain Killers, I still have some, but they’re real demo-y sounding. I just went through a bunch of those tapes the other day and the better sounding stuff is of me and Greg on the 4-Track, some of it's just Greg. The stuff that still sounds good today is not the full band. When it’s a full band with The Pain Killers it just has a really thin sound, just because we were trying to record a full band with a cassette 4-track."

Gamblin' days
! Jack O & Greg Cartwright

Where did the Compulsive Gamblers rehearse and record?
"I lived in this apartment building, which is where we eventually recorded those early Gamblers recordings like the first Gamblers cd, all that stuff except for the last three songs was recorded there. It was recorded on an 8-Track, we rehearsed and recorded in the apartment building."

The Compulsive Gamblers
had a lot of depressing drinking songs, was that true in real life too?
"There was lots of drinking but not compared to what I’ve seen over the years. It wasn’t like where some people stay up all night and into the next day, it wasn’t quite like that. I mean, we’d have beers and we’d like to have a party, but it wasn’t so bad. At the time we thought, 'Wow, were partying!' But over the years I’ve realized that these people are taking partying to another level to where it’s not even any fun.
If we did try to rehearse or do a gig, we’d say, 'Alright, we're not going to drink.' We’d start playing and after thirty-minutes, it’d be like 'Lets go get some beers, it doesn’t sound right!'”

Compulsive Gamblers in 1993

The Compulsive Gamblers
released three vinyl 7-inches, all pretty rare, especially the 'Church Goin' record. Who put those out?
"I don’t even have a copy of 'Church Goin’, I got a sleeve...I always try to keep at least one, there is a guy in town who did that one and I don’t think he did that many and it was never re-pressed and then he just kind of disappeared. I did the one with 'Sour & Vicious Man' and the second one with 'Mind in the Gutter.'"

Did The Compulsive Gamblers ever go on a tour?

"We never really did a long tour, we did some weekend things, where we’d go on the road for a couple days. I think we went to New Orleans a couple times, played Jackson, Mississippi, Tupelo or something like that. We went all the way to Florida, can’t even remember the name of the place, it was a long drive just to play in a bar to a handful of people."

Front Porch Pimpin, The Oblivians!

Why did the Compulsive Gamblers call it quits?
"I think it was that summer of 1992. After playing 1990-91 The Compulsive Gamblers never had any really good gigs, we never really had a set band or anything. By 1992 we had a set band, had our sound, somewhat of a sound. It was a pretty good year, pretty good gigs, party gigs with the Gamblers. By the end of 1992 it seemed like everyone started moving away and even Greg went to New York for a long time. I think it was early '93 he went to New York, he met this girl Casey Scott. She was in town with her drummer and bass player and I guess she played a little guitar but she wasn’t a real guitar player and she needed a real guitar player. She had a record thing with some subsidiary of Capitol Records or whatever, I forget the name of it, but you know how major labels try to look indie. They were putting them up in a house in Memphis so they could come down here and write songs... so they could come down here and soak up the Memphis soul, or whatever that means! But she met Greg and said ‘Do you want to come to New York, you'll have a place to stay and record’ and he said 'Sure'. Next thing you know, everyone split and it was just me and the violin player, what can you do with that?"

Casey Scott "Creep City"cd (1993), that's Greg all the way to the right.

So how were The Oblivians started?

"After the Gamblers split-up I went to New Orleans where the drummer was during the summer of ’93. I think I came back to Memphis for a weekend, Greg had moved back by that time and within like two or three days Greg was like, 'Let’s jam, who should we get?' and I said 'Let’s get Eric, he’s like one of the only people who digs us,' and he worked at Shangri-La, a cool record store. So we got him, and it seemed like over that weekend we came up with what’s on that first recordings of The Oblivians that Goner put out about two-years ago, ‘On the Go’, that’s what we did that weekend.

So was it The Oblivians that made you move back to Memphis?
"Well, After coming here for a weekend and recording that stuff on tape, then going back to New Orleans, I was listening to the tape over and over and the Gamblers’ drummer I stayed with, he’d never play, so I was like ‘Fuck man, I’ll just move back to Memphis, one weekend and we’ve almost got a set.' So I moved back and as soon as I came back we got a gig opening for Southern Culture on the Skids, and it just kind of turned into The Oblivians.

Did The Oblivians try to capture that minimal sound, or did it just happen?
"I think we just kind of were pounding it out. Greg wrote all types of songs, but at that point I think. Eric had a big garage rock influence on us, at that time we were getting into Thee Headcoates, Gories and bands like that, it’s just what we were listening to."

How did you end up playing drums? And why no bass drum at times?
"I think nobody really wanted to be the drummer. Eventually I added the bass drum but I wasn’t really good at it. Playing the simple stuff, it was easier to walk into and I guess at the same time it was gimmicky. You know, people were like 'Wow, you don’t even have a bass drum, or a bass player!' But, it’s not like we said we're not going to have a bass player, we just started doing it that way. It’s not like we really needed one, it sounded fine without it."

The Leathers! Eric, Greg and Jack Oblivian

So did you have people giving you shit about not having a bass player?
"When I worked at Sun Studios, this is even after The Oblivians were doing good and recording records, there was this guy that ran the place. He was a cool dude but he was from the ‘70s or whatever. He had recorded all these bands there but he wouldn’t record us unless we got a bass player, so we were like 'I guess you won’t record us then.' This is during the ‘Popular Favorites’ era, and this guy was like, 'Get a bass player and I’ll record you for free at Sun Studios' and we said 'That’s o.k. man,' and he was like 'I got a 24-track machine in here!' and it’s like, really, how many tracks did Sam Phillips have? Well, he just had one!"

What Oblivians album would you suggest to someone?
"I think 'Popular Favorites', for somebody who’s never heard The Oblivians before, that might be a good one to start with. I guess you could always say start with the first one, but that one is kind of in the middle of where it’s not too rough and not too slick, not too tight. The Quintron album is when we got really tight, it was a pro-sounding band, can’t even barely tell there’s not a bass player because it’s just so tight."

The Oblivians!

How did The Oblivians get involved with Crypt Records?

"I think Eric may have sent him some stuff when he worked at the record store. This was before email, he’d send faxes for orders to Crypt, he would order those types of records and put them in Shangri-La. Then he sent our demo."

What was the first big Oblivians gig?
"I think our first breakthrough gig was when Eric sent the ‘On the Go’ record when it was just a tape to Todd, the guy who books at Maxwell’s in New Jersey. He does the Telstar label, he sent a tape to that dude for some reason or another and the guy said ‘we’ll book you a gig’ and this was before we had a record. The gig was opening for the Blues Explosion, this is when they just had their 'Crypt Style' record. We thought that’d be a good show and we’ll drive real far, actually I think we ended up flying there, and we’ll at least have a gig where people will be at it. Then we had two other gigs somewhere up in that area. We were kind of nervous, like ‘Wow, we're in a big city’ so we rented a practice room in New York and practiced. It was like hooking up your stuff and playing a few songs and realizing, ‘we know this shit man!' It was just to ensure ourselves, it was like 'Hey we're in New York City! Maybe we should fucking practice!' I think John put in a word to Crypt and then Crypt sent a fax to Eric saying he wanted an album, and we were thinking ‘well, should we do an album?’ Then Crypt sent another fax back to us, saying ‘What about a tour also?’"

How many over seas tours did The Oblivians go on?
"Three times I think but at the time nobody really knew who we were overseas, today it’d be different. Crypt knew how to put together a tour or show over there, over here we were just booking our selves."

Did you guys get any tour support from Crypt?
“Somewhat, there was a garage rock scene he knew how to book us into. I mean, we did play a bunch of places to hardly anybody, but we also played some shows where there were kids up front that knew the words to the songs of a record that had only been out for a couple months, it was pretty weird. We played a pretty bog show at 'Garage Shock' in Washington in 1994, that was a big gig with other garage rock bands."

The Airline! Jack O leading the pack

Why did you guys do the gospel heavy 'Play 9 Songs' LP?
"You get so caught up in it you can’t even tell what’s going on. It was like all of a sudden your band is doing pretty good and we were going to do another record, and we convinced Greg to do those gospel songs. He always pulled those out at the gigs and they were always pretty easy, just a couple chords and we could do them unrehearsed. So we're like, 'Lets do these songs!' and he was pretty hesitant because he didn’t want to do gospel songs and end up coming off like Reverend Horton Heat or something, which is kind of hokey or cheesy. We were like, 'No, we won’t do it that way, we would do it the way we do it and if it doesn’t sound right, then we won’t do anything with it.' I think Greg got interested when I said 'Well, what if Quintron played?'"

Why did The Oblivians call it quits?
"I remember a couple practices where we’d get together and we’d run through the set and we’d know the songs because we played them so much but at that time we couldn’t really come up with any new songs. Every time we’d try it just wouldn’t happen like it would a couple years before that. Whatever little personal things went wrong with each other seemed to be more amplified than the guitars... that’s just what I remember during the end. I guess at that time I had all kinds of little gripes I could say, but I can’t remember those now. I just remember those couple practices where it just wasn’t working out anymore."

Oblivians promo shot

So what about now, how is it touring various parts of the world?
“You kind of still got to do weekends, over here it’s hard with all the guys I play with, with their day-jobs and everything. I can get them to do a European tour, because they look at it like a vacation. The dudes I play with now, they have been around. We do a couple weekend gigs here and there and if it goes over really good they're all about doing another one, but if you drive somewhere up to like, Michigan or something and you come back and the gig was just o.k., then its hard to get them back in the van the next couple weeks."

Harlan T. Bobo, King Louie and Jack O photo: Theresa Kereakes

You had a main role in the indie film Sore Losers, do you plan to act more in the future?
“I really don’t consider myself an actor at all. I was telling Mike he should get this guy from the band The Fireworks to do the roll, but when it came down to it he couldn’t sign the dude because he went underground, I think he had been for years. He got me just because he couldn’t find anybody else. I didn’t realize that it was that big of a part, I just thought it’d be fun, but then all the sudden I was like, 'Holy shit!' I didn’t look at the script, I never read it or anything, I was like, 'Shit, I have to be here again tomorrow?' And he was like 'Yeah, you have to be here for like a month.' But yeah, I never really tried to pursue an acting career or anything like that, I like working on movie sets, but I wouldn’t consider myself an actor."

Jack O and Mike Hurtt in Goner Records photo:Theresa Kereakes

What's some crazy shit that's happened to you on tour ?
A different band I went on tour with was Tav Falco, I think it was 1999. It was one of the worst transportation problems ever. He was driving his mom’s station wagon pulling a U-Haul trailer and the car caught on fire in the Mohave Desert in the middle of the night and burned completely up! Man, we were really fucked and we hadn’t even played a gig yet. Some truckers radioed-in and a police car and a fire engine eventually showed up and took us to the hotel. I dealt with the cars breaking down before, but never burning completely up out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a funny story to tell, but at the time it was pretty fucked up."

Did you lose anything in the car?
"Well, whatever was in the car because I was to scared to get in there. I kept thinking, “Is this thing going to blow up or what?” I had never really dealt with a car catching on fire before. Luckily all the equipment was in the U-Haul so none of it got burned up. I had stuff like my keys in the car so when I got back in town I didn’t have my keys to get into my apartment, and my roommate who was always in town wasn’t in town at that time. It was like two weeks of hell, just to get back in town and then you can’t even get into your apartment."

! Terrance and Jack on the town
photo:Theresa Kereakes

Your Jack Oblivian solo albums... did those come after The Oblivians broke up?
"I think with that first one 'American Slang' The Oblivians were still together when I did it, 'So Low' was right after the band broke up."

I heard on your first solo record you had an interesting drum technique, what was it?
"On the first one, I wrapped some mics around my chest and beat on my chest to make it sound like a bass drum. I also had change in my pocket to make a sound like a tambourine. I need to try that again, I haven’t done it in awhile. That’s a little bit more primitive than The Oblivians!"

Do you prefer to record solo or with a band?
“Well, doing it on my own a lot of times something can come out where I like it, but I can never get a band to sound like that at all. But then sometimes doing it on your own, you probably need a band when it’s not a simple song, like a song with too many changes or whatever. It’s just so much easier with a band."

How did you guys record the Knaughty Knights singles?
"Lately with the Knaughty Knights, all those recordings for those 7-inches, Rich and me would both play drums. We’d lay down the rhythm, one would play guitar one would play the drums and then overdub tracks. It’s easier than trying to play everything, at least lay the drums down with somebody actually playing the guitar so you can get a tight rhythm. It’s just so hard to get everybody together a lot of times to try to get something recorded right."

How do you have time to play in so many different bands?
"Well, bands like South Filthy haven’t played together in awhile, we just do like two gigs a year. Walter would come here to Memphis and Jeff and me would go to Texas and we’d try to do a gig and squeeze in recording. I guess Walter did come here once and record. South Filthy is like a weekend thing."

So is it hard to get a steady band to record and tour?
"When you're younger, you might not be playing to many people, but you don’t have any jobs or families or anything like that, except Bubba and T-Money. They get to go on the road a lot, but they’re booked up every weekend until springtime with the River City Tanlines."

So, basically there's a lot of down time with these bands you play with?
"There is plenty of down time with all the other bands. Things get so slow with these other dudes I play with. The worst part of it is when the end of the year comes around with the holidays and all these bands want to do a big holiday, end of the year gig. They got a thing in their mind like they really got to do something before the year is over, like they’re running out of time, they got to record, that kind of thing. I’ve got everybody I’ve been playing with for the past one or two years all calling through November and early December wanting to record, usually not even wanting to go to a studio, they want me to record them up here in my apartment. I’ll have five different people wanting to record and do gigs all at the same time and it’s just way too much, but when New Years is over they stop calling (laughs). I always say, 'Just wait until January,' but then January comes and they just don’t call."

Brand New Love Affairs
photo: Theresa Kereakes

How often do you write songs?
“I don’t write them as much as a lot of people do, I wish I could, I wish they’d just come out. Sometimes I‘ll have something I’m working on, and just bounce it around for a long time and finally I’ll put some words to it, then I’ll find out later listening to some other tape like, 'Wow, this is the same song here, its just different lyrics,' it's the same groove that always comes out."

Do you ever feel pressure to write songs for the next album?
"Sometimes the pressure is good, it gets you going, gets you working. Every once in a while I’ll be working on something for a recording and then right when you’re about to send it to the pressing plant you come up with a new tune and you're like, 'Should I wait or should I save it for the next one?'"

You're self-releasing your new album "Flip Side Kid" on vinyl?
Why by yourself?
"Yeah, I’m doing it. I got it at a pressing plant. I’m just waiting on the label art, and then I have to finish the cover, which is basically the same cover, with some different images. It’ll be done hopefully by early spring. It’s already been mastered, I’m just waiting on the last little things. I’ll be doing it myself, just probably sell it out of the trunk of the car or whatever. I wanted to do both the cd and the vinyl and then I thought ‘Well, I’ll just do one of ‘em,' and then after Long Gone (owner of Sympathy Records) did the cd I realized that the vinyl costs more money, I probably should have done the cd, but I guess the vinyl is a little more hip. I’m just curious of how many they sell, because you never really know, like Sympathy or Crypt Records. I know I don’t really sell a shit load, but I want to see how many are going out there."

Your fans are pretty loyal, they'd buy it with or without a record label, don't you think?
"They’ll buy if they can find it. It’s not like they’re going into Tower Records and seeing some big cardboard stand-up. It’s kind of like...'What do you need a label for?'"

(click link below to BUY it at Goner Records!)

Jack Oblivian LINKS!

Jack's Official Myspace:

Jack's Grunnen Rocks page:
Cool Jerks Myspace:
Brand New Love Affairs Myspace:
South Filthy Myspace:
Knaughty Knights Myspace:
Compulsive Gamblers fan-space:

Thanks! to Theresa Kereakes
Check out her PUNK photos!


Anonymous Robert said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:46 AM  
Anonymous hooty sapperticker said...

dude, nicely done. thanks for sharing.

6:30 PM  

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