Greg Cartwright interview! Oblivians tour, new Reigning Sound and growing up in Memphis
Greg Cartwright photo by Theresa Kereakes
By Rich Tupica
Today’s world is filled with generic punk, contrived garage rock and sappy love songs. I figure it must be hard to pay homage to a form of music without becoming a parody of it.
Fortunately, Greg “Oblivian” Cartwright has continued to release tried-n-true records for the past 20 years that echo influences properly.
His songwriting may reflect his massive collection of old vinyl records, though after listening to any album by The Compulsive Gamblers, Oblivians or Reigning Sound, it’s obvious Cartwright has something to say and he does it in a genuine style all his own.
He blends classic soul, rock, folk, country and doo-wop into a melody and tops it with honest storytelling lyrics that often lean toward heartache.
Having been born and raised in Memphis, as a teen he absorbed the hotbed of music that surrounded him. His high school days were spent at the Antenna Club, a now defunct music venue, that booked punk and rock’n’roll shows - one show, in particular, helped to set the course of his future in music.
After spending the 1990s and 2000s releasing a pile of albums, Cartwright has established a dedicated following while continuing to reinvent his sound with every record he puts out.
Now living in Asheville, NC with his family, Cartwright seems more focused on music than ever. He may be busy raising children with his wife Esther, but he still finds time to sneak out to his garage where he writes music.
Aside from his work in Reigning Sound, who have a new studio album, Love & Curses (due out August 11, 2009), Cartwright is also a midst a much anticipated reunion tour with The Oblivians, along with The Gories. There are also a couple of planned reunion shows with The Compulsive Gamblers set for this summer.
To find out more on the ‘Two Sides’ to Cartwright, read the following (world’s longest!) interview with the man himself.
When did you first get into rock‘n’roll records?
Growing up, my dad was a record collector, so we always had lots of records around. I just really liked the kind of stuff that he played. He was into a lot of British invasion bands and some early American rock stuff like Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Kinks and all that. When we were in the car we always listened to oldies stations, so I got a big dose of doo-wop and R&B. It used to be, when I was a kid, oldies stations were not as limited as they are now. You’d hear a lot of oddball things, like local hits, not just Top 40 stuff. I think kids nowadays listen to oldies stations and get the idea that there were only about 90 hits from the years 1956 to 1970.
Oldies stations don’t really play any ‘50s music at all anymore.
No, they really kind of deleted a lot of that stuff. In fact, I remember when I got my very first car when I was 17, it was a Dodge Dart, and I listened to an oldies station religiously. They played a lot of doo-wop and R&B that I was really in to at the time. I remember the day I was driving to school my senior year and I heard an ad on the radio that said, “The new Oldies 98, no more boring doo-wop! Just hits from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.” I thought, man, what is with this? Not only do you have to take away all the good music, but you also have to insult the people that like it? (laughs)
Which is funny, because it’s not boring in any sense.
No, it’s great. It just goes to show, as each generation gets older, I guess they decide that the people who want to hear that were a dying breed and they weren’t going to cater to them anymore. Little did they know there were kids who grew up on that stuff and really dug it as well. The times roll on.
Now you look at the schedule at any given bar, in any given town there is inevitably an ‘80s night. Now, that’s an oldie. Madonna is an oldie. I guess to some people it is, to people who grew up during that time period it may be classic. As the decades roll on, the concept of what is a truly classic song changes.
Reigning Sound's debut 7", "Two Sides to Every Man" (2001)
You’ve mentioned how you spent a lot of time with your grandmother growing up, why were you at her place so often?
Both of my parents worked and my grandmother didn’t so I just spent most of my time with her. At one point we lived right across the street from her. Eventually we moved, but it was only a couple blocks away. She was always only a bicycle ride away. That was from when I started kindergarten on. Every summer was spent with her. This was pre-day care days. Beyond summers, I spent almost every weekend with her. She was a real interesting person to hang out with. She’s a real character.
Was your family always in Memphis?
I pretty much grew up there my whole life. With the exception of when I lived in New York for about a year or so.
Did you grow up in a suburb or Memphis proper?
I was not in a suburb until my last two years of high school. But up until then we lived in a part of town called Frayser (in North Memphis), that was inside Memphis proper, in the area where the International Harvester Tractor manufacturing plant was. That’s where my grandfather worked, where one of my uncles worked and then my father worked at the Firestone factory making tires. At that time in Memphis, you had the agriculture, which was still a big part of commerce there - but there was a bit of factory work as well, and two of the biggest were Harvester and Firestone. Everybody pushed to get a factory job right out of high school. There wasn’t a lot else, to be honest. But then Harvester closed and Firestone closed and the ‘70s up to the ‘80s were some lean years for Memphis. There was some bad things about that, because obviously there was no money. When there was no money coming in and no reason for people to go there, Memphis kind of got trapped in this time warp of things not changing very much for a decade or two.
How did you get serious about record collecting?
My dad was a record collector, so the idea of having a lot of records was something I was born into. When I was just a six year old, I had a portable record player that I’d take with me everywhere I went. I inherited all my uncle and aunt’s records that were at my grandmother’s house where I spent most of my summers. She gave me all of their 45s, there was a lot of oddball Memphis stuff in there that you wouldn’t hear on the radio anymore. There was just a lot of odd stuff in general in there. Also, spending my summers with her, she was a total pack rat and we’d spend our days going to thrift stores and yard sales and she’d give me like $2 to spend. And once I grew out of the stage of buying GI Joes and stuff I started looking for other things and I always liked records, so my appetite for getting more records just grew and grew. By the time I was in my teens I was getting introduced to other things by friends at school, like a lot of punk stuff, more out-there things that were on the fringe of culture that my dad didn’t know about - things I wasn’t going to hear on the radio.
Greg at Goner Records in Memphis photo: Bullyrook
What got you paying attention to punk rock?
A lot of the punk stuff really clicked for me because it really seemed like a lot of the same aesthetic that I liked about other music. There was a definite line you could draw from some ’50s and ’60s stuff to The Misfits because the chord changes are basically the same. Also, a lot of my friends in junior high and I would go to see these all ages shows at the Antenna (a now defunct Memphis club). A lot of those were hardcore shows. I really gave it a shot, but hardcore never really clicked with me, aside from maybe one or two bands. The things I liked most about music - the melody, really good lyrics and all that, was not there. The energy and angst was there, but it didn’t seem to have any hooks, it all seemed the same.
Like I said, there were exceptions, but for the most part I saw 100 hardcore bands and liked three of them.
If you didn’t dig hardcore, what were you into?
I remember I went with a friend one time to see an all ages show, I was probably about 16. We waited and waited, I can’t even remember who the band was, but we waited a long time for the show to start. Finally McGee, the guy who owned the Antenna, said, ‘Well the band called and said they have a flat tire, they’re not coming.’ So we were kind of bummed. I was too young to drink at the time but we always managed to find alcohol anyway, so we found some alcohol, went somewhere with a couple quarts of malt liquor and then wandered back toward the Antenna to see what was going on. We managed to get in and it looked like there was a band loading in stuff, there was going to be a show. We were thinking maybe something happened and this band made it after all. But it wasn’t the hardcore band at all, it was a local band that I was totally unaware of called Tav Falco & the Panther Burns. When I saw that I thought, ‘Well, this is infinitely more interesting than any of that stuff that people had been dragging me to see for the last year and a half.’
So you dug it right away, huh?
It instantly clicked with me. Although it was chaotic, there was definitely a wild, almost punk element about Panther Burns. But he was into all the kind of stuff that really turned me on. That was Tav’s thing - blues, rockabilly, country, odd R&B. Suddenly I thought I’ve been wasting my time trying to like hardcore and here’s this thing that was in my own backyard that I was totally unaware of. From there on I started looking for more bands like that. Then you get into The Cramps and all of these other things that kind of ride that line, that are really good, gritty rock‘n’roll, but are also on the outside of culture, like punk. So that was a real eye opener. I continued to hunt records in thrift stores and junk shops.
The fun part of record collecting, especially back then, and this is obviously pre-internet, is that when you find something, if you find a really cool Andre Williams 45, you’ve got no point of reference, no internet to research it, you’ve just got this totally amazing jewel. It’s a mystery. You sit and listen to it over and over and think, ‘Where did this come from? How could somebody make something like this?’ That’s definitely what sparked me as a record collector and to want more records. Those mysteries are what keep you going. When you think you’ve heard everything you find something way-out and crazy.
Greg Cartwright photo: Paul D
Unfortunately, there is a lot of garbage to sift through to get to the good stuff.
You got to know what kind of things you’re looking for. Back when I was just hitting thrift stores all the time records cost a dime. I could buy a handful and if half of them were stinkers it was no big deal, I still only spent a dollar. Things are more expensive now and with the internet you got these people that try to hype records that are really only average, or in some cases, just flat out bad. They use tag words like “fuzz,” “northern soul,” all these things that trick people into buying bad records. Back then it was a cheap gamble. Now you have to know exactly what you’re looking for because things are more expensive.
When did you first start writing songs?
Probably by the time I saw Tav I already had a band. I was already trying to write songs. The first band I had … Well, I played with people in their garages and stuff as early as 7th grade. Probably by the time I was in my last year of junior high school I had a band with these guys I went to school with, The Stiffs, I think, was the name of the band. The name of the band changed a couple times. It was me and this guy named Chris Coble, Shaun Jacobson and another buddy of mine, Tom, played guitar for awhile. I would write songs and we’d do lots of covers. Not long ago I found a rehearsal tape, there was a couple of my songs and there was a cover of The Yardbirds’ … I can’t think of the name, but it wasn’t a common Yardbirds track. It was on one of the LPs my dad had, a track I really liked. These other guys, some of them were aware of the music I was listening to, but some of them weren’t and it was pretty amazing that I managed to drag these people along to play with me. They were kind of weird songs, they dug them but it was one of those things where you hope to get somebody else to dig what you dig. It worked out pretty good.
I was trying to write songs and listening to my dad’s records and would try to cop what some of the people were doing. I remember when I was 14 or so I was really into The Man Who Sold the World and Ziggy Stardust albums, I just thought those records were so amazing and I was really blown away by Mick Ronson’s guitar playing. I was just starting to play guitar and I was really trying hard to cop Mick Ronson’s sound. It was really exciting to me.
At the same time I was also trying to write songs in the mold of John Lennon and David Bowie, all these people I heard on a regular basis at my house. That was the roots of what I was trying to write like.
When did you start to take playing music a little more seriously?
I kept playing, I was playing in bands all that time. There was never a time when I wasn’t playing music. I graduated high school in 1988, but I think when things really clicked was maybe a year out of high school. A friend of mine who was friends with Jack (Yarber) introduced me to Jack. Actually, he had gone to see a movie with Jack and his girlfriend on a double date. This guy was Terry Tate, he was my roommate and he said to me, ‘I went out and saw a movie with this guy last night, he likes all the same kind of crap you like. You guys should get together and play some music.’ So I think we got together once with Terry who played drums with us. But that didn’t really work out because Terry was more into a pop-funk sound, that was kind of popular at the time. So that didn’t work out so well, but me and Jack did hit it off and we kept trying various lineups. We would recruit pretty much anybody who would play with us.
There were a couple of stoner guys who lived in Jack’s building, we got them. One guy, Boyd, was a bongo player! We got him to play drums with us. Boyd’s stoner friend, who didn’t even really play an instrument, we got him to play bass. We would play songs and record them. We did a demo tape with that lineup. I can’t even remember what we were calling that band. We’ve toyed with releasing those things over the years, but I don’t know, they’re pretty bad (laughs). I can say when I met Jack I felt like I had a real cohort that I could bounce ideas off of. Things took a more serious turn at that point.
Gamblin' Days: Jack & Greg
So how did The Compulsive Gamblers get together?
The Gamblers came after a band we had called The Painkillers, which was our first real band we had that we played shows with. It’s kind of blurry, but that was probably ‘90 or ‘91. Our first EP came out, we recorded that sometime in ‘91. Jack and me lived together and recorded over in our apartment on Madison. We had a big kitchen and we set up all the gear and recorded all of that stuff in there.
Most of those Gamblers’ recordings didn’t surface until later, am I correct?
Yeah, Sympathy (For the Record Industry) released them later. We released two 7-inches. We released one ourselves (Joker 7-inch), our friend put out the other one (Church Goin 7-inch … note: the Goodtime Gamblers 7-inch would later be released in 1995) .
The bands went on a little longer and we made some more recordings but we didn’t have any money to do anything with them. When we got The Oblivians going, after we did a couple Oblivians records, I approached John and said, ‘You know, we had this other band before that had a couple EPs but there is a lot more material and if you want to do a retrospective CD or something it’d be great to have this stuff put out.’ John said, ‘Yeah, I’d be interested.’ And I said, ‘How much will you give us for it?’ He’s like, ‘I’ll give you $300’ (laughs). Which obviously didn’t even cover what it cost recording all that junk. At that time I had almost written it off as things that were never going to get released anyway and $300 covered some photos and paying a friend of ours to write the liner notes.
While the band was around, where did the Compulsive Gamblers play shows?
We mainly played around Memphis but we did venture down to Louisiana a couple times- and Mississippi. We played places that were close enough to be little weekend trips. We didn’t travel very far.
There was a band that came through town and bought one of our EPs and they were really into it and were courting us, wanting to put out an LP by us on their label, it never happened.
They were doing a big show in Chicago, it was a Ticketmaster event so there were like real tickets, which was a big deal for us. Then I found out that something came up and we weren’t going to be able to play the show. That would’ve been our biggest show, furthest from Memphis. There were tickets printed with our name on them. I still have one ticket.
How serious were you and Jack Yarber about playing music and recording?
We were just really into doing what we were doing. I was very serious about making good art. That was the extent of it. I wasn’t serious about wanting to make a lot of money or wanting to move to Nashville and get clicked into the industry or anything like that, but we were both really passionate about what we were doing. I don’t think either one of us had any illusion that there’d ever be anything but a limited appeal type item. At that point I was aware of a lot of other bands that were mining the same territory as us and none of them were making a million bucks and I didn’t see any reason why I would be. At best I just wanted to be able to make records that would rub shoulders with those records and be available to the same crew of crazy people who were buying these things. There is no motivation for me to do anything but that.
How did you wind up recording the Creep City (1993) album with Casey Scott for Capitol Records?
I went up to New York to work on the record with her. She was a friend of a friend. The Compulsive Gamblers bass player at the time was Fields Trimble, and Fields was Casey’s college roommate. When Casey came down to Memphis she had already been signed to Capitol Records and she was just hanging out. She came to see us play a couple times and approached me after a show and said, ‘Man, I really like the way you play guitar. Do you want to come to New York and help me make this record? I just signed a deal with Capitol and I need to make this record, but I don’t have a band.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like fun.’ So I did it.
After your stint in New York you returned to Memphis, what did you do when you got back in town?
Not long after that I came back and we did a few Gamblers things. Then Jeff Evans needed a drummer at the last minute for this tour he was doing with 68 Comeback. That was a two-month tour, so that was one long junket after another for me with those things. And without me around it was kind of hard for the Gamblers to play shows. Eventually the band just deteriorated. Also, our drummer moved to live where his girlfriend lived and our violin player, Greg Easterly, moved down to New Orleans with his wife to own a clothing store. It seemed that the whole thing was drifting and I felt something else would come up soon. But we were in the middle.
The Oblivians, 1997, in Detroit photo: Steve Shaw
After the Gamblers were finished, how did The Oblivians start up?
While I was out playing with Jeff Evans, Jack had started playing with Eric and this other guy whose name I cannot remember, but he lived in the same apartment as me and Jack and that guy had a band called The Pump Action Retards. Anyway- Jack, Eric and this other guy who was probably playing drums, they had started jamming around. They had one show and Jack always acted as if it was a catastrophe. The name of the band was The Gold Diggers.
Not long after I got back to town, Jack said, ‘Hey, I’ve been playing with Eric. We had this drummer guy, but he’s kind of an alcoholic and it’s not working out.’ I said, ‘I just played drums for two months, I got my skills now.’ So we went over to Shangri-La Records, where Eric was working, and in the evening after the store closed we’d go in the back room and play music.
At first I was just going to play drums, then I had a song so Jack said, ‘I’ll play drums and you play guitar.’ Then we got it to where it was rotating nicely.
Eventually, pretty quickly, maybe a month's time, we scraped up enough songs between the three of us to do some recording; which became the first set of singles and the first album.
What sessions were the On the Go tracks from?
Those were the demos that were actually recorded at Shangri-la. Just live recordings which we put out as a cassette. It was our first release. One side was us, the other side was an instrumental surf band that Scott Bomar had called Impala.
How big, or small, was The Oblivians’ local following?
We had a small following in Memphis. I would not say that it was a lot of people. It was definitely a group of all of our friends who were all into the same stuff and people who just liked to get drunk and party. Those kind of people will listen to pretty much anything as long as it’s not terrible (laughs).
You got to pull in all your music geek fans and your non-stop party people and soon you got a little scene going. We could always count on 50 or 60 people at a show. It wasn’t bad. As time went on, over the course of three years or so it got to be bigger, but never a lot bigger, in Memphis. It got to be where we could draw a couple hundred people. It was always amazing when we’d go out of town, to Chicago or somewhere, and play to 500 people. We’d be like, ‘Wow! Why are there 500 people here?’
But it was a total hit or miss thing, because then we’d play in Atlanta to like five people so we just never knew. Until the end when we had three records out, by then we built up a fan base.
What bands did The Oblivians often play with?
We played with The Royal Pendeltons. They’d come up from New Orleans and play with us a lot. We’d play with Impala. And if there were any bands passing through town that were into the same stuff, like The Hentchmen put out their first single not long after The Oblivians put out our first single, The Hentchmen are a great band; we’d hook up with them, they’d come down and play in Memphis. You just kind of put out your feelers. Singles were really big at the time, a lot of bands were putting out their own singles. When you heard something that really grabbed you, you’d contact them and say, ‘Hey, we play rock music like you’re playing, if you want to come here and play a show we’ll book you something. Probably get you a $100 and some beer, a little pizza or something.’
Did you have much to do with trying to get The Oblivians on Crypt or any of the other labels?
That was more Eric. You should talk to him about that. He was more focused on people putting out the records. I was just focused on trying to write songs. Eric worked at a record store so he knew all the labels and stuff.
Going from the Gamblers to the Oblivians, did you intentionally change your songwriting style?
I didn’t try to change my writing style, but we limited our sound. We went from a band that had two guitars, drums, bass, organ, violin, saxophone, trumpet - towards the end, we had a pretty big band. We basically peeled it back to two guitars and not even a full drum kit, it was a floor tom and snare. When you do that you’re automatically simplifying. You’re pulling it down to the bare essentials. When you do that, everything becomes a little more primitive. Once we started playing together, and we got a feel for what kind of chemistry that was, then that creates it’s own sound. Once we got the feel of what it was going to sound like with just the three of us, we’d write in that context.
Eric had just started playing guitar, the whole thing was just kind of simple and primitive, and we were all Bo Diddley fans so you could feel this was closer to Bo Diddley than Bob Dylan.
We had gone from being some sort of a rootsey bar band, to some primal thing. Although I didn’t intentionally change my song writing style, it naturally changed due to the circumstances, you work within the medium.
What is one of your fondest memories of playing in The Oblivians?
The first tour of Europe with the Country Teasers was probably one of my favorite things. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money and it was miserable at points, there was so much fun had, it was so fun because the Country Teasers were a funny bunch of guys. They had an incredible sense of humor between them, it made it a sort of surreal experience. Some of the shows on that tour were good turn outs, some not so much. It was up and down, every country was a little different.
The second thing for me was when we cut the record with Quintron (Play 9 Songs LP). We had been playing as just this little three piece, it was really interesting to bring in another instrument because it opened everything up. All the sudden what had been really primitive before was still primitive, but we could expand the barriers just a little and bring in more melody and flush out the bottom end; we had no bass, but the organ could cover the low end. We were like, ‘Well, we can progress outside of this a little bit, and then stop there. There isn’t too much further we can go with this vehicle.’ It was a good note to end on.
It would be hard to go back. That is the thing with music, either you are going to continue to progress or you’re going to stop where you are and say, ‘OK, this is the sound.’ But as man says, ‘Don’t ever look back, because you can’t go back there.’ Once you’ve stepped outside, all you can do is pretend to go back, you can’t really do it. The Stones release an album every ten years or so and they think they’re going back, but they are really not (laughs).
What did you do after The Oblivians called it quits?
The Oblivians ended and we did the Gamblers again for awhile. First we did an album called Bluff City (1999). Then we did another one called Crystal Gazing, Luck Amazing (2000), which the band was broken up by the time the record came out but we recorded it and did a small tour, then that kind of folded. Jack started working on other stuff, and as a pair we had gone about as far as we could go. It was time for both of us to stretch out a little. Jack knew what he wanted to do and I kind of knew what I wanted to do and it didn’t sound much like anything that I had been doing before. We were both looking to stop and collect ourselves and figure out what we wanted to do next.
Original RS: Greg, Jeremy Scott, Greg Roberson, Alex Greene
Photo: Dan Ball
How did Reigning Sound form after the Compulsive Gamblers broke up for the second time?
I had a handful of songs ready for some kind of project. My wife Esther and I did a record called Greg Oblivian and the Tip Tops (Head Shop LP, 1997). It was just some demos and things, some 4-track stuff we had been working on. Then I met the original drummer, Greg Roberson, and he had not played drums in 10 years or something but he was thinking about playing again. He was calling me a lot saying, ‘Hey man, you need to start doing something, you need to get another band together and I want to play for you.’ So I said, ‘OK, Esther has been playing with me, but she has work and other commitments. So, yeah, let’s do it.'
We did that for awhile. Then Greg (Roberson) was more of the kind of person who was on the internet, looking around in musician chat rooms and things like that, which I think is how he came into contact with Jeremy Scott, or on a Web site or something - I think Jeremy basically said he was new to town and looking for people to play with and he listed some of the music he was into.
Greg (Roberson) said, ‘I talked to this guy a couple times over the phone and I think it might be a good match. He’s (Jeremy) is from New Jersey, he just moved here (to Memphis) and he’s into a lot of the stuff you’re into. He likes Gene Clark and The Byrds, 1910 Fruitgum Company’ - and all of these other things, it just kind of clicked, you know. He was into cool rock‘n’roll music. We made an appointment with him to meet us at this house to get together and play. I think it was Me, Greg (Roberson), Jeremy and my friend Tim who had also just recently moved to Memphis. We all played and maybe did one show with Tim playing with us. But Tim was chasing his own thing, trying to get his music going.
Then my friend Lorette Velvette (of The Hellcats) moved back to town with her husband, who was Alex Greene. They moved right across the street from me because they called and said, ‘Hey, we’re moving back to town, we need a place.’ I told them there was a place right across the street, it’s available. I knew Alex played keyboard and guitar so when he moved back I said, ‘You should come over, we got this little thing going with Greg and Jeremy and me.’ He came in and started playing keyboard with us and it just seemed like a great fit. I said, ‘Well, maybe you could trade back and forth, play a little guitar and a little organ.’ We got it going and pretty soon we had enough songs, so I contacted (Long Gone) John at Sympathy and said, ‘Hey, I got this new band, and some songs. I think I could get this whole thing wrapped up for about $800.’ He agreed, so we did it. It went pretty quick, not long after that we had enough stuff for another album so we did another (Too Much Guitar!) and then things chugged along pretty well.
What do you think inspired the transformation into that first Reigning Sound LP, were you listening to a lot of Byrds at the time?
I was listening to a lot of things like that, but at the same time, really what a band sounds like, you can have all the influences in the world but what determines what a band sounds like, whether it’s the Reigning Sound or the Gamblers or The Oblivians, is the chemistry that those people make together. Once you start playing and you see what kind of groove everybody locks into best, that determines the course, that’s how you figure it out. It’s like, ‘I got these songs, and I can go any which way from Sunday, but this is the dynamic that these four people are best at.
Reigning Sound: David Gay, Lance Wille, Greg, Dave Amels
So would you say your songwriting is heavily influenced by the other members in the band?
Absolutely, I write the songs but which direction the songs take is really about the players. It’s the difference between me doing “Stormy Weather” and John Coltrane doing it. Neither one of us wrote it, but the instrumentation and the way the people play it determine whether it’s blue or a jump song. Unless you’re the type of band that get together strictly for the purpose of playing Ramones style things, but I’ve never been in a band like that. I’ve always gotten into situations with people who are into all kinds of good music, then when you play together you put all of those influences into the band, sift it and see what’s left (laughs).
How often do you write songs?
I’d say slightly less than I was a few years ago. But when things slow down enough for me to write, then I write a lot. I’ve got three kids and family life takes up so much of your time when you get older that sometimes I just don’t have time.
Toward the end of last year I decided to quit my day job, I was doing electrical work, to focus more on songwriting again. I’ve kind of been in a period of writing a lot more songs. That’s good, that’s what I’m trying to aim at for this year, to get back into writing more songs.
A lot of it was that I moved, the band was in flux, I had an expanding family with the new daughter and all. The timing was just not right to be a prolific songwriter. There were changes going on inside the band and in my life. Now that everything has settled again, and I have a lineup that’s solid and it’s people who I know are going to be there, I’m ready to invest more time and energy into it.
Is there a process to your song writing?
I just go out in my garage and grab a guitar, usually I write on the acoustic, sometimes I write on the electric but that’s rare. I just strum chords I like and hum until I’m humming a melody and I’ve found a nice chord change. Then I think, ‘Well, OK, this chord change works, is this a chorus or is this a verse?’ Then I try to find a complimentary melody to set next to it. Then I start to think about the lyrics, like, ‘What is this one going to be about?’ Well, usually the tone of a chord change pretty much sets the mood. So you already have a mood, you know if you’re going to be writing about something happy or sad, exciting or telling a story - the music dictates that already.
You tend to write a lot of lyrical bummers, is that intentional?
That’s kind of what I’m good at! (laughs). I’m a big record collector and music geek, I’m a fan of all these people like Harry Nilsson, Gene Clark and Dion; all these people who have great range, 10-octave voices and stuff, but I don’t have any of that. But at the same time, the world is lousy with perfect singers. You can turn on American Idol and every one of them is pitch perfect, and not very interesting. But what I really like is someone who can raise emotion and can write a lyric that makes you feel that you can relate to that. Whether it’s something general or super specific, either way.
When it comes to the kind of singers that I like, I like people who can sing like a bird, but I like people like Dylan as well - who, it’s not how well he sings, it’s the charm of how he sings. I don’t sound anything like him, but that’s kind of where I’m at. I don’t have a whole lot of range. But the thing about people who don’t have a lot of range is that they usually sing in a peculiar kind of way. They don’t have the range, it makes them work a lot harder to hit the notes, which makes them sound like they’re in pain. That lends its self to heart breaking songs.
Are your lyrics inspired by your life, or are they just stories?
I can’t really write outside of what I know, not convincingly. Everything I write about is either about me or something that happened to someone I’m really close to. For the most part it has to be something that happened to me, something I’ve thought about a lot, or something I’ve felt. Most of it is things that have happened to me. Life gives you plenty of fodder for being sad.
Well, no, fortunately in my case! (laughs)
New! Reigning Sound LP
How would you describe the new Reigning Sound album, Love & Curses (on In the Red - due out August 11, 2009)?
I don’t know! (laughs). You’re going to have to listen to it and tell me. There is a bit of everything. There are some ballads, I really like those. There are some rockers and some things that are a little country flavored. But there are also some things that are angsty and punk. There are happy songs that are about being glad for what you got, and there are songs about being sad for what you don’t have. It’s a mixed bag. I don’t know what to compare it to as far as things I’ve already put out - except it sounds very much like me. So if you like what I do, there is something on there for you.
How long did Reigning Sound spend recording the new record?
Too long. We recorded some songs in Memphis. I wanted to record at my buddy Doug Easley’s studio but then his studio burned down. He started up a new studio but his tape machine broke on him. So we went to Memphis and recorded with him anyway, but we did it at Ardent Studios. Which, Doug is awesome, he did a great job, but the tape machine was not calibrated right and we had some problems with mixing and with the recordings. Once we cut everything to tape, we took it to another room to mix it and it was really distorted because of the mis-calibration. That was really disheartening. But we mixed it anyway because I didn’t have any choice and I was paying thousands of dollars to do it. I think I tried to over compensate for how fuzzy it was,by making it cleaner, and it came off feeling a little sterile to me, so I was disappointed with the whole thing.
Then we tried to record again here in Asheville at a studio called Echo Mountain, with that I got some great results, we got about three or four songs. So I said, ‘I like this, I want to go back there and do some more.’ So I went back about a year later and cut some more songs there. I needed a place like that and nobody had that here in Asheville. Then Echo Mountain opened up and it was like an answer to my prayers. It’s an all analog studio with great equipment. So everything worked out great. The resulting album is mostly the Echo Mountain stuff, peppered with a few things from the Easley/Ardent session that I really liked. Hopefully it will all mesh together nicely, but the album is made up of three different sessions. I think it all falls together pretty nicely.
Lance Wille has been drumming for Reigning Sound for quite some time now, but this will be the first studio album he has played on, right?
There was a stop-gap album that came out in-between Too Much Guitar! (May 2004) and this record, that was Home For Orphans (September 2005), it was just odd-and-ends, Lance was on a track or two on that. Lance also did singles and things, also the Mary Weiss record. But this will be the first Reigning Sound album with Dave Gay on bass, Lance Wille on drums and Dave Amels on piano and keyboards.
How was it adjusting to not being in Memphis while recording an album?
I think I longed so much to be in Memphis and be comfortable in that way, but when I tried to do that it didn’t work in the way I thought it would. I think once I came to grips with the fact that now I live in Asheville and I did the recordings here and were so happy with them, I realized this is my home now and I’m usually most comfortable when I’m at home. I like to work in analog and stay analog the whole process. I don’t go to Pro Tools or voice correction programs - it is what it is when you get a Reigning Sound album. It’s pretty much all analog, there is not a lot of studio tricks.
New Oblivians LP (In the Red)
How did the 2009 Oblivians and Gories reunion come to be?
The first person who brought the idea of doing some shows and the European tour to my attention was Peggy O'neill (Gories drummer). But then Peggy claims it was Eric who brought it to her attention. So I don’t know where the real genesis of it is. But the first person who talked to me about this at any length was Peggy.
I just totally jumped on her bandwagon. I was like, ‘That would be great! It’d be really fun.’ The Oblivians have done a reunion, but The Gories have not. There are thousands of people out there who would kill to see them who never had a chance.
I think it will be really fun, I think it will be better than old times. I’m not looking to relive any glory days (laughs) but I am looking forward to getting together with a bunch of friends. I’m good friends with all of them.
After all these years, how will it be to work with your old band mates?
After The Oblivians folded there were some tense times between us. We had spent so much time together and anyone who does spend a lot of time together, you start to grind on each others’ nerves. It was like a mixed blessing when the band ended. Me and Eric were just about at each others’ throats. That doesn’t mean either of us were wrong or bad people, it was just too much time together. It happens with bands, it happened with The Gories. I’m sure there was a bit of bitterness when that band folded and there was bitterness when The Oblivians folded.
The great thing about time passing is you get to put that stuff behind you and learn how to be friends with that person all over again and appreciate them for what they are.
The best thing that buried the hatchet with everyone in The Oblivians is having this reunion tour. When we started having rehearsals and I said, ‘Man! We have chemistry, this is fun!’ You start appreciating what the people do for your music and that you can do for their music. That’s really cool. It creates a chemistry. When a friendship ends, you just have that lasting bitter taste, that memory about what it is that irks you about that person, you don’t remember the good things. You really need to be reintroduced and see why you were friends with that person to begin with.
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