Let’s Rock ‘n’ Roll As We Get Old:
Oblivians Haven’t Changed…Much
When the Oblivians booked their first reunion show in the early 2000s, the bluesy garage-punk trio had no idea what was in store.
“We sold the club out,” drummer Jack Yarber says with disbelief. “It was like a line of people to get in. It was like, Jesus. We had no clue it was going to be like that. People were coming in from everywhere.”
And that’s when the reformation got rolling. They started playing more regularly, which included a bout with fellow reunited elders the Gories but especially at festivals, and saw a simultaneous surge in interest. Ultimately, they realized the Oblivians would need new material to keep going.
“I like doing this and I like playing with these guys again, this is really fun,” guitarist Greg Cartwright recalls thinking. “But I don’t want to just be playing the same old songs over and over again, because then you just feel like an oldies act.”
And so it was: Last year, the Oblivians announced they’d record a new LP, Desperation, their first in more than 15 years. Excitement boiled: In the Red would release it. A short tour was booked. Rolling Stone premiered the lead track, “I’ll Be Gone.” Anticipation spread.
But let’s back it up a bit, eh?
Throughout their initial incarnation in the ’90s, the Memphis-bred group found some recognition in the States and even more so in Europe. They never escaped the confines of underground rock ‘n’ roll, barely grazing its outer reaches. The unique setup – rotating vocals, drums and two guitars amongst them – for their frenetic blend of blues and garage got the same reception most pioneers in any artistic medium get: Total worship, but not until years after the fact. And in the exhausting efforts of rock ‘n’ roll, when after more than half a decade’s work doesn’t seem to pay off, chugging along can become pretty tiresome.
“Really it was just a matter of spending way too much time together, which is I think why most bands fold,” explains guitarist Greg Cartwright. “You just get sick of each other’s company, that kind of continuous spending every weekend together, touring together. It’s fun, but, you know, at the same time…all the eccentricities of everybody’s personalities start to grind on the other people. It was kind of that situation for us…Also there were all kinds of things going on in our individual personal lives that made it hard to tour at that time and kind of keep things going.”
Cartwright remembers the split as occurring organically. After a stint in Japan, Eric Friedl, the band’s other guitarist, suggested they call it quits. Feeling similarly, Cartwright agreed. Yarber, however, appears to have been left out of the discussion.
Before the Oblivians teamed up with revered New Orleans musical nut-job Quintron for the gospel-based …Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron in 1997, Yarber remembers issues writing new material.
“Every time we practiced, we’d try to come up with new songs and couldn’t really come up with anything. Greg had stuff but it was more like the singer-songwriter side of [his current band] Reigning Sound. Eric just wasn’t the right guitar player for it and I wasn’t the right drummer. It sounded okay, but the Reigning Sound does that kind of stuff much better.”
The rut was, in part, the impetus for the collaboration. Yarber says nobody realized until years later that adding a new element was an attempt at refreshing what was beginning to feel a bit stale. Anyway, it ended up failing: Quintron didn’t come along on tour because of a spat with the booking agent.
“It just kind of got to where we didn’t call each other on the phone. You don’t really know the band’s broken up until somebody on the street tells you,” Yarber laughs. “Without another fresh person there or something, you tell the same jokes over and over in the van, the same stories…”
He goes on to say they weren’t “really popular,” and the gigs weren’t paying too well.
The LP was their last before dismantling.
That’s a bummer, of course, but luckily everyone kept their hands in the scene, even if they didn’t always work together. Cartwright and Yarber paired up to briefly reform their previous band, the Compulsive Gamblers. Later, they each spearheaded projects separately: the Reigning Sound (Cartwright) and Jack O and the Tennessee Tearjerkers. Friedl played with King Louie and Jay Reatard in the short-lived (but beloved) Bad Times. His imprint, Goner Records, expanded and eventually opened a physical store, and now hosts an annual fest and is basically really important to the whole scene. He’s in True Sons of Thunder, too.
To say these guys have remained involved in garage and punk is nearly offensive. In the eyes of genre diehards, it’s much more than that. They’re icons. Legends. They’ve been a crucial part of both the past and the present. They never abandoned the scene.
Desperation’s opener, “I’ll be Gone,” is somewhat a reflection of that. Lines like “I won’t have to watch because baby I’ll be gone,” “Your dreams ain’t got nothin’ to do with mine” and “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll as we get old” stand out like declarations.
“Part of getting old is that some of your friends aren’t around anymore, whether that’s because they choose to live their life in a different way or because they’re dead, or maybe you just don’t see them anymore,” Cartwright says. “As you get older in particular, losing friends to cancer or drugs or whatever…When I wrote that song, I was thinking about that from the perspective of somebody’s who gone or who’s passed on, kind of looking at the rest of us who are still running in these same circles trying to play rock ‘n’ roll for a living and, you know, to some degree…maybe it looks kind of ridiculous.”
But as the most sonically accessible Oblivians to date, Desperation could mark a high tide in their career. It’s more melodic, less ferocious and generally cleaner. That means it’s got the potential to part the sea of fans, too. There’s evidence that might already be happening, Cartwright says.
“Something that we can take for granted because we know how modern culture works, and how it’s worked for a long time now, is that people love to tear you down,” he laughs. “When it comes out, there’s going to be a shitload of hate from people who don’t want to listen to it for what it is but want to immediately compare it to Soul Food or Popular Favorites. Already I’ve heard people say this doesn’t sound anything at all like an Oblivians record.”
The grit’s turned down a notch or two, that’s for sure. Dissenters might blame the production – but they’ll be wrong. While recorded big-shot style at Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys’ Easy Eye Sound studio, Desperation is rawer than most of its predecessors. Cartwright says it’s almost 100 percent live, “even the vocals,” with a 1-inch Scully 8-track. (For non-gear heads: That’s the kind used not only by the Beatles on “Hey Jude” and other songs, but also for early T. Rex and Who songs. You can’t get more lo-fi than that.) And if their go-to, Doug Easley’s Easy-McCain Studios, hadn’t burned down about seven years ago, they might have recorded there.
Further fogging up the potential reasons for this easier-on-the-ears approach: They’re not capitalizing on the sweeping sweetness of the mainstream media with a corporation-sponsored large-scale tour, which is pretty much the only way to rake in the big bucks these days. Cartwright cites his family and other obligations in explaining both he and Eric’s need for shorter tours.
“We still have more dates that are still being booked, but pretty much it’s daddy hours, for sure. Not full-time in-the-trenches touring. But I’ve already done all that so…” he laughs. “I’m interested and I’m excited to go out and do weekend dates and tours that are maybe 10 to 12 days long, like a week to two weeks. But I’m definitely not in a headspace where I want to go out for two months. I’m not in that headspace for the Reigning Sound either. I have too many things going on in the peripheral parts of my life and my family life that, you know, I can’t devote that much time to it. But also I think I enjoy it more when it’s little short bursts as well. Because I can go out and it’s exciting to play the songs but I think playing the same set of songs for two months is incredibly boring.”
Really, the only logical explanation for Desperation’s cleaned-up approach is time. And Cartwright seems at ease with whatever the fans’ reception may be – under the condition that they know what the hell they’re talking about.
“The dilemma never changes, whether there’s 15 years between records or a year. If you make something that sounds different than the last thing you made, there are some people who will try to take it on its own standing and there are definitely some people who will just try to compare it to the last thing you did and say it’s not the same,” he notes. “I totally understand. I actually totally agree. It’s not the same as our last record, which was Play 9 Songs. But I also agree that Play 9 Songs doesn’t sound anything like Popular Favorites. And Popular Favorites doesn’t sound anything like Soul Food.”
Occasionally, Cartwright sounds like a less emotionally jaded version of John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity. His whiffs of music elitism are fair, or at least earned, though. Cartwright is a rock ‘n’ roll lifer who’s more knowledgeable than most of the music writers who interview him. (Myself included.)
But the dynamic is still there – the bluesy melodies and the punk snarl that belies them – they’re just a little less…angry and assaulting.
“I think we’re just doing the best we could,” Yarber says. “At that time [when Oblivians started], that was the only band we were in. At this point, Greg has had his solo band Reigning Sound, I’ve had a couple different things I’ve played with and Eric has his real heavy True Sons of Thunder band. So it’s like guys from different groups trying to do something they did when they were in their 20s. But when the three of us are playing together, it’s still going to sound like us three.”
“Back Street Hangout” is sluggish and dirty like Sympathy Sessions’ “Show Me What You Like,” and Cartwright bares his teeth with signature intensity on “Come a Little Closer.” The title track isn’t a far cry from the Popular Favorite “Drill,” save for the peppy hand-claps. Quintron and his trusty sidekick Miss Pussycat return on the standout track, “Call the Police.” And the closer, “Mama Guitar,” is as rust-covered and almost as psychotic as their first full-length.
“I think that you could just chalk that up to the lyric content,” Cartwright says. “A lot of the stuff that we used to do was so tongue-in-cheek that some people didn’t like us! Because they thought that that was all we could do, naked women on the record covers, saying things like ‘Nigger Rich.’ Which, to us, it was kind of obvious that it was a joke. But other people didn’t know it or didn’t know that genre of music and may have thought that we were sexist or racist. But really it’s just like any good punk rock music – you’re being somewhat confrontational.”
It’s possible that time has toned down the punk for Oblivians. That’s okay. They have their reasons – Cartwright does, at least.
“Rock ‘n’ roll can be so nihilistic and self-absorbed, and that’s kind of the fun of it when you’re young, because that’s what life is when you’re 20,” he says with a shrug. “I had my first son when I was 20, so, you know, my experience of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is not the same as other people’s. I never could indulge in a lot of that stuff because I had too much responsibility on my shoulders. I wanted to keep doing what I wanted to do and keep making music and playing rock ‘n’ roll and stuff, but I also had to think about my kid and what effect it would have on their life. Also, when they got old enough to be interested in music, if they heard my music would it be something I would want them to listen to? It became a…factor for me in what kind of decisions I made.”
It’s not quite fighting the system, but it’s obvious the Oblivians aren’t really conforming to comeback norms. They’re doing things their way, like they always have, not concerned with who’s with them or against them. And that certainly doesn’t follow the grain.
Photo by Jamie Harmon.