Soulful, lo-fi garage icons The Oblivians ended their long-standing recording hiatus earlier this year — and the result is Desperation, the group’s first full-length album since 1997’s …Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron.
There’s a mighty gap in the history of the Memphis-based trio (comprised of Greg Cartwright, Jack Yarber and Eric Friedl — who all carry the surname “Oblivian” when performing together). After five years of pumping out three full-length albums and a handful of other releases in the early and mid 90s, the three went their separate ways in 1998, joining or forming different projects. Friedl predominantly focused on his record label (Goner Records), Yarber churned out a healthy sampling of solo records, and Cartwright hopped into several projects — but most notably established the rock ‘n’ roll band Reigning Sound.
Desperation has “party record” written all over it; in many spots it’s vintage Oblivians — low-end, hooky riffs nearly buried under fuzz pedals, infectious beats and raspy vocals from each of the three singers. The straight-ahead, punk blues on the album’s less-than-two-minute finale “Mama Guitar” could easily be mistaken for a song on the band’s 1995 debut album, Soul Food.
You may also notice Cartwright and Yarber’s previous side projects bleed into the mix as well. Desperation’s opener, “I’ll Be Gone,” bares a gospel melody reminiscent of a signature Reigning Sound song.
Cartwright spoke with CBS Seattle about the new record and going back on tour with his longtime band mates.
What was the biggest difference between making Desperation and the last Oblivians record?
I would say there wasn’t a difference in the way that we made it. The publishing was always a little confusing on Crypt Records because we were all credited as writers for each song … But what it really was for everybody in the band – we all write our own songs and then we would bring them in to the rest of the band and then rehearse them a couple of times … This record was pretty much made that same way. We had two rehearsals…
Do you feel like the songs you all brought to the table this time around had a dose of the various side projects that you’ve all been working with during the Oblivians’ hiatus?
I think you are gonna hear Reigning Sound in my songs and you are gonna hear some of what Jack does in the Tearjerkers, but I’ve been playing with these guys for a long time and I heard all those things in their songs beforehand … The thing people forget about the Oblivians is that I am not the lead singer of the Oblivians – the Oblivians has three singers and three songwriters that write differently … I know what you’re saying when you ask the question, but it’s hard for me to hear it that way because I’ve been listening to these guys write songs for long…
You guys did a European tour with The Gories in 2009 and then have been playing one-off shows since then. Did getting back together and playing live spark the idea for making the new record?
Well, we just have so much fun when we play together. At first it’s just fun to relearn the old songs, ya know? But then, you do it after a while and you’re like, “okay, that was fun, now I can play the songs proficiently, and now I am kinda bored again.” We wanted to keep playing together – so if we were going to keep playing and doing shows, we needed new songs to keep having fun and to keep us interested.
A picture surfaced on the Reigning Sound’s Facebook page of you riding shotgun while on tour with an LP player on your lap. Do you have a vinyl-only rule in the van?
It’s not mandatory, but it sure is nice (laughs). But actually I always take a portable record player with me because I’m always looking for records. I love to stop at flea markets and thrift shops – ya know, that’s where I find my best records. When I was just up in Nelsonville, Ohio I went into a store and bought, I don’t know, like 400 singles. They had boxes of killer stuff that came out of a radio station and I was like, “I’ll take all of ‘em!” And so then for the rest of the trip, when we go back to our hotel room after the show, I sift through them and listen to them and stuff. I don’t watch TV, so it’s my pastime.
Don’t you worry about them melting?
Yes. It’s totally a concern, man. You nailed me. I’m always looking for the shadiest spots in the van … I’m wondering if there’s somebody’s house I can stash them at (laughs).
How is it balancing the return of the Oblivians with the projects you all still have going on?
It’s a little hard to balance it all – we’re older, we’ve got wives, we’ve got kids. You’re not just balancing the other projects, you’re balancing your family life … It’s definitely difficult but we’re making it work. I feel like this record is worth getting out there and playing it.
You guys come to Neumo’s on July 12th – what’s your perception of the music landscape in the Pacific Northwest?
Some of my favorite music came out of the Northwest. Some of the first labels that were interested in putting out Oblivians music were from the Northwest. Dave Crider from Bellingham put out one of our first four singles on Estrus. Just going up there and seeing bands at Garage Shock … The first time the Oblivians played it was the first time I realized there was a whole lot of people that were into the stuff that we were into and that there was a scene outside of my hometown (laughs) … The musical heritage up there is fantastic and for modern bands, the area is a launching pad…
What differences do you see between a group of garage bands getting together for a festival in the early 90s and now?
It was a whole different world back then – you had to reach out to find these other people. The internet has changed that. There’s not as much of a sense of community as there was pre-internet … It has its positives and its negatives; in one way it’s good because some kid in a small town who may have never been able to access that stuff can now find it. But you gotta say something also for the fact that you lose sense of really having to get out there and beat the bushes to find people who walk in the same path as you.
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–Chris Coyle, CBS Seattle
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