The garage punk heroes roar back with their first album since 1997. (Also check out the recent BLURT live review of the band including exclusive photos.)
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
Looking equal parts inviting and dangerous, the brunette in the magenta dress leans with one hand on the vintage jukebox in the corner, the other hand brushing the corner of her lips.
That come-hither tease begs a quick decision, a moment of courage, and promises a break in the dull routines of proper behavior.
Welcome – or welcome back – to the world of the Oblivians.
The Memphis garage punks – known for the grimy thrills of fast and fuzzy guitars, rudimentary drums, surprisingly melodic vocals and crude, no-frills production – this month released the band’s first record in nearly 16 years, Desperation, with an album cover that hints at oh so much dirty fun.
Greg Oblivian (aka Greg Cartwright), Eric Oblivian (aka Eric Friedl) and Jack Oblivian (aka Jack Yarber) give a matter-of-fact explanation to their reunion. There’s no unfinished business or anything lurking in the background so anti-Oblivian as a desperate yearning for wider recognition or money. They just want to do it again.
“It’s mainly the same reason we did it to being with: It’s fun and we played well together. I didn’t feel like I had an ax to grind or that I had to prove I could do anything in particular,” Cartwright says. “We had been playing some shows together, mostly just playing old material and my thought was that if we’d continue to play shows, because we were definitely having a lot of fun doing it, then I definitely wanted to have some new songs to play. I’m not knocking oldies revues or things like that, but it’s not something I’m interested in doing. We’d done it and I didn’t want to keep doing it.”
The former Oblivians have kept busy since the five-year run that delivered Soul Food (1995), Popular Favorites (1996) and …Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron (1997) – all released on the German Crypt Records. Cartwright became best known for The Reigning Sound, while Friedl runs Goner Records and plays in Dutch Masters and The True Sons of Thunder and Yarber played in a number of groups before forming Jack O and the Tennessee Tearjerkers.
And while their sound has been cited as an influence on garage-punk musicians like the late Jay Reatard and Ty Segall, Cartwright is uninterested in taking any credit, simply pointing his finger back toward the Oblivians own influences.
“There are definitely people who have cited us as an influence but that doesn’t mean a lot,” he says. “Some of it I feel has a connection, but it’s not so much a connection that people are influenced by us. I can tell when people are influenced by similar ideas and artists and we dig the same sort of stuff, so I feel a connection to that. To me it’s more immediate when I hear a band and go ‘Wow he likes the same Fred McDowell record I like.’”
The Oblivians’ sound has always stemmed from two things: the unique dynamic created by Cartwright, Yarber and Friedl in a room together and the enthusiastic efforts they put into getting down and dirty.
“Jack and I had several musical projects by the time we did the Oblivians, so doing something like the Oblivians is a choice,” Cartwright says. “It’s sloppy rock and roll and not because we couldn’t do anything else, it just happens the way it happens.”
And while Desperation adds 15 years to the formula, precious little has changed for the band.
“I don’t feel like it’s that different at all. Of course there’s a different perspective with people looking at it from the outside, but for me it feels the same as it was when we were playing 15 years ago,” Cartwright says. “It’s the same dynamic when we get together.”
After the band’s 1998 break-up, the Oblivians played some one-off reunion shows and toured Europe with the Gories in 2009. But the notion of recording new music started with a single song Cartwright wrote and brought to a practice.
“The three of us individually have our own sound and musical goals, but when we play together it’s its own thing. We had fun with the reunion shows, but in that sense you’re just covering old ground. What we wanted to do was what we’d always done before, which was lock ourselves in a room for a couple of days and knock out some songs.”
The new project started with recording just the one song, a test-the-waters move before committing fully to a reunion.
“I thought that if we can do a single we can do an album,” Cartwright says. “At first I was a little hesitant because maybe it won’t come off sounding like the Oblivians or maybe people will stick it up against previous recordings and pick it apart. When we all reconvened later and brought more songs into the mix to try, they all sounded good. I thought well, this is easy enough to make a new Oblivians record.”
For geographic ease – Cartwright now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, while Friedl and Yarber remain in Memphis – the band recorded in Nashville. But Cartwright is adamant that what the Oblivians found in their musically eclectic hometown is responsible for their celebrated sound.
“The Oblivians are 100 percent Memphis music. That’s what I grew up on and all the different styles and all the different genres that blend together in a weird way in Memphis, that’s what inspires me and that’s what inspired me with the Oblivians and that’s what continues to inspire me,” he says.
The process for Desperation followed the same formula that served the three songwriters well in the 1990s.
“We all came in with our song ideas pretty much ready to go. That’s how we always worked. We didn’t really write together. There are three of us and we each write songs and that’s always been the strength of the Oblivians. We all write our own songs but the common denominator when we get together is this dynamic and that’s always been the strength of the band,” Cartwright says.
Along the way, the Oblivians wondered about stumbling blocks or a negative response from fans worried they were getting back together just for money or attention. “None of that ever materialized. It just felt natural all along. I got just exactly what I wanted out of it, which was a super good time,” says Cartwright, whose album-opening song “I’ll Be Gone” contains what’s in essence become the Oblivians’ mantra: “Let’s rock and roll as we get old.”
“I intend to be playing rock and roll as long as I’m having fun doing it and as long as people are having fun doing it. I’ve pretty much dedicated myself to it. It’s a little too late in life to change gears and become a chef or something,” he says. “We’re all lifers.”
So, whether it’s 1991 or 2013, the Oblivians set out with the same attack plan, if not exactly with carbon-copy results.
And about that sexually charged, noirish cover photo?
“Jack had a friend who’d taken some pictures in Memphis at an old bar downtown,” Cartwright says. “The thing I liked about it is it had a continuity for us. A friend who’d done a couple of album covers used the same kind of pin-up imagery. I thought ‘This looks like an Oblivians album cover,’ and when I put the type on it, it just looked right.”
Photos (current) credit: Jamie Harmon