ASHEVILLE, N.C — Another Friday night, another rock band. Well, not just any band — this is Reigning Sound, recently transplanted from Memphis to Asheville and one of the most respected outfits in the land.
How respected? No less than Steve Van Zandt, he of Springsteen, Sopranos and "Little Steven’s Underground Garage," informed yours truly a couple of years ago that Reigning Sound was one of his fave new bands. Hives vocalist Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist is so smitten that he selected the group’s last album, Time Bomb High School, as one of his top picks of 2002, more recently inviting RS to be the opening act, along with Sahara Hotnights, on the Hives’ upcoming U.S. tour. And in the Motor City, toasts to RS singer/guitarist Greg Cartwright are hoisted with regularity, Jack White dropping his name in interviews and several bands going as far as to cover his songs (notably the Detroit Cobras, who reworked Cartwright’s "Bad Man" — as "Bad Girl" — on Mink, Rat or Rabbit).
All the respect in the world, however, won’t buy Cartwright disaster insurance, at least not tonight in Asheville. For starters, Reigning Sound — Cartwright, bassist Jeremy Scott and drummer Lance Willie, making his public debut with the band — is breaking in the new trapsman in preparation for a brief European trek to promote the trio’s just-released Too Much Guitar! and some of the song arrangements are still decidedly rough-edged.
Too, the set is plagued with gremlins, most notoriously when Scott pops a bass string during a frenetic cover of the Rationals’ "Feeling Lost" to bring things to a halt. Everyone looks around sheepishly for a moment, then Cartwright, mindful of the dead air, starts strumming his guitar and eases into a tender version of Sam Cooke’s "Darling I Need You Now." Willie takes the cue, as does Scott once he’s finished restringing his axe; the volume steadily rises, the club’s emotional pulse quickens, and soon enough the band’s plowing full-tilt into its meaty brand of garage ’n’ soul.
As the saying goes, these guys wanna take us higher. And they do.
"Jeremy never breaks a bass string — good thing that was a warm-up," Cartwright confides a couple of weeks later. "Luckily in Europe, by the second show, it was great. We were firing on all cylinders. When you find the groove and you can look at the bass player and the drummer and everybody knows what the others are thinking, well, once you get it to that point, it’s hard to go wrong."
I’m sitting in the living room of Cartwright’s two-story brick house, located in the tidy middle-class Asheville neighborhood where he and his family moved just a few months ago. Dominating one corner of the room is a massive old jukebox and a couple of guitar cases; across from it is the stereo, which Cartwright frequently steps to during the interview, spinning everything from vintage Everly Brothers and Motown to Lords Of The New Church and Eric Carmen’s pre-Raspberries outfit Cyrus Erie. Lining one wall are bookcases overflowing with music biographies, while looking down upon us from another wall is a framed copy of the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace LP. The phone rings several times: a promoter wanting to book Reigning Sound for off nights during the Hives tour, the person taking care of merch for the tour, etc.
Music stuff aside, Cartwright also appears to be pretty domesticated. Family pooch Merle wanders in and out of the room, as do sons Andrew, 12, and Alex. (Alex: "Can I get some pillows and take them into my room?" Greg: "Are you building a fort?" "Yeah." "OK, that’s alright.") Midway through the conversation his wife Esther comes downstairs bearing 8-month old Ruby, who’s decided that taking part in a big-time rock ’n’ roll interview trumps such mundane matters as her afternoon nap. (You can’t make this stuff up: When daddy puts on the Motown platter, Ruby bursts into a kind of sitting down, shimmy-frugging dance.)
But despite the distractions, Cartwright, quick-witted and about as forthcoming as any interview subject I’ve ever grilled, keeps the ball rolling.
Cartwright, of course, as a member of the Compulsive Gamblers and the notorious Oblivians, has been a fixture on the national garage scene since the early ’90s. Now 34, he was born and raised in Memphis, and growing up was able to tap his father’s extensive record collection, which ran the gamut from pop (Beatles, Stones, Byrds) and early rock ’n’ roll (Haley, Holly, Cash, Elvis) to more underground artists such as Zappa, Beefheart, Spirit and Alice Cooper. "But," says Cartwright, "the one thing that stuck with me probably the longest was his Harry Nilsson stuff. The albums, they were really strange, you know? Kind of ‘punk,’ but pretty. I remember reaching my teenage years and listening to that song: [sings] ‘You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you!’ To a kid, you’re just going, ‘Yeahhh! Curse words!’"
Cartwright would get his own shot at twisting the minds of adolescents when the Oblivians issued their 1995 album Soul Food (key track: "And Then I Fucked Her"), but in the meantime, there were high school classes to endure and bands to form. The metal and hardcore outfits of the mid-’80s didn’t click with Cartwright, but one punk band did, The Misfits, whose obvious indebtedness to classic ’50s and ’60s pop, despite the hi-energy arrangements, appealed to Cartwright’s already-formed sense of melody and song structure.
"The idea about punk, for me," says Cartwright, "was that you took all these classic ideas about rock and country and blues and make them more aggressive and twist them into something different and more modern. Eventually, though, I just thought I’d forget the punk thing and just do that classic stuff."
Enter the Compulsive Gamblers, which Cartwright assembled with guitarist Jack Yarber in the early ’90s. The alcohol-fueled ("hangover music," quips Cartwright), eclectic combo lasted about three years before mutating into the Oblivians, the 2-guitar/drums/no-bass outfit whose crude, oftentimes X-rated brand of punk/skronk/blooze demolition is still discussed in awestruck tones among lo-fi garage-rock fans. More than one reviewer, in fact, has commented how, to a degree, the Oblivians may have been the Meat Puppets to the White Stripes/Hives/Strokes’ Nirvana. I make this observation to Cartwright. He thinks about it for a second, then grins. "We did an Oblivians reunion gig in Memphis last Halloween and the Hives flew all the way out to see us. Someone was talking to Pelle about just that, and he said to them, ‘No, we’re the Stones — and the Oblivians are Howlin’ Wolf!’"
Cartwright scoffs, however, at those other assertions, that the Oblivians were misogynist negative creeps, comparing his band’s oeuvre to the Angry Samoans’ earlier brand of cartoonish provocation. He’s also got a touching story to go with the viewpoint: "There was a time we went to this record store in Tuscaloosa and I was looking at the ‘R’ section. Two kids, probably about 15 or so, come in and go straight to the ‘O’s. One kid pulls out our 10" with D’Lana on the cover [1994 Oblivians EP featuring a nude nubile on the sleeve] and he goes to the other kid, ‘Look man, I told you!’ ‘Ahh, man, she’s so hot! Ahhhhh …’ That record probably brought them into the store ten times in the next month, just to look at it and to show somebody: ‘Look at this!’ To see that happen was pretty incredible."
From 1993-98 the Oblivians pursued their Amerindie scorched-earth policy, issuing scores of records in the process before disbanding. (Cartwright: "Better to stop when you’re having fun and still making good records. No reason to taint a good legacy.") For a couple of years the Gamblers resumed operations, Cartwright additionally releasing a solo record and producing bands. Among those he’s overseen are Detroit Cobras, the Porch Ghouls, Mr. Airplane Man, the Cuts and Deadly Snakes — he even joined the lineup of the latter for a short while.
Then he decided to wipe the slate completely clean with Reigning Sound. While still in the Oblivians, Cartwright had begun stockpiling tunes he deemed too "moody or melancholy" for the band, and after selecting a bunch of mellow, folkish tunes from other songwriters (Gene Clark, Brian Wilson, Everly Brothers) he was ready to unveil his new direction — a sound that Cartwright knew from the outset was guaranteed not to click with his core fan base of Oblivians aficionados. An EP plus an album, Break Up … Break Down, appeared on Sympathy in 2001, and Reigning Sound was officially a go. Admits Cartwright, "The people that liked the Oblivians, with the first Reigning Sound album, they really hated it! But you should never give people what they want — give ’em what they need. And they needed to go out and spend eight dollars and hate it, and then two months down the road realize they like it."
Break Up was followed in 2002 with Time Bomb High School (In The Red), a stylistic shift towards poppier territory that practically read like a love letter to the late, great teen garage bands of the early ’60s (it included covers of Memphians the Gentrys and the Guilloteens). The new Too Much Guitar! marks another sonic detour, for while the melodies are present — with much of the album recorded under live conditions — there’s also a seething primal, overdriven quality that just might bring lapsed Oblivians fans back into the fold. Case in point: leadoff track "We Repel Each Other," which takes a "Daytripper"-like riff and a big-beat Fleshtones-like rhythm, then rams the tune through a broken speaker cone to come out sounding like the Stones circa Got Live If You Want It! The song also boasts a line destined to become one of the all-time great teen-angst lyrics: "I’d like to touch you/ But you’re surrounded by static!"
Yet crafting the RS records to sound like a different band each time isn’t an indicator of a musically perverse personality.
"You know, someone listening to Let It Be and Meet The Beatles wouldn’t think that was the same band, either. Some people like Time Bomb because it’s got all these pop hooks in it but don’t like the new one because it’s too abrasive. But if you listen, my songwriting style hasn’t changed; the hooks are all still there, still just basically pop music, it’s just a little more aggressive and in your face. Part of what I always try to do is make each record individual to the one before. It keeps me on my toes — keeps me interested. Also, it’s your job as an artist and musician to test the limits of what people think they will like."
Cartwright has already told me that, among his motivations for coming to Asheville, an artsy town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, are its reputation for being a wonderful place to raise kids and the presence of a low-key but positive-feeling music scene. And with his new drummer already a resident and his bassist currently pondering the move from Memphis as well, from a professional standpoint, he’s not feeling that remote.
Given, however, that over the years he’s also become a de facto honorary citizen of Detroit, working with bands and cultivating scores of lasting friendships there, I ask him why didn’t he head north to the Motor City where career opportunities no doubt beckoned?
"Well," he explains, "I’m friends, of course, with Dan and Mick and Peggy, the Gories, I’ve known them for a long time. And the Detroit Cobras, I produced some of their records and they’ve covered some of my songs. Scott Morgan; we’ve played with him in the past and even backed him once. There’s Eddie Kirkland, who was second lead guitar on the early John Lee Hooker stuff, we’ve played with him. The Gamblers backed Andre Williams, while in the Gamblers for awhile was the original Cobras bass player, Jeff Meier. I feel like I’ve spent so much time in Detroit, everybody who’s doing anything there I’ve met them and been friends with them. And we actually looked at Detroit a few years ago; one of my wife’s best friends lives there, and she’s married to one of my good friends. A bunch of people were lobbying for us to move there, and we priced real estate, looked around, but in the end, it was more like a great place to visit and vacation and I didn’t want to lose that by living there full-time.
"The thing about my records is that they are good records that have by and large gone unnoticed by the mass populace, so I haven’t had to deal with a lot of attention. That keeps things right where I like it: I sell enough records so that whoever puts my record out will let me do whatever I want, but not so much attention that a major label would sign me to a contract where I have to do what they want me to do. We’ve had a few people call, but it’s always some assistant to an A&R person and inevitably what they ask is, ‘So and so brought your name up and we were wondering if you could send two CDs so we could think about whether it would be something for us …’ I just go, ‘Look, I’ve known A&R people, and I know you have a budget. So if you want to hear it, run out and buy it.’ Sending two copies to an A&R guy? You might as well set the CDs on fire.
"So I’m right where I want to be and it makes me really comfortable."
As if on cue a sudden wail from Ruby interrupts us. She’s been diligently sucking down her afternoon bottle and now nature calls. As the father of a young child myself, I’ve got a hunch that she needs Cartwright more right now than I do, so I gather my things, nod at Big Bopper — hellooo, baby! — and leave the garage rock icon to his diaper duties.
Reigning Sound appears at Clutch Cargo’s (65 E. Huron, Pontiac) on Sunday, July 25 with Sahara Hotnights and the Hives Call 248-333-2362 for info. Fred Mills is freelance writer. Contact him at [email protected]