REIGNING SOUND: THAT WAY LIES MADNESS
The all-powerful Reigning Sound roared out of Memphis with the realest soulful rock ‘n’ roll since the Flamin Groovies, the Real Kids and Esquerita all ruled the earth together. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Greg Cartwright makes ’em scream, shriek, cry and weep and he visits California far too seldom, so don’t miss these shows at Alex’s Bar this weekend! (With the Strange Boys opening!? How will we ever go back to normal?) Win tickets here, and then read this interview by Chris Ziegler.
Your dad was a record collector—was record collecting your destiny?
It was a leg up! Having a parent who’s a music fan and a record collector can really point you in the right direction—it gets you to listen to a lot of different stuff early on, so you can decide what it is you like. Not everything my dad liked was something I liked, but I heard it all. And some things really helped me define the way I wanted to write. The genre doesn’t matter. You’re looking for the songs, and the artist who can deliver the good songs. Maybe the lyrics do it, or there’s an incredible hook and the lyrics are just total bubblegum. It’s gotta be aces in one of those departments.
You’ve spoken about the pre-Internet era, when you’d find a record by Andre Williams in a bucket at a flea market and have absolutely no idea who Andre Williams was and how his record got there—but that was the fun of it.
That was so great! When I first started collecting—I guess I am a collector, but I don’t think of myself as a record collector. It’s more from a practical framework. I buy them because I like to listen to them! I tend to think of record collectors as people who need a stone mint copy wrapped in plastic, and it goes on the shelf. And they want it to stay pristine til they die! They’re not gonna play it. I understand that, but it’s a different thing to me. The beauty for me is finding something I’ve never heard before, and I put it on and it’s amazing and I want to play it til the grooves are gone.
Where’s the most unexpected place you found a record you love?
I went to this restaurant supply place when I was working in Memphis—they had cooking gear and all kinds of accoutrements for kitchen workers, and at the counter was a little box with ten singles with a Doug Stone 45 and two Charlie Feathers 45s. It was bizarre! But when I lived in Memphis, those things happened surprisingly often. Those records were there! There’d been so many of them, and so many never left town, so they’d show up in the most bizarre places. I was spoiled growing up there. My wife teases me jokingly that I’m some kind of savant. I can only focus on a couple things, records being one of them. I can remember the numbers etched in the dead wax, but I can’t remember to wash the clothes!
Looking back at your time in the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers, you said you were always ‘serious about making good art.’ What makes a band like Oblivians art?
Art is like a dirty word in rock, but it’s one of those things people take out of context. They think of art as being something pretentious. But it doesn’t have to be! If you define ‘art’ that way, you’re not looking at it the way I look at it. Art transcends reality—it allows you to look at things in a whole new way and be enlightened and maybe have some kind of epiphany. To me, that’s the motivation to make art—to have those experiences. I’m not pretentious, but even rock ‘n’ roll—even the dumbest boneheaded punk rock song, if it transcends just three chords and speaks to you and blows your mind … that’s art! That’s more than just what the other bands are doing. It’s heads above! Like a good two-and-a-half-minute pop song—listen to the radio and you’ll hear a million bad ones! Creating one that’s something more than it just seems to be on the surface is not easy, and the people who can accomplish it are craftsmen. I don’t care if they’re like illiterate or … it doesn’t matter! You’re a craftsman or a shaman or something if you can transform something into something more than just the bones of what it is!
How did you learn how to do that?
Trial and error. Watching other people. Seeing a lot of rock bands when I was young. I saw bands who were good and some who were bad and some that defied both! I saw Tav Falco and it was a terrible mess, and at the same time it was enlightening! I think that’s what we all want.
Why is it better to be interesting than perfect?
Character is the most important thing. The world has plenty of pitch-perfect singers and whizbang guitar platers. But the other thing can’t be learned, and that’s what makes it special. I don’t know why that is and I don’t know what brings people to … the truth? The way you were brought up? Your experience in life? How one thing leads to another?
What’s it like when you write for someone else—like Mary Weiss? When you have to step out of yourself?
With a person like Mary—you know their music before you know them. She’s a legendary figure in rock ‘n’ roll. I knew her voice and I knew the songs, and all that spoke to me before I knew her personally. People change over time, too. You can’t jump to conclusions with Mary, like try and sit down to knock out songs about teenage love affairs. Mary Weiss is not a teenager anymore! That fifteen-year-old melodrama is what makes the Shangri-Las so fantastic, but you can’t just look for that one piece. You gotta examine who the person is now.
Where did the songs on the new EP come from? Is this like Return to The Home For Orphans? There’s a re-done Tip-Tops song I spotted.
Five of the songs we cut recently with Dan Auerbach in Nashville. Three of them are earlier outtakes—‘Watching My Baby,’ ‘Lyin’ Girl’ … I’ll probably use the five songs with Dan further down the road to make a full LP and ditch the other tracks, so I wanted to make them available to fans in kind of a limited form.
So there’s a new Reigning Sound LP on the horizon?
What do you think of ‘garage rock’ becoming this kinda-powerful cultural thing? As presented by Scion?
I never saw it coming! I never would have guessed in a million years we’d be in the situation we are now. I’m not judging—I just try and navigate the situation. It’s definitely strange. In 1992 or whenever we made records, the Internet wasn’t what it was now, and the fact that commercial entities are starting to see value in kinda odd little subcultures like garage music … in some ways it’s perplexing, but in other ways it’s kind of smart!
Greg Shaw wrote about this in an old Bomp!—wondering what would happen if people could access a bottomless database of good music instantly, and find out everything about anyone as soon as they heard a name.
Like everything else, there’s positives and negatives. The good things—people get any music they want, anytime and anywhere. On their phone! That’s great because people get turned on to really amazing things at the speed of light. But you don’t have the thrill of the chase and the hunt anymore. You don’t have to spend Saturday morning at some fuckign flea market at 7 AM looking for a record some crusty old guy told you about. You miss out on that experience! But you do get overwhelmed now—I think sometimes it’s hard for kids to distinguish what is truly great from what is merely mediocre but sounds mildly like something they like. It’s harder to make the call when you’re so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music.
When you did the very first Reigning Sound 7”, you said you wanted to make sure you didn’t give your fans exactly what they wanted. Why?
I do believe that—never give people exactly what they want! People want a donut! They want something sugary to satisfy them instantaneously! They don’t wanna have to listen hard, and especially in this modern culture they don’t wanna do the legwork. If you just make what people want, there’s a catch. If you don’t, they’re like, ‘Ah, man—he’s not making what he used to make!’ But if you bow to that and do the same record you made ten years ago, then they’re like, ‘Ah, man—this guy’s like a broken record! He keeps making the same fucking thing!’ That way lies madness! You just have to please yourself!
L.A. RECORD AND BLUNDERTOWN PRESENT REIGNING SOUND WITH THE STRANGE BOYS AND SPECIAL GUESTS ON FRI., JAN. 27, AND SAT., JAN. 28, AT ALEX’S BAR’S 12TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION AT ALEX’S BAR, 2913 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH. 9 PM / $15 ADVANCE / $17 DAY OF / 21+. ALEXSBAR.COM. REIGNING SOUNDS’ ABDICATION… FOR YOUR LOVE EP IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SCION A/V. VISIT REIGNING SOUND AT FACEBOOK.COM/REIGNINGSOUND.