Reigning Sound | Triple Rock Social Club | Wednesday, October 29
Greg Cartwright is the kind of niche genius that sends hearts fluttering with his every move -- albeit hearts belonging to a small but dedicated following of rock nerds. His work as a journeyman songwriter took began in the Memphis garage-punk scene, where he performed in the infamous Oblivians before forming several mellower offshoots to showcase his increasingly nuanced knowledge of soul, country, and other roots music.
His enduring Reigning Sound flips through styles and interests with each record, but the ragged lonesome heart of Cartwright's songs has remained intact. After taking a few years off to spend time with his wife and kids, Cartwright rebooted with a hot young band and indie powerhouse Merge Records. Their new album, Shattered, adds some traces of modern soul influence to Cartwright's charming perspective. Gimme Noise spoke to Cartwright before tonight's show.[jump]
Gimme Noise: Reigning Sound has been something of a flexible project for you. What's the story behind this most recent reformation?
Greg Cartwright: I had toured some with the Parting Gifts, and the opening band we had was the Jay Vons from Brooklyn. We knew each other pretty well, so I figured "Maybe I'll call Mikey [Post] from the Jay Vons and see if he wants to play drums." He was into it, and he said that Benny [Trokan], their bass player, was into it if I needed a bass player. I said, "Yeah, that'd be great, and why don't we just go ahead and invite Mike [Catanese] as well," who's their guitar player.
They came out and worked on the record and we finished it pretty quickly, and Dave [Amels], my regular keyboard player from the Reigning Sound, was there as well. It just was such a good fit, I thought, "Well, I'll just keep doing Reigning Sound and I'll use this as my lineup." So that kind of started this new lineup for the band.
Shattered has a really cool bit of liner notes for nerds about modern soul like me, in that you recorded in the Daptone studios. How did that come about?
Well Mikey Post, our drummer, he actually works in the office there. So that was kind of our in. I've met the guys who own the studio and been there a couple times, so it worked out to be a really kind of family type thing, it wasn't me coming in as some kind of weird outsider. Because it's a closed studio, it's not really a room that you can call up and rent. It's a situation where they have to want you to be there. So it worked out really well, and Wayne who's their fantastic engineer worked on it. It definitely followed the aesthetic that I was looking for.
Lyrically, the album seems to touch on some wistfulness about the passage of time. One of my favorite things about your songwriting is the economy of wordplay. Like Dan Penn, you know how to breathe deeply felt meaning into simple phrasing. Do you think a lot about the phrasing of your lyrics?
There's been many times when I've been sitting and trying to finish a song and I have all these complicated thoughts in my head, and I try to express them really cleverly, and sometimes it can just be too much to listen to. Sometimes to really get to the point of the thing you're trying to say, the best thing is to find something really simple that will evoke that emotion for people. Generally, that's what I'm trying to find, the shortest path [laughs]. Dan Penn is one of my all time favorite songwriters, so that's a pretty big compliment for me. He does it better than anybody, really.
While Reigning Sound is unquestionably your band, you really seem to draw a lot of influence from the personnel in your band. I've heard Too Much Guitar came about, in part, because your organ player wasn't available. Do you think that happened again with Shattered?
People will say, "Oh, from record to record things seem to change a lot," but sometimes the players change, and at the same time I try not to stand too still. I try to find different things that I'm interested in and pull them into the mix. But the players really make the biggest difference of all. Every player has a different dynamic, and the way that that person plays with three or four other people is even different from that. As a songwriter, I'm gonna pick what the chords are, and the melody and all that kind of stuff, but as far as what happens to it between there and making the record, that's all about the musicians.
You always end up doing a few cool covers on each record of yours. What's the story behind your choice of "Baby, It's Too Late?" Who performed that originally?
I grew up in Memphis, and I discovered a lot of records, growing up and living there that were local records that didn't get a lot of exposure outside of Memphis. Especially mid-'60s teen bands and stuff, where these are people who are pressing their own records and there's just not that many of 'em to begin with. It's a very local sound. A lot of those records really speak to me because they do some of the same things that I'm trying to do. They're trying to blend these R&B and rockabilly and British Invasion kind of ideas, and pull it all together.
So a lot of times, the covers are Memphis things. That particular record, the Shadden and the King Lear's record, it's their second record and probably the hardest one to find, but I've just always loved it. It's a straight up soul song, but then when you hear the original, there's also kind of a weird Dylan element to it. It just pulls in all of these different things, and I thought "I doubt people have heard it." I like to pick things that people haven't heard too many times, because then they don't have expectations about what it should sound like. Covering a song that's been played a million times is a bad idea because you can't win. Especially if the original is really good, people will always compare yours to the original and yours will always fall short. So the best thing to do is pick something people don't know [laughs].
I took a road trip down to Memphis and visited Goner records last summer pretty much for the sake of buying some old Reigning Sound records, since they're actually really hard to get up here in Minnesota. Are you still connected with Goner and the Memphis scene?
Oh yeah, absolutely, I see those guys whenever I go back to town. The Goner Records store, that used to be my record store and then when I moved up to Carolina I sold it to Zac [Ives] and Eric [Fiedl] and they changed it to the Goner Store. The Goner festival is fantastic, the mail order is great, so yeah, I still have a really good connection with those guys, and of course I was in a band with Eric for years.
How did your partnership with Merge come about?
I had met Mac [McCaughan] a few times. He and his wife and kids had come to Ashville, and we went out to dinner -- my family and his family. We got to know them pretty well, and originally, about four or five years ago, I was working on a project called the Parting Gifts, and I wasn't sure what I would do with it, so I called Mac to see if he'd be interested. He told me that they would like to do it but that they wouldn't be able to release it for another year because their release schedule was all full up until then.
So I put it to the other people who were working on the project, and they said that they'd like to have a label that could put it out by the summer so we could go ahead and tour. So we wound up doing it with In The Red records, but during that discussion Mac asked, "Do you want to do the next record with Merge? We'd love to do it." So he kind of put it out there that they were interested and we just kind of took it from there.
You were working with Mary Weiss from the Shangri-Las a little while back. Are there any other music legends that you'd love to work with that you've had contact with at some point?
There's one person that I've always had fantasies about working with. I would love to work with Bobbie Gentry. I love her voice, I love her songwriting, I love so many of the records. I don't think she's done anything to do with singing or anything in the entertainment industry for decades, and I don't blame her. I just think that now, a person like her could make a record and people would get it. She had a couple of hits in the '60s and '70s, but there's so much more of her catalog that would really connect with people if they heard it. I also just think that her style, people would flip for it now. That, and I'd love to do something with Dan Penn, I've never worked with that guy and that would be really cool as well.
You and Jack Yarber and the rest of the Oblivians have been slowly but steadily keeping that reunion going too. Does this mean we'll see another Compulsive Gamblers record in the near future too? Think you'll reboot all of your old projects?
[Laughs] I don't know, I don't know if I'll ever do a Gamblers record again. I wouldn't cross it off the list just yet, I mean, it could happen!
Reigning Sound. With the Sex Rays. $14/$16, 8 p.m., Wednesday, October 29, at Triple Rock Social Club. Tickets.
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