There were times when we just didn't get along," says Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright of his storied former band, the Oblivians, whose raw fusion of gutter punk, blues, jubilee gospel, and country boogie won them a legion of fans in the mid-'90s and who will be playing a one-time-only (or so they say) reunion gig at the Hi-Tone CafÇ on Halloween night.
"Man, I don't care who you are," he says of the trio's glory days. "If you spend enough time together, you're going to find a reason not to like each other. And we were spending a whole lot of time together back then. It's the same story with any band, really. Some bands like Aerosmith can stay together even though they hate each other because the financial rewards are so, you know -- TEMPTING. But man "
There's no need to complete the sentence. In spite of their tremendous critical success, the Oblivians weren't exactly pulling down Aerosmith money.
"It's not like we ever sat down and decided to break up either," says Oblivians' guitar player Eric Friedl (currently of the Dutch Masters), implying that, as the bad blood continued to boil, nature just took its course.
"The great thing about it," Cartwright continues, "is that we ended things on a high note. We just did the best we could and called it a night. Now, years later, when we get together and practice, it feels fresh again; it's not like an oldies show where you've got a group that's been playing the same exact shit for years. And also, we can really appreciate each other's company again. That's a blessing."
But why, after all this time, when Memphis scenesters had all but given up hope that they would ever have the chance to see the Oblivians play together again, have the boys decided to put the past behind them and kick out the jams one last time?
"People just keep asking us to do it," says Jack Yarber, who currently plays with a slate of bands, including the Tearjerkers, the Cool Jerks, and South Filthy. "They just kept on asking."
"It's not like you get off stage [with your current band] and somebody comes up and says, 'That really sucked, I want to see the Oblivians," Friedl says. "But people want to hear those songs. And they want to see us play together again."
"There's not a month that goes by," Cartwright continues, "that somebody doesn't say, 'Why don't you do a show, or put a tour together, or record another album?'"
The group had planned to reunite for a set at the recent record-release party for Shangri-La's History of Memphis Garage Rock: The '90s, a compilation that featured a number of Oblivians and Oblivians-related tracks. But at the time, Cartwright's wife was pregnant and not interested in going into a crowded, smoky bar brimming with drunks.
"For me, it doesn't make any sense to do it if my wife can't go," says family-man Cartwright, expressing a rather un-Oblivians sentiment. "Since I'm probably not going to do it again, I asked the guys if we could push it back to October, and they said that was fine."
"I can feel the same old pains coming back into my arms when I'm playing drums," says Yarber, who after all this time still seems amazed that the group could fit so many beats into a two-and-a-half-minute song. "But after running through the songs a few times, it's all starting to come back."
"I swear, we've practiced more for this show than I can ever remember practicing when we were together," Friedl claims.
"And [we're not just playing] the usual songs," Cartwright boasts. "You're going to get all the loose ends. I've tried to concentrate on songs we never really played that much live. We wrote so many songs at one point, and we were just recording them as quickly as we could. Some of them never got played more than once or twice. For me, I thought it would be more fun to do than just the standards. So there will be a lot of stuff people have never seen live."
So just what is it about the Oblivians that keeps fans begging for more? If you ask the band, they just shrug and chalk it up to chemistry.
"When I hear Jack [sing], it reminds me of when you hear those really weird, obscure, rural rockabilly records from the '50s and there's just some country guy, like, yelling and screaming," says Cartwright. "And Eric wrote classic punk-rock lyrics like, 'Emergency, I need a nurse/Or somebody's gonna get hurt.' It's funny, tongue-in-cheek stuff."
"Greg is just full of songs," Yarber offers. "At practice, you'd come in and say, 'I have a new song,' and Greg would be like, 'Oh yeah, well I have three new songs.'"
Everyone agrees, however, that the key component of the Oblivians' sound stemmed from the fact that Friedl essentially learned to play guitar while playing in the Oblivians.
"We had to keep everything very basic," Friedl says. "Whatever we ended up with, that's what we were stuck with."
"And I've not become a better guitar player," Friedl says. "Not at all. I can play a few bar chords now, but really learning to play has never been an interest for me. I'm not faking it up there."
The Hi-Tone CafÇ
Friday, October 31st