To call the Oblivians “garage rock” doesn’t quite do it justice. They’re more like sub-basement boogie, crawl-space punk, distilling the music to its most fundamental elements until all that’s left are a couple of chords and a beat chasing chaos.
The Memphis trio came together in the early ‘90s, recorded a handful of albums, then broke up to pursue other projects. A few reunion shows since 2010 led to the trio’s first album in 15 years, “Desperation” (In the Red), which mixes the primitive intensity of the vintage years with a self-deprecating humor from the band members’ vantage point as adults with families. The album art includes a caricature of the band holding a sign that reads “Will Record for Food!” -- playfully mocking the idea of a bunch of fortysomethings reuniting to relive their glory days.
“There were a lot of jokes floating around about aging rock bands making reunion records, but the reality of it is that it’s still fun,” says singer-guitarist-drummer Greg Cartwright. “I’ve got three kids now and a lot less time on my hands than when we first started playing in the band, but it’s not a chore for me to get into the Oblivions’ head space. We get into a room together, and it’s there. It’s like, ‘Man, this feels good.’ There is no reason to do this other than that.”
Cartwright and his bandmate Jack Yarber had been playing together in Memphis bands as teens in the ‘80s, inspired by dirty-sounding blues, rockabilly and proto-punk 45-rpm singles and groups such as the Cramps, the Gun Club and Memphis wild man Tav Falco’s Panther Burns.
“I had friends into punk and hardcore in the early ‘80s,” Cartwright says. “I tried to like it, but most of it was crap. It wasn’t about songs or groove, it was more like a race to get to the end as fast as you could. It was more about aggressiveness. Then I saw Tav Falco, and it was crazy -- blues, rockabilly from this guy who was not a trained singer. There was something very jarring about it, but also cool. I thought, ‘This I understand. There is something wrong about this, but something right about it as well.’ That started changing the way I looked at writing and playing.”
After a stint in the Compulsive Gamblers, a Memphis band that included violin and saxophone, Cartwright and Yarber “actively tried to escape that sound and do something a little more abrasive and groove-oriented” in Oblivians. Cartwright had briefly toured with Jeff Evans of the Gibson Bros. as a drummer, even though he had never played drums before.
“I did two months with Jeff playing a floor tom and snare, as simple as I could be because I wasn’t very good,” he says with a laugh. “I came back from that tour and we started doing Oblivions rehearsals in that mind set of working within your limitations to do something with edge and groove.”
Another Memphis musician (and cofounder of indie label Goner Records), Eric Friedl, rounded out the lineup. The band members all wrote and sang lead vocals. They swapped instruments while working with the simplest tools: a couple of guitars, a rudimentary drum kit, a handful of chords.
“Eric’s songwriting and style best represent what the band is,” Cartwright says. “Jack and myself were playing together before, but with Eric everything changed. We had to adapt to his style. His songs are so simple and to the point – like a photograph of little moments in time when something strange happens. We have our own songwriting styles, and there is friendly competition within the band, trying to top each other. But it’s more along the lines of ‘That song is so ridiculous, I’m going to make one even dumber.’ ”
Self-deprecating humor aside, the Oblivians tap into the rock ‘n’ roll id like few other bands. They were in fifth gear on the first song on their first album, a ballistic, piano-pounding cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Viet Nam Blues,” and haven’t let up since. But Cartwright shrugs off the notion that they’re torch-bearers for some kind of “keep it simple, stupid” musical value system.
“There are a lot of other people out there that dug what we’re doing and took it somewhere else, like Jay Reatard,” who died in 2010, he says. “I played with him on his early recordings, and he brought a real pop sensibility to what we were doing, and in some ways surpassed what we were doing as far as doing something that could appeal beyond the crowd we were making records for. Groups like the Cheater Slicks, the Gories – they’re mining the same area of music. But I do think nobody does it quite like us.”
Oblivians: 9:30 p.m. July 13 at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Av., $14, emptybottle.com.; 8:30 p.m. July 14 at West Fest Chicago, Chicago Avenue between Damen Avenue and Wood Street, $5 donation, westfestchicago.com.
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