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North Cackalacky Boy – A Conversation with Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound, the Oblivians)

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North Cackalacky Boy – A Conversation with Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound, the Oblivians)

Anna Blumenthal

After a string of Northeast solo tour dates last month, I met up with Greg Cartwright in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, just down the block from Norton Records’ HQ where he was staying. If there’s such a thing as garage rock royalty, Cartwright is it. He formed The Compulsive Gamblers in Memphis in 1990 with Jack Yarber, and then The Oblivians just a few years later. Both bands combined the best elements of bratty, boozy punk with lyrics that were full of fury and yet also somehow heartwrenching, played over amps pushed to their limit, and beyond.

In the early 2000s, Cartwright formed Reigning Sound, which keeps the best elements of his earlier bands but presents them in a more grown-up, listener-friendly package.

Since he started Reigning Sound, Cartwright and his family have moved to Asheville, North Carolina. The band has gone through multiple lineup changes, and he’s been involved with a handful of side projects – most notably backing  Shangri-La Mary Weiss for her 2007 Norton Records comeback, Dangerous Game, and releasing an album with The Parting Gifts, featuring members of The Ettes, The Greenhornes and The Black Keys in 2010.

Over coffee, Cartwright and I chatted about vintage gear and his FOUP – fear of using pedals.

Greg Cartwright: The only thing that I ever really need is a fuzz. It’s not that I don’t like effects, it’s that I can’t multi-task enough to use them. I can’t imagine being on stage and trying to remember all the lyrics and push all these buttons while I play guitar. And sing. [laughs]

Anna Blumenthal: I feel the same way! I think if you play and sing, it’s so hard.

GC: Yeah, it’s lead guitar player territory, to have lots of pedals. I love hearing other people play cool effects, it’s just hard for me to focus, and pushing all those buttons - just thinking about it makes me nervous. But sometimes you just need a fuzz, and the Park Fuzz sounds great. It sounds exactly like what I want.

AB: Did you ever play the old Park Fuzz?

GC: No, I never had one, but I heard other people play them. Since I got that one, I’ve used it on some recordings. Aside from just some reverb and delay, I don’t use a lot. I don’t think I could physically do it myself, but I love to hear other people use ‘em.

AB: Would you use more pedals in the studio?

GC: Yeah, that’s the kind of place where you could use the effects and you don’t have to worry about actually using them while you’re playing. You can put it on the guitar after the fact.

AB: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that’s why you aren’t into them – I thought it’s cause you’re only into vintage gear.

GC: No, it’s more about the fact that I cannot multitask. [laughs]

AB: Are there bands or producers that you’ve played with lately that have influenced your sound? I know you worked with Dan Auerbach and he’s into a lot of quirky vintage gear.

GC: He is. It was funny, working with Dan. Usually, when I do a recording, I might have a couple different reverbs to choose from, but Dan would have like five or six different reverbs going, and each track would have a different kind of reverb, and it sounded great. It was totally outside anything I would’ve thought to do. But then he did it and it sounded great.

AB: Did you pick him because you thought he’d have a lot of good input, sound-wise?

GC: To be honest, I was totally unaware of any productions that Dan had done outside of the Black Keys. When he contacted me, he got in touch through a friend and said, “If you ever want to make a record, why don’t you come here and do it, I’d love to produce a record by you.”

And then not long after, I got approached by Scion and they wanted to do a little EP or something, and I thought, maybe I can kill two birds with one stone – this company wants an EP and Dan wants to make something. But then, after working with him, he did several productions. The next thing he had in the studio after us was the Dr. John record that he did. And I thought that turned out really, really great.

AB: Did you know him before you worked with him?

GC: I knew him just a little bit. Maybe seven or eight years ago, he came through town with the Black Keys and the opening band was The Hentchmen. I was friends with all those guys, and they said, “Oh man, you gotta meet Dan! He’s a big fan!” So we all hung out at a friend’s place afterwards and got to know each other a little bit, and then a few years later when I was working on that first Parting Gifts record in Nashville, Dan came by and played guitar, and then later he said, “If you ever want to do something, I just built a new studio”, so that’s how we ended up going there to record that record.

AB: Are you a big gear nerd?

GC: I love vintage gear. I really love old amplifiers, especially little combo amps because I really like playing out of a small single circuit amplifier with a small speaker, low wattage. You just push it real hard, and it breaks up in a way where the signal compresses, and it’s a different kind of distortion. When you hear a Marshall stack or any kind of large amp and you put distortion on it, it’s got this sheen that just kind of rings out loud and clear, but when you play through a small amp and push it to its utter limits, it compresses and makes a different kind of distortion.

When I was in the Oblivians, we wanted to sound like The Pagans. And when you listen to those Pagans records, the distortion is a different sound than what you normally hear. It sounds like a really small amp that’s just being pushed so hard that it’s - it’s hard to describe, but it’s not distortion, maybe explosion or something. And everything’s this burst, whereas most distortion just becomes a wall of static, and I don’t like that sound, that doesn’t do it for me.

When we started the Oblivians, the other guitarist, Eric, was just learning how to play guitar, and the idea was that Jack and I could kind of steer him as far as how to play. Both of us could play well enough on drums and guitar that we could cover everything and then show him. So he went out with Jack and they found a guitar at a pawn shop, and it was really cheap. Then we needed an amplifier, and we went around to all the pawn shops and couldn’t really find anything in his price range which I think was $100. [laughs]

There was this couch at the Goodwill out on Elvis Presley Boulevard that he wanted to check out, so we went to go look at it, and I think he wound up buying the couch, but there was also an old Marantz stereo in the electronics section of the store that was a Marantz receiver, a Marantz tape deck, and these two bizarro speakers, that were about 4’ tall, and then the face of it, where the front would be, was scooped…

AB: Like concave?

GC: Yeah, concave speakers! They were the weirdest speakers. Anyway, the whole thing was $50, and then we realized you can just plug in to the input of the tape deck, and hit record, and put it to ‘tape’ and then the record level is your distortion. If you push the record level all the way up, it’s gonna send a super-hot signal to the amplifier, and it sounded exactly like a small amplifier being pushed real hard. We used that for at least four shows and then it blew up on stage (laughs).

AB: Did he buy a real amp after that?

GC: Then after that he had to get a real amp. I think he got a Fender Twin too, which is like the exact opposite. It’s like the loudest, cleanest amp in the world.

AB: When you play with Reigning Sound now, are you still using these small combos? Are they loud enough for the venues you’re playing?

GC: Yeah, I’ve always used small amps. When I started off with the Reigning Sound, the first couple tours we went out I had a little Gretsch amplifier that had two octagonal speakers, 10 or 12” speakers. I’ve never had a big amplifier. Everything I’ve ever had has been like 10” speakers or 6” speakers.

The funny thing is, you would think that that would cause a problem in a venue where everybody needs to hear you, but that’s the opposite, and you know this because you’ve been in a band. Every time you go somewhere and you set your gear up, and you turn your amp on and you get a sound going that you really like, the first thing the sound guy says is, “You have to turn down. That is too loud.” And you’re like, well it has to be this loud for it to sound good, because if I turn it down the amp’s not going to react the same. Well, in my position, the amp sounds great all the way up and it’s still not very loud. So the sound man’s super happy.

AB: And then they just mic it.

GC: They mic it and they can make it sound great in the house and they just put a little bit in the monitor for me and we’re all good.

AB: So are you looking on eBay and Reverb? Where do you get most of your gear?

GC: I’m so lucky. I’ve been given, or have on permanent loan from Dave [Amels, Reigning Sound keyboardist], some amps that he’s been hanging on to for a long time, and then also I’ve just bought things over the years that I find in junk shops or pawn shops. Recently, a great music store opened up in Asheville called Heydey Music. They have tons of good vintage gear. I worked for ‘em for a while, and I was the best employee you could hope for cause I just worked for trade ‘cause I just wanted more amplifiers. [laughs]

AB: How many of these amps do you have?

GC: I got a lot. More than my wife would like me to have. They’re small but you have enough of ‘em, they take up space. I probably have about 20 small amps that I really like. But the one that I brought on this tour is the one that I used for the Merge album [2014’s Shattered].

AB: What’s that one?

GC: It’s a Premier. And it’s old. I think it’s from 1951 or ‘52. And it just sounds amazing. And part of what makes those little small amps sound great is that some of the magic really is in those old speakers - it’s a different kind of paper. The thickness of it is different. The cones that they make now are completely different, the paper is made differently, it reacts differently. So I took the speaker out of it and I reserved it for when I’m in the studio. And I put a modern small speaker in it to travel with. That way I save the magic for when it really counts. The modern speaker sounds pretty good but the old one’s a little more special.

AB: Have you ever played any new amps that you like?

GC: I did. A while back there was a friend who was working for VHT, and they were working on this small combo amp with a 15 in it, which is kind of my favorite. If I’m gonna go out on the road with a band, a combo amp with a 15” speaker is my dream. A 15” speaker sitting on the floor is gonna give you such great bass response, more than a 12” speaker or a 10” or a 6”. It’s got that crispy midrange stuff and the treble, but it’s also got good bass response, and that’s really important to me, especially when you’re with a band, so that your guitar tone doesn’t just get lost in all the midrange happening on stage. Cause you got keyboards, cymbals, all this stuff in that same frequency. So this VHT sounded pretty good but they sent me a prototype of it to use. I toured around with it and I don’t think they ever manufactured it for whatever reason.

The game has definitely changed with vintage stuff. There was a time when the off-brand stuff was cheap, especially in the south, where I was growing up. In Tennessee and Mississippi and Arkansas that stuff was around at flea markets and it didn’t cost anything. Silvertones and all that stuff – those were thought of primarily as toys - basically something manufactured for children to throw at a wall till it’s broken. [laughs] They weren’t really thought of as something professional musicians played. And of course now, there is a charm about them and they do have a particular sound about them, and people want them.

When I was in the Oblivians I played a Harmony Rocket that I paid $80 for, and then when that one broke I bought another one for $100. I thought, these will always be replaceable, they’re always around, they’re always cheap. And now that same guitar is gonna cost you like $800. The Gibsons, Gretschs and Guilds are holding their value, but it’s funny how these little cheapo brands are gaining, and the big name vintage stuff is holding. And the other stuff is slowing catching up. It’s really weird.

AB: Do you only play vintage guitars?

GC: No, my three main guitars are the two Gretschs, a Gretsch Clipper from 1963, and one that I bought in the late 90s, that’s kind of more of a modern model, and then my other main guitar is a Gibson 335 which I don’t travel with anymore. But there’s a really good story with that.

When I was still based in Memphis, Gibson opened a guitar factory and next to the guitar plant there was a lounge and they started booking big touring acts - jazz, blues, greats and stuff. And our first chance to play there was opening up for Etta James. And the people who ran the place said, if you’re a local band and you get invited to play here three times or more, we’ll give you a guitar. The first band to do that was this band from Memphis called Lucero. The third time they played there, they said to Brian, the lead guitar player, “We’re gonna give you a guitar, what would you like?” And he said, “I’ll take a Les Paul.” So they gave it to him, and the very next day he sold it to a guitar shop in town. And they found out, of course. And then they said, no more guitars!

AB: Were you about to have your third show there?

GC: We were on our second show there, and I was so bummed. And a few months had passed, we got invited to play again, and so we went in and got sound checked and then this lady from the office upstairs came down and said, “You know, we said we weren’t gonna do this, but if we give you a guitar, will you promise not to sell it?” I was like, “I’m left handed, so anything you give me is gonna be something I could never afford, and I would never give it away, I promise.” So they said, “Okay, what do you want?” And I said I want a left handed 335 and they went and grabbed one off the floor and brought it in to me, and put in a case – it was the greatest! That’s what I had always, always, always wanted. And I just couldn’t afford one. Whatever a right handed 335 costs, tack on like an extra $1000 for a left-handed one.

AB: That’s insane, that it’s so much more.

GC: The price difference is insane! So that was my main guitar for a long time and then two years ago, I went with the Oblivians to Australia and as we left the stage someone came up to clear away mics and knocked it over and broke the neck. I got a good luthier in Asheville to fix it but after that, I decided I’m not taking it anywhere anymore, just to the studio - but it’s not going out of town.

AB: You just bring the Gretschs?

GC: Yeah, cause they’re a little more expendable. I have the Tennessee Rose and then the Gretsch Clipper is the older one. It’s totally the budget model.

AB: Do you have a lot of guitars?

GC: No…I have those three, I have an SG, I have a couple of acoustics and also a friend not too long ago built me a custom Telecaster. I had an electric 12 string for a while.

AB: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you play the SG.

GC: Yeah, I actually have taken the SG on the road a few times ‘cause it plays really well and it’s one of the ones that Gibson did a couple years ago, it’s like their 70s reissue series, and it looks like a kind of honeyburst…it’s pretty and it plays well and it’s made in the United States.

AB: So, what’s next? Are you working on another Parting Gifts record?

GC: We were working on one for a while but then we scrapped the idea because of some personal reasons, in addition to the logistical nightmare of each member living in a different state. But, on the good side, Coco [Hames] walked away with all the material that we had worked on for her, and I have all the stuff that I was working on. She’s got a solo album that’s coming out this month on Merge. The first song that they released was a co-write between her and I that was originally intended for the Parting Gifts, and it’s really good.

AB: That’s good. It seems like it’s close enough to Reigning Sound too that you could still use those songs, right?

GC: Exactly. I’m probably gonna do that. I was also working on bringing a third writer into the Parting Gifts, for when we started working on it again. I brought in Jesse from Gentlemen Jesse from Atlanta, cause he was looking for a project, so I think Jesse and I might work on a collaborative effort. I don’t know what we’ll call it yet.

AB: Will there ever be a Compulsive Gamblers reunion?

GC: I don’t know. But, I do know that, within a year, all the Compulsive Gamblers’ stuff is gonna get a reissue, which will be really great, cause that stuff has been out of print for over a decade.

AB: Are you still friends with all of those guys?

GC: Yeah, absolutely. It’s slightly different lineups on all the records but it’s mainly me and Jack [Yarber] and then whoever happened to be in the band. Some of it was with Jeff Meyer of the Detroit Cobras, the last album, and then there’s some stuff with Rod Thomas. It’s all varied personnel. The only constant is that it’s me and Jack.

AB: What’s next for Reigning Sound?

GC: The next big gig for Reigning Sound is the Billy Miller Memorial show in New York on April 29th at Music Hall of Williamsburg.


Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays guitar in Party Lights and bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.