For close to 15 years now, Greg Cartwright has been the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the Reigning Sound. The name has become a place, of sorts, for Cartwright to hang his hat, a sturdy moniker to display his singular talents as a musician and writer. But despite the nearly constant line-up changes, the Reigning Sound remains a band. It’s Cartwright’s band, sure, but it’s a fully functioning unit nonetheless. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the Reigning Sound’s most recent effort, Shattered. Released on sizable indie label Merge, featuring completely new personnel (except for veteran keyboardist Dave Amels), and carrying what some might call a more polished, reserved sound, Shattered still maintains all of the key touchstones that one has come to expect from a Reigning Sound release. Built on a foundation of solid hooks, soulful organ-drenched ballads, and a steady groove courtesy of new sidemen the Jay Vons, Shattered is also Cartwright’s most nuanced, finely tuned album and a further testament to his growing stature as both a songwriter in the classic tradition of Dan Penn and a do-it-yourself music industry iconoclast. To some, both Cartwright’s approach and his sound might seem old fashioned, but as he explains below, it’s the only way he knows how to do it. In addition to his steadfast personal approach to music, the Memphis native also discussed the formation of his new band and the genuine enjoyment he gets playing with new people. We also talked about what it means to make a “pop rock & roll” record for the record industry of the 21st century, Arthur Alexander and Charlie Rich, the uniqueness of the Southern music mentality, his old band, The Oblivians, and the four or five things he does really well.
The band has always been in flux, in one way or another, since the beginning, but this is the first time you’ve had a band that was fully formed as another entity (the Jay Vons). What was it like to play with a band that existed without you? Was there an adjustment period or did you just fall right into a groove?
Greg Cartwright: It worked out pretty good because I dig those guys, and I’ve toured with them. We did a Parting Gifts (a side project with Coco Hames of The Ettes) tour a couple years ago, and Dave Amels, who plays keyboards with me, is also in that band. After that tour, I’d gotten to know them pretty well, and I knew that what they were doing as a band was different than what I do, but I knew that they were pretty solid players. They liked all different kinds of music, so if I played with them, they would be really open to whatever direction I wanted to go in.
What happened was Scion asked me to do an EP. I called Mikey Post, the drummer, and asked if he would come up to Nashville, where I was going to cut the record, and play drums, because I was trying to put a little band together for this EP. I had several other people who were going to play on the record that lived in Nashville, but other things popped up and everybody got too busy to work on the record. Mikey said he would do it and then the rest of the band came up. It was really easy recording with them. It works out pretty good when people have been playing together because they already have a dynamic. They know how to play off each other, so I’m the odd element.
Do you enjoy mixing it up and changing the band from year to year and record to record or is it more a matter of necessity?
GC: It usually happens out of necessity. The original version of the band was the most short-lived. Alex Green, who played keyboards and guitar, had a son and a year later his wife was pregnant with a daughter. Life events happen sometimes and the roster has to be changed up a bit. Luckily, I’ve had a real good relationship with everybody who’s been in the band, and it’s been real natural from one line-up of the group to the next. And everybody that’s played in the band has added something to it, the dynamic of the records and the live performance. I appreciate everything I got from everybody.
Do you find yourself adjusting your songwriting approach—or a song comes in one way and comes out another—because of the band you find yourself with at a given moment?
GC: Yeah, definitely. I try not to be too dominant about how people play things. I get to write the songs and I get to write the lyrics and the melody, and I have an idea about tempo, but the fun part for me is I get to see what other people are going to add. Once I’ve been playing with people for awhile, I actually start to write a little bit in their pocket. That way I feel like I’ll get the best out of what they have to offer.
And that’s gratifying for you?
GC: If I can come up with something that’s in their wheelhouse, then they can nail it. I think it’s good to try to play to the strengths of everybody.
As opposed to being a tyrant.
GC: Yeah, you can go that route, but it doesn’t work very well.
When I listen to this record, it’s not any sort of dramatic departure from any other Reigning Sound record, but one record it keeps reminding me of is Arthur Alexander’s Rainbow Road Recordings.
GC: Oh, that’s one of my favorite CDs, also The Monument Years. There are so many unreleased gems. It’s been my dream that Ace or somebody will release all of it as a double LP. It’s just so great. I love the way that it’s recorded. It’s simple and it’s the way people used to make records. You go in the studio and you hammer out the songs and you cut it live, and then if you’re going to add strings, you add strings. But the overdubbing is limited, because you’ve only got eight tracks to work with or whatever. And that’s pretty much the way we made this record. We cut it to one-inch tape machine. You get the initial five instruments and you’d put on a lead vocal and maybe a back-up vocal, and there’s just not much room left. It makes mixing the record really easy because there’s only eight faders to move.
You only have so many choices.
GC: To me, the fewer choices the better when it comes to me mixing. With modern recording—with digital especially—there’s just so many options that I get lost. With digital, you record a song, you record a vocal, but you’re not feeling so sure about it. Somebody says, “Oh, we’ll just cut another one and we’ll piece together the best.” Same thing for guitar solos: “Cut 12 of them and decide later.” Sifting through all the debris later is a fucking headache. Why not just figure it out and cut it? Then you’re done.
So, yeah, this record has a lot in common with that Arthur Alexander stuff and other stuff from that period. It’s kind of a country R&B vibe that’s going on, with a little bit of rock & roll. Arthur is a big influence on me, as is Dan Penn and Charlie Rich.
I feel like if those guys had experienced punk they would make a record like Shattered. You’re sort of locked in with this garage-punk world, but throughout your career, what I’ve always appreciated is the association with those guys. That’s how I saw this record.
GC: Absolutely. That’s a uniquely Southern thing. Other regional scenes that were going on in America in the ’50s and ’60s produced similar effects, but to me, growing up in Memphis and listening to lots of records and hearing lots of Memphis records, the thing that really turned me on about Memphis music and that I tried to emulate was that thing were it was like, it’s slightly country and it’s slightly R&B and they’re trying to roll it all up into one thing and then put a rock & roll beat behind it. All these different kinds of musical forms, like jazz and R&B and country and straight-up hillbilly, rockabilly stuff were all kind of mingling. And then you have these people like James Carr, who was a straight up R&B singer, but the guy who produced those records was Quinton Claunch, a total country guy. It’s like all these people are speaking this kind of secret language. It really moves me. I want to find my own voice, but I want to make that kind of sound.
It’s like you’ve made the music that everyone listens to on the radio in a parallel universe. It’s immediate and has great melodies, but at the same time it’s out of step with what’s on Top 40 radio. Do you have any sense of a broader audience at this point?
GC: I really don’t care. I’ve been doing my thing for so long and following whatever instinct I have. But I know at this point any kind of commercial sense is… You know, I kind of doubt it. I’m definitely done searching for it. The more people that dig it, the better, and that’s great and that’s why I make the records. If this was 1965 or ’63 even, I might have a chance. Modern pop radio is just delivering a totally different kind of music to people, and pop music has changed so much. But at the same time, I think of what I’m trying to do as pop rock & roll. But “pop rock & roll” means something completely different now. I was amazed a couple of years ago that Charles Bradley got nominated for a music award, not in the R&B field, but in “indie.” Because R&B is not R&B music anymore. That he’s not even a qualifier is ridiculous. It’s just a weird upside-down world with stuff like that. I don’t begrudge that times move forward and that people’s ideas about what should be what changes, but it doesn’t change what I like as a musician. I’m going to stay this course that I’m on because it’s the only thing that moves me.
It’s a tricky thing with the public. With anybody’s audience, to some degree, they want you to make the same record over and over again. But at the same time they get mad and go, “What a one trick pony!” On some level, you can’t win. If you’re going to change, you have to change without pandering to a larger audience by going, “Oh maybe I’ll do what so-and-so does because that’s kind of popular right now.” Those are always the worst decisions you can make. But if all of sudden you’re really into baroque pop music and you want to put a slice of that into what you do, then go for it. But doing things where your motivation is trying to make people like you more, it always backfires.
Speaking of baroque pop, I noticed some Left Banke action on this record. Are you going through a baroque pop moment or was that just a spontaneous studio decision to use strings?
GC: I definitely like the Left Banke. I like a lot of ’60s baroque folk/pop music. I’m occasionally tempted to put strings on something because I think it might really work, and there’s so many great records that I love where people really use strings. R&B, rock & roll—it doesn’t have to be just baroque. There’s definitely a way to use strings where it enhances the song and it’s not just bling. It really should help the song be in forward motion. I’ve used strings on a couple other records, but always sparingly. I don’t feel like I’m talented enough to go full-tilt. It’s also nice when you’re listening to a record and one song adds something extra, but you don’t want to hear it on every single song.
This record compared to, say, Too Much Guitar or, generally, your live shows, is more mellow, for lack of a better word. Was that a conscious choice on your part to write songs that are a little more restrained?
GC: I think it just happened to be where my head was at the moment. When I sat down and started working on chord changes and ideas for subjects and stuff, they were the songs that wanted to be written. I very rarely consciously sit down and write songs in a particular mode. Usually, it’s just what life offers me in the way of inspiration. Sometimes people don’t want that—they want the record to sound just like the last record—but I don’t know how to do that. I seriously just don’t even know how. I like the freedom of being able to change gears when it feels right, rather than trying to stay true to some form. The first Reigning Sound record doesn’t sound anything like The Oblivians. It’s not even really a rock record. You get a lot of people who are really disappointed or who don’t like it, and they tell you they don’t like it.
Because they have you fixed: you’re the dude from The Oblivians.
GC: Yeah, they want you to be the garage guy. And I understand, but I just can’t submit to that. It’s too narrow for me. I always just like to kind of keep moving. And I may revisit certain ideas and certain types of things, because there’s only a few different things that I do. It’s kind of a Russian roulette and you don’t now what you’re going to get. There’s only about five things that I do, but you don’t know what it might be. But if you like the whole package then it will probably be something that you like.
The Oblivians reunited and recorded a new album. Did you have to put The Oblivians cap on for that?
GC: It was a lucky thing. I had a few songs that hit the mark and I didn’t have to sit down and write specifically for that record. I had some things in my back catalog that I could use. Then once we started rehearsing, I was in that head zone of what The Oblivians’ dynamic sounds like. With The Oblivians, more than any project I’ve ever done, there are sonic limitations to what the band can pull off. The drums are real simple, and the guitars are real simple. That’s the dynamic. When we first started playing, Eric (Friedl) had just learned guitar, so whatever we decided to play had to be kept really simple so he could play along. Boxy chord progressions that are really fun. To his credit, he still pretty much plays that way. It’s not like he spent the last 10 years woodshedding to become the world’s greatest shredding guitar player. We still needed a couple more songs, but I was already in that headspace so it was a natural byproduct of starting rehearsals and getting in that vibe.
So the Reigning Sound is you, but would you ever do a record as Greg Cartwright and would that somehow depart form the Reigning Sound?
GC: I don’t know. I’ve thought about that myself. Maybe I would, but only if I felt like I was going to do something that stepped outside of what I already do.
Right, the techno record or the synth-pop record.
GC: Or some kind of Middle Eastern trance record. I don’t know, maybe. But I kind of doubt it.