It’s been nearly five years since we’ve heard anything from Reigning Sound—far too long for a lot of people. Frontman Greg Cartwright, in some circles, is considered one of the great songwriters of the past 20 years. He got his start in the Memphis garage-rock scene with bands like the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers before he stretched out to form Reigning Sound in 2001. Albums like Break Up, Break Down and Time Bomb High School, showed his range, from guitar-heavy garage punk to soulful ballads that captured heartbreak so purely, you had to wonder what was going on in Cartwright’s life.
Shattered—Reigning Sound’s latest LP, and first on Merge Records—is a perfect mix of everything that’s come before. Cartwright is in fine form. And a recent performance showed he can still kill live.
Cartwright took some time to chat with Paste about his new lineup, new label and new lease on life.
Paste: So, what took so long?
Greg Cartwright: Well, there was a lineup change. I had new players come in, and we made a promotional EP that we gave away at shows—between this record and Love & Curses—and that was the first recording with all the guys I’m playing with now. We did a lot of touring to get them up to speed with all the basic material I was playing, all the back-catalog stuff. When we finally decided to record a new record, we had to decide where we were going to do it. The other guys in the band live on the East Coast, and I live in North Carolina, which isn’t too far away, but you’ve got to be really organized to get everybody’s schedule in the same spot to travel for rehearsals or recording dates. Also, I had some friends and family with health issues, and that kind of put a pause on the recording session once it got going.
Paste: Tell me more about the process. Did playing with a new band alter the sound?
Cartwright: I’d say it did. And in ways that are really good for me. In some ways the lineup now sounds a bit more like I originally envisioned the band. I have not just bass and drums and keyboard, but I also have an extra guitar. And I also have Mike [Catanese] and Benny [Trokan], who are the guitarist and bass player, who can sing really well, and can sing backup. A big part of the original group on the first three albums, I had Alex Greene and Jeremy [Scott], and they sang harmony on a bunch of songs. And Love & Curses doesn’t really have that. And especially in a live situation, I didn’t have anyone to sing backup. And for choruses and melodic parts that really fill out a song, I’d been really missing that. It’s really nice to have that again.
Paste: I was going to say, through a few listens, the new record reminds me of Break Up, Break Down a little bit.
Cartwright: Yeah, I think so, too. It’s very similar to me. I think the only thing is that Break Up, Break Down doesn’t have any rockers on it—I wanted to do some ballads and things I’d been working on. I think with Break Up, Break Down it was the last time I ever considered making an album that was almost entirely mid-tempo to slow ballads. I like that record a lot. From here on out, I can’t imagine that I would go that full-on in that direction. Because it was kind of a purge for me, because I had been doing the Oblivians for a long time, I hade been doing a little bit of [Compulsive] Gamblers, and I just had all these ballads—I had a backlog, basically. It’s nice to be able to pepper those songs through an hour record. It’s harder to pull off when that’s the focus. It’s not a party record at all [laughs]. You know, if it’s something you want to play for your friends at a party, it’s going to be a really sad party [laughs].
Paste: You’re on Merge Records now…how did that come about? That’s a big change…
Cartwright: It really was. I’d worked with Larry [Hardy] at In The Red for a long time. And before that I’d worked with Crypt Records, and Sympathy For the Record Industry for a while. It’s kind of funny, I’ve always worked with these one-man operations. It really was intriguing to me, the idea of being on a label where there’s a mechanism and a platform for the artist. Whereas someone who’s running it out of a room in their house—that’s actually amazing to me, that there are people that love what they’re doing so much that they’d run it out of their house [laughs]. They’re dedicated. But I thought, what would the other side of this be like? One of the only options out there for me was Merge because they’ve been around for a while. They kind of missed all of the pitfalls of the late-’90s when a lot of independents signed deals with big labels or became an arm of one of those large companies. So, to me, that meant they were doing it right.
Paste: Here’s a question that I’m curious to hear how you respond. A lot of people, including myself, think of you as one of the great songwriters of the past 20 years. What do you think when you hear that?
Cartwright: I’m really humbled. You know, it is the most fulfilling thing, I think, for any artist or musician to know they’re connecting with their audience the way they hoped they were going to. But at the same time, I’m so full of self-doubt [laughs]. It’s very hard to think anything but that. But I’m just happy that you’re happy. That other people that buy the records are happy. But yeah, it makes me a little uncomfortable [laughs].
Paste: You put out an Oblivians record about a year ago. How was that to sort of go back and change gears?
Cartwright: It was really great. It was really, really fun. I never anticipated we’d do another record, but we did the European tour with the Gories, we did a handful of one-off shows; and after the European tour we were playing songs off of Popular Favorites better than we played them when the album came out. At that point I thought, “OK, I don’t wanna do this anymore, because now I’m sick of it like I was in ’96.” [laughs] We were having more fun together, but the only way we could continue this was to go ahead make new songs. I was really liking that dynamic as far as being more aggressive.
Paste: Although I could kind of hear, I guess your songwriting as it is today, creep into some of those Oblivians songs.
Cartwright: You’re absolutely right. I mean there’re definitely threads that run through all of them. In the Reigning Sound you can hear the Oblivians or the Gamblers, and vice versa. Sometimes they’re more pronounced.
Paste: I read something, and you said that the trick is to try to make something different each time. Is that something you still try to do?
Cartwright: Absolutely. The genres that I’m trying to use—like country and folk and R&B and rock—they’re all things I came in contact with in Memphis, and on the records I grew up with. I try to assimilate all those things in, and try to change the composition each time, so that it does something a little bit different. I want it to still sound like me, but I want people interested. It’s tempting sometimes to tailor the songs to what you think people want to hear. Honest to God, an album full of balls-out rockers would kill, but at the same time I just have to go with what I feel like writing. Because when I try to do it the other way it comes off as disingenuous and I don’t write a good song.