Reigning Sound :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Greg Cartwright had pretty much invented a certain kind of rowdy, country-blues garage rock by the time he was a teenager playing with the Compulsive Gamblers and then the Oblivians. His Reigning Sound project started as an outlet for songs too moody and slow and vulnerable for the Oblivians’ barn-burning style, yet by the aughts Time Bomb High School and, later, Too Much Guitar, it too was an unhinged rock experience, especially live. Cartwright is still famous for a show at Maxwells, where he played so furiously that he ended with just three guitar strings.

The last couple of Reigning Sound albums, 2011’s Abdication and 2014’s Shattered, have relied on New York City’s the Jay Vons for a backing band, but in early 2020, just off a tour for reissued Home For Orphans and with the pandemic looming, Cartwright went back to Memphis to record. We talk about his latest album, A Little More Time With Reigning Sound, what it’s like to have the original band together again and the difficult, occasionally harrowing circumstances, that knocked these songs loose and into the world. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: It sounds like this album was a homecoming for you, recorded in Memphis with the original Reigning Sound line-up. What was it like being back together again?

Greg Cartwright: It was really fun. It’s a great dynamic that holds a special place in my heart. It’s really good to play with them again.

We had been out on the road doing a handful of shows at the end of February and early March of 2020 to promote Merge’s reissue of Home for Orphans, which was the last record that we all did together as a band. So, we were out playing shows just right before the pandemic started and right before everything locked down. We had a really good time. We hadn’t played together in a while at that point.

Once I got the idea to try to do some recording, I looked into maybe going to New York and working with the guys from the Jay Vons who have been on the last couple of Reigning Sound records, but New York was kind of a hot spot at that time, so that wasn’t going to happen. I had already kind of rekindled the dynamic with the Memphis crew and it seemed like that made a lot of sense.

AD: I remember that February and March period of last year, where it seemed like every week, there was something else you couldn’t do, like you couldn’t go to the gym and maybe you shouldn’t go to shows. It was a very weird time. It must have been especially weird to be out on the road.

Greg Cartwright: It was a weird time to be out on the road. Just as we were wrapping it up, there were cases popping up. It really did get to the point to where I thought, even beside just me being scared being out here in large crowds every night, maybe it’s wrong that I’m encouraging people to come into these atmospheres. I was really glad that the tour was ending around that time. I was starting to feel awkward about the whole scenario.

AD: It must be a difficult thing to write through, the lockdown and the COVID outbreak. The first song on this album, “Let’s Do It Again” seems like a pandemic song. You talk about starting a garden and doing jigsaw puzzles and walking the dog and talking on the phone. It’s all these things we were doing during the lockdown. You don’t have a sourdough verse, but…

Greg Cartwright: [Laughs]

AD: How do you write about this period when everybody’s sitting around at home hoping not to die? It seems like not a very good environment for art.

Greg Cartwright: It is really tricky, right? That’s kind of the thing with art. You can use it to talk about what’s going on inside of you, but it’s also a reflective thing. You’re reflecting what’s going on all around you. To be honest, I was not writing at all. Like anybody else, I was putting my energy into making sourdough. I wasn’t really thinking about writing songs or anything. I was trying to figure out what to do with all the time…jogging or whatever people were doing. But then, there were a series of events that led to me having to deal with a lot of personal stuff that was going on.

My parents live in Memphis. My mom had called and my dad had had an episode of something like a night terror. Where you’re half awake, and also asleep. And he sort of attacked my mom in his sleep. It really scared her. It was dusk, and he had been working in the yard all day, and he sat down to rest in a chair and fell asleep. When my mom tried to wake him up, he lunged at her.

He said, “You said you were going to kill me, but I’m going to kill you.” Like he was still clearly in the dream. But he then ran and got into his truck and started driving, and he was still asleep. My mom called the police. She said, “My husband’s left the house. He’s driving but sort of asleep.” When they finally found him, he didn’t really know where he was, but they, because of the 911 call, they had no choice but to put him in jail for domestic assault. They don’t really have laws to deal with this situation.

AD: This is why you don’t call 911, ever.

Greg Cartwright: This is why people are talking about Defund the Police, right? They don’t have the tools to deal with those situations in a way that’s helpful to people who are in distress. And also, I mean, my mom was terrified because he’s kind of her caregiver. So he went to jail, at the beginning of COVID, a man in his late 70s…

AD: It’s a nightmare.

Greg Cartwright: Yeah. It was so terrifying. So, I had to go and try to help them navigate that. Even once he got out of jail, he couldn’t go home because there was a no contact order. She wanted him home, and he wanted to go home, but we had to get all this stuff worked out, so I had to go to Memphis and work on that issue for a month.

That kind of jarred a lot of things loose inside of me. It gave me, I don’t know how or why, but it allowed me to write. On the back side of that, when I went back home to Asheville, I couldn’t get a test. They were really overwhelmed with the testing. I couldn’t get a test. So, I had to stay in a rental house. I couldn’t go home to my family for about a month because I didn’t want to get them sick.

I’d already experienced a lot of isolation, but then I had a whole month by myself, and that was when songs started coming out. They came out really quickly.

When I’m writing songs, it’s mostly melodies that come to me. Then, later, I try to find a way to translate the melody into some kind of lyric that correlates to the feeling or the mood of the melody. I don’t think a lot about what it is that I’m saying until after it’s done. I didn’t think I was writing a pandemic song, but it’s about as close as I come to one. I think at the time I was thinking, oh this is about someone who really misses doing things with their friends and stuff, and then of course, I was thinking about all the things I couldn’t do.

AD: It’s interesting, because I think the pandemic has shown us is that what we miss are the simplest the little things.

Greg Cartwright: Exactly.

AD: How’s your dad doing by the way?

Greg Cartwright: He’s doing much better.

AD: Good, because my dad had a very similar thing, and we thought he had Lewy Body Dementia. He’s gone now.

Greg Cartwright: I think that those kinds of things are brought on by stress. This whole thing. You talk about what people are doing during the pandemic. He had gone full bore into his gardening, which is why he was totally exhausted. He was probably stressed out and thinking about the pandemic and thinking about some level of fear that’s always constantly in the background. About, what’s going on? What’s happening to the world? And then Trump and all that stuff just adds fuel to that. I think that yeah, that’s …stress is what makes things like that happen.

AD: That’s something we’re going to have to deal with for years. People having this traumatic response to what’s going on.

Greg Cartwright: Oh, it’s definitely a trauma. It’s going to make a mark on this generation, the same way that the depression did. When I think about my grandmother, who I spent a lot of time with growing up, she threw nothing away. Everything was kept, and if there was a little piece of something, it was kept, wrapped up and very meticulously stored. It came from the fact that she didn’t know if she would have any food the next day. Those kind of traumas led to her being a hoarder most of her life. There’s going to be similar aftershocks from the pandemic.

AD: Just to change the subject completely, I was noticing what a really full rich sound you have on a “Little More Time,” beautiful organ, multiple guitars, the bass and the drums. I feel like I’ve been on a pretty steady diet of people on the couch with their guitar, and it sounds so good. How much have you been able to play with a band this year?

Greg Cartwright: Not very often. I went to Memphis and rented a house for a month. We had a couple of rehearsals with the band so that I could show everybody what I wanted. Then we had one week to record. That was probably only really about three days or maybe four days of actually playing together as a band. There were a couple of days of me doing overdubs. And then one week to mix it. So not very much at all. Just the amount of time that it took to make the record was about all I’ve been able to do.

AD: It sounds very locked in. That’s because you all knew each other so well.

Greg Cartwright: Yeah, that was really…if that dynamic hadn’t already existed, it would have been a little more difficult.

AD: The only cover on the record is “I Don’t Need That Kind of Loving,” which I understand you play live quite a bit. Can you tell me a little about how you connected with that song and what you like about it?

Greg Cartwright: I think I was 19 or 20 when I found that record. I had a thing with my grandmother when I was a kid. We would go to thrift stores and yard sales every weekend from the moment the sun came up until a little afternoon. She would give me ten cents or a quarter or something to spend on whatever I wanted, which back then you could get a few things with that. As I got a little older, maybe a dollar. I started off buying toys and lunch boxes and whatever, but then I started gravitating towards the records. I would just buy whatever records looked good or looked interesting, and that kind of started a lifelong connection with sifting through records. And somewhere along the line, it seems like I was probably 19 or 20, so this was many years later, but still very obsessively going to thrift stores to look for records, and I found that single and I was totally unaware of him as an artist, because he didn’t really have any hits in the United States.

AD: It’s a weird story because that song is so rockabilly and apparently he was part of the British Invasion?

Greg Cartwright: Yeah, and he’s really kind of more of a pop singer. But I was unaware of him, so I didn’t know. It just looked cool. It was on Capitol. And I didn’t know his name. But then I think it said, “recorded in England,” so I was like, okay, it’s a quarter. I’ll take a chance. And I really liked the song and it just kind of stuck with me. There’s something about the guitars in it that I really, really like. Like it’s kind of this loping guitar riff that is sort of …I don’t even know what it is. It’s kind of a beat groove sounding thing, but it’s also kind of hearkens back to a rockabilly sound. It’s somewhere in between the Shadows and the Beatles. I don’t know. I just really liked it. Sometimes I just hear a song and something about it jumps out at me.

When we first started doing the Reigning Sound, I threw out a bunch of songs. When you meet new people and you start playing together, the first thing you do is start trying to play songs you all know. Like, what’s something I know that you already know. And luckily with Greg Roberson and Jeremy Scott, they liked a lot of oddball stuff like I did. A lot of folk rock and garage stuff.

AD: Were they the same oddball songs?

Greg Cartwright: Sometimes. The main thing I learned was that they were totally open to the weird songs. We liked similar kinds of things, so if I brought something to the table like an Adam Faith song, they were like, oh yeah, that’s cool. Let’s try that. That made it a lot easier to know that I could on a whim try something like that.

Most people cover songs because they’re already in the public consciousness, so you can connect with people who aren’t familiar with your material. But for me, I want something that’s even more obscure to you than my material. I want songs that you don’t know at all. That way, when I do it, you only know my version.

AD: Yeah. That’s a pretty rocking song, and it’s not the only one on this album. That’s a bit of a change from Home for Orphans. Were you thinking along those lines or did it just sort of happen?

Greg Cartwright: It just sort of happened. I wasn’t really thinking about what kind of songs I was going to write, but I just wrote them as they came, and they came pretty quick. Most of this stuff was written just in about four or five days.

There were three songs, I think, that I had written in the last year that were in various stages of completion, but then most of the record just came real quick, all at once. I used those and tacked on those three songs that had been sitting around.

AD When you write really fast like that, I assume that you couldn’t do that all the time.

Greg Cartwright: I can’t. I can’t at all.

AD: You have to rest after a burst like that?

Greg Cartwright: Mainly what I do is, I try not to think about it very much. I just let it happen, and try to get in and record it as quick as I can, and then try to mix it as quick as I can. I’m mainly trying to get to the end of this process, so that I can listen to it and figure out what the fuck it’s about.

AD: [Laughs] Did you figure out what it was about?

Greg Cartwright: Yeah, for some of them I did.

AD: There’s quite a lot of country in this one, too, which is not a new thing for you either. The pedal steel on “Moving and Shaking” is really nice.

Greg Cartwright: That’s John Whittemore who has played steel guitar on just about every record the Reigning Sound has ever made. There might be one record where there’s no steel, but he’s probably the only person who’s been on every Reigning Sound record. He was also my dentist when I lived in Memphis.

AD: Do you want to talk about the other people you played with on this album, who they are and what they do for you?

Greg Cartwright: Yeah. Jeremy Scott plays bass on it. Jeremy is a great singer and songwriter in his own rite, but bass was not his instrument. He’s more of a guitar player, but it was one of these things. You meet people and you’re all interested in similar kinds of music and stuff and then you just try to plug in whichever way you can. I’ve done the same thing, played drums in bands and stuff just because I liked the people and I wanted to be part of their music. He was gracious enough to start playing bass with the Reigning Sound and he brought so much to it. He has a real unique sense of melody, and the other thing Jeremy really brings—he’s a great singer. He’s got a really nice high voice that complements mine. Playing with Jeremy was the first time I’d ever had someone in the band who could sing with me. So that was really nice. That’s something he does on this record as well.

And then Alex Greene plays guitar and keyboards. And again, a great songwriter and singer in his own rite.

AD: The organ is really great on this album.

Greg Cartwright: He’s a really great keyboard player, and on the record, he plays the Hammond. He plays piano and then he also plays Mellotron to make some of the flute sounds.

And then Greg Roberson, of course, was the original drummer for the band. He actually had a really bad hand injury many years ago. And so, now, it’s very difficult for him to play drums, especially anything that’s really loud. So, when he does play, he has to put the stick in his hand and then tape the stick into his hand, because so many nerves have been severed in his hand. That’s the only way he can do it. So that really is difficult for him. What we did was, we alternated him with another friend, Graham Winchester who plays in a lot of bands in Memphis, so he plays drums on the record, too. So they kind of switch off. The songs where Greg is playing drums, Graham is playing the extra percussion stuff and vice versa.

And then two sisters, Krista and Elen Wroten played the cello and the violin and Krista also played on the Shattered record. She played the string parts on that, “Never Coming Home.” So that was really nice to have her back on board. These are all Memphis people.

AD: And then you brought Coco Hames in for “Just Say When,” from Ettes and Parting Gifts. Is she also native to Memphis?

Greg Cartwright: She is now. When I first met her, I think she was, her and her husband Jim were living in LA, and then they moved to Nashville and that was when they asked me to come and produce an Ettes record for them, which I did. And then later on down the line, we worked on a Parting Gifts record. We were going to do another Parting Gifts record, but right as we were kind of planning that, Coco and her husband Jim who played bass in the Parting Gifts and the Ettes, they divorced. That all worked out and everything, but making a record, all of us together, it seemed like it might be too difficult. So, we scrapped that idea. Coco has since moved to Memphis, and she starting dating a friend of ours, Bob [Mehr], who actually just won a Grammy for writing liner notes for the Replacements.

AD: Oh, okay, I know who he is, yeah.

Greg Cartwright: They’re married now. He’s a music writer and writes for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Coco and he live there. So, she’s in Memphis now as well.

AD: I really like the lyrics to “Oh Christine.” It’s a road song, and that’s a very well-tested genre. But it’s just so specific. There’s a line about a tangerine rind on the dashboard, which is every long road trip I’ve ever been on. I know you’re almost a scholar about certain kinds of music and well aware of the tradition. How do you use that and not get boxed in by it?

Greg Cartwright: It’s tricky. You tread lightly. Try to let the music dictate what happens and try not to emulate anything too much. When I finish up a song, I always kind of look at it and think, am I stealing? Did I pinch anything from anywhere? I do like a little dummy test before I let other people look at it. Did I steal in it? Are there any fingerprints?

All of that stuff that I’ve learned about how to write songs, it’s so intuitive now that I don’t think too much about it. I guess the thing is to try not to think about that kind of stuff too much and just let the song do its business.

AD: You seem like someone who could write songs for other people. To be one of those Tin Pan Alley or Nashville songwriters who could operate behind the scenes if you wanted to. Do you think about that? Do you write songs for other people?

Greg Cartwright: I have. Not a ton, but I have some. I do enjoy finishing other people’s work. That’s one thing that I really like. It’s actually …it’s been very hard for me because the process is kind of personal and maybe not straightforward mechanical, like a professional songwriter should be, I think. There’s some part of it that I lack because it is an emotional thing where things spill out all at once. In some ways, I don’t have as much control over it as I like. Once an idea pops out of me, I can start working on it in a very workmanlike way. If someone else brings me an idea, it’s like…I’ve got this idea for a song. I’ve got half a verse. Then I’m all about it. I can finish a song lickety split. But then the idea of letting someone into my writing process is much scarier. So, collaboration is difficult, unless it’s me helping you with your thing, and then I can do that really easy, in fact I really, really enjoy it.

AD: Did you work on a song with Jerry DeCicca?

Greg Cartwright: I did work on a song with Jerry DeCicca. I love Jerry.

Great guy. Great songwriter. I guess it was at least a couple of years ago, I sent him a verse. One thing I really love about iPhones is that little voice memo feature. That’s been really great. I can just push record and it’s got a nice condenser mic, and whatever little idea I have, I can put it out there. And I did. I had maybe a verse or something and I sent it to Jerry and said, what do you think about this? Do you have anything to add to this? And then he sent me back some lyrics, and I used those for a second verse, and then I came up with a chorus and then we collaborated some more on the bridge and bounced back and forth. I think that’s probably the only time I’ve ever done that in my whole life.

AD: And all by phone?

Greg Cartwright: All by phone. I think it’s just because Jerry is such a nice guy, and he’s a songwriter himself. He’s always seemed like a very empathetic person to me. It seemed like a safe thing to do. I don’t know why. It felt like we talked all the time. Like anybody, we go through stretches of not talking to people and stretches of conversation.

AD: Interesting. Do you have any favorite lines or instrumental bits or anything on this record that came out really well, that you like listening to now?

Greg Cartwright: Yeah. I like …I think “Oh Christine” is my favorite. When I made the demo for it, it was just an acoustic guitar. It was kind of slow, kind of a ballad. It was very folky sounding if you hear the demo. I wasn’t really sure how that was going to translate to a band. It didn’t feel country. It needed something else. It took a little bit to figure out that it was a four-four thing and to find the way it was supposed to bounce. Once I figured that out, it kind of unlocked how it needed to be recorded. And then also, it made me think about, okay, well the bridge needs to feel more like this. For the guitar solo, I had just been going back to the chords from the verse, but then once we came up with that dynamic, the guitar solo, the chords underneath that, they need to be something that doesn’t ever happen again in that song. It’s just for the guitar solo. It was a really satisfying puzzle. I figured out how it all was supposed to work, and that was really satisfying.

That song again is one of those things that may relate to the pandemic.Do you remember when maybe a month or so into the pandemic, the Stones released their pandemic song? I was like, oh, this is going to be a wave of people writing pandemic songs, and I don’t want anything to do with it. I’m not against it. It’s valid to talk about it, but for me, it was a little too on the nose. I’d rather find a way to talk about it so that people could put their own story into the song, rather than just hearing about what Mick Jagger thought about empty cities.

To me, if you can find a way to talk about it that’s not specific, that’s the best kind of music. Because then the listener can project themselves into that framework, and it’s a much more cathartic experience to think about how the song reflects what you’re going through.

AD: Right now, in normal times, you’d be planning a tour. What kind of plans do you have for getting this out there? Will you be playing some shows in the fall or later?

Greg Cartwright: We’re going to do one show in summer that’s going to be for a limited seating and outdoors. We’re going to try to film that and see if we can’t stream it. So that’s something we’re thinking about, but other than that, I have a European agent that’s booked a tour for fall or summer of 2022, as well as my American booking agent, Michele, is booking a week on the West Coast and a week on the East Coast but all of this is for 2022. And 2022 might get here and it’s still not happening.

AD: I hope not.

Greg Cartwright: I hope not, too, but at the same time, it’s been really tricky because with the pandemic going on for a year, a lot of the venues that are 300-cap capacity, a lot of those clubs have gone out of business. Because a lot of those people weren’t doing it to get rich, they were doing it because they were music fans. Those were the first people to go. Those are the venues that were our bread and butter. Not only that, so half of the venues that we would play in are closed, and the ones that are left have second, third and fourth holds from last year. So, it would be so difficult at this point to plan a tour for any band because there are no spaces left. Everybody’s still got holds all over the place.

AD: But people are dying to go back to see live music. There’s going to be an explosion at some point.

Greg Cartwright: Yeah, I hear people talking about it a lot. People really crave it. I think once it happens, you’re going to see fewer people on the patio smoking and talking….fewer people holding their phones up. Just live in the moment and be present. If there’s anything this year has taught us, it’s to really treasure that time.

AD: The large scale end of it is, of course, going to come back first because they’ve got all the money. But there’s going to be a lot of house shows and shows in parks, and maybe we can get back to the roots of it. The people that are making and going to music because they like music.

Greg Cartwright: I think every level…I think the one thing that I’m hopeful for. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m hoping for a renaissance on many levels of culture. Music is just one aspect of that. In a lot of ways, that was…the Black Plague led to the renaissance. Maybe there will be something on the other side of this that will be a real explosion.

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