In 2013, Oblivians delivered their long-awaited fourth album, Desperation. It had been a decade and a half since Oblivians’ third LP, …Play 9 Songs With Mr. Quintron,but the album’s title didn’t reflect the position the band was in when it was made. If anything, by 2013 the Memphis trio was more widely regarded than at any time previously in its stop-start career.
Oblivians kicked into gear in 1993, pumping out three LPs over the next four years. They managed to sign with the iconic Crypt Records and earn a scattered underground following, but the instrument-swapping trio’s existence wasn’t characterised by storming success. In early ’98, the band ceased to be, leaving Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright to return to Compulsive Gamblers, while Eric Friedl put his energy into Goner Records. Since 2003, however, Oblivians have come together every few years for the odd gig or spot of touring. And with each successive reunion, their following grows stronger.
“The first time we got back together was 2003,” says Yarber, “and we played one gig in Memphis and it was completely sold out. People came from everywhere – it was 400 people or more, all Oblivians fans, all knowing the songs and yelling along with the songs. It was pretty amazing.”
Not long after Oblivians turned out the light, bluesy garage rock experienced a wave of mass popularity. You remember the time: The White Stripes staked their claim on rock music and innumerable bands with a variable understanding of musicality and songcraft followed. Anyway, bluesy garage rock is precisely what Oblivians are all about, so perhaps their early exit denied them a big break.
“I hear, ‘You could’ve been as big as The Hives or The White Stripes,’” Yarber says. “The way I look at it is like, ‘Are you sure you’ve listened to an Oblivians record?’ ‘Guitar Shop Asshole’ is not going to be a video on MTV. Not in this lifetime. Oblivians if anything was mocking the rock star kind of thing. I like The Hives and the early White Stripes records, but I don’t think we would’ve been one of those kind of bands.”
It’s a fair call; Oblivians’ 1995 debut Soul Food is too haphazardly cooked to fit on a major label summer sampler. It figures, when you consider the record was essentially unplanned.
“We were going to go in and record what we were doing as our live set,” Yarber says. “We did a live recording, so there was no mixing, it was just done straight. I think Greg overdubbed a tambourine on one song and an organ on one or two songs. The intention was to record the band now because we may not be together [for long], and try to get a few seven-inches out of it.
“Eric sent out a few tapes and Tim Warren at Crypt went crazy about it. He sent us a fax: ‘Let’s do an album of the whole thing.’ Then we did a tour of Europe and it was really good over there, then that was the motivation to go back to record [again].”
Unlike material from stacks of bands that popped up during the garage rock boom, the initial trio of Oblivians records have stood the test of time. Once again, to spawn creative gold, there’s no plan like no plan.
“At the time, whenever you’re making a record, you’re just trying to make it sound as good as it can and in a way that sounds like all the songs are coming from the same band,” says Yarber. “When the band was originally together, you’re just in the moment, you’re not thinking about, ‘Well, this is going to end soon.’”