It seems illogical—inappropriate, even—that a garage rock luminary such as Greg Cartwright would find the music in a coffee shop too loud. But during a recent interview in downtown Asheville, the 40-year-old frontman of The Reigning Sound complained that the store's volume would likely interfere with our conversation. A record store down the street, he noted, had both a comfortable backroom and tunes that were oddly quieter than those in the coffee shop. We climbed into his silver minivan and tried again.
Despite the volume of his own music, the calmer setting suits Cartwright, who has more or less perfected the responsible pursuit of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. At 19, he had his first child, a son born in the heat of Cartwright's initial run with the Oblivians, a rough and ruthless garage trio that now seems like a supergroup, thanks to the subsequent achievements of Cartwright and fellow guitarist, Jack Oblivian. He has since gotten married and had two more kids, now 8 and 14. Through necessity, he has learned to balance a family and making music.
"I'm an old guy, and I've had kids for a long time," he says. "But I think when that first comes into play, when you first have a kid, or you get married and you have other people's expectations about how often you need to be around the house, you can't just say, 'Oh, everybody loves this record! I gotta get out and tour!' Yeah, you have to do those things, but you've also made an obligation to this other person to do what they need to do as well."
The complications of growing older have continually served as a stop or stimulus to the evolution of The Reigning Sound. As the band wrote its third record, 2004's Too Much Guitar, their organ player had a baby, which reduced the quartet to a trio and jump-started the album's aggressive rhythm and blues. Leading up to Abdication ... For Your Love, an exquisite digital mini-LP released for free last year through the record label of carmaker Scion, life again shuffled the group's deck. Lance Wille, The Reigning Sound's long-standing drummer, realized that the severity of his arthritis would no longer allow him to tour and record. He and bassist David Wayne Gay had been playing together for years in various projects; rather than stick with just one of them, Cartwright recruited a new rhythm section. About half of Abdication was recorded with the new lineup; the album's mix of more typical rock 'n' roll ragers with moody, organ-propelled ballads stems from those personnel shifts.
"The guys that I'm playing with right now in The Reigning Sound, they're really accomplished players," Cartwright explains, adding that the new members will soon help him record a new LP. "They have a style of their own that they bring to the mix. I respond to how the people are playing, and that helps me figure out what the dynamic of the song is going to be. Really, when you just have lyrics and a set of chords, it could go whichever way you want. You could be raucous and loud, or you could be dynamic and soft. I'm just playing off the other instruments and the other players."
Cartwright has recently reconnected with players from his past. The Oblivians just finished recording songs for their first record since 1997. The band has been touring again, too. Cartwright says that finding his way around his familiar foils happened quite naturally. These days, however, he doesn't immediately find himself in the mood to write the barbed-and-bitter anthems on which the Oblivians built their reputation. The majority of his youthful anger, he admits, was misplaced.
"Living in that kind of confusion and living through the bad decision making and being young and messing up all the time, that was when I was in the Oblivians," Cartwright says. "When you're doing things that make you feel sad about yourself and about the decisions that you make and how you treat other people, it almost never comes out sad musically. It comes out angry because you don't realize that it's all your fault yet. So you're angry at everybody else for the repercussions of your own actions. That's a good time to make angry music."
Cartwright's songs still draw mostly from the same misadventures that inspired his early aggression, but his perspective has changed to one of reflection and regret. "Not Far Away," the sparkling confessional that closes Abdication, yearns for a second chance with a lost love. In the chorus, Cartwright whispers wistfully, "We could be who we want to be if we weren't who we are," looking back on a past version of himself. It's a slight that now seems needless.
"I made lots of mistakes," he laughs in the back of the record shop. "When you make serious mistakes, you can draw on that forever."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rock of ages."