Jack Oblivian Interview with Mike McCarthy


(The Jack Oblivian Interview by Mike McCarthy, March 2019) 



Mike:  What is the history of the songs and how do they break down on previous releases?

Jack:  In the past years around 2009 or 10 or something like that I wanted to make a mix tape as a cassette release and call it “After Party.” I wanted to record an 8-track tape of songs also as a sort of alternative . The whole concept was anything that was recorded in the apartment where I live now - and have been living for a long time - whether it was me playing on it or not. Usually I am playing on everything. That was the ultimate thing and out of that idea I ended up making a cassette of the music I did. Three years ago I pressed-up 200 cassettes of almost an hour long set with just these random instrumentals and songs that ended up being on other records somewhere. Some were recorded at Keith’s (the guitar player’s) house and I think there is one or two actually recorded in Easley studio. So about 5 or 6 months ago this friend of mine who does a label in Spain called Ghost Highway Records, his name is Marco sees a post of the songs on YouTube while getting into a Facebook discussion with a painter/cartoonist named Olaf Jens (http://olafjens.blogspot.com). He’s a Dutch guy who lives in America - you might know his artwork. 

Mike: These people overseas appreciate your work.

Jack:  Yeah, that guy Olaf put up a comment regarding the cassette songs on you tube, saying “in my humble opinion, I think this is the best stuff he has done right here!” - which is all like really recorded rough. It’s pretty much when the idea first came to me before it turns into a group thing in the studio. Then Marco the Spanish guy responds with “Well I didn’t know about this” (and you know Marco is obsessed with the Oblivians and Memphis music) and so Olaf, the artist, says “Yeah, maybe you should put it out” and there’s this public conversation back and forth that I’m reading but I don’t chime in at all. Marco sends a message to me about 5 days later, “Hey that cassette you did, would you ever consider doing a record?” and I’m like “Yeah maybe” and so I went back and forth with him talking about it, but I was telling him there’s a lot of rough sounding material that only belongs on a cassette tape, you know, plus there’s an hours-worth of songs and you’ll need a double album to fit it all on there. Ultimately, I narrowed the “LOST WEEKEND” LP down to the better stuff from the tape. I cut out a lot of stuff that was really noisy. 

Mike:  Do you think 4 -track recordings on a cassette tape automatically limits it to a certain audience?

Jack:  I just think that’s about how many people want to hear a song that’s hardly figured out where it’s going. Like there’s no bridge or the ending abruptly starts or there’s no lyrics and some of it’s just kind of making up words. Some of it is figured out, but it’s like when the idea is first coming along on these tunes. There’s one or two songs with a full band where it’s a little more thought out.

Mike:  Which songs are those?

Jack:  “Good Time with a Bad Girl.”  That recording is maybe the 4th time we’ve ever played it. The only actual real studio song is the first song on side 2 (“Lone Ranger of Love) which was recorded at Easley Studio. The others are home studio. I have recording equipment at home, but not like a pro studio.

Mike:  You have a 4-track in your house?

Jack:  Yeah, a 4-track and an 8-track.

Mike:  What kind of 4-track and 8-track do you have?

Jack: I have different ones. One of them is a MCI 4-track recorder which is a pro machine. It’s just 4-tracks and some real big, size of a stove, you know, big reels, and also I have a cassette 4-track like a Tascam. I have a TEAC 388 eight-track which is like a big mixing board which opens up on top with a ¼ inch tape so it’s 8 tracks but still considered consumer gear, but it sounds good.

Mike:  You live in your studio?

Jack:  Yep, I live there. The tape’s always rolling.

Mike:  Where do you get tape from?

Jack:  This place in Nashville you can order it from, it shows up two days later.

Mike: Do you ever record over tape?

Jack: Yeah.

Mike: How many existing recordings have you recorded over?

Jack:  Well, after this interview is done, we’re going to record over it.

Mike:  Does a band member get in touch with you and say “hey man, I really loved recording that with you last night and you say “oh I recorded over it”.

Jack:  No, usually you are going to record over something while you are there with somebody. In my case, if it’s a lot of tape you wasted and it sounds really terrible then you’ll want to do it again or some things you just don’t want to keep. A lot of times I try not to record over unless it’s wasting tape.

Mike: But you wouldn’t call the guys over to record unless you pretty much had it in your head?

Jack: To get people involved you got to have the idea otherwise the other guys says, “I have the idea” and then you’re playing on his thing.

Mike: Right.

Jack: Which is OK, but - 

Mike: I’ve known you for like 33 years and I’ve watched you go through something like five incarnations.  The solo work is always intriguing. I love “So Lo” and “Flip-Side Kid”. Those records are kind of like what this record is, sonically-speaking. But I also love the Tearjerkers “Bad Mood Rising”. You still had a very primitive and earthy sound early on with a very skilled band. It seems if you can be lo-fi sounding and produced, that’s really the key.

Jack: Yeah.

Mike: You have a variety of people on the album.

Jack: A lot of it’s the Sheiks, my backup band.

Mike: Who are the Sheiks?

Jack: Keith Cooper, Graham Winchester and Frank McLallen. 

Mike: So which are the songs of you by yourself?

Jack: CRO2, La Charra, Cigarillo 1, Stick to Me, Dream Killer, Sweet Thang, Sabine, Gun Bank Jail, Cigarillo 2, Loose Diamonds.

Mike : Loose Diamonds is all you?

Jack: Yeah, I just overdubbed the backup vocals. Songs featuring other people are “Scarla” which is me and Seth Moody – “Girl on the Beach” is me and Adam Woodard on organ – “Guido Goes to Memphis” is me, Adam, Guido, Jeff Pope and Scott Bomar –“Lone Ranger of Love” is me and the Sheiks (Keith, Frank and Graham) and also Adam Woodard plays the organ on that and also Mitch Palmer plays the slide guitar – “Boy in the Bubble” is just me and Keith, I play the drums, he plays the guitar and I then I went back and overdubbed the bass and lead guitar, and we are just kinda testing out the tape machine doing that one – “Good Time with a Bad Girl” is me and the full Sheiks band  – It’s about half and half you know.

Mike: What makes you decide which version of a song to use?

Jack: You don’t know what you’re going to get when you record a lot of this stuff , like with “Loose Diamonds;” I tried to do a version by myself  and I tried to do a  version in the studio with a band but it didn’t come off. The lo-fi thing is just like a songwriter’s pitch. I don’t consider myself as good as a Kris Kristopherson or someone like him and I could never do that kind of songwriter thing, but the low-fi version is just the idea of the song. I’m better at that.

Mike: What do you mean by that?

Jack: When you want to pitch a song to a singer, the way I’ve always been told what to do, is that you only provide as minimal instrumentation as possible because it leaves what they can do with the song up to their imagination. If you try to pitch a song to someone with this full band thing then that singer might say “that’s not our kind of thing”, but if you just have a piano and an acoustic and one vocal and maybe a backup vocal and a maraca real stripped down, and you pitch a song then it might work.

Mike: You’re saying that the acoustic demos are equivalent to the elevator pitch.

Jack: “Loose Diamonds” wasn’t like I was writing and doing it to be a pitch but that version did get covered by two very different people.

Mike: Isn’t there a band called “Loose Diamonds” – that’s you or Louie?

Jack: Yeah -I think Louie named the band after he heard that song –That goes into some other things with Shaggy Duffee and stuff - but we can talk about that later.

Mike: (laughing) - I thought there was a New Orleans connection to “Loose Diamonds.”

Jack: Yeah, but I had the song already. Loose Diamonds is something that you get at a  jewelry store, you know?

Mike: I wouldn’t know.

Jack: You know that jewelry store by Starbucks (Union and McLean) – I forget the name of it – it’s been there for ages – they have a little marquee….

Mike: Las Savell.

Jack: Las Savell. Sometimes they’ll say, once a year or certain times a year, loose diamonds 10 to 25% off.

Mike: (laughs)

Jack: It means that they are not in rings, more of a random thing – so this is like back in ’99, somebody in Vegas Thunder (maybe Joe Danger?) was talking about seeing that on their sign. He thought it would be a great band name. Through that I was like yeah that’s cool, I’ll write a tune. I didn’t like set out to do it, I was just messing around. Usually I can’t write anything unless I have a title or a theme. Then later, Louie said “You know I like that name” and he called his band that.

Mike: You can take an everyday term and turn it into a metaphor for something tawdry, rebellious, romantic, that is the sign of a good songwriter. 

Jack: It’s like a person’s nickname – It’s a story about a guy, it’s just a fictitious character, like whatever happened to old Loose Diamonds.

Mike: Aren’t most of those songs about fictional characters that mirror some aspect of your personality?

Jack: I usually never reveal anything at all. There are some real things – the “Girl on the Beach” actually became a girlfriend of mine, probably because I wrote that song for her.

Mike: You found her on the beach?

Jack: I met her on the beach, at nighttime, drinking a bottle of wine.

Mike: Where?

Jack: In the song it says “Verdina” – you know, a town.

Mike: How many songs on the LP are about your personal life that you put into metaphor?

Jack: Eh, maybe the instrumental, CRO2.

Mike: (laughing) I don’t think you are telling me the truth.

Jack: As far as anything actual, “Girl on the Beach” is pretty much it. “La Charra” is basically like you writing a comic book story. I’ve never robbed a bank, so “Bank Gun Jail” is not biographical. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I’ll rob a bank.

Mike: That’s where you’ll find the loose diamonds.

Jack: It’s like pop kinda’ stuff – I’m not spilling my guts out, and If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.

Mike: To me it seems like you’re a mix of Dashiell Hammett meets Dan Penn meets you know some sort of 70’s punk collaboration.

Jack: Certain lyrics, a line or two or something like that is always something that is from your past. A pop tune is like whatever rolls off your tongue that sounds kind of good and locks into the rhythm. So if you are trying to do like a particular story - that’s more of an acoustic thing or spoken word. I’m not really an acoustic guy.

Mike: Your songs are really cinematic I would say.

Jack: Yeah, I’m just telling stories you know.