Still Reigning: Greg Cartwright Ain’t Got No Expectations

Ryan Bort

Daptone’s Bushwick, Brooklyn studios aren’t what you’d expect, but then again they kind of are.

As I walk up the steps to a dilapidated brownstone, one that could just as easily have belong to a deranged shut-in, the only marker that gives me confidence I have the right address is a sun-faded sticker of the Daptone Records logo crookedly affixed to the front door. The space inside is unconventional and makeshift. A hall leads from the front door to the back of the building, and album covers from the likes of Charles Bradley, Amy Winehouse, The Budos Band, and other Daptone mainstays line the walls. To the right of the entrance are two adjoining rooms, perhaps a dining room and living room, which have been converted into a studio and control room. The entire building is a monument of patchwork, of making things work, utterly devoid of ostentation, with the express purpose of recording music. If it can do that, then nothing else matters.

In the control room I meet Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright. He’s wearing tan slacks, a gray hooded sweatshirt, and a hat that looks like it could have belonged to a 1930s detective who’s been around the block a few times. He is at ease, and asks to quickly finish a cigarette before we begin talking. When he is outside I notice to my left a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with the master recordings of most of the albums whose covers line the building’s lone hallway. Reigning Sound’s are there, too, but they don’t yet have a place on the wall, as this is the first album Cartwright and his rotating cast of players have cut in this unassuming mecca of neo-soul. It’s not surprising, of course, considering Cartwright is from Memphis and has lived in North Carolina for the past 10 years. It’s also not surprising considering that Shattered is his first release on a major indie label, Merge, a belated career milestone for a man who has already enjoyed a longer tenure making rock music than most can dream of.

But it also couldn’t be more fitting. Cartwright and Reigning Sound are just as patchwork, just as humble, and just as concerned with one thing—making music—as this studio where they recorded their latest album.

Throughout his career, which began most notably with The Compulsive Gamblers in the early ‘90s, Cartwright has continually shuffled the pieces around him, both in terms of personnel and the pastiche of throwback sounds that have defined each album he’s recorded. He’s lived in Memphis, he’s lived in North Carolina. His musical projects have taken several different names. He’s worked as an electrician, in a record store, and as a cook in a kitchen. His albums have come by way of a handful of different minor indie labels—In The Red, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and Norton, to name a few. There’s been no constant, no through line other than Cartwright himself, his songwriting, and the indelible influence of Memphis and its music, which in itself is something of a pastiche.

Shattered is Reigning Sound’s first full-length album in five years, since 2009’s widely lauded Love and Curses, and it’s no surprise that over the course of so many years Cartwright wound up with a brand new band. It happened organically, as have most developments throughout Cartwright’s career, when a car company asked him if he wanted to record a promotional EP, on them, in Nashville. He didn’t have a band at the time, however, and after a number of players he lined up to join him fell through, he decided to have Brooklyn soul rockers The Jay Vons, whom Reigning Sound had previously toured with, fly down to cut the songs. A few live dates later and Cartwright asked them if they wanted to become the latest incarnation of Reigning Sound.

Just as fleeting as the band members Cartwright surrounds himself with is the tone of his albums. This of course is partially inevitable due to the changing dynamic of the band, but it also comes out of Cartwright’s tendency to follow whatever musical threads with which he becomes infatuated. One of the defining characteristics of Reigning Sound’s music is that there is no Reigning Sound “sound” Cartwright feels obligated to adhere to. It’s often to the dismay of fans just how willingly Cartwright is to eschew what followers might have loved from a previous album. He’s never been one to give into public or commercial expectations, instead indulging in his own musical curiosities as they arise. “I like to be able to keep changing,” he says. “Some people may not be a fan of where I’m going next, but some people will be, and some people will see the thread that connects them all and dig it. But I’ve got to keep moving to satisfy myself.”

“Garage” is probably the most appropriate catch-all term to describe Reigning Sound’s music, but Cartwright’s songwriting has ranged from straight up country ballads to thrashing, guitar-heavy punk rock, stopping to touch on everything in between along the way. Regardless of what the style of a particular album or song, it’s all equally moving; one of Cartwright’s raucous, distortion-heavy burners can make you want to get up and light the world on fire just as easily as one of his tender love songs can delicately calve your heart in two. On Shattered, he dials heavily into the lovelorn, and musically the album is almost a revue of all the styles Reigning Sound has dabbled in previously. “It’s really me and the new band trying all the dynamics,” he says. “Trying to figure out what grooves we can hit together. Maybe we do something slightly different with them than I did with them otherwise.”

This tendency to change things up, to mix and match, comes originally from Cartwright’s Memphis roots. In the ‘60s when genres as we know them today were still beginning to take shape, Memphis had more small labels than anywhere else in the country. R&B men were producing country records, and vice versa. White kids were trying to play black music, but their country accents muddled the lines of origin, race, and traditional classification. “There’s definitely a Memphis vibe of mixing soul and country and rock music, and even aggressive kind of punk things,” says Cartwright. “Those elements, bringing them together in different ways, a little bit different every time, sometimes leaning more on one sound than another, its definitely a Memphis vibe and that’s what I’m looking for.”

RSINTER

But more so than anything, Memphis has defined how Cartwright has orchestrated his career. Signing to Merge is probably something that should have happened to Reigning Sound a decade ago, and there was certainly pressure from the outside to move to an indie label with wider distribution, but it wasn’t what Cartwright wanted. He didn’t want anyone’s expectations but his own foisted upon him or his music. That was all he had, that was all he was concerned with, and he certainly wasn’t making it to satisfy an audience or a label. If he was going to do it, it was going to be on his terms.

“It would have given me too much anxiety about what I was creating instead of just naturally making records the same way I always had,” he says, speaking about moving to a larger label. “I kind of intentionally avoided it for a long time, but I feel like I’m old enough now. I don’t think very much about if anybody likes it or not. I’m in a place where I’m comfortable enough now that I can let somebody share it with a wider audience. If it hits a chord with someone it does; if it doesn’t it doesn’t.”

When Cartwright was playing with The Oblivians (his band before Reigning Sound) in Memphis he didn’t have a very large fan base. There were no expectations. He could take the music wherever he wanted without feeling the pressure of trying to bring in a bigger audience, because it simply wasn’t going to happen. The diehards would be there, but outside of that there wasn’t much opportunity for growth. “We could have sounded like Nirvana and still you would only have 20 people,” he says. “There’s no impetus for you to try to assimilate because nobody cares, so out of that you get people doing genuinely original things because they’ve got no one to please.”

It’s this mindset that Cartwright has carried throughout his career, even after leaving Memphis, even after touring nationally, even after having the opportunity to be on bigger labels. He doesn’t want anything more than that, to make the music he wants to make. He doesn’t need a big shiny record label to validate what he’s doing. He has himself and he has the fans that have been there the whole time, which, when it comes down to it, are what sustains any musician’s drive to continue to create. “There are those people that have been there all along and they see how things turn,” he says. “It’s not jut random; they see where it’s going. It’s for those people that I keep making records.”

Now that he’s on Merge he may gain a new audience of believers, but he may not, and that’s just fine with Cartwright. He’s going to have another cigarette, put on another record, and move onto the next thing either way.

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