“It seems to be when we get back together, there’s a lot of interest in this band,” says bass player Jack Yarber. “Like you guys are having us come to your country. So we’re like ‘Well why is that?’ In the ‘90s I don’t think that could have happened. I mean we could have done it, but we would’ve gone broke doing it. It seems now the business end of Oblivians is a lot better than what is was back then. I think back then if something turned out good, ‘That’s great,’ if it turned out bad it’s like ‘Oh shit, we didn’t think of that.’”
Oblivians kicked into gear in 1993 and pumped out three LPs over the next four-and-a-bit 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 thundering success. Then in early ’98, the band ceased to be, which left Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright to return to their earlier project Compulsive Gamblers, while Eric Friedl put his energy into Goner Records. These days, Friedl’s still running Goner (which has become an independent institution), Cartwright devotes himself to Reigning Sound and Yarber seems to have a new project every other week. 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 song-craft, followed. Anyway, bluesy garage rock is precisely what Oblivians are all about, so perhaps their early exit denied them a big break. Yarber’s not so sure.
“Three years after we broke up, there’s this burst of garage rock – it’s huge – and the internet radio thing started happening,” he says. “I hear ‘You could’ve been as big as The Hives or The White Stripes.’ 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 ’95 debut Soul Food is too haphazardly cooked to fit on a major label summer sampler. It figures, when you consider the record was essentially un-planned. “We were going to go in and record what we were doing as our live set,” Yarber says. “We did a live recording – maybe we repeated songs a few times if we messed up – so there was no mixing, it was just done straight. I think Greg over-dubbed 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 7”s 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 stacks of the bands that popped up during the garage rock boom, the Oblivians’ three initial records have stood the test of time. Once again, to spawn creative gold, Yarber says 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 a way that sounds like all the songs are coming from the same band. When the band was originally together, you’re just in the moment, you’re not thinking about ‘Well this is going to end soon.’ “You want it to be a raunchy record,” he adds, “but at the same time you want it to do well enough that you have the opportunity to do another record the next year. That’s a reasonable desire. Then there’s the other desire, ‘I hope I make a shitload of money and buy a boat.’ That’s more of a dream.”
March 4 – Newtown Social Club, Sydney NSW
March 5 – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart TAS
March 8 – Golden Plains Festival, Meredith VIC
March 9 – Barwon Club, Geelong VIC
March 11, 12, 13 – The Tote, Melbourne VIC
March 14 – Wooly Mammoth, Brisbane QLD