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"Especially at the start, and even now, I can't play all the stuff [the Gamblers] could," Eric says. "They had a real bass player, and their drummer was real good, so they could do a lot of different times and played all kinds of fancy, pretty things. And I can do that, but it's really not what I'm into. They had done that kind of blues stuff and strange waltzes, and I think they were kinda into doing a straight rock 'n' roll thing, trying to keep it as simple as possible, without it being some kind of generic rock thing."
With Soul Food, the Oblivians' 1995 debut album for the Hamburg, Germany-based Crypt Records, they proved that they could, with equal fervor, dismantle an original like "Blew My Cool," or a blues classic like Lightnin' Hopkins' "Vietnam War Blues." A little-known live album released the same year earned acclaim from Spin magazine as one of the "10 Best Albums You Didn't Hear in '95." They followed that up with Popular Favorites, a raucous classic that drew unlikely gushes from industry war-horses like Billboard and earned the band massive airplay on Dutch national radio. But it's their new album, Oblivians . . . Play 9 Songs With Mr. Quintron, that fully delivers on the soulful promise of the Compulsive Gamblers, without losing the Oblivians' trademark idiocy.
Aided by the warm Hammond B3 organ playing of the mysterious Mr. Quintron, the Oblivians storm through a less-manic-than-usual collection of tunes, and reveal a deepening sense of groove. Greg's emerging fascination with gospel music rears its head on the exultant traditional tune "What's the Matter Now" and his handclap-driven "Feel All Right." On Play 9 Songs, the Oblivians hit that rarefied zone where the originals sound like old classics, and the covers sound like something the band could have written. Though the band's covers are usually well-chosen obscure nuggets that it tears into with loving irreverence, Eric says he's always wary of the pitfalls of tampering with a great tune.
"There's a tradition of punk-rock bands beating up country songs and blues songs," he says. "Rocking something out harder doesn't make it any better. It's like Canned Heat or Led Zeppelin doing blues songs. Just because it's louder doesn't make it better. Usually it ends up killing the original. It's kind of tricky."
The band's secret weapon on the new album is Mr. Quintron, a shadowy figure whose biography sounds suspiciously like fiction, but the band insists he is a Chicago native currently living in New Orleans.
"The first time we saw him, he came down with the Demolition Doll Rods to play a show, and he was doing a one-man-band-type thing," Eric says. "He was sitting behind drums with tuned water bottles and a synthesizer and a trumpet and a guitar he played with a drumstick, and all kinds of other things at the same time. He was a real whirlwind of noise.
"It evolved into him just playing organ, and his girlfriend did a puppet show with exploding puppets. We knew he played organ, but the organ he plays at his shows is just really freeform, crazy circus organ. So we didn't really know if he could play organ like most organ players. But we had these songs together that we thought would sound good with organ, but we didn't want anybody that would play it too straight, and it would be more fun to play with Mr. Quintron. So we brought him up from New Orleans, sat him down at the organ, and didn't know what was gonna happen."
In one feverish day of recording, they completed one of the best--albeit, at 27 minutes, one of the shortest--rock albums of the year. Despite their burgeoning popularity, the Oblivians--in true Memphis fashion--refuse to become ambitious careerists about something which they started doing as a fun way to kill time.
"From the start, it was just always kind of screwing around," Eric says. "Whoever ended up on drums at the time got stuck there. We never really took it that seriously. People always tell us, 'You could do a lot better if you stuck with one lineup.' But that's not the point of the band. If we were trying to really go far, we probably could have come up with a better plan and better music than what we're doing now."
Though the Oblivians take baby steps toward maturity with the midtempo songs on Play 9 Songs, their formula remains a constant attempt to capture imbecilic inspiration in a bottle.
"One of our favorite bands is probably the Troggs, who were just complete morons," Eric says. "But they'd come up with great simple songs, huge hits. It was obvious that there was nothing clever about it. They just wrote a good song. That would kind of be our ideal, without playing up the idea that 'I've got a plate in my head.' . . . But that's a great song."
The Oblivians are scheduled to perform on Thursday, October 30, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with the Wongs, and the Breakmen. Showtime is 10 p.m.