Back Into Obscurity

The Obscure just might be Nashville’s best rock ’n’ roll band of the moment, only they’re about to break up

“If only for today, I wish everyone would think I’m great,” The Obscure’s Mike Gogola sings in “If Only.” The line sums up his band perfectly: After trying to make it for a decade, much of that time with the group in a state of disarray, The Obscure finally are great.

But it’s the first half of the lyric that’s so telling: If only for today. For just as The Obscure have hit their creative peak, they’ve decided to disband. Everyone likes to hear stories about the local band who signed a record deal and went on to fame and fortune. But a story like The Obscure’s is a lot more common: the story of a band who toiled away at something they loved, who tried to keep it going in the face of so much indifference, who persevered long enough to work out all the kinks—but not before life got in the way. In this case, family and career have deferred their musical dreams: On Aug. 26, Gogola begins his new job in Houston, Texas, where his wife, Tracy, will begin her post-doctoral work in medical research. When he leaves Nashville this month, The Obscure are done. They split without acrimony or defeat, and they go away sounding better than they ever have.

The Obscure first arrived in town in 1996, when Gogola and his wife moved from Detroit to attend graduate school here. By that point, The Obscure had already been gigging around Detroit for five years, so old friend and bass player Brian Wieck decided to make the move to Nashville, because, as they explain, the group felt “unfinished.” For most of their existence here, the group labored in, well, obscurity. Gogola remembers one early show at Belmont University. They knew that lot of musicians went to the school, so they thought it could be a cool opportunity—at least until they found out they’d be playing in the cafeteria…during dinnertime.

In 1999, things started to gel. Danny Sloan, a local rock veteran, had been drumming with them for a while, and Doug Tewksbury, a student at Vanderbilt, had come in on second guitar. That December, working with Murfreesboro producer/engineer Brian Carter, they made a seven-song record, The Politics of Person, on which their strengths started coming together, with songs that bounced from genre to jangly, fuzzy genre.

The album got good reviews, the national talent search came calling, and local shows were easier to come by. But things fell apart when Tewksbury decided to study in England for a semester. In his absence, The Obscure struggled on, but the momentum was difficult to sustain, especially when they played live, where their execution never quite matched their energy or their ambition. “We were always so worried about trying to do something new that we never stopped to get what we were doing completely right,” Gogola says.

Even so, they kept at it. Tewksbury was replaced onstage by a lamp or a mannequin and, at one point, an actual musician. When he came back, the band started making progress again. But then, last summer, in the middle of recording their second CD, Tewksbury announced he was moving to Boston. “Every time we just started getting it together, something would go wrong,” Gogola says. The remaining trio struggled to finish the record. Their desperation to get something right had now turned into the determination of the damned. They slaved away during all-night recording sessions with Brian Carter, feeling that if they couldn’t get this record together, then they’d have completely failed.

The self-imposed pressure paid off. Laugh Like a Whip, Look Like a Dagger, released earlier this year, is a complex, dense, melodic and mature album. As with their debut, the songs are startlingly different from one another: “Give Me Some Love Sometime” is garage rock in the best sense, raw and direct; “Dearborn” is sweet indie pop, “Telephone as Trigger” a distant spacey pulse. But the record is clearly a remarkable leap; the rich textures match the deeper, more personal lyrics. Much of the credit for the warm, layered sound goes to Carter, but it was The Obscure’s utter tenacity—their resolve to be great, if only for 53 minutes—that accounts for the record’s success.

Once the album actually came out, something funny happened: They stopped caring about succeeding. “I had that album in my hand and it was like, ‘Who cares if anyone listens to it?’ ” Gogola says. “I just said, ‘Pfft, it’s all gone. I don’t have that ambition anymore.”

Still, they hadn’t lost the love of playing live, and they knew they had to play a record-release show. But they also knew they needed some instrumental help—a trio wasn’t going to cut it onstage. So in March they asked two friends to join them on guitar: Jason Phelan from The What Four and Andy Willhite from 27B Stroke 6. The original plan was to have each guitarist learn half of the songs, but both got so excited about playing that they became permanent fixtures onstage. The addition of Phelan and Willhite gave The Obscure what they’d always needed—great players who could at once ground the music and allow the band to cut loose. The change is especially noticeable in Gogola’s stage presence; now guitar-less for most of the set, he plays to the crowd, surging, collapsing, bucking around on the ground.

Nashville’s indie music scene is fertile, but not necessarily encouraging; the city produces many good players but few great bands. Now at the very end of their long, haggard run, The Obscure have turned out to be the exception to the rule. It’s hard to imagine any of these five guys going on to musical greatness of his own, but in The Obscure, they clicked just the way a band is supposed to. The energy, the songs, the heart are all there now; and with Gogola about to leave town for good, they’ll only be there for one last show this Saturday at Springwater.

For much of their time in Nashville, The Obscure were the consummate underdogs. In their last months, they finally made something of themselves. This is what their few dedicated fans always hoped for, but never really expected them to achieve—which says less about their fans’ cynicism than it does about the group’s passion. What it says most of all is that The Obscure perfectly embody our desperation to become something good, something great, something beyond ourselves. They’ve done it—at least for a brief, brilliant moment. That’s all we can ever hope for, isn’t it?

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.