If only for today. The Obscure Make Good

[This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.]

“If only for today, I wish everyone would think I’m great…” Mike Gogola of the Obscure sings in “If Only,” a song that pre-dates the Obscure’s time in Nashville. His wish is about to come true–if it hasn’t already. The Obscure are great. In the next week, the Obscure will go out at the top of their game. They’ll hit the high note and say goodnight. On 26 August, Mike begins his new job in Houston, Texas, where his wife, Tracy, will begin her post-doctoral work in medical research.

The history of the Obscure follows Mike and Tracy’s education. They moved to Nashville in 1996 where both attended graduate school (Mike is an engineer at Vanderbilt; he builds robotic pants). Mike’s old friend and bass player, Brian Wieck, also made the move to Nashville from Detroit. Mike and Brian quickly started their efforts to get the Obscure playing in Nashville with mixed results. Asked to name a bad gig, Brian says “every one until we got decent.” Mike suggests the show their first drummer in Nashville got them at Belmont University. There’s lots of musicians and bands there, they thought; this could be cool. The drummer never mentioned that the show was in the cafeteria… during dinner time.

Needless to say, for much of their tenure in Nashville, the Obscure labored in, well, obscurity. In 1999, things started to gel. Danny Sloan had been drumming with Mike and Brian for sometime and Doug Tewksbury, a student at Vanderbilt, had come in on second guitar. In December of ’99, The Obscure made a solid 7-song record, The Politics of Person, with Brian Carter and the tide looked as if it had turned. The songs bounced from genre to jangly, fuzzy genre. There were the clean to dirty dynamics of “Paradox,” the pounding groove of “The Human Condition,” the metallic polka of “Those Commie Bastards” and the banging pop of “Forget about Jane.”

The album got good reviews; Farmclub.com came calling; shows were easier to come by. But Doug had gone to England. In his absence, the Obscure struggled on, but the momentum was difficult to sustain. Especially with their inconsistent live shows–the energy would be great, but the tempo would be a mess, or the sound would be terrible, or the four-track that played the sound clips during “Those Commie Bastards” would just be cranky, or they’d just get too tired from all their leaping around. The genre they were often lumped into–garage rock–was almost an insult. If they were “garage-y,” it was because they often sounded like they hadn’t gotten any better. “We were always so worried about trying to do something new that we never stopped to get what we were doing completely right,” says Mike.

During early 2000, Doug was replaced onstage occasionally by a lamp or a mannequin and even at one point, a real live person. Nothing seemed to work. Doug came back from England but was in and out of Nashville. In the fall, he returned to Nashville to school. The Obscure started to make some progress. Then in the summer of 2001, in the middle of recording their second real record, Doug announced he was moving to Boston. In two weeks. Doug’s back and forth fit in perfectly with a motif of the Obscure: “Everytime we just started getting it together, something would go wrong,” Mike explains.

Mike, Brian and Danny struggled for the remainder of 2001 to finish their second record with Brian Carter. Speaking with Mike during that period, one could sense that the desperation to get something right — always apparent in their shows — had now turned into the determination of the damned. Neither Mike nor Brian ever said as much, but hearing of their all night sessions in Brian Carter’s studio and the mounting bill for the recording, one sensed that Mike and Brian felt that if they couldn’t get this record together, then they would have completely failed. Hearing of their fatigued, early morning drives back from Murfreesboro to Nashville to catch a couple of hours of sleep before going to their day jobs, I knew they felt a huge pressure.

Ultimately, it was a pressure that paid off. Laugh Like a Whip, Look Like a Dagger is a complex, dense, melodic, mature record. The record’s songs ran through genres again–“Give Me Some Love Sometime” is garage in the good sense, “Dearborn” is sweet indie pop, “Telephone as Trigger” is a spacey groove. The textures of the new record matched the deeper, more personal lyrics and showed the Obscure had grown into their songs and sound. Much of the credit for record’s sound must go to Brian Carter who had helped the Obscure wrangle their energy into their crafty and intricate songs. But ultimately, it was The Obscure’s completely idiotic tenacity, the fact that they felt something was unfinished — the idea that they could be great, if only for 53 minutes — that created Laugh‘s warm, layered sound. Those late nights between Nashville and Murfreesboro had given the band a selfish outlook. Nothing outside the band was going to go right, so they needed to change their focus.

With the completion of their second record, Mike felt his desire to make the band his livelihood disappear. “I had that album in my hand and it was like, who cares if anyone listens to it? I have it. I made it. . That was the time where I just said, phht, it’s all gone. I don’t have that ambition any more,” Mike says. “What are you trying to prove to yourself and to people? That your music is that great? You don’t need to show it to people. Maybe you wanna get it out to people, maybe you think that it changes the world or something, but I don’t think so, man. I think that’s more on an individual level. I think writing songs may change yourself and help you out.”

The change in focus spilled into their live show as well.

When time came to debut the album, the band knew they needed some instrumental help–the trio wasn’t going to cut it. Mike asked two friends to join them on guitar. Jason Phelan is the singer/guitarist/songwriter for The What Four. The recent departure of his drummer had left his band in limbo. Jason had always admired The Obscure’s songwriting. He and Mike had been friends for years and so he was a natural choice to join the Obscure. Andy Willhite is the guitarist with 27B Stroke 6. Mike met Andy through his work. When Andy told Mike one day that he loved his jam band but “I just want to rock,” Mike gave him The Obscure’s new CD.

The original plan was to have Jason and Andy each learn half of the songs, but their interest in the band and the fact that everything started sounding so damn good, changed the way the Obscure approached their music and especially their live shows. Both guitarists became permanent fixtures even adding harmony vocals and helping write new songs. For those of us who’ve followed them through the years–through the untrusty four-track experiments (remember the show punctuated by old beer commercials?) and freezing cold, shut-down-by-the-cops outdoor house parties — the change is nothing short of spectacular. It’s night and day. Every gig since the album release has been better than the last. Andy and Jason play off each other with big round tones. Brian and Danny lock into the beat. So confident is he in his band, Mike goes guitar-less for most of the set. It has given the Obscure the release they always needed. The music, now grounded by great players, allows Mike to play to the crowd. He surges, collapses, painfully bucks around on the ground, and gives it 200%.

The question of why the Obscure didn’t ever “make it” — conventionally — quickly brings the discussion to the Nashville scene. Many people in this town may not realize, but in other cities, audiences usually stand during rock performances. In front of the stage, no less! In other cities, people come to shows just because.

So was it the crowd? Mike and Brian independently point out that the crowds in Detroit were much more supportive of local bands. “In Michigan you had people who wanted to do nothing but support a good band,” Brian says. Here, a band’s fans are usually other musicians the band has met. “In Nashville, those people are the people who care about music. They’re all in their own band,” Mike adds. The networking a band has to do in Nashville to ensure a crowd is enough to defeat the most committed. And though many superlatives fit the Obscure, “most committed” is probably not one of them.

The local indie music scene is fertile but not necessarily encouraging. Even in underground, Nashville produces many good players but few great bands. The Obscure are the exception to this rule. It’s hard to imagine any of these five guys going on to be a star on his own, but in the Obscure, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The energy, the songs, and the heart are all there now. And Jason wonders, “Who’s going to do this when we’re gone?”

For much of their time in Nashville, the Obscure have been the consummate underdogs. In their last months, they’ve finally made something of themselves. This is what we’d always hoped for them but never really expected them to achieve — which says less about our cynicism than it does about their passion. This is as important as rock music gets. Here’s the Obscure, a band that so perfectly embodies our desperation to become something good, something great, something beyond ourselves. They’ve done it. At least for a couple of shows. That’s all you need isn’t it?

You’ll never be left breathless after a Lambchop song, relieved that they pulled it off with such irregular grace. You may observe the deep bonds of friendship between the boys of Feable Weiner, but you’ll never experience the tension in a grimace between band members when the drummer drops a beat. You can absorb and be impressed by the well-manicured sounds of Character but you’ll never be startled by the introduction to one of their songs. You can dance to the Features’s songs, but can you spasm? And will they dance? On your lap? Surely, you’ve seen a guitar player grab a beer bottle and “improvise” a guitar slide out of it. But you’ll likely never see one grab a full bottle too quickly, foaming the beer all over the guitar with the complete anti-prowess of the Obscure.

And you may have seen a long-side-burned, mustachioed, cigarette-dangling, wife-beater-wearing bass player smash his bass… But you’ve never seen him love it so much. The Obscure have accidentally become great. If only for today.

[The Obscure play their last show at the Springwater on Saturday, 17 August 2002.]