Obscure No More
Unheralded Nashville quartet starts taking itself seriously
By Noel Murray
JUNE 19, 2000: This past April, at the already legendary Flaming Lips show at 328 Performance Hall, Mike Gogola from local rockers The Obscure passed out fliers for his band's then-upcoming CD release party. The dollar's worth of photocopying and few hours of legwork represented Gogola's strongest effort yet to market his aptly named outfit, who have been playing regularly in town for almost two years with little fanfare.
Since the spring, though, The Obscure have seen one of their songs featured on Jimmy Iovine's talent-search Web site Farmclub.com, and they've taped a performance for broadcast on Farmclub's USA Network series. More importantly, The Obscure's self-released, seven-song CD The Politics of Person has garnered the group some overdue local press. The disc's entertaining and energized mix of urban grime and Technicolor scope has listeners flipping through their old 45s, trying to find the long-forgotten garage band that The Obscure most resembles.
The garage that Gogola himself crawled out of was in suburban Michigan, where he started The Obscure with boyhood chum Brian Wieck in late 1991, toward the end of their high school careers. "There's nothing else to do when it's cold as hell in Detroit," Gogola explains with a chuckle. Apparently, there was little else to do on hot days as well. After the band scattered to different colleges, they still reassembled over the summer to jam--Gogola on guitar and keyboards, Wieck on bass, and Dave Megyesi on drums. "By '96," Gogola recalls, "We started getting decent."
Then Gogola completed his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State, and he moved to Nashville to get his master's at Vanderbilt. Both Wieck and Megyesi said they'd follow Gogola to Nashville, but only Wieck obliged, arriving in 1998. Meanwhile, Gogola went from studying at Vanderbilt to working there, after he was offered a research position. "I get to dress like a grad student," Gogola says, "But I get paid a lot more."
The band reformed with Danny Sloan on drums and Gogola's Vandy pal Doug Tewksbury adding more guitar, but they quickly found out how difficult it is to crack Nashville's rock scene. As Gogola explains, "It's hard to get a gig without a CD, and we're pretty lazy, and we don't look the rock-star type."
But what Gogola calls "the Vandy connection" allowed him to guarantee club
owners a respectable audience of college students, and The Obscure soon
managed to work up to playing roughly once a month at The End and
Springwater, and occasionally at The Boro. In fact, Gogola says, "The
Murfreesboro scene has kind of adopted us." And the Nashville crowds who
have caught their raucous stage show have been knocked out as well. "In
Detroit, we were like...oh, another band," Gogola says. "Here, there's not
enough people who want to be The Who or The MC5."
But the heart of the band, Gogola acknowledges, lies in the practice spaces and studios where they were born. And The Politics of Person reflects that insularity--the EP has an intentionally raw sound and is peppered with wiggy sound effects. Part of the disc's special quality is due to producer Brian Carter. "He's analog boy," Gogola says. "Everything had to be going through a box of tubes. It made it sound dirtier. Two-inch tape, old mics, old amps...vintage '50s and '60s stuff."
The rest of The Obscure sound is homegrown--the quirky twists in structure and tempo are what Gogola thinks defines the band. "We consider ourselves part of the Sesame Street generation. The band for your short attention span. Always gotta be changing. We have that ingrained in our minds. We're also trying to write a little differently, different than what we've heard before. First and foremost, I want to write a really catchy song. I want it to be everything--it needs to be dancier, it needs to be heavier, it needs to be more melodic." He takes a breath. "Sometimes I end up merging two things together. You never know what to expect.
"I definitely prefer recording," Gogola concludes. "I want to record Dark Side of the Moon."
At Vanderbilt, Gogola works in the development of robotic insects--both crawling bugs and flying bugs--for surveillance. "The main problem is power consumption," he explains. "They [don't] last long. We're looking at a more efficient, smaller machine." He then launches into a long, technical description of how power can be generated through vibrations across ceramic, which create a resonant frequency or some such. He comes back to earth when he talks about what amazes him about his work. "The glory of nature," he sighs. "It's so amazing what a fly can do. There's no way we can come close to mimicking anything about it."
If there's any connection between Gogola's day job and his nighttime hobby, it may be his sense of inventiveness. But that connection may have to be severed temporarily if The Obscure continue their recent upward trajectory. Currently, the band is thriving while a man short--Tewksbury is abroad in Europe for the next few months, and when he returns, the reunited quartet will have to make some choices about whether they want to keep heading toward the light that's suddenly broken through on their meandering path.
"We've had this band for so long," Gogola admits. "[And] it always starts
and stops." He hesitates, then says, "I'd like to see how far I can take
it, but I don't want to take the pay cut that's involved."
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