Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Robert Pally
(August 2011)

Cargoe have the distinction of not only releasing one fantastic power pop album in 1972 but also being label mates with Big Star and making an impression on Eric Burdon. Unfortunately, bad luck and other negative factors brought them to an early end and made them stop. But now they have a reformed and released a new album with songs that they've kept on the back burner from the seventies and eighties. In this interview, bass player and singer Max Wisley talks about drugs, great concerts, memories of living in Memphis, playing together again and recording finally a follow up to their debut.

PSF: How and when did Cargoe come together?

Max Wisley: The band formed in the late '60's as What Four, then became Rubbery Cargoe as the house band at an exclusive teens-only upscale club around '67/'68/'69. We then made a demo and received an offer through DJ's Jim Peters and Robert W. Walker, to record with Box Top's producer and songwriter Dan Penn at his newly created Beautiful Sounds studio in Memphis. When we moved to Memphis in 1970's, we dropped the Rubbery, and just became "Cargoe."

In 2010, three of the four original members rejoined forces to record the follow-up album to the 1972 Ardent Records release. New Cargoe member Steve Thornbrugh offered to record in his home recording studio and provided us with world class engineering and production prowess. It's only through Steve's generosity and efforts that Cargoe had the opportunity to finally record the songs" written in the day," destined for the follow-up LP.

PSF: Was there a main influence you had as band?

MW: I think the '70's Cargoe and the 2010 Cargoe have pretty much the same influences. Originally, it was of course The Beatles and the whole British Invasion. But also Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, James Brown, The Byrds. Then of course The Eagles, who were just starting in the early '70's.

PSF: You came out of Tulsa. Was there actually a scene with a pretty similar sound like there was in San Francisco?

MW: The "Tulsa Sound" is known characterized by Leon Russell, JJ Cale, and the like. A lot of B3 organ and a rustic funk, without sounding Southwestern or Country. Eric Clapton spent time in Tulsa in the early 70's to capture the flavor and work with several of his heroes like J.J. Cale. But for the Cargoe generation of the 60's, we were really more influenced by the British Invasion and Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield. That's what influenced Cargoe, but we did have the B3 which just became a natural part of what Cargoe sounded like. We were our own "sound." That's what set us apart.

PSF: What was the first song you wrote as Cargoe?

MW: It's hard to say, because Rubbery Cargoe was working with Jim Peters and he was influential in our early works. Jim has a theatrical background, so some early songwriting attempts had a different flavor than what we ended up writing. I can say that "Time" was probably one of the very first songs by Rubbery Cargoe, probably around 1968/69. Written by Bill Phillips and me in about 5 minutes! The recorder was on in his bedroom/studio, he began playing the chords with that beat, and those words just fell out of my mouth! Just like magic happens! I'm sure there was a little Pot influence at the time. "All I wanna do is watch the seeds grow, let em grow, grow and grow." "Time is the life of a Seed, and Time is the Seed of Life" yea. That kinda thing. :)

PSF: Can you tell me the story of your first album?

MW: Basically, we'd been playing all those songs around 1969 as part of our show. We mixed our songs with those we enjoyed playing, like Frank Zappa, The Beatles, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix! So when we did the demo and had the opportunity to go to Memphis in early 1970 we already had the tunes. We recorded the first record over a long weekend at Dan Penn's new Beautiful Sounds Studio in Memphis. The single "Feel All Right" was released on the Beautiful Sounds label and received notoriety in Billboard and Cashbox as regional hits. The album was never pressed, but shopped around to the major labels at the time. Atlantic Records made a sizeable offer, but the Penn team turned it down. That turned out to be a big mistake. We also found out that the tape heads had not been properly aligned, so the tapes couldn't be taken to another studio for mixing or mastering. It would all have to be done over! For various reasons still unknown to me, Beautiful ended up giving or selling us to John Fry/Terry Manning of Ardent Records. We then re-recorded the entire Album, with Terry Manning engineering, mixing, and producing, starting at the original Ardent Records National Street studio, and finished up recording and mastering in the new facilities they currently occupy on Madison Avenue which opened in 1971.

PSF: What part did drugs play in the song writing process?

MW: At the time the songs were written it was mostly pot, a little LSD, and a little speed. :) We really weren't into drinking alcohol, or doing a lot of pills. No Heavy drugs for sure. Later a little coke, and a few downers, but things weren't really out of control during our time of writing, recording, and performing.

PSF: Did you see Cargoe as a psychedelic band?

MW: The original Rubbery Cargoe was. All in step with the late '60's. We did Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Beatles, etc.. All with that Psychedelic flare. But when Jimi Hendrix arrived on the scene and things started changing during the late '60's, and as Cargoe was in Memphis, we moved into our own style. Probably some of the very original "grunge," before it was even called grunge.

PSF: When did you move with Cargoe to Memphis and how long did you stay?

MW: We moved to Memphis in the spring of 1970, for a long weekend, then back to Tulsa for a month or so, then pretty mush moved to Memphis that summer. Most of us stayed until late 1972 or early 1973. When the band broke up, Bill stayed in Memphis longer, I moved back to Tulsa, I think Tim moved to Texas to study music, and Tom also went back to Tulsa.

PSF: What memories (good and bad) do you have of Memphis?

MW: Really only great memories! It was an opportunity like no other. There weren't "home studios" back then, so getting to record in a world class studio with a world class engineering and producer was the dream of a lifetime! We were very poor for sure! We lived on a shoe string budget, all together in this fantastic antebellum style "Hippy House" at 1972 Cowden Ave, Memphis. We made new friends, played music all the time. It was fun.. I remember meeting Carl Wilson of Beach Boys fame. He was promoting the band The Flame on their new Brothers record label. They all came over to the house, sat around and jammed.

PSF: How did you write your songs?

MW: Usually it was an individual effort. Each would come to a practice session with a new tune. We did write several together though. Someone would start a chord progression and we'd all chime in with ideas for words and changes. Once we were happy with it, we'd work it up and it would be in our reparatory to play. Now it's pretty much the same as the new Cargoe emerges. We are writing new songs for the next CD. Bill has several he's working on, so do I, as well as Steve. But we are working with each other to fine tune them, make alternate progressions, and produce them.

PSF: What was the best concert you played with Cargoe? And what was special about it?

MW: There were 2 that come to mind. The first was the opportunity to open for Eric Burdon and the Animals around 1968/69 at the Tulsa Civic Center. The year "Hey Jude" came out. Our DJ/Manager Jim Peters had a pre-release version of "Hey Jude" by The Beatles, two days before the Animals concert. So we worked up "Hey Jude" and ended our show with it before the record was even released! We understand Eric was pretty impressed. :)

The other show as our very last concert as Cargoe. It was at the Memphis Shell where we opened for Poco. It was Halloween night 1972! It was all a blur, but we were at the peak of our game, having just come off a mini-West Coast tour! We killed that night! Too bad it was the final show. I remember tears coming to my eyes, and a lump in my chest, as we played "Leave Today" for the very last time..

PSF: Why did Cargoe split?

MW: We split because of a failed record distribution deal and we just couldn't stay poor any longer. We all needed to work. It was impossible to make a living off playing music without a national presence. The Stax machine was blowing up, Ardent couldn't fund us living day to day, so we had to find jobs. The failed record distribution left us falling off the charts and out of the press. At the time, we had no idea what was happening. We didn't realize it wasn't because we weren't good enough. So we all basically decided to let it go. Tim was the first. He just couldn't go on like that and wanted to further his musical education at college. Tom left next. Bill and I tried to pull a new drummer and guitarist together, but it just wasn't the same, so we both called it quits. Cargoe fell apart in late 1972.

PSF: What triggered the reunion?

MW: We'd all kept in loose contact with each other over the years. I even met up with Tim in the mid '80's and he and I recorded a few of my songs in Dallas. By chance, I moved back to Tulsa in 2000 after a long stint in Los Angeles and the Dallas area. I ran into Bill's brother by chance, and got in touch with Bill. He and I started a trio with a guy from our era, Randy Ess. We played around town from time to time performing all songs by The Beatles! 3 Hours of Beatles. We called ourselves "Replay." We were a bit (of a) hit in the city. Bill and I then met up with another guitarist Frank Brown. I'd been carrying around these cassette tapes from the Memphis days with songs I'd written (and) some Bill had written that were never produced.. Songs that most probably would have been on our 1973 follow-up LP had we the chance and the resources to record in Memphis. Bill and I created about 17 demo's with Frank Brown's help at his home studio - nothing more then acoustic guitars and vocals.

In 2003, JVC Japan licensed the original 1972 Cargoe album, had Terry Manning re-mastered it for digital CD and released it under their "Roots of Power Pop" campaign. That brought some new interest back again in Cargoe, but we didn't really think of getting together again, or recording.

Then in 2004, Terry Manning discovered a lost recording he'd made of Cargoe (Live in Memphis) at Ardent Studios for one of the very first live simulcasts on WFMC radio. Terry released it on his on Lucky Seven label which further interest in Cargoe again.

Bill and I kept those Frank demos' for a couple of years until we met up with Steve Thornbrugh in 2009. Steve is a master engineer and recording producer. He offered to take our demos' and help us work on them. Bill and I planned to use a local Tulsa guitarist to fill that position, but we discovered Steve is also a fantastic guitarist. Although it wasn't originally planned, Steve became the new lead guitarist for Cargoe. Tim our original drummer lives in Norman Oklahoma, about 1 1/2 hours away from Tulsa, so it's hard for him to make sessions. But he listened to updated tracks (that) Bill, Steve, and I had recorded and worked on his own to know the songs and produce the drum parts. He came down to Tulsa for a drum session to add his part to the project.

PSF: What is so special about Cargoe that this reunion came together?

MW: I guess the music just had to find its way into being! We had these songs from the day, wrote a few more on our own, not ever thinking we'd ever get back together as a band. But for some reason, things lined up at the right time and place with the right people and it just couldn't be helped. It actually made itself happen! It was an effortless coming together that just created the conditions ready for these songs to finally be heard! I guess we just couldn't let the Cargoe legacy rely on those two records to define us. We knew we had more to say musically and I think we wanted some redemption from the art.

PSF: How did it feel to play with your band members again after such a long time?

MW: This has been a dream come true. But one we never let ourselves dare to dream. We're still mainly a recording band at this stage of the game, not to say we couldn't perform live. It's just so expensive and time consuming to rehearse to the level that's needed for a professional outing that we would demand that it be. But maybe we'll play live in the near future!

PSF: How did your new album come together? Are all songs from the same period?

MW: Most of the songs from the new Cargoe are from the early '70's. Some are mid '70's and a couple even mid '80's. But the core songs most probably would have been on any 1973 follow-up if we'd had the resources and opportunity.

PSF: Are there any plans for the future as Cargoe?

MW: We are just enjoying the opportunity to record again. This time, we have more options available to us. Steve has given us those options. We're currently writing new songs and in pre production for our next project. We're confident we'll bring our life lessons and experiences to the table with these new expressions. We've all been married, have children, and some have grandchildren. There in a lot of baby boomer in us to share with people our age. We are some of "the originals" musically. We're from an era that's losing their musical heroes. We'd like to create what is deemed current for our generation, but still have that special flavor from the past in what we do and the sounds we make!

- Cargoe (LP, CD; Reissue on JVC Japan)
- Live In Memphis! (CD; Lucky Seven 9212)
- Cargoe (CD, Rubbery Cargoe Records; available at their homepage).

Also see the Cargoe website

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