Bloodshot Records has done us all a favor by bundling the Bottle Rockets’ first two albums – along with some cool previously-unreleased bonus tracks – into a 2-CD collection. Band founder and frontman Brian Henneman was kind enough to reflect on twenty years of being undefinable, learning how to turn down, the clarity of sobriety – and still playing your ass off.
BR: So, Brian, here we are – over 20 years of being too crunchy for the twangers, too twangy for the crunchers, too loud for everybody, and too damn clever for your own good. How’d you do it?
Ha! I don’t know … I think the very thing that created the problem is the very thing that keeps it going. I don’t know – there’s no explaining it … I think the key is just being too dumb to quit. (laughter)
Maybe it’s best not to think about these things too much?
That’s right. (laughs)
Does the idea of the band being 20-plus years old weird you out at all?
It doesn’t weird me out … but it doesn’t seem like it’s possible. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long at all.
Years ago, I heard Tom Petty talking about the fact that when you’re a musician, you don’t gauge your life around years – you gauge it around albums. So, yeah: it was 20 years, but it was 10 albums. All of a sudden, it becomes this weird sort of dog years situation. You remember the albums and you remember making them … but there were only 10 of those. It speeds up life twice as fast as normal, you know?
How about we do some time-traveling? If you would, paint us all a picture of what was going on in the world of the Bottle Rockets in 1993. I love John Keane’s essay in the liner notes to the collection about producing your first album.
That first album was funny: the whole thing went from zero to sixty in just nanoseconds. I was out on the road with Uncle Tupelo at that point – I never looked for anything other than being a roadie or whatever with those guys. Seriously – I wasn’t looking for a record deal … I didn’t have a band. (laughs) It was Tupelo’s manager, Tony Margherita, who got ahold of some of my songs that we’d recorded together. While I was out on the road with Uncle Tupelo, he got me a record deal.
I hadn’t been thinking about anything like that – I mean, things came together so fast that John Keane didn’t even know I was coming with a band!
That was the deal: he was figuring you, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica, right?
Yeah! We showed up two days late after sleeping in the car a couple nights, stuck in a freak-of-nature-superstorm blizzard in Georgia – so that cost us two of the five days John had before he was leaving for SXSW.
When we got there, John just had a couple of microphones and a stool set up out in the room … he had no clue there was a band coming. We didn’t even have a name – the whole session, John didn’t have anything to label the reels with. (laughter) Our bass player had joined so recently that he was still writing out chord changes and stuff while we were cutting the tracks.
It was amazing how it turned out – we did all the music one day; all the vocals the next; and mixed it on the third day. And that was it. John was working overtime – we’d leave at one in the morning and John would stay after and put pedal steel on a couple things or whatever … shit, he worked harder than we did! (laughter)
So, you went from working with John to The Brooklyn Side, working with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who’s become an honorary Bottle Rocket over the years. Roscoe’s another production wizard, as far as I’m concerned … and a hell of a player himself. The new Del-Lords album is something else.
Oh, yeah! You know, I was a fan of Roscoe’s before I ever met him. I saw him the first time the Del-Lords ever played in St Louis – by accident.
Me and a friend of mine went to this little club in St Louis to see the Morells, actually. I’ll never forget: we got there and we didn’t get out of the car at first, ‘cause we were listening to the local radio station playing the world premier of ZZ Top’s Eliminator album. (laughter) Yeah!
So when Eliminator was over, we went in to see the Morells. We didn’t recognize any of their equipment, though – we used to go see those guys all the time. And that’s when the guy that ran the club got up on stage and said, “Look – the Morells had to cancel, but we have a band here tonight that we think you’re really going to like, okay? And if you don’t like them, we’ll give you your money back.” It was like, I don’t know … 5 bucks to get in, you know? (laughter)
So we saw the Del-Lords and we thought they were fantastic.
And didn’t ask for your money back.
Nope! (laughs) And that was the first time I ever saw Roscoe Ambel – playing guitar with the Del-Lords. He just blew me away.
At that point you didn’t know he was also a killer producer, though.
No – no idea. What happened was, the guy who ran the label that our first album was on knew Roscoe somehow and sent him a copy. The first time we ever played in New York City – in the middle of another blizzard, by the way … we were haunted by blizzards in the early days (laughter) – Roscoe was one of the six people who made it through the storm to come see us. He was like, “Man, I’d love to do your next album.” And we said, “Hell, yeah!”
And the rest is history.
As far as the original albums, how would you compare your self-titled debut album to The Brooklyn Side?
Well, the first one was just kind of throw-and-go; those were the only songs we had at the time … we didn’t have any spares that were really ready. So it was literally just record ‘em and mix ‘em – and that was the end of it. Not a whole lot of forethought; no concept or anything like that. We spent more time in the car during the blizzard than we did in the recording sessions. (laughter)
By the second album, we had a lot more going on: more songs to choose from, plus Roscoe was a great arranger – “Let’s move this part over here,” or “Let’s put this chord in the chorus instead of that one,” or “Let’s do this song instead of that one, because this one will fit better on the album” – we’d never done anything like that before. So I would say it was much more of a serious experience with Roscoe … except it wasn’t serious because we were drunk every minute of the day. (laughter)
As far as the bonus tracks, were there any surprises for you – anything you hadn’t heard for a while?
Those live tracks – the Thirsty Ear radio show? I remember playing them, but I hadn’t heard them since we did it. So those were fun to hear. Really, though, all of the bonus stuff – the demos, the live tracks – was stuff that I hadn’t heard in forever.
You know, hearing some of the acoustic Bottle Rockets stuff from back then makes me think of your Not So Loud album that was released in 2011. The unplugged thing isn’t really a reach for you guys – you’ve been doing it for years, man.
Well, you know what? That’s the way our songs get written and rehearsed. We don’t rehearse at “blazing rock volume” … everything starts off small. But the acoustic thing on Not So Loud really was sort of foreign for us because we’d never done a lot of it out live acoustically. Bringing it to the stage, it wasn’t odd playing it, but it was odd on the technical end … shit, when you play acoustic, you’ve got more cables and stuff than when you play electric. (laughs)
Because you’re trying to make it sound acoustic.
Right! That’s why we never did it before – we knew what a pain in the ass it is. (laughter)
Well, you guys pull it off well and not everyone can. It’s a different setting when you don’t have the volume to work with or the effects – what’s coming out under your elbow is what you’ve got, baby.
That’s right. There’s a Tom Petty quote – I guess I quote him a lot, but he says great shit. (laughter) Anyway, he said, “If you can’t pull off a song on just an acoustic guitar, you better keep an eye on it.” And that’s very true – if you can’t keep someone interested with just an acoustic guitar; if they only like it because of the loud stuff, then there’s something wrong with that song.
And then on the other hand we have the bonus tracks from your old band Chicken Truck, which are about as yeeee-hawww punk as you can get.
Yep! (laughter) We were all about crazy at that time. (laughter)
Man you had to have broken, blown up, or caught something on fire during “Brand New Year”.
Oh, yeah. (laughter) I barely remember recording that. We were down in our bass player’s basement and we didn’t know anything except to play as loud as we could.
Let me ask you something: there’s that old cliché that goes with almost any sort of art where you have the writer/painter/musician who has been creative – and drunk or high – for years. When they get straight, a lot of their audience worries they’re going to lose their edge.
Right, right, right.
But you’ve been sober for years now – and man, I defy anybody to say that you’ve lost any of your edge.
You know, it’s funny, because the whole decade of my 30s – which would’ve been the 90s – I was pretty much drunk. But I had some alcoholic qualities and not others.
For instance, I didn’t drink because I liked the taste of it; I drank to get drunk. But at the same time, I only did it in social situations. I never drank at home; I never even kept booze in the house, really … it was just a social thing.
But throughout that entire time, never once did I ever write a song drunk – ever. Somehow I kept that part separate. Now, I recorded them drunk – I would be drunk as shit when we’d record them – but I never wrote drunk.
So it wasn’t as radical a change as it might be for some people, who might have only ever written songs under the influence of something.
I had this same conversation with Jason Isbell in 2012; he was about six months sober at the time. Jason told me that – other than some stage fright – the first few times he played live and sober, there weren’t any negatives for him. He could even hear better.
He’s exactly right. Ever since I quit drinking, we’ve been bringing the stage volume down, down, down … and now we’re old and wise enough to know that’s the way to go.
I mean, you go see Roscoe and the Del-Lords and they’re using tiny amplifiers. They sound like frigging Neil Young and Crazy Horse when they’re in a club, because they’re mic’ing that shit up and pushing it through the PA.
But when you’re drunk, you’re drunk … and you just don’t give a fuck. You crank the amp, thinking you’re rocking out. When you’re blasting loud, it’s hard to be subtle; it’s hard to get any dynamics going on.
Don’t stop reading now – click on through to the other side for the conclusion of my conversation with Brian Henneman on Jambands.com!