Back in August, I kicked off my “Favorite Bands of the ’90s” series with Festus, Missouri’s finest band, The Bottle Rockets. So as to avoid any repeat writings, I encourage you to visit that post if you want to for a quick refresher on what I wrote about the band. Here and now, though, I can talk a little more about them, because they deserve it.
When I’m old and creaky and I look back and reflect on what feels like thousands of live shows I’ve seen, I already know that The Bottle Rockets will rank right up there (top 3 easy) as my favorite live band of all time. Some of my fondest memories and best times in a club have come with this band on stage. There are not many groups out there who can just put a shit-eating grin on your face for 2 hours – The Bottle Rockets are one of them. Huge on talent and short on luck, The Bottle Rockets brand of pure-bred American rock and roll just keeps rolling. Whenever I try to explain their sound to someone (a cross between Metallica and Lynyrd Skynyrd? A combination of Little Feat and Guns ‘N’ Roses? I don’t know), I just feel like I’ve failed to get it correct. You just need to watch and listen.
Their lead singer, the always affable Brian Henneman, is part musician, part comedian and BIG part songwriter. He’s not flashy, not theatrical, just…..terrific. The other day I was reading a biography of Norman Rockwell and it’s a little difficult to make the connection here, but I think Henneman is rock and roll’s version of Norman Rockwell – a guy whose art exposes everyday, common life. A guy who may not have gotten the respect he deserved. A guy who can tell a story with a simple piece of work.
Henneman’s songwriting is so everyday and workmanlike that one starts to take it for granted, like a sweatshirt or old pair of shoes you cannot bring yourself to get rid of. They become friends. The stories spun in his songs are such ordinary yarns about characters you come across every week and Henneman makes you feel like you’ve known him and hung with him for years. These songs – they stick with you. For good.
The Bottle Rockets mean a hell of a lot to me. They continuously take me back to another part of my life and those memories of listening to their records with friends or seeing them live never fail to fill me with nostalgia and joy. The even better part? They’re still together, still making damn good records and still playing live. They have a fantastic new album called “Zoysia” coming out in June and they’ll be here in Boston on June 17th (Harper’s Ferry, for you locals). If you need to find me that night, you know where I am. Look for the guy with a huge smile and a couple of beers.
I am beyond psyched to present this interview with lead singer and songwriter of The Bottle Rockets, Brian Henneman. Enjoy.
1) Did you know that the most inebriated I’ve ever been at a live rock show was at a Bottle Rockets gig during one of those SxSW’s in the 1990s? It was at the Waterloo Brewing Company in Austin, TX and I had to sit and literally prop myself up against the wall of the building opposite the stage. Does it make you feel proud that you were able to be present during my most inebriated moment?
Man, I STILL run into people who talk about that show, and every single one claims it to be their drunkest night. Thank GOD everybody was was drunk. God was watching out for our reputation, by fucking up every single person in that crowd. I have a recording of that show, and we were HORRIBLE. Every song was twice as fast as it should’ve been, and every instrument was twice as out of tune as it should’ve been. We even had Eric Ambel, on a TWELVE string that was absolutely out of tune. We must’ve been as drunk as everybody else…
2) It’s ’95 or ’96 (or whenever). Your song, “Radar Gun” is actually getting airplay at mainstram rock radio – it’s even getting popular – and I’m non-chalantly bragging to all my friends that I saw the band play at the Middle East Upstiars in Cambridge the year before (I was obnoxious like that back then). What was your mindset at the time? Were you thinking you might hit it big? Were you suspicious of the machine? Or were you just proud to hear your song played on the radio?
ANSWER: All of the above. I had no idea what was going on. It was pretty cool to be in Detroit, and hear it come on the radio right after Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”. ‘Twas our 15 minutes of fame.
3) You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to (I know nothing), but do you think you’ll work with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel again at any point?
I am old, and wise enough, to know that you never say never.
4) What was the last thing you laughed really hard at?
A dream I had, where my wife and I had a baby, but it hatched from an egg in a crib in our bedroom. When it was out of the shell, it was a big, plastic snowman, like people put on their porch at Christmas, with my wife’s brother’s face on it. Wonder what I had for dinner THAT night?
5) The band’s new album, called “Zoysia,” comes out in a few weeks. The songwriting on this thing is just immense – and that’s a compliment. Is it just me or does this set of songs feel a little more…….cynical? Is that a product of the times? Or do you feel more cynical as the years go on?
I think cynisicm is a by-product of old age. I wish I could still look at things with child-like wonder but the more you learn from life, the more easily you can call bullshit. First, the tooth fairy goes, then Santa, next thing you know, you realize rock and roll is dead, your parents are dead, Neil Young looks REALLY old, you can’t relate to modern pop culture at all, you know politics are too corrupt to mean anything, and you’re thinkin’ about how much time you have left on earth. At that point, it’s all about figurin’ out how to get the most from the time that’s left. You stop looking for the meaning of life, and start actually celebrating life. You have no time for bullshit. “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think…” Was this a cynical answer?
6) You have a real secret weapon in songwriter Scott Taylor. He’s kind of like your personal version of Karl Rove – in the shadows. I never, ever thought I’d mention Karl Rove in an interview. I’m really sorry about that (me no likey the Karl Rove). What is your history with him? I mean Scott Taylor, not Karl Rove. Does he play music or just write?
I’ve known Scott for many years. He came to Festus, from Troy, Illinois, for his first teaching job. He’s an English teacher. He actually taught our drummer, Mark. Somehow, through the grapevine, he learned about us weirdos who had Ramones albums, and were trying to start a band. In Festus, that was revolutionary. At that time, Festus was all about Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon. He actually suggested Mark to us, for a drummer. He has the most amazing record collection. He taught us everything cool thing we know about rock and roll (although, we DID discover the Ramones on our own, guess that counts for somethin’…). He can’t play very well at all, just rudimentary chords on guitar, but, he sure can write a mean lyric.
7) Who penned the lyric “a plastic plate of sorrow from a buffet of regret” on the song “Happy Anniversary?” (I don’t have the liner notes yet) When I heard that lyric, I nearly pooped myself because it’s so goddamn brilliant. Do you have a song or moment on the new record that really gets you?
That was me. I love this entire album. We finally made one I like all the way through. Every moment gets me.
7) Many years ago, I was at the Mercury Lounge show in NYC when, after you flashed your breasts to us, you announced that you had placed every Bottle Rockets song in your hat and that the audience would pick the set list that night. And that’s how it happened. Do you remember this? Were either of those events (audience picking songs, breast flashing) a one-time thing? I’d like to tell people that “I was at the only show ever where Henneman…….”
Those were the drunken days. That setlist thing happened, I think, two times. Once in New York, once in St. Louis. The breast flashing, as far as I can remember, only happened in New York, but, I don’t remember THAT, so, who knows?
8) I asked Farrar and I also asked that dude from My Morning Jacket this question: What are your thoughts on the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” album? My opinion is that it’s one of the most overrated albums ever made, although it did revoloutionize record-making. Farrar kind of agreed. The guy from My Morning Jacket wanted to kill me. Your thoughts?
“Sgt. Pepper’s” was one of the very few albums I had, as a child. I loved it then, but, it is SOOOO not my Favorite Beatles album now. I, too, would put it in the “overrated” category.
9) Why don’t you ask me a question?
What do you feel has prevented the guy from My Morning Jacket from killing you thus far?
Jeff answers: Hmmm. Good one. I think it’s because I told him my name was Jeff Tweedy.
10) Tell us a really good “this band is flat broke” story.
Every story leads to that story. It would be easier if I could just send you a bank statement.
11) Did you know that I’m the guy who wrote that feature story on the Bottle Rockets in the very first issue of No Depression magazine back in 1995? Using my basic math skills, this means that I’m due to interview you again in 2017. What will you be doing in 2017?
Probably, ridin’ around in a van, playing the same clubs, writing even MORE cynical songs, unless I get Alzheimer’s and am able to revert back to my “wonder years”.
12) Did you find it difficult to write “Mom & Dad?” That one gets me the same way Farrar’s “Dent County” gets me. Always makes me think about my own family.
I didn’t write “Mom & Dad.” I just sat there, and it popped right out. I have no memory of writing it. I channelled it. I find it difficult to LISTEN to Mom & Dad.
13) Are most of your songs written based on personal experience? Take, for example, “White Boy Blues.” Do you actually know someone that you equate with that image?? (“gets in his Turbo Volvo and he heads for home…..”) It’s funny to think about, because there are several folks I know who are like that. I don’t even want to ask about “Love Like A Truck”
Most all of my songs are, basically, like police reports. All facts. No filler. Yeah, I know several of “those guys.”
14) Okay, so you portrayed yourself a few years back as a pretty simple guy in the song “Helpless” – do you feel you’ve evolved? For example, the song indicates that you are not online. Yet here you are, doing an email interview. Have you come around to the internet? Are you ok with people downloading and sharing your music? For what it’s worth, I’ve made quite a few fans of the band by sharing your music and I know for sure they’ve purchased later on.
When I wrote that song, I did NOT have a computer. I really felt that way at that time. Wish I still felt that way but I don’t. I still don’t have a cell phone. If I get a cell phone, I won’t get an iPod. I always have to be defiant of some kinda technology. It really IS killing humanity, you know…
Downloading, sharing… whatcha gonna do? The illegal stuff hurts my income. We’re right at the “success level” that actually gets KILLED by that. If you make less than us it doesn’t matter, ’cause you ain’t makin’ a livin’ with it anyway. If you make MORE than us, it doesn’t matter, ’cause you’re still makin’ a livin’. It has definitely hurt album sales, which filters down to royalty checks. It gets the music out there but puts me into a part-time job scenario. It’s alright. Like I said, whatcha gonna do? Maybe if I flashed my breasts more, we’d make more money…
15) In all seriousness, I want to tell you here that the Bottle Rockets are, without question, one of my favorite bands of the last ten years, musicially, lyrically and comedy. You have provided me with some truly amazing memories – live, on record, etc. So thank you. Just wanted to say that.
Whenever you may feel shitty about this business (and there’s lots of reasons to feel that way), don’t ever forget that there’s a lot of us who feel the same way I do about the band. See you in Boston on June 17th.
Thank you, my brotha! See y’all out there somewhere…
Big thanks to Brian Henneman!