Bottle Rockets – Hell of a spell
When that scholarly malady known as writer’s block descends from the muses, it can be helpful to employ a simple little exercise. Particularly in cases where there is lots of ground to be covered and there are lots of stories to tell, sometimes the best way to divine the heart of the matter is to try to boil everything down to a couple of central, defining words. (Truth be known, it’s really more of a headline writer’s trick, but it can work for the manuscript as well.)
These are the words I have come up with to epitomize what the Bottle Rockets have been through in the six-odd years since they last appeared on our cover, back in May 1997. The deaths are both metaphorical — the departure of two founding band members, the dissolution of two record deals — and literal — the passing of leader Brian Henneman’s parents, and of one of the band’s musical heroes, Doug Sahm.
What has been consistent throughout is the Bottle Rockets’ remarkable resilience. Indeed, one thing that surfaces repeatedly when speaking to the band members about their new album Blue Sky — released October 28 on Sanctuary Records — is an expression of mild marvel that they’ve made it far enough to earn another go-round on the music-biz hamster-wheel.
From the beginning — back in 1993, when the band issued its first record on the long-gone East Side Digital label — the Bottle Rockets have been at the forefront of alt-country. Henneman’s roots run directly through Uncle Tupelo: He played on their March 16-20, 1992 album, toured with them as a guitar tech, joined Wilco in the studio for their debut disc A.M., and still occasionally tours with Jay Farrar as a solo opener. The Bottle Rockets’ precursor band, Chicken Truck, played countless co-bills with Uncle Tupelo in their hometown of St. Louis in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
But the late ’90s exacted a heavy toll on the band. First their deal with Atlantic — which had picked up the band’s landmark sophomore disc The Brooklyn Side and issued its promising third album, 24 Hours A Day — went south, around the same time that they parted ways with bassist Tom Ray (who now plays with Neko Case). Their next label deal was even rockier, and by the end of the decade, an onslaught of professional and personal adversity had left the band’s future hanging by a thread.
“Many times the band has been teetering on the point of exhaustion, and the point of just breaking it up. And there are times I’m surprised we’re still here,” drummer Mark Ortmann allows. Asked about one particularly tough stretch back in 1999, and whether the band came close to fading away at that point, leader Brian Henneman confesses directly, “It easily could have.”
On the other hand, whenever the Bottle Rockets have seemed on the edge of falling apart, somehow they’ve managed to regroup and rise again. Even amid an extended hiatus in 2000, bassist Robert Kearns recalls, “I was always under the impression that, sooner or later, we’d get it back together.”
Scott Taylor, co-writer of many of the Bottle Rockets’ best songs over the years and a sort of spiritual godfather to the band since its inception, sums up the status quo nicely. “They’ve got a really great band, and they’ve put together a great record, and they’ve got a good record company. And for them to be this deep in their career and have all that going on — I just think it’s a really amazing accomplishment.”
Let’s start at the end, then, with that new record and label. Blue Sky is the Bottle Rockets’ seventh release, counting five proper albums of original material, one odd-and-ends collection, and their 2002 Doug Sahm tribute disc. It’s their first for Sanctuary, whose peculiarly diverse catalogue seems to focus on classic rock and metal; recent releases by Styx and Queensryche sidle up to archival material from Sammy Hagar and Black Sabbath.
Yet it’s not as if the Bottle Rockets are bereft of common ground with Sanctuary’s artists. Also among their releases is Joey Ramone’s swan song, as well as records by Lynyrd Skynyrd; in our interview, Henneman name-checks both Skynyrd and the Ramones as formative influences on the Bottle Rockets. And more recently, the label released this fall’s reunion album by adventurous country band the Mavericks.
But their most direct tie to the Sanctuary roster is the Allman Brothers — because it was Allmans and Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes who was largely responsible for the existence of Blue Sky. Haynes, the husband of Bottle Rockets manager Stefani Scamardo, stuck his neck out on the band’s behalf early this year after hearing rough demos of their new material. He offered to foot the bill for a recording session at Hoboken, New Jersey, studio Water Music, and to co-produce the record with his engineering cohort Michael Barbiero (whose credits range from Metallica to Mick Jagger to Ziggy Marley).
It required a certain leap of faith, from both parties. “Warren had the idea to make a record, and just do it on spec,” Henneman says, explaining that there was no label deal in place when they recorded the album in April of this year. “He had this idea that, let’s just try this, and see if we can get something bigger out of it. He was not afraid to absorb the costs on his own if something failed.
“I was nervous because we’ve been doing things a certain way for our whole career. Before we would ever make a record, we made sure that we had a record deal, and a budget, and stayed within the budget; we were always real responsible about staying within budgets and things like that.
“And this time, it was like, there is no budget. This was just some huge, crazy chance. And I thought, well, that’s something we’ve never done before; we’ve never taken a total wild shot. So, just for the sake of doing something different after being together for ten years, we agreed to it.”