Twenty Years with The Bottle Rockets: A Conversation with Brian Henneman
It’s hard to believe twenty years have passed since a little band from Festus, Missouri by the name of The Bottle Rockets released their very first album. Yet, despite the passage of time, in our troubled times The Bottle Rockets’ hard-rocking songs of beat up cars, small town woes, and rowdy nights feel more relevant than ever. In fact, for me, The Bottle Rockets have never ceased to be relevant for even a second throughout the course of their twenty years as a band and my twenty years as a fan.
From the moment when my dad first blasted me with the ferocious sounds of “Radar Gun” off the band’s sophomore release, The Brooklyn Side, there was something monumental about The Bottle Rockets and their heavy-hitting brand of what critics called alt-country that appealed to me as a seven-year old boy. Maybe it was the in-your-face imagery of fast cars and a life on the edge, but even as a youngin’ I was hooked for life.
Fast forward twenty years later. Since releasing Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side the band has went on to put out nine more full length albums, two of which are live recordings and one of which is a tribute album of sorts featuring covers of songs by the late great Doug Sahm. The band has been through ups and downs, major record deals, and numerous lineup changes. But they are still at it, continuing to put out new music and tour as much as possible. Yet, even with such a long, storied career as a band and a massive catalogue of music, a large majority of the songs fans still identify as quintessential to The Bottle Rockets sound come from those first two albums.
Perhaps it’s that reckless energy we have all experienced at some point or another that makes those first two albums resonate so well. Maybe it’s the band’s straightforward, honest rock and roll that is both gritty and raw, but comes at you with the type of lyrical and instrumental confidence that shows these guys know what the hell they’re doing. Whatever it is, twenty years later those first two Bottle Rockets albums still sound as explosively refreshing as they did when they came out, which is why it makes sense for the band to release them as part of their 20th anniversary box set on Bloodshot Records. Even if you own the albums, it is worth purchasing the box set for the 40-page booklet and almost a full album’s worth of rare acoustic demos with Uncle Tupelo, as well as a number of live recordings.
Fulfilling a lifelong dream, I recently spoke with Brian Henneman, a founding member of The Bottle Rockets and the band’s principal guitarist, singer, and songwriter, who was happy to reflect on the last twenty years of one of America’s greatest rock and roll bands. –Neil Ferguson
Neil Ferguson: Looking back on Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side, do you still identify with the material?
Brian Henneman: Yeah, completely. I’m kind of surprised by how much I do. It’s like, I’m thankful that I somehow managed to do something that I can still stand twenty years later [laughs]. I’m sure a lot of people can’t really say that. Some of [those] songs I’ve been playing every time we play and I still like them, so, yay!
With songs like “1000 Dollar Car” and “Radar Gun,” did you ever think those would still be the songs that fans would be requesting the most twenty years down the line?
I wasn’t thinking that at all. Probably the ignorance was good for me, because if I would have been thinking ‘man, I gotta do something that’ll last twenty years,’ it probably would [have] sucked! So it’s just writing songs in the moment. I never saw it coming or even the band being together for twenty years. I wasn’t thinking that it wouldn’t be either. Basically, I just wasn’t thinking, and that kind of works for me.
Is that still the approach these days?
Yeah, don’t think too much, especially not when it comes to music. Don’t think, just do. Don’t concentrate, it’ll never make any sense.
As far as the dynamic with the band goes, you guys have switched out some members over the years. Is the chemistry still what it once was?
Way better! We’ve actually made changes that improve things, which doesn’t always happen with bands. So yeah, things are better than ever before. Of course, in the old days we couldn’t really tell how the chemistry was working because we were just too damn drunk. Everybody’s usually happy when they’re drunk. We’re better musically [now].
Back then things were a lot crazier, obviously, and the material was different than your more recent work. Has your approach to songwriting changed?
It’s changed just the way everything changes when you get older. It’s like your jeans don’t fit the same way anymore when you get older, that’s just the way it works. As you go through life you learn more shit and it changes. If I was doing stuff just like I did in 1994 that would not be [good]. It’s not intentional. It’s the same viewpoint just coming from a different point in the timeline. That’s the difference.
Is there one experience or sort of peak moment that stands out in the history of The Bottle Rockets?
Overall, I can’t say, but I guess the defining moment was the minute Mark Ortmann joined the band, which was about 10 seconds after I dreamed up the idea in 1992. That was the defining standout moment. [Mark’s] like my lifetime partner in this thing. Like I’ve always said, I’m not quittin’ till he does, and he ain’t quittin’ [laughs].
In the liner notes of the new reissue I read something interesting where Wilco’s manager Tony Margherita says he’s “pretty sure Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar came up with the name Bottle Rockets.” Is there any truth to that?
Yeah, they did. We did the whole first album with no band name. That whole first album thing was crazy because I wasn’t looking for a record deal and Tony got me the record deal while I was on the road with Uncle Tupelo. We got studio time and I didn’t even have a band. I had to throw a band together so fast that by the time we got to the studio [producer] John Keane didn’t even know that I was bringing a band. He had the studio set up for a guy with a banjo or whatever. We had no band name and he was doing reels of tape with nothing to label them as. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar were on their way driving down to sing on [the album]. We couldn’t come up with a name and they had just been writing in a notebook on the way down, just band names that they were thinking of when they were coming between Belleville, [Illinois] and Athens, [Georgia]. Halfway down the list there was Bottle Rockets and it looked good, so we picked it.
Speaking of Uncle Tupelo, what are your thoughts on this new generation of young singer-songwriters embracing the “alt-country” sound?
To me it’s the kind of music that’s always been around. They’ve just changed the name for it over the years, and as they changed the name it’s pretty much made it harder and harder to sell. To me [Creedence Clearwater Revival] were alternative country – they were like the greatest alternative country band of all time, but back then it was just called rock music. If you had Creedence Clearwater Revival come out today they would be in a van playing little clubs to fifty people – we’d be doing shows together and it wouldn’t be huge. It’s a music that’s never ever left.
In the 60’s and 70’s it would’ve just been called rock. With Uncle Tupelo and The Bottle Rockets we didn’t make this shit up. We were getting it from the generation before, which was [groups] like the Long Ryders, Jason and the Scorchers, and stuff like that. People now may think Uncle Tupelo and The Bottle Rockets started alt-country, but we were getting it from the generation before who got it from the generation before that. It just keeps traveling along and they keep thinking of more names to call it, which subdivides it even more so less people will take a chance on it. Just call it rock music and see what happens [laughs].
With that being said, would you say you’ve embraced that label being applied to The Bottle Rockets so often over the years?
It automatically brands you. If there’s somebody out there that thinks they don’t like that kind of music they’ll never check it out because you’re branded with it. There’s nothing you can do about it now, but in the end it won’t matter because people don’t go to record stores anyways.
Speaking of that, it seems like increasingly the idea of the album is not as important as one long playing piece of work, while the Internet has made music these days more about the single.
You’re exactly right. We used to slave over the album concept every time. It’s sort of meaningless now. You don’t really have to do that. We’re working on new stuff and I’m not so much slaving over it in album style like I always did. We’re kind of thinking of it like every song’s a single. It might just turn out to be a cool album but it kind of doesn’t matter if it is or not because everybody just makes their own albums [with streaming services]. But I kind of like doing the single thing – that’s like music in the old days, like the 60’s, everything’s a single. There are people that will appreciate it in album form. We have a natural thing and every song will still fit. I have a feeling that by not paying attention to it in album form it’s still going to turn out fine, so I’m not too worried about it. It’s not like we’re doing a disco song here and a Kiss song there or anything like that. But yeah, the whole concept thing of doing this song in line with that song is a lost art. It’s an unnecessary art, that’s why it’s lost. I’m kind of sad about it. I loved albums – album art! The art would be as much a part of the story as anything else, but now people don’t even have album art. They don’t even know what it is because it’s coming off the Internet. A lot of things that were all part of the presentation and art and craft of making an album just don’t exist anymore. So [The Bottle Rockets] reissues are a throwback; go back and see what it used to be like – HA!
You mentioned the new album. Is it in the works?
Oh yeah. We’re about three quarters of the way ready, so hopefully that’ll materialize next year. We’re just in the songwriting, getting together over at my house and figuring out who plays what and how things go. Then, once we get enough songs to make it worthwhile, we’ll get Eric Ambel back involved and then we’ll record it and see what happens! Eric Ambel is kind of like the George Martin of The Bottle Rockets.
One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about is Doug Sahm. How did you connect with Doug Sahm’s music and where does he fit in terms of influence?
Actually, a friend of ours turned me onto him. Scott Taylor, who’s co-written many many songs with us, and he’s a school teacher that moved into our town way back in the early 80’s. He got his first job at a school in Festus, Missouri and just through the grapevine – he was a record collecting dude – and we had a little band. This was pre everything, we didn’t even have a band name at the time. It’s a small town and somehow or other we got together and he had all these records I had never seen or heard of in my life, and Sir Douglas Quintet was one of them. All of the stuff he was playing me at the time, that was my favorite stuff. I would borrow his records and it was a lifelong thing. I just loved [Doug Sahm’s] music. He made music that sounded like I wanted to play music. It made me want to do that. When Doug Sahm passed away we were waiting for someone to do the tribute album – we were just thinking certainly they were going to pounce on this – and it never happened. At that point, after a lifetime of loving him, we just thought it would be time to do it. We hated that we had to do [Songs Of Sahm] because we wanted him to live forever and keep doing it himself.
Was it just a coincidence that Uncle Tupelo was also really influenced by Doug Sahm?
The story is that those guys had not heard of [Doug Sahm] until Chicken Truck, my first band, was playing his stuff. That is a fact! We were playing Doug Sahm songs when we were opening for them, so we scooped them on that one. But it was hard not to love him and once you heard that stuff you were hooked forever.
The Bottle Rockets circa 1994, photo at top, by Kelly von Plonski
Feel free to read Neil’s posts on No Depression or browse through his more than 200 published articles at readthehorn.com. To follow Neil’s work and more Austin-based music coverage please check out Neil’s TWITT