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." While such an endeavor is a risky proposition in business terms, it's considerably freeing from an artistic standpoint. With no label execs looking over their shoulders, the Bottle Rockets simply made the record they wanted to make, letting the finished product sell itself when they were done. "It seems like it must be more appealing for the record label, because they actually know exactly what they're getting," Henneman reasons. What Sanctuary got with Blue Sky is the most diverse album of the Bottle Rockets' career, in terms of style, sound, and songwriting. While there's plenty of the meat-and-potatoes roots-rock that has been the band's foundation from the start -- notably the Henneman/Taylor co-writes "Lucky Break", "Baby's Not My Baby Tonight" and "Man Of Constant Anxiety" -- there are also bare-bones acoustic numbers from Kearns ("The Last Time") and Henneman ("Cross By The Highway", "Mom & Dad"), NRBQ-esque power-pop ("I Don't Wanna Go Back", a lost nugget from a band Kearns had been in), and even a self-described "soft-rock orchestra" ballad from Ortmann/Henneman ("Baggage Claim") that nods its head to David Gates and Bread. That last song is also the most direct evocation of a subject which surfaces a couple of times on the record -- the inescapable effects of living in a post-September 11 world. Ortmann's lyric reveals a man who longs for the days of meeting his lover at the gate with flowers, but is saddened by the new reality of having to "meet at the baggage claim/In a crowd of confusion I call her name." "It's looking at September 11th from a different angle, and how it affects everything, down to just the smallest details," Ortmann says. "I always thought airports were very romantic in many ways. And now with the way things are, the world's so uptight -- for obvious reasons -- but at the same time, it's a shame we lost some of the simpler things, or things we took for granted." A couple of lines in "Man Of Constant Anxiety" -- the title references the rise of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? track "Man Of Constant Sorrow" -- speak to the situation as well: "With terror in the air and in the evening news/I don't need Howlin' Wolf to give me the blues." "It's like the atmosphere now; it's the weather now. It's become part of life," says Taylor, who wrote the song's lyrics. "It's just one more of the modern anxieties. As if we didn't have enough to worry about, you know -- here's something really worth worrying about!" Taylor adds, however, that he wrote the tune partly to describe his songwriting partner. "Brian is the Man Of Constant Anxiety," he reveals. "He's a world-class worrier." Funny, because you wouldn't get that impression from the album's title track, a bouncy, sunny, two-minute ditty about having a "blue sky wonderful day," recalling such childhood epiphanies as "a Burger Chef pizza burger bicycle ride/Wrinkled toes and fingers from the slip and slide." Henneman confesses it's his favorite track on the album -- although he qualifies that remark with an observation about the song that immediately follows on the disc: "'Mom & Dad', I can't comment on that. I don't even judge it as if I did it." In many respects, "Mom & Dad" is the most meaningful song Henneman ever wrote. Supported only by his gentle acoustic guitar strums and Haynes' sympathetic dobro runs, he sings his simple words with a calm, cathartic grace: Mom and dad, where have you gone I'm here at your house And I just mowed your lawn Oh but nobody's home now but me I wonder just where you could be? Four years ago this November and December Henneman lost first his mother and then his father, within six weeks of each other. "My mom died on Neil Young's birthday, my dad died on Jay Farrar's birthday," he says, as we sit in the lobby of a Nashville hotel where, later that same night, the Americana Music Awards would honor another couple who left this earth in close proximity to each other: June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash. The symmetry is not lost on Henneman. "It happens so many times," he says. "That's what they put on my dad's death certificate -- it was depression due to the recent loss of my mom. Yeah, I figured when June Carter went, that Johnny was -- I just was counting the days, you know." The Bottle Rockets had been touring with Lucinda Williams to support their 1999 release Brand New Year when things took a turn for the worse with his mother. Simultaneously, bassist Kearns' father also had become seriously ill, although he later recovered. Meanwhile, the band's relationship with its label, Doolittle Records, had become a frustrating debacle. In the midst of the turmoil, they decided to take an extended hiatus. "It was all going to hell," Henneman recalls. "The Doolittle thing went to hell, my personal life was a shambles, dealing with my parents' house and their estate and the whole bit. So, it was just like -- EJECT, you know. Get the hell out. I couldn't even think about worrying about what was gonna happen next. "So we just chucked it all. We never told anybody that we were gonna quit, though -- we mutually agreed that we're not breaking up -- but it was kind of like, there's no telling when we'll get back together. Let's just take off, and scatter." Ortmann spent some of the down time on the road as a drum tech for Shelby Lynne, working the tours for her I Am Shelby Lynne and Love, Shelby records. Kearns -- a North Carolinian who had joined the band in 1997 after the departure of original bassist Tom Ray -- moved to Austin and pursued other gigs, first with blues guitarist Chris Duarte and then with country-rocker Jack Ingram (he still plays with Ingram when it doesn't conflict with Bottle Rockets dates). The band's business affairs, meanwhile, went to shit. Things had been bad almost from the start with Doolittle, an Austin indie label that signed the group in 1998 after a two-album stint with Atlantic failed to break them on a major-label level (though those two records -- 1997's 24 Hours A Day and 1995's The Brooklyn Side, originally issued in '94 on East Side Digital -- remain arguably the band's best work). "We had this terrible, terrible thing going on with Doolittle Records," Henneman says. "It was like we got married and beat each other up on the honeymoon. That thing went bad like that." Their first release on the label, in late 1998, was Leftovers, an aptly titled housecleaning of tracks that hadn't made the cut for 24 Hours A Day. Other than a solid new version of "Get Down River" -- which had previously appeared on Bloodshot Records' influential Hell-Bent: Insurgent Country Vol. 2 in 1995 -- the disc contained little that was vital to the Bottle Rockets oeuvre. That wasn't so much a problem -- Leftovers was intended as merely a low-profile stopgap -- but things deteriorated during the sessions for Brand New Year, the band's first proper recording for the label. Henneman lays the blame largely on "one particular guy" at Doolittle (though he doesn't name names) who he says caused considerable consternation with producer Eric Ambel, a guiding force behind the band's two stellar Atlantic releases. It didn't help that "we didn't have any management at this time," Henneman admits, "so we were in the middle of all this stuff. And it just turned into this big stinky thing. The record-label guy wanted to get it remixed for modern rock radio, and finally we just gave up, let them fight it out, and let it come out however it did." Though Brand New Year, released in August of '99, had some memorable moments -- notably the anthemic Henneman/Ambel co-write "White Boy Blues" and the Ramones-inspired rocker "Gotta Get Up" -- it didn't meet the Bottle Rockets' previous standards. As the year wound down and family concerns called Henneman and Kearns home, the band was determined to ditch things with Doolittle as well. Which turned out to be kind of a shame, because in 2000, burgeoning Los Angeles label New West Records rode into Austin and took over Doolittle's operations, retaining some of the label's roster and letting others go. New West has since become one of the most prominent independent labels in the alt-country/roots-music realm, home to such artists as the Flatlanders, Jon Dee Graham, Vic Chesnutt and the Drive-By Truckers. At that time, however, it was too early to tell how the transition would unfold, Henneman explains. "Basically, we were sitting at the table with the very company that just did us the worst experience we've ever had, and then they're trying to tell us, look, here's the new guys," he says, recalling a meeting they had to discuss the transfer. "I guess we must have presented kind of a dissatisfied, surly vibe at the meeting, because then they decided they didn't want us anymore after that, too. We were just looking to bail the hell outta that whole thing. We needed to get out." Back at his parents' home in Festus, Missouri, Henneman was getting their estate in order, trying to keep up with soaring gas bills during the winter months. He played a few solo shows, "just to make a little money, and have some fun, to escape from the horrors of the domestic nightmares that were going on," he remembers. "It was a bad time. I also started writing some songs again, but it took a long while before I did." "Mom & Dad", fittingly, broke the ice. "That's the first song I wrote after that whole scene. It just fell out of the damn guitar; I sat down and there it was. Normally anytime I write a song, I'll come up with some lyrics and then go back and edit it and change it, and tweak it a little bit. But I just let that one alone. However long that song is, is how long it took to write down." Around the same time, inspiration arrived on the wings of another recently departed soul. Between the deaths of Henneman's mother on November 12 and his father on December 26, one of the band's foremost musical influences, Doug Sahm, had died on November 18, 1999. One night, Henneman and guitarist Tom Parr were sitting around on Henneman's front porch having a few beers, and the conversation turned to Sahm. "I was talking about how nobody had done the Doug Sahm tribute record that I thought they should have," he recalls. "And then Tom and me, in a drunken fit, decided, well, let's just do it ourselves, we'll do the whole thing. It was just a drunken, stupid, boisterous thing. "And then I told Mark about it, and he put it into action. He called Bloodshot [the renowned Chicago label for which the band had recorded a few compilation tracks over the years], and they said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "I think from the time we dreamed it up, to the finished, turned-in product with artwork, was six weeks. It was just this great, great thing. It slingshotted us right back into the groove." Recorded with fellow Missourian Lou Whitney at his studio in Springfield, Songs Of Sahm -- released in February 2002 on Bloodshot -- was indeed just the kind of shot in the arm the Bottle Rockets needed to resurrect themselves. Artistically, it's somewhat uneven; Henneman's vocal range isn't quite the right fit for Sahm's melodies, though the band addressed that in part by having Kearns take the lead on several songs. Regardless, there's no denying the righteousness of spirit that went into the recording, and the love they show for their mentor and his material. Sahm's songs became a part of their lives largely on account of their old friend from Festus, Scott Taylor, who had moved to town in 1978 to teach English at the Catholic high school that Ortmann and Parr attended. (Henneman went to a public school in neighboring Crystal City but was friends with Parr and his older brother, Bob.) "One day, in my first year there, I heard Bob talking with another guy about the Ramones," Taylor recollects. "It was still unusual in 1978 to hear somebody talking about the Ramones, particularly in more rural areas....I started talking with them about different music and stuff, and playing them records that I had." One day, he played them a Sir Douglas Quintet album. "The minute I heard that, I said, 'That's the ultimate music right there,'" Henneman told Miles of Music's online publication MoMzine last year. "Everything I enjoyed about music was right there on that one album, Mendocino. It's still my favorite." Among the first shows they did to promote the Songs Of Sahm disc was a Bloodshot Records showcase in March 2002 at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Sahm's longtime home turf. Everything was primed for the Bottle Rockets' triumphant return from their extended hiatus -- when, suddenly, the night before the show, all hell broke loose. A brief report in a post-SXSW wrap-up that ran in the Raleigh-Durham area Independent weekly recapped what happened as follows: "Brian Henneman and Tom Parr...got in a brawl in a taxi in downtown Austin before their showcase gig. Making the cab pull over, the two frontguys let loose with '15 years of pent-up resentment' and were 'rolling over cars' and dukin' it out in a scene straight out of The Rockford Files. That night, Henneman announced to the soundman, 'Your job just got a little easier' -- they'd shrunk to a three-piece (Parr flew home)." Though a couple of the details in that blurb might have been slightly askew or exaggerated, it was a more or less accurate account of what had gone down. This was a major blow, as Henneman and Parr had been playing music together since before the Bottle Rockets had begun, dating back to its precursor band, Chicken Truck. Henneman prefers not to talk about the incident. "We'll just let that dog lie," he says, adding only, "I haven't seen him" since it happened. "He lives in my neighborhood and I still haven't seen him." A somewhat more objective perspective is offered by Kearns, who had parted company with Henneman, Parr and Ortmann shortly before the meltdown that night. "My take on the whole thing was, I think that Tom, at that point, was wanting out of the band, and it had kinda been building up. This is just my thoughts on it, but I don't think that he really knew how to just say, you know, guys, I don't wanna do it anymore....He wasn't exactly sure how to do it. So, he just did it that way." Ortmann is similarly philosophical about Parr's departure in retrospect, suggesting it ultimately wasn't all that different from when Tom Ray departed back in 1997. "Everyone has their own breaking point or their own interest level," Ortmann figures. "And once it goes so far, it may not interest someone anymore. And when that person loses interest, they leave the band." Not that it wasn't a significantly more emotional experience at the time. "I remember seeing Mark and Brian at Stubb's [an Austin nightclub] right after it had just happened," Kearns recalls, "and they came up to me and said, 'Tom's out of the band.' I went, 'WHAT?!' And they told me the whole story." Despite the initial shock, Kearns says, "I wasn't worried about it whatsoever. In fact, I quoted a Tom Petty song when we all parted ways that night. I told Brian, 'Hey man, just like Tom Petty said -- the future is wide open.'" Less than 24 hours later, the Bottle Rockets took the stage as a trio on the back of a flatbed truck in the parking lot of Mother Egan's at the Bloodshot showcase, following their old producer Eric Ambel's band the Yayhoos. Henneman, Kearns and Ortmann sized up the jam-packed crowd and proceeded to knock them dead, filling the sweet spring Austin air with the soulful songs and sounds of Doug Sahm. By the time they wrapped up their set with the entire crowd shouting along on the chorus of Sahm's "Stoned Faces Don't Lie", there was no doubt. The Bottle Rockets were back. Again. The band toured for much of 2002 as a three-piece, and remained a trio when they went in to record Blue Sky in April 2003. (Other musicians helped out in the studio, notably producer Haynes, who added electric guitar, slide guitar and dobro on many tracks, and Mark Spencer, who played lap steel, electric guitar and sitar on "Baggage Claim".) Shortly before they began touring this fall, they added veteran St. Louis guitarist John Horton to the lineup. Horton and his brother-in-law Kip Loui had been playing bass with Henneman and Ortmann in a casual side-project band called Diesel Island over the past year, but Horton was also an accomplished guitarist and seemed a good fit for the Bottle Rockets' aesthetic. "He's a wonderful guitarist, and just a great personality; salt of the earth, and a great addition to the band," Ortmann says. Whether or not Horton also becomes involved in the band's songwriting remains to be seen, although he says they have welcomed him to contribute; "that's definitely a big plus" about joining the lineup, he affirms. Indeed, one of the Bottle Rockets' distinguishing characteristics over the years is that the songs have come from so many sources within the band and its inner circle. "Brian is obviously the focal point and the principal songwriter, but there's contributions from all band members," Ortmann notes, and a look at the credits over the course of their career bears him out. Though the broad participation is particularly evident on the new record, with Kearns writing or co-writing three songs and Ortmann involved in two others, previous discs also included contributions from each of them and from past members Parr and Ray. Other close associates also are represented in the writing credits. Ambel and his Yayhoos bandmate Dan Baird turn up on Brand New Year, and Tom Parr's brother Bob contributed one track each to three of the band's albums ("Sometimes Found", "Radar Gun" and "Waitin' On A Train"). But by far the most prominent collaborator is Taylor, their old high school teacher and musical mentor. Primarily a lyricist who turns to Henneman for melodies to carry his words, Taylor has co-written many of the Bottle Rockets' most memorable songs, including "Kerosene" and "Got What I Wanted" from their self-titled 1993 debut, and "Welfare Music" and "Gravity Fails" from their sophomore disc The Brooklyn Side. "Welfare Music" and "Kerosene" in particular helped give the Bottle Rockets an early reputation as a band whose music had a relevance that went deeper than many of their contemporaries at the forefront of alt-country. While Henneman's own tunes more often dealt with the ups and downs of romantic relationships, Taylor brought to the table a socio-political sensibility that was pointed without being heavy-handed. In "Kerosene", Henneman's immediately catchy melody (buoyed by backing vocals from Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, with whom Henneman was touring at the time as a roadie for Uncle Tupelo) counterweights the seriousness of the song's subject -- a family that was killed when their trailer burned down after they tried to use gasoline in a kerosene stove. If it sounds like the kind of song that might have grown out of a story in the newspaper, Taylor says it was something akin to that. "It's based on something that actually happened in the area," he acknowledges. "They had taken the burned-out trailer and they had hauled it up near the old Highway 61. And I'd pass it every once in awhile, and it just haunted me. But, you know, writing something about that, you really have to watch it, because you don't wanna get preachy." Instead, Taylor simply painted the picture, letting the story stand for itself. He was more direct on "Welfare Music", in which he takes a thinly veiled jab at Rush Limbaugh: "Angry fat man on the radio/Wants to keep his taxes way down low/Says there oughtta be a law/Angriest man I ever saw." "I think taxes are the price we pay for being Americans," Taylor contends. "Like everybody, I like keeping the money I make, but on the other hand, I think a lot of times it goes for things that are really needed. And it drives me crazy when people are so hateful and resentful of it. I just don't think it's American." Early on, Henneman, as the lead singer, often got credit for Taylor's words, which left him feeling slightly misunderstood at times. Although he certainly identified with those songs -- "Brian will not sing something that he doesn't feel," Taylor assures -- he couldn't quite reconcile himself with the Merle Haggard "Workin' Man Blues" persona that was often being applied to his band. "We have this mysterious idea of what we might be, and no one in print has ever figured it out," Henneman says. "The problem is, some of the stuff that people have written in influential positions has steered it way off from what we're thinking it's supposed to be." In terms of who he identifies with as a songwriter, "I would say John Prine is my number one driving thing," he suggests. "I think our band is best described in a John Prine and Crazy Horse kind of way." Henneman also cites Badfinger's 1970 single "No Matter What" -- "the first song that really made me want to play guitar" -- as an influence on his songwriting, which may partly account for the band's general gravitation toward short, punchy pop songs. (Six cuts on Blue Sky clock in at under three minutes, and that's typical of the band's overall repertoire.) More recently, he's been rediscovering a lot of other artists who made an impact on him in his formative years. When it's mentioned that the music in the chorus of "Blue Sky" bears a striking resemblance to that of Jim Croce's "Working At The Car Wash Blues", he cops to having revisited Croce's work lately, as well as that of the Lovin' Spoonful. Perhaps the most intriguing revelation, though, is his admission of fondness for the music of David Gates and Bread. This first came to light in an e-mail exchange many months ago, when Henneman proclaimed: "What's funny, is when you get right down to it, David Gates isn't THAT far away from Neil Young." Confronted with this statement months later, Henneman gladly owns up to it. "It's true, I believe that," he says. "It's not the chasm that Neil Young lovers might think that it is, if you think about it. It's that singer-songwriter heartfelt kind of a thing. With Neil, just naturally, it's cooler, and it's more shrouded with that hippie voice, you know. If he could sing [Henneman appropriates a whining drawl] 'I wanna make it with you' --- you know, if he did that on Tonight's The Night, nobody would question it! Nobody would ever say, 'Listen to that sappy crap.' "Neil Young always had a great melody, and so did David Gates. It's just, David Gates had that sweet voice, and he had the production that they used. But you've just gotta imagine Neil Young singing it. And then it can work." Henneman had also confided, in the e-mail which sparked the conversation, that "Everything I Own", one of Gates' biggest hits with Bread, "is one of my favorite songs ever done, by anybody. It became even more amazing to me when I learned he wrote it about his dad." It's far too late to worry about what anyone might think. "Dammit, I'm fortysomething years old, I'm old enough to admit that I liked it," he declares. "Because when you're a kid, man, it's tough. If you're a new-metal guy and you like the Backstreet Boys, you can't friggin' let that shit out!" He laughs heartily. "Now when you're fortysomething years old, maybe it'll be OK." Perhaps it's just another way of being reborn. ND co-editor Peter Blackstock is fond of David Gates as well, but marginally prefers Barry Manilow and John Denver. Even if he's not fortysomething, yet.