It’s extremely hard to not enjoy chatting with Bottle Rockets leader Brian Henneman. Unpretentious, straightforward, and always enjoying himself, he is the antithesis of a lot of people in the alt.country scene, as he’s the real deal–not some cheesy impersonation of a down-to-earth country boy who loves a little bit of rock and roll and lives more to have a good time and entertain audiences. For the past twenty years, they’ve been making their music, releasing records on a regular basis and touring just as much.
Much like Henneman, those records are often funny, insightful, and unassuming. “Just folks,” some might say.
Talking to him was also a delight. The occasion for our conversation was Bloodshot Records‘ reissue of their first two albums–1993’s Bottle Rockets and 1994’s The Brooklyn Side. As you can see, my conversation with Henneman was a blast–he told his story plainly, all the while laughing about the absurdity of so much of what happened to him in his formative years. Of course, when you read the Spinal Tap-like nature of some of his stories, you realize that there’s no better reaction to those things to do but laugh.
Tell me about Chicken Truck. Was that just you or were there any future Bottle Rockets members in it?
Mark Ortmann, our drummer, he’s always been my drummer, so he’s the one guy who’s been with me since the beginning. We’ve been playing together since 1981, well before Chicken Truck. He was in a different band in our hometown. Our band had had several drummers before him, and it was a totally different band for me. We weren’t trying to be big, we were just trying to get a regular thing going as a cover band. We’re talking early years, 1980. There were only so many drummers in Festus, Missouri, and we went through guys who couldn’t stick with it, guys who wanted a job or knocked up their girlfriend. Mark was playing in another cover band–none of these bands were playing out, mind you–we’re talking high school dances, barbecues, house parties, things like that. Our friend Scott Taylor, who’s written some excellent songs with us along the way, was actually Mark’s teacher, if you can believe that. We knew Scott because he also taught The Blue Moons‘ lead singer. We were trying to write songs, but we weren’t doing a very good job of it back then. Scott suggested Mark to us, to see if he wanted to do anything. He did, and he’s been with me ever since.
What was the music scene like in Festus?
Back in the mid-80s, there was exactly one bar in town that had live music, and as you’d expect, it was a country joint, and mainly country cover bands. That’s what Chicken Truck started out as–we were a country cover band, but we started writing of our songs in the stylings of the music we were learning, just to get a gig at the only bar in town. We thought we would be cool and different from the other bands by playing our own songs, as well as the songs we thought were cool covers, like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, the Bakersfield scene, stuff like that. But in the mid-1980s, in a small town in Missouri, nobody wanted to hear that shit! (Laughs) All they wanted to hear was the Top 40 shit, the stuff that was already playing on the jukebox and the stuff that they’d listen to driving to and from the bar. The worst part of it was we hated the stuff, it wasn’t music we liked. We were terribly, terribly unpopular. We drew the least amount of people and that’s all we could do.
How did you get gigs, then?
So I take it St. Louis beckoned?
It wasn’t until a few years later that we got to St. Louis, because we realized we were getting nowhere. Back in the Blue Moons days, somewhere along the way, we met the guys in The Primitives, from St. Louis, who morphed into Uncle Tupelo. In the years between, we’d play shows with them–just little bars, things like that. When we turned into Chicken Truck, they had turned into Uncle Tupelo. We were in town and saw an ad for a show, so we went and reconnected with them. They got us a gig, our little country cover band, opening some show. When we saw what Uncle Tupelo was doing, and how people were really digging it, we were like, “Piss on this, forget this covers crap!” We started doing our songs, as well as those cool covers we wanted to play, and we just turned our amps up loud like Uncle Tupelo, and it was great.
Was it the St. Louis scene that really helped to get you started?
The St. Louis scene, it wasn’t huge. I think we mainly played with Uncle Tupelo, because they were the only band in town doing what we were doing, so Chicken Truck would always open for them. The 1980s Midwest scene, it was still mainly the cover-band scene. It was crazy–you’d have a local band, and they’d have these huge amps and great gear and these big, amazing light shows, and they’d play “White Wedding” or Ratt, or shit like that…and then they would tour! (Laughs) It was hilarious! Here’s what would happen: a cover band from St. Louis would befriend a Chicago cover band, and they’d go to Chicago and play a gig…and then turn around and book a show in St. Louis for the Chicago band, and they’d come down…and play exactly the same set! So that’s where we were at; Chicken Truck was stuck because we were exclusively tied to Uncle Tupelo in our gigability factor, due to our similarities in style. I shouldn’t say that we were the only two, though; there were a few other bands and artists around. That was the era of animal-based band names. There was us, Chicken Truck, Electric Sheep, Plaid Cattle, real “commercial” names there.(Laughs)
Sounds like it was a real hardscrabble kind of place.
Yeah, but you know, people would go to shows. Uncle Tupelo, they were a great band, and over time, their reputation grew, and we all made a lot of friends and that little scene grew a lot more tight-knit. A lot of those people still are around and always come out to our shows twenty years later.
So what brought about the change from Chicken Truck to The Bottle Rockets?
It’s all due to our bass player, Bob Parr, the guy who wrote one of our popular songs, “Radar Gun,” back in the Chicken Truck days–and we still do it today. Uncle Tupelo signed a record deal, and that was a big deal to us; they were all excited, saying, “Oh, we get to leave town, make records, and tour the country.” As close as I was to those guys, and seeing the excitement and the things that were happening with them, I started thinking, “Hey, this might not be a bad thing for me to think about.” Bob, though, wanted nothing to do with that. He didn’t want to commit; he had a good job and he didn’t want to lose it, and he didn’t want to tour. Because Bob was a crucial guy in Chicken Truck, and we loved the guy, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to replace him. We were still friends, and we were all-or-nothing kind of guys, so out of respect to him, we simply broke up.
So Chicken Truck breaks up, and the guys in Uncle Tupelo ask me if I wanted to join them on the road as a crew guy, even though I was a pretty lazy dude (laughs). So I jumped at the chance. I became their all-purpose dude, their driver, their roadie, their sound guy, their tech guy, their mandolin player–whatever they needed done, I did. So I did that with them for three years and while I was doing that, one night during the sessions for their second album, we were goofing off. We decided it might be fun to record a few of my songs with them backing me up–we didn’t do it with any big plan or any foresight, we just did it for fun, to kill time, no big whoop. So then we record the album, we go back on the road and I go back to doing my jobs with the band, and one day we’re out on the road, and we get a call from their manager at the time, Tony Margherita. Somehow, he got a tape of the songs we’d recorded, and without my knowledge, got me a record deal! (Laughs) I wasn’t even looking for this, and I thought, “Oh shit, well, he got me a deal, I better find a band.” Here I am, a roadie with no band, and a record deal. I literally had no time to throw together a band, write some songs, and record an album of songs I hadn’t written with this band that didn’t exist! (Howling with laughter)
Mark was the first guy I called, and he said yes. I called Bob Parr again, to see if maybe he’d changed his mind, and though he said no, his brother jumped at the chance. Jeff Tweedy found us Tom Ray, our bass player.
With everything happening so fast, is it safe to assume that the album came together quickly?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It was much, much quicker than I had planned. We had five days to make a record; we found a studio that was in our budget, so we went down to Athens, Georgia. We met up with John Keane, who had just finished recording Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992. I’d been there during the recording, so I knew him, I knew his studio, what kind of sound it had. So it was an easy decision to work with him, and Tony Margherita set it up. We had five days in March to make the album, but on the way down there we got caught in a blizzard, so for the first two days, we were snowed out. We were sleeping in our van in Kentucky Fried Chicken paring lots, so we lost two days just getting there. It turns out that John didn’t even know I was bringing a band; he thought it was a solo thing. When we get there, late afternoon of day three, he’s got the studio set up…with just a microphone and a stool in the middle of the studio. Since he didn’t know I had a band, we went in, rearranged the studio for a band setup, and 45 minutes after getting to the studio, we started recording. We had a lot to do in very little time, so we recorded it all in two and a half days.
It’s that rough edge that makes Bottle Rockets so rewarding.
(Laughs) Yeah, well, we didn’t have time to make decisions; we just recorded a song, and then moved onto the next song. We recorded all the music that first day, did all the vocals on the second, mixed it on the third, and then we were back in the van to St. Louis.
So were you happy with the end result?
Oh yeah, definitely! I was actually surprised that it came out as well as it did. Tom was so new to us, he had the chords written out on a stand for him–we hadn’t even had time to rehearse.
When you come to The Brooklyn Side, it’s definitely a…I don’t want to say “slick” because that implies a lot of gloss to polish off deficiencies, but it’s definitely a more professional-sounding…well, hell, after that first album, anything would sound much more polished!
(Laughter) The difference was that we had a producer who could produce us. John didn’t have the time to do that–he was busting his ass just to record us, just to get it on tape. He didn’t have time to make suggestions; we simply couldn’t go back and clean things up. With The Brooklyn Side, we got Eric Ambel to produce, and we had a helluva lot more time this time around–we had well over two weeks. With that time, we were able to change and arrange parts, make changes. It was an absolutely different experience for us. We really had the luxury of being able to make a record. I know two weeks might not seem like a lot of time to make an album–but compared to what we’d done previously, we really could appreciate the breathing room.
When you look back at these two albums and the beginning of the band, what do you think are the big lessons you’ve learned.
(Pauses) Well, if you want to talk about what we learned during the making of those albums, I guess you’d say we got lucky in that we experienced the extremes–from making an album with zero time to making an album with more time than we needed. It was good to get those things out of the way so early in our career–we know the spectrum. As for looking back and pondering those early days, until this reissue collection, I’ll be honest–I haven’t really thought about it. That’s not who we are, really; getting caught up in contemplation like that is for when you retire, or years after you break up. We’re getting ready to work on a new album for 2014, and to do what we love–hit the road. We’re still going strong, twenty years later. We’re a shark–we can’t stop, or we’ll die! (Laughs)