Blasting on

“We could have made an album of gastrointestinal noises, and it would have been fine with Atlantic Records.”

— Bottle Rockets lead guitarist Brian Henneman

Never let it be said that the pride of Festus, Mo. — the Bottle Rockets (long heralded as “the best bar band in the country”) — can’t heat up a place.

A case in point: Guitarist/vocalist Brian Henneman recalls the time the quartet, exhausted from a late-night gig, checked into a Motel 6 outside Boston, around 4 a.m.

Minutes later, they discovered the place was on fire.

“This was in the old days, when we were sneaking everybody into one room,” Henneman explained in a telephone interview from his home in Festus. “And I was the designated go-check-in guy, this time … so they dropped me off in front and pulled the van around back. I checked in, and everything was fine. I went and propped the side door of the motel open so the rest of the band could sneak in. A few seconds later, our roadie came up and knocked on the door and said: ‘Don’t put your bags down, boss — we’re fixin’ to check out. The motel’s on fire.’ And, just as he said that, the fire alarms started screeching.” (Henneman here launches a Loud imitation of the alarm, lasting several seconds.) The whole top floor was in flames (luckily, all the rooms on that floor were empty).

“My favorite thing about the whole incident,” the musician continues with a guffaw, “was that, when I checked in, the guy at the desk said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, there are no smoking rooms available.'” But the worst part, according to Henneman, is that, “Motel 6 never did send us the coupon they promised us, for a free night’s stay.”

Oh, well. Questionable to downright-bad luck has become something of an unfortunate Bottle Rockets trademark. A three-year deal with the prestigious Atlantic Records (a time that Henneman calls the “dark years with Atlantic”) was sour from the beginning — and ended even worse (but more on that later). And Henneman himself has suffered two personal tragedies — just in the past six months: Both his parents passed away. He learned that his mother had been diagnosed with leukemia while the band was in the midst of a blockbuster tour with Lucinda Williams last year. “We had to leave the tour early, of course, so I could get home,” he remembers. “And we haven’t played any music live since October. So when we get on the road [for the upcoming tour], this will be the happiest thing I can do. I just want to put all this bad stuff behind me.”

Together in one form or another since 1986 (actually, Henneman and Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann have played together since 1981), the band was originally called Chicken Truck — a straight-ahead country outfit that made quite a name for itself in the Midwest. Through the years, though, the band’s sound has evolved into a gritty amalgamation of classic honky-tonk, alt-country and high-octane guitar rock.

Lyrically, the Bottle Rockets have explored pretty much every inch of their hometown of Festus (a little village 35 miles south of St. Louis, resting on the banks of the Mississippi River) and its inhabitants — mercifully, without relying on the saccharine, dreamy-eyed, elegiac lens often pointed at such hamlets. These boys keep it simple, and as real as a 12-pack of Saturday-night Pabst Blue Ribbon, as evidenced by such tunes as “Get Down River” (from 1998’s Leftovers (Doolittle/Mercury), a collection of outtakes from their final, 1997 Atlantic release, 24 Hours a Day): “Live in a river town/It’s pretty little/It’s high on the sides and sinks in the middle/If it rains too much/The river comes down/It fills up the low spots/All over town/Get down river/River get down/Won’t you get down river/River get down/Once again, you have messed up this whole town/So get down river, get down.” The tune even found its way onto the Smithsonian Institution’s 1998 Folkways collection, A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi.

Henneman remembers, like it was yesterday, the first official gig a loosely grouped version of the Bottle Rockets ever played. “It was at a party, in a field, in a town north of Festus called Peavely,” he relates, with an almost imperceptible groan. “It was pretty bad. We were plugged into a generator in the middle of the field.” The band’s lighting that evening consisted of a circle of Jeeps with their headlights pointed haphazardly toward the area where the band was set up. “We played for about an hour and sounded just horrible,” he recalls.

But the Bottle Rockets’ frontman traces the true awakening of his musical consciousness back to 1980, when he saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on tour, promoting their masterpiece, The River. “I was just, like: ‘Man, that’s it!‘ They, to me, were just the ultimate …,” Henneman stops for a moment, searching for words. “They were just … I didn’t even know what a bar band was. I’d never seen one. … And there they were. I saw Springsteen and his band in some damn big arena, and they just seemed so loose, and like they were having so much fun. It was, like: ‘Man!’ I knew I had to try that!”

Other big influences included “my personal big favorite, Lynyrd Skynyrd,” gushes Henneman. “Skynyrd was my band!” he shouts, before adding more quietly, “To this day, they’re still my favorite.” Bad Company was another obsession. “You couldn’t get away from them, where we lived,” Henneman remembers. “They were with us every minute of the day.” Then there were The Ramones. “It took awhile for punk to make it to the Midwest, but The Ramones kind of changed my head for a few years,” he reveals.

Henneman — who’d first picked up a guitar in 1978, at age 17 — spent some lean years working construction with his uncle and manning a T-shirt shop. “I still have access to that T-shirt job if I need it,” he confides. “I don’t do any day jobs, right at this minute — but if I have to, I can go back to the T-shirt place, because the owner’s a friend of mine. He sells vintage guitars and makes T-shirts, so it’s kind of a cool thing.” Henneman’s favorite nonmusical gig, though, was working as “a tombstone-installing guy. That was actually a cool job. Nobody bothered me. It was really quiet.”

He eventually hooked up with the popular, Missouri-based roots-rock band Uncle Tupelo — serving, as he once described it, as “a guitar-playin’, van-drivin’, T-shirt-sellin’, all-purpose guy” (he was technically the band’s road manager). Eventually, that led to the Bottle Rockets’ record deal with East Side Digital: The roots-rock label had heard Henneman’s sideline jam sessions with Uncle Tupelo and encouraged him to assemble a “formal” recording band. Enlissting his old friends from Festus, with whom he was already playing, the official Bottle Rockets were born (today’s lineup features Henneman on lead guitar and lead vocals, Tom Parr on guitar and vocals, Robert Kearns on bass and vocals, and Mark Ortmann on drums). The band’s first release, Bottle Rockets (East Side Digital, 1993), was filled with disarmingly simple country-rock tunes about small-town life. It quickly gained critical and popular acclaim, and the band found itself with a loyal following. Happily (or so the band thought, at the time), the disc also caught the attention of Atlantic Records.

But the Bottle Rockets’ dream of a major-record-label deal soon turned into a nightmare. According to Henneman, Atlantic signed them, then basically ignored them — even as the Rockets recorded two much-praised CDs for the label (1994’s The Brooklyn Side and 1997’s 24 Hours a Day). “It was like we got sucked into a black hole with Atlantic,” remembers Henneman. “We made every wrong move we could have done. Atlantic had us booked by CAA — who book, like, Santana and these huge acts. So we couldn’t get any gigs, because they didn’t want to do anything with us. What would they want to book us for? They don’t want 10 percent of $500, they want 10 percent of $6 million by making the same number of phone calls.” And, far from the all-too-common story of labels exercising too much control over a band’s albums, Henneman notes, “We could have made an album of gastrointestinal noises, and it would have been fine with Atlantic Records. I mean, we were sitting in Indiana making an album, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, with nobody from the label even checking in on us. It was truly bizarre.” Just after 24 Hours a Day was released, Atlantic dropped the band — which Henneman, understandably, sees as a blessing.

Now contentedly signed with the Doolittle/Mercury label, Henneman is philosophical about the Atlantic debacle. “The Atlantic thing kind of just snapped me into reality,” he says. “You know, your whole life, your goal is to get on a major label. And we got there, and it just didn’t work for us. So, when you come down from all of it, you realize that your whole goal of life isn’t even anything that you want, anymore. So everything gets more realistic, and the fun is more fun. It’s, like, just play! It’s always good to have a dream, but things are just more direct now. [The Atlantic experience] took all that vanity and s••t out of our heads, and now we just enjoy going out and doing it.”

Ironically, however, the band is finally starting to enjoy the success it deserves (cross your fingers), with glowing write-ups in the likes of Billboard magazine and the Village Voice, and substantial airplay.

The Bottle Rockets’ new CD, 1999’s Brand New Year, represents a distinct departure from their country-laced past. Gone is the twang. More specifically, gone are the fiddle, banjo and mandolin of Joe Flood, who has recorded (but not toured) with the band in the past. In their place is pure ’70s power rock with a dirty edge — sort of ZZ Top meets Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Bad Company. “Our live shows have always been rock,” Henneman points out. “So, as strange as the CD might seem to some other people, to us it was perfectly natural.”

Bizarrely, Henneman lists “contemporary country” (read “pop”) queen Shania Twain’s megapopular extravaganza, Come On Over, as the band’s biggest influence in making Brand New Year. Waxing rhapsodic about Twain for a good 10 minutes (without a trace of irony), Henneman likens Come On Over to “a $10 million trip to an amusement park. It’s a trip to Disneyland. It’s like the mastery of the pop craft. It’s just pure fun. It’s like hard rock with fiddle sounds and steel-guitar sounds. It’s just a cool amalgamation of stuff. It was fun to put it on and, before we recorded, just blast it. It was very much fueling our hard-rock vibe. When you crank it up in the studio, it sounds like God.” Hello?

Then Henneman comes back to planet Earth for a minute: “Plus, we had the whole lust thing going on with her. [The disc] got us in that horny rock-star mode.” Aha.

“We were trying to make an album like Come On Over — sort of a low-budget version of it — where every song is another little adventure,” he continues.

Looks like they succeeded. From “Nancy Sinatra” (a schoolboy-lust-drenched paean to the Go-Go-Booted One) to “White Boy Blues” (a good-natured attack on yuppies who aim to play the blues, featuring the memorable lines, “He’s a down-home, lowdown attorney-at-law/He knows his licks, so don’t you laugh/His beat-to-s••t Strat cost ten grand and a half”) to the hilarious “The Bar’s on Fire” (“Oh, my God, the bar’s on fire/Somebody save the beer!”), the disc is a raucous roller-coaster ride through the party-animal minds of four regular ol’ Midwestern boys. Filled with power hooks and muscular guitar flights that would make Skynyrd proud — all driven by Henneman’s cigarette-and-whiskey, aged-to-perfection vocals — the disc prompted a St. Louis Post Dispatch critic to proclaim, “Honest and earthy, the Rockets rock like they mean it, and the meaner it gets, the harder they rock it.”

As to how hard they’ll rock it at their upcoming Asheville gig, Henneman says the band is torn between playing an acoustic or an electric show. “I’ll tell you what,” he says. “There’s never been one person disappointed with our acoustic show — it’s every bit the electric show, if not more.” Somehow, I believe him.

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