The Bottle Rockets are one of my favorite alt-country bands. I praised the band heavily and with good reason when I interviewed the lead singer before for the studio album, Zoysia. You can hear some of their songs if you check YouTube.
I have always heard the band, formed in 1992, were great live, and this album proves that to be the case. The album, Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening With the Bottle Rockets, keeps the focus on the high lyrical quality, which is where it belongs. The lead singer, Brian Henneman, is a great songwriter. The band, with its current lineup, is tight and good.
The band has a list of its upcoming shows here. Let’s get to the interview.
Scott: Why did you decide to do this live album as acoustic instead of electric?
Brian: It was all about the venue, a new room in town at that time. They REALLY wanted us to play there. Took one look at the room (which was really magnificent), and all that room said to us was “acoustic.” The electric show would not have been as cool in there, we would have had to turn the amps down, and that’s no fun. Once we decided to do a whole show acoustically, we thought it’d be wise to record it, ’cause we’d never done it before, and weren’t sure if we’d ever do it again. The venue has since gone out of business, so the unforeseen bonus is, the album is a nice way to save it for posterity.
How did you decide which songs to include, since you had so many albums worth of good songs to choose from?
Over the course of the two nights, we played almost every song we knew, but most were lost to technical difficulties. Problems with the actual recording made only a certain number of them mixable. Too bad, ’cause otherwise it could have been a triple disc. What is on the album is pretty much everything that was usable. Luckily, it made into a decent album; a pretty good setlist rose from the digital ashes!
Similarly, was it hard deciding which of your more well known songs not to include? I’m thinking about your biggest radio hit, “Radar Gun,” and one of my favorites, “Welfare Music.” Are those songs you don’t play live anymore or intentionally chose not to include? If so, why?
See Question #2.
Can you talk about the song I found most touching, “Mom & Dad,” both how the song was developed as well as the choice to end the live album on that note?
[It was the] first song I wrote, when I came back to songwriting, after the death of my parents. I don’t remember writing it, it just kinda showed up on my guitar. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Had to go last, ’cause where else would it go? Death is the end of the line, in life, and, on this album. Just keepin’ it real…
I found this comment about your band at Wikipedia: “The Bottle Rockets are featured in the PBS documentary The Mississippi River Of Song: The Grassroots of American Music. In the series. . .Brian Henneman says that he and the band are ‘reporters from the heartland’ writing stories about their friends.” Can you say more about this idea of you being reporters? How does that affect how you write and work?
We don’t write fiction–every song we do is a documentation of an actual event. That’s just how we do it. Always have. The way we write and work, makes us into, by definition, “reporters”, not the other way around.
I hope to see you guys play live sometime – when are you next playing in Austin?
I don’t know, hopefully, one of these days. Keep an eye out for us…
When I last interviewed you, you said one of the biggest misconceptions of your band was that you guys were “a great bar band.” Has that perception changed? Was this matter a factor in deciding to record and put out this live album at a setting–a 19th century schoolhouse–about as far from a bar show as possible?
We weren’t thinking about that at all when we made this. We’ve pretty much stopped worrying about that misconception. It kind of doesn’t even exist anymore. Nobody today even knows for sure what a “bar band” is. Is there any such thing these days? What IS today’s description of what constitutes a “bar band”? Nobody’s sure, it’s become a very vague thing. We’ve outlasted the thing that created the stigma.
Your band’s lineup has changed a bit over the years. Can you list out the current band members and what types of guitars you guys play?
I’m still here, singin’ and playin’ guitar, banjo, electric sitar and whatnot. Mark Ortmann’s still here on drums; we’ve both been here since day one. The “new guys” (who aren’t very “new” anymore) are John Horton on guitar and lap steel, mandolin, and baritone guitar, etc. He’s one of “those guys” who can do it all. Keith Voegele’s on bass and harmony vocals. He plays harmonica too. We have lots of guitars, and none of us ever seem to stick to any particular one. On any given day, you can be pretty sure there’ll be a Telecaster of some sort, probably a Fender P-Bass, maybe a Strat or Les Paul. [You] could see a Flying V and Explorer too, you just never know. We have some custom-made electric guitars built by Creston Lea, from Burlington, Vermont–just a lot of stuff. Acoustic-wise, we mostly have Martins, but I have a couple built by a fella named Bill Bonanzinga, from New York . Just piles of stuff! It’s all good stuff though.
What are you guys doing as your next project?
Hopefully putting the finishing touches on a live DVD that was filmed in Champaign, Illinois a few years ago. We’ve also been touring as Marshall Crenshaw’s band. We’re gonna do more of that, and try to write some new songs. We’re busier than it may seem.
I’m going to end with what I call my “bonus question”–what question do you wish interviewers would ask but that rarely, if ever, do? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.
Please, no further questions, Your Honor, I’m tired of typing!