Interview: Brian Henneman Talks New Bottle Rockets Album, Shares ‘Most Unbelievable’ Career Moment
In October, beloved alt-country rockers the Bottle Rockets released their 12th studio album, South Broadway Athletic Club, to rave reviews. Packed with reminders of why the band has been able to solidify itself in the annals of Americana history, the new LP finds the Bottle Rockets in familiar, yet brand-new, territory.
Following the project's release, The Boot spoke with frontman and founding member Brian Henneman about the new album, and about how things have changed in his world over the last couple of decades. An alt-country pioneer in his own right, Henneman has a storied history, not just as an exceptional storyteller but also as a roadie and at-times-occasional member of the genre's grandfathers, Uncle Tupelo. In 2016, he seems to be invigorated and excited for what lies ahead.
Congrats on South Broadway Athletic Club. How does it feel to have it wrapped up and out to your fans?
It’s great. It’s always good to get one out there, but this one has a little bit more excitement around it than some have. It’s really exciting to see people liking it. That is a great treat this late in the game, let’s put it that way.
Is it true this is the first time you’ve recorded an entire Bottle Rockets album in St. Louis?
Yeah, first time ever.
What took you so long?
[Laughs] There are good reasons to it. In the younger days we couldn’t really do it because we’d be so distracted at home. We’d like to go to some remote location where our girlfriends couldn’t get a hold of us or whatever so we could actually focus. So, we had to kind of grow up to grow out of that. We’re fully grown men who can live the family life and record an album at the same time now. [Laughs] There are other reasons, but that’s the underlying gist of the whole thing right there.
The South Broadway Athletic Club has a lot of historical relevance to St. Louis. Why did you choose it for the album’s title and cover?
It was sort of an "after-the-fact" thing. We were out taking forthcoming promotional photos for this yet-to-be-named album. We didn’t even have a name for it yet, and that was one of the locations we were taking photos. Our photographer, Otis Gibbs, he’s well into the history of wrestling, so he knew all about it, and of course I knew all about it living here. My first date with my wife, we went to that place and watched wrestling.
We couldn’t think of a name for this album and as soon as we saw the photo, it just hit us. It looks like an album title, you know, it sounds like an album title. It makes sense: We’re an old St. Louis band, and this is an old St. Louis tradition. And actually, we recorded not very far from there.
It was sort of like a gift: It solved so many problems because the songs on this album ... not by choice, but it randomly turned out that none of them had any natural geographical location tied to them, but this solved that by putting a location to everything. You could pin the songs to something now. One problem was solved after the other, even all the way down to the fact that now we have album art! We went from no title to everything being finished, all with one photograph. It was a great moment.
Besides recording the entire LP in St. Louis, how else did you approach this album differently than past efforts?
In every possible way. The biggest difference on this album from other albums in the past -- and this is another thing that wasn’t a concerted effort -- I was the writer of basically every song. That never happened before, so right off the bat, it was coming from a different place. Then, we decided to record it in a completely different way than ever before, which sort of made St. Louis make sense. Rather than just give one two-week block of time to it like we normally do, we decided to do it by doing one song a day, and we did it over a block of time. We basically recorded for four days a week, doing it over the course of a few months. That worked out fantastic because we could do four songs, take a month off, and then change anything we wanted to.
It was almost like the luxury of home recording, you know? We never had to worry about running out of time, which happens on every recording session. [Laughs] We never had to cut corners, we never had to do that. We also flew our producer in each time rather than flying all four of us to a different location, so it saved us money as well. This album is 100-percent different from any way we’ve ever done one.
And it sounds like you’re pretty happy with it.
Totally. Every one of us is happy. This is our first “no regrets” album. We sent it out to the world with not one regret. We wouldn’t change anything on it.
That has to be a good feeling.
Yeah, and it only took 20 years to figure it out! [Laughs]
The album definitely explores a lot of different sounds. “Ship It on the Frisco” is a bit of a slow jam; “Big Lotsa Love” and “I Don’t Wanna Know” are what I’d consider the classic Bottle Rockets sound; then “Building Chryslers” is just ... well, you just crank that up and rock out.
All that being said, the journey through the different sounds is pretty representative of the Bottle Rockets.
It really sounds like the band sounds now. We learned that quickly. When we go out now, we play the entire album in the middle of the show. We’ll do old songs, then play the album, then more old songs. It proves that it sounds like the band because we can totally pull it off. There are no songs on this album that we can’t pull off live. Eric Ambel, our producer, is very good at helping with that and doing it. Somehow, we boiled this one down to maybe a more complex mix of parts, but it’s still totally doable. We got the essence down and decorated it, and it worked out great.
How long have you been working with Eric?
We've worked with him off and on throughout our career. Our first album was not done by him, but our second album was with him. So we’ve been working with him since 1994, and stayed with him through 2000, and then had our mid-life crisis and figured we’d try something different. Then we kind of figured, if it wasn’t broke, why did we try to fix it? So, we went back to him with Lean Forward in '08. So, yeah, we’ve worked with him a lot.
I grew up in a small town in northeast Kansas and have been listening to the Bottle Rockets since your first album, mainly thanks to my dad. I always find myself gravitating back to “Wave That Flag” and “Welfare Music” -- those songs are musically perfect, but they also obviously make pretty significant statements. Fast forward 20-plus years: Do you still feel inspired that way by what goes around you?
You know what, man, I’m too old now. There is enough bad s--t in the world. I don’t want to sing about it if I don’t have to. And not that I mind singing about it; it’s just not my thing. Anybody who knows me, I’m all about the guitars. I’m basically out of that business. [Laughs] I don’t hate it, but you reach an age where it’s not your main jam anymore, and that’s where I’m at.
That’s okay, and if you can make an album like South Broadway Athletic Club without it ...
Well, and the good thing is, those songs are in the catalog, so we can still bring them back to life, you know?
And those songs are almost more relevant today than maybe when they first came out.
Yeah, that’s unfortunate, isn’t it? It’s unfortunate for the situations, but it’s fortunate for the songs, in that you made something that was and still is topical. The bad situations have kept the songs relevant. It’s a good and bad thing at the same time.
You’ve been with Bloodshot Records for a bit now. One of my favorite things about them is their commitment to vinyl. I’m a big fan of records and the format. Is that something that is still important to you?
I like it better. If somebody didn’t want to make vinyl, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me, but I sure as heck like it better. I think a lot of people do. I do love Bloodshot for committing to doing that. I love it; I think it’s fun. It’s great -- that’s what I grew up on, you know?
There is definitely a sense of nostalgia when it comes to vinyl. Thinking back on what you’ve done -- this genre, whatever you want to call it, alt-country, Americana, rock 'n' roll -- from your days with Uncle Tupelo, some solo stuff, the Bottle Rockets, some things thrown in between ... This is a bit of a loaded question, but coming from a fan, is there a moment where you just sit back and think, "I can't believe I got to do that"?
Well, the most unbelievable thing in my musical career ... This will always stand out as the pinnacle of the most unbelievable thing I ever did, and this goes back before the Bottle Rockets, back when I was on the road with Uncle Tupelo. We were actually on the road with a tour that collapsed before it got very far. It was supposed to be seven weeks -- it was seven days. It was the Band, Taj Mahal and Uncle Tupelo, okay? The most amazing standout thing that I ever did was sing “The Weight” with Levon Helm at his gooseneck mic while he was drumming. So, I was, like, squatting over his shoulder in the middle of his drum set while he was playing and singing “The Weight.” It was all downhill from there. [Laughs]
Yeah, that has to be hard to top!
I peaked early. I peaked before I even got another band started! It was in Vermont -- I think Burlington, some theater there. It was the early ‘90s.
For me, one of the coolest things that I’ve seen as a fan was watching you take the stage with Steve Earle at the now-defunct Beaumont Club in Kansas City. I can’t remember what song you sang, but I know you were banging on the cow bell.
I remember that! I totally remember that. Wow. That’s cool, man. Right on.