Interview: Brent Best Discusses Slobberbone’s New Retrospective, ‘Bees and Seas’
Formed in the early 1990s in Denton, Texas, the alt-country-Southern roots-rock 'n' roll outfit known as Slobberbone have flown (too far) under the radar for more than two decades. Now, thanks to a massive retrospective compilation, Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone, the guys are finally getting the attention they deserve.
Released on April 1 via Slobberbone's longtime label partners, New West Records, Bees and Seas offers 18 tracks from throughout the band's career, all in chronological order, and features mesmerizing artwork from Centro-matic's Will Johnson and liner notes from the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood. The project is available to order in multiple formats via the New West Records website.
Slobberbone frontman and songwriter Brent Best took some time to catch up with The Boot about the new compilation, what's been happening over the last 20 years and what the future might hold for the band.
Congratulations on the release of Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone. It has to feel good to have it out.
It’s cool, and it's a little weird. I guess about a year ago, George [Fontaine Sr.] from New West, down at SXSW, he told me what he wanted to do. He said he was picking the songs, and I was like, “Do it.”
It’s kind of weird, you know, because we’re still playing shows. The idea of a retrospective is kind of weird to me, but it turned out good, I think. I like the remastering on it; it sounds really good. I can actually listen to some of those recordings now.
So was it weird to revisit some of those songs?
You know, I still play most of these songs from time to time. But the notion of collecting them all and creating this extra document, yeah, it was a little weird. But I’ve been surprised: People have been really excited and happy about it, even people who already have all those songs. I didn’t really see it as anything super worthwhile, except for maybe people who had never heard of us.
It seems like longtime fans will love to reconnect with the songs, and new fans will get a great snapshot into the Slobberbone world.
You mentioned George, the president of New West Records. Slobberbone has been with New West for quite some time, since the mid-to-late-'90s. How did you get plugged in with the label initially?
We actually started on a tiny label in Austin called Doolittle that George was the primary backer on. So when New West came about, they just sort of took on Doolittle, which didn’t have a lot of acts on it. I think when we joined Doolittle, it was 1996, and they had Hamell on Trial and maybe one or two other bands.
We just always stuck with George. Nobody really gave two s--ts about us until he did, going back to the '90s. At the time, we were a band that just wanted to get in the van and tour, so that’s what we did. We never asked a whole lot from them, and vice versa. We always did what we did, so it’s been a good relationship.
That sounds pretty good.
It’s also been a personal relationship for me, too.
Yeah, it seems like a strong, personal relationship, considering the fact that you let George put together this new compilation.
Back in the day, when we were doing this full-time, we had to wrestle some to not be misrepresented. I think we’ve been together for so long, this whole thing was his idea, and he knows better than anyone who we are -- he’s just someone I trust.
For me, it’s better to discover what kind of band you are than to try to decide what kind of band you want to sound like. If you let it be your own thing, it’s more exciting.
On paper, Slobberbone have been pretty quiet since 2002, but I know you recently toured Europe, and, as you've said, you're still playing. What has the band been up to since 2002's Slippage up to the release of Bees and Seas?
Not a whole lot, actually. We shut down around 2004 and, a few years, later started playing again, but nothing full bore or anything. We just love playing together ... That’s what it is now, not us trying to hit it as hard as we used to. When we first started playing together again, we decided to continue doing it for fun but not feel like we have to do it. It works. When we were in Europe, it seemed right, it felt good. I’ve been going back to various incarnations for years, but Slobberbone hadn’t been back for 11 or 12 years, so it was really cool.
But we don’t really have any master plan. The litmus test for what we do is if we want to do it and it’s fun.
As you look back with the release of this compilation ... It’s in one of your songs, that Slobberbone never fit into one specific musical bucket. Do you think now in 2016, it’s a better place for the band to exist?
I think there is a broader perception of variety within whatever genre you like. When we started, the obvious pigeonhole they tried to shove us in was alt-country. Whatever, that was fine, but I always maintained we were just a rock band. The other bands that were in that world, my favorites, were the more rock guys. I liked a lot of the country stuff, too, but I just think it grew over time. Part of it is the internet, and people are finding music for themselves, so now there are sub-sub-sub-genres, to the point where less people care; they just want to find music they like.
About the time we shut down, the Drive-By Truckers kept going and became a bigger thing, and there were quite a few bands, friends of ours that we played with on the road, that continued to bring it to bigger audiences. Now we can look back and see younger bands in our wake that are more focused in ways that we weren’t. I’m glad it’s opened up and isn’t so constrictive anymore.
When you released your first album, 1994's Crow Pot Pie, Uncle Tupelo had just broken up. Looking at Slobberbone as a straight-up rock band and not so much in the country vein of what guys like Uncle Tupelo were doing, what were you influenced by when you started out?
All sorts of stuff. Initially, when the first three of us got together, we were all fans of Husker Du and the Replacements. But even before I picked up a guitar, my folks never listened to rock 'n' roll, so I grew up listening to the outlaw country stuff with my dad. I had to find the rock stuff for myself.
I guess in the '80s, other than the ‘Mats, I loved bands like Jason and the Scorchers, a rock band with roots, and for whatever reason I just wrote that way, a little bit more rootsy. If I tried to write a song like [Husker Du frontman] Bob Mould, it just sounded like a kid trying to write a song like Bob Mould. [Laughs]
We weren’t great players when we got together in Denton, Texas. Our friends were loud, hard bands, so we had to have that element just to be heard, but by the same token, I wrote story songs and murder ballads, so we just sort of found our way within those two elements initially, and then we let it be whatever it was. I mean, if you go back, the Rolling Stones made country songs in their early days, and you'd never call them a country-rock band. When we were younger and we thought we were punk rock, we’d get miffed a little, but we learned to go with the flow.
I think that speaks a lot to the sound of Slobberbone. Even where you are at today, as you said, you want to do this only if it feels right.
When we were touring early on, we might play with a metal band one night and a straight country band the next night. Back then, we always wished we could find bands like us. Nowadays wherever you go, there are probably 10 mediocre alternative country bands in every town, and it’s like, man, it’d be great to play with a metal band again. [Laughs]
There are a lot of bands in Denton and a lot of kids that come here to start bands ... I work in a venue that is surrounded by rehearsal spaces, and I hear young dudes talking all the time about what band they’re going to be, but they’ve never really gotten into a room to figure out what they actually sound like. For me, it’s better to discover what kind of band you are than to try to decide what kind of band you want to sound like. If you let it be your own thing, it’s more exciting.
From where I sit, the best way to listen to this new compilation is the double-LP vinyl release. Considering the tracks are in chronological order for your career, it's a good glimpse at the beginning days of Slobberbone.
I love New West for a number of reasons, but I always appreciate their commitment to vinyl -- is that medium something that's important to you as an artist and music fan?
It is more now. When I was younger, that’s pretty much all I had before I got a car, and then it was cassettes. I don’t think I bought a CD player until I was in college. I think it’s even more important now. The fans who are looking for good music generally are the ones who come to shows and want that tangible artifact to hold. Vinyl, at the moment, is the best artifact there is in terms of music.
There’s nothing else I like doing more than making records, so it would be silly not to.
Here's something funny: With the solo album that I put out late last year, we did vinyl. It’s interesting, Slobberbone never had any vinyl except a limited release our Dutch label did of Slippage, I think. The guy that was doing all the work for the solo record's layout was Skillet Gilmore, who used to play drums with Whiskeytown and all sorts of bands. Well, I don’t really like having my picture on the album covers, and when I got the CD booklet, I opened it, and there are two panels of my face. But, I figured it’s just a CD booklet, so who cares. When the vinyl came out, I opened it up, and I was like, “Oh, God!” But it struck me, everyone else who got it, they liked it, because when I was young, I used to love that kind of stuff. I’d get home, read the liner notes and check out the pictures. You can still do that with CDs, but in the last 10-15 years, you can’t even find liner notes because you’re pulling something up online. For me, vinyl is a great representational anchor that we need right now.
And the music aside, Will Johnson's artwork for Bees and Seas looks even better on a 12-inch jacket -- and Patterson Hood's liner notes on the inside are great. They're big and smack you right in the face when you open the gatefold.
One of the things that struck me about his notes was his positivity about the future of Slobberbone. I think one of the phrases he uses is, "Slobberbone is." You mentioned it at the beginning, about how weird it is to release a retrospective when Slobberbone still is. What's the future look like for you and the band?
Anything is possible. After doing an acoustic solo record, I’m chomping at the bit to write some rock stuff. I’ve had some health issues that have precluded touring the last several months, so I just need to get to the point I can actually get out and tour a record. It’ll be up to the guys, too; they all have to be on board.
It feels weird having a record come out and getting all the attention and press and not be out playing shows behind it. It doesn’t feel right, but regardless, we’ve all talked some, and I think there are some songs floating around that have never been recorded, and I’d like to write some more. I think we’ll end up recording something and putting it out; we’re not as single-minded as we used to be. Before, the goal was always clear: Put out a record, and get in a van, and just go until you put out another record. Now, there are a lot of other considerations.
Regardless, there’s nothing else I like doing more than making records, so it would be silly not to.
Listen to Slobberbone's "Sweetness, That's Your Cue"