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New Breed
A Conversation With Brian Henneman, Robert Kearns and Mark Ortmann
by Samuel Barker
June 1, 2002

The Bottle Rockets (photo by: Samuel Barker
The Bottle Rockets

Samuel Barker: First things first, it has been a while since you guys have toured, what did you guys do in the meantime?

Brian Henneman: In the meantime, I’ve been doing different things. I’ve been straightening out the estate of my parents’ house that they left behind. They both passed away in ’99 and I inherited the house and had to clean up all the debts against it. Which takes a year with my kind of salary…Robert Kearns, what were you doing?

Robert Kearns: It’s crazy, because at the same time Brian had his stuff going on, my dad had a heart attack. He was in hospital for 5 weeks, so I just picked up and moved back with my mom. and that’s what started so much downtime. Brian and I both had family things and I was just hanging around trying to help my mom and dad out. Then, he started feeling better and…well, how much more do you want?

Samuel: Just say what you feel like telling us, we’re not doing a police deposition.

Everyone: (laughs)

Robert: Basically, what happened was that I was living in North Carolina and Brian was doing his stuff, so a drummer I used to play with had moved to Austin and gotten a gig with Chris Forte. He called me and offered me the gig. I went down there and started playing with

Chris. I was down there so much that I started feeling bad because I was staying with him and he has a small one bedroom place, so an apartment came open and I moved to Austin. It’s a great experience and it’s a great music town, Austin. I’ve probably said too much. Mark, your turn.

Mark Ortmann: Robert Kearns, the interjector.

Brian: What did you do responsibly with your time off?

Mark: I was just picking up work wherever it was available. I did some drum tech work. I just kept busy that way. Nothing much to talk about.

Samuel: Nothing too amazing then?

Mark: I was doing some drum tech work for Shelby Lynn. And there were a lot of really cool people who came through her band that I admired.

Samuel: One thing I couldn’t help but notice during sound check is there are only three of you now.

Brian: Right, we killed the other guy, chopped him up and ate him for dinner.

Everyone: (laughs)

Brian: Yeah, it happens every time we take time off. Last time our previous bass player split, because these certain guys settle down into a new lifestyle with a year off, get a job, the whole nine yards. Then, finally when you get in that thing we decide to go again and they don’t want to get back out. They aren’t the “musician types” we are. They’d rather stay at home and work rather jobs. The same thing happened with Tom, he came out and did the first couple of shows and then he cracked. He had enough, he had a good job, good insurance, a steady paycheck and that is what happened.

Robert: He gets to go to work and do the same thing everyday and go home and stay at the same place.

Brian: So, next time we take a year off; let’s see which ones are still standing.

Robert: Yeah, let’s see who’s man enough to step back up to the plate.

Everyone: (laughs)

Mark: And hit a curve ball that the music industry types throw at you.

Samuel: Speaking of curve balls from the music industry types, this record was on Bloodshot records, and all the others were on different labels, are you guys just trying to tour that labels?

Everyone: (laughs)

Brian: No, we had to make be sure, dead positive that we got every horrible record deal we could get. Just so we could have the satisfaction of knowing we had gotten everyone.

Robert: How many labels has this band shut down?

Brian: We’ve shut down everyone we’ve been on except Atlantic, and that’s too bad because we were really trying. We wanted to shut them down and run off with the AC/DC back catalogue, but we just couldn’t get the job done.

Samuel: One record too short?

Brian: Yep. Bloodshot is the best so far. We’re finally, temporarily totally satisfied.

Mark: The thing with this deal was that it was a one off. We didn’t sign a multi-album deal, which means when we come around to do our next live album, we have the leg up because we can see if a label treats us right.

Brian: Yeah, the hardest thing to do in the record industry is get a one-album deal. For some reason they don’t like that. We insisted on it with this album, things were changing so fast that I didn’t want to commit to five albums when I don’t even know what’s going to be happening next week. So Bloodshot was the only one to bite on that.

Mark: The funny thing with the Doug Sahm record is that they were the only record label we really approached with the idea, because it was custom built for their audience. The fact that they did a one-album deal is a testament to them and the interest in the Doug Sahm stuff.

Brian: They really have been treating us like the Rolling Stones or something. It’s really cool, it’s a good thing.

Samuel: Yeah, I remember trying to get some stuff on your guys when Brand New Year came out and we heard nothing back.

Brian: Yeah. You’re checking to make sure the computer is still plugged in.

Samuel: Yeah, it’s always like “leave a message.”

Brian: We went out to Atlantic one time. It was awesome. We went to New York to get kicked off our label. We had to be like, ‘We’re going. We’re going to see what happens.’

Mark: We had been badgering them for months tell them that we wanted out. Finally, Brian said, ‘Hey! We’re coming.’

Brian: We played chicken and we won. They didn’t drop us until they knew we were coming. Whenever we set the trip to come out there, Tom, Mark and I played a show in St. Louis to get some money to fund our trip to New York.

Mark: So we could quit.

Brian: Yeah, we’re raising money so we can go get kicked off our label. When they found out we were coming, they let it go real easy. The cool thing is, we went to the office and it was like a Wednesday. It was a total Blade Runner looking building, all space-age with glass and chrome, secret cards you need to get into secret doors and there were all these cubicles, as far as the eye could see and there was nobody in them. Like on a Wednesday afternoon, prime work time. So it’s like…

Robert: The Bottle Rockets are coming, clear out. Evacuate the building. Evacuate, emergency.

Brian: So if nobody is working at like 2 o’clock on a Wednesday, you see all you need to know about major labels.

Samuel: Well, the next logical question is, coming from Festus, which is close to St. Louis and coming from that music scene, which is rich with history and talent, which you could have done a tribute. What made you choose a Texas musician in Doug Sahm?

Brian: He’s just one of our favorites. I first heard his records in 1980 or ’81. A new guy moved in to town. And we met this guy, who was a school teacher. I think he actually taught Mark.

Mark: Actually the first time he taught, I was in his first class, he was an English teacher.

Brian: His name is Scott Taylor and he co-writes songs with us all the time. He’s one of the big lyricist, co-writer guys. Anyway, he came to town and we found out that he had this really awesome record collection and he was into really weird music that we had never heard of. We’d go over to his house, he’d play these records for us, and Doug Sahm was one of these albums. The Mendocino album was the first thing he ever played of Doug’s for me. It was instant, love at first sight. I didn’t know where Doug Sahm was from, I didn’t know he was from Texas, I didn’t know anything about him, I just knew I loved the music, and so it was just a love affair with his over 20 years, which led to the album. It was kind of criminal to us that he had been dead for two years and no one made the nationwide, let’s recognize Doug Sahm album. We thought Steve Earle would do it, but he still hadn’t so we decided to say ‘Piss on him.’ And did it ourselves.

Samuel: Well, I know a lot of local musicians do cover of Doug’s but no one was really brave enough to take the step to record a tribute album.

Brian: I was never scared, because we knew the songs and they were a big part of our lives. His songs mean as much to me, if not more, than my own songs. I’d rather listen to Doug than listen to myself any day of the week. It was kind of like living in blind stupidity, it was living in Missouri and no knowing the legend, we THOUGHT he was a legend, we were seeing it from way outside. I guess if you lived around it and saw him a lot, you might be scared, because he was a bad ass musician. We were just the idiot hillbillies from Missouri. We were like ‘Huh! Huh! We can fly a rocket to the moon.’

Robert: A bottle rocket.

Brian: I didn’t realize what a big thing we had set off until we played San Antonio after the record came out. It was Doug’s hometown. Then, all of a sudden we got there and I realized, all his family was there and all his friends were there. I never got nervous until we started loading into the club. Then I was like, ‘Oh shit! They can hang us high right now.’

Robert: But it all worked out, the people loved it. The weirdest thing was his daughter asking us to sign her copy of the album.

Brian: Yeah, her asking us to sign an album of her dad’s music that we made, that was really cool.

Robert: The cool thing was when we were playing in Austin two nights ago and Shandon Sahm, Doug’s son, came up and jammed with us. We did “She’s got a mover” and “Not That Kat Anymore.”

Brian: It’s a great thing and it’s kinda, personally for me, a sad thing that we never got to play with Doug. I mean, seeing his kids, Shandon looks just like him, so it’s like playing with Doug, but it’s not.

Mark: It kinda makes sense. We’re second generation to his music and his kids are his second generation.

Brian: When the family comes around and approves of what you do, that makes you feel a certain way, it’s like a ‘Wow!’ feeling. Doug was such a groovy cat that if you played well, he’d dig it because it was a groove. But to have the kids, who knew there dad and the whole thing, they are eligible to defend him. It’s like if you suck, they have the right to tell you. So we survived the family test and it’s like ‘Whoa!’

Robert Little Johnny, who was one of his best friends, introduced us in San Antonio. He was Doug’s best friend. He got up on stage and was like ‘I love the Bottle Rockets!’

Brian: It was cool.

Samuel: Well, that’s a good thing.

Everyone: Yeah.

Samuel: Well, when you (Brian) did the solo tour, was it a good way to test out how well the songs would go over with audiences?

Brian: Well, actually, the solo thing was a whole other ball of beans.

Everyone: (laughs)

Brian: You know, that world famous ball of beans, it’s like a popcorn ball, only softer. But that was a whole other thing. The funny thing was trying to do the songs just acoustically. It was a good way to squeak in and see if people would throw things or boo.

Robert: Well, you said San Francisco was amazing.

Brian: Yeah, in San Francisco everyone sang along on “Stoned Faces Don’t Like.” I’m up there totally by myself singing “Stoned Faces Don’t Lie” at the Filmore and everyone is singing alone with me. It was one of the great moments of my musical career. It was like ‘San Francisco, Doug’s other hometown.’

Samuel: Let’s see, something to hit one from this…Well, you guys are from the center of the whole Alt. Country boom. It was you guys and Uncle Tupelo who really got the ball rolling. We all know that they’ve gone away, Jay Farrar is moving on to other sounds, Wilco isn’t anything like that anymore, what’s been the key to the Bottle Rockets surviving?

Brian: Because we’re lazy fuckers. We’re too lazy to break up.

Mark: People may leave, but we don’t have the energy to break it up.

Brian: It took too long to build it up to break it up. Actually, there were times I thought about packing it in and a friend of ours Kenny Long, who is from Nashville, was playing with Lucinda Williams in 1999. He’s the guy I look up to as a guitarist and respect his opinion and we played a show with us in Nashville and told us to never break up. He said, ‘Never break up. Close down the shop, keep a skeleton crew, but never break it up. It’s too hard to start something new when you break it up.’ And he said that at a time I needed to hear that. So we’re still around because Kenny Long told us to.

Samuel Barker is Senior Editor. Contact him at suma@rockzone.com.

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