by Chris Bay
Of all of the bands to emerge from alt country's heyday in the mid to late '90s St. Louis-based band the Bottle Rockets has exceeded most in longevity, quality and consistency. After nearly twenty years of creating scorching and intelligent Southern-style country rock the band is still finding ways to move forward and turn heads. Earlier this year the group took to the road as the backing band for Marshall Crenshaw, the veteran songwriter and master of classic power pop. And the Bottle Rockets recently released Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening With The Bottle Rockets, which chronicles the band taking on acoustic versions of many of their well-loved tunes for the first time. The album was recorded live over two nights in April 2007 in the long-since closed Lucas Schoolhouse in Soulard.
We sat down with lead singer and guitarist Brian Henneman to talk about the new album, struggling with the banjo and lessons the band would've preferred to learn earlier in its career. The Bottle Rockets will be performing an acoustic show at the Sheldon Ballroom tonight, October 6th.
RFT Music: The new record, Not So Loud, is fairly different from anything the band has ever done before. What was the motivation for doing the acoustic shows in the first place?
Brian Henneman: That place opened up, the Lucas Schoolhouse. That was back, I don't know what year it was, '06 or '07, something like that. And they wanted us to play there really badly because they had just opened up and were trying to get some business down there. So we went down and took a look at the place and it was a beautiful place, but it just didn't look like the right kind of place to have a wild rock 'n' roll show. It looked like the kind of place to have an acoustic show. They wanted us to play there so badly and we wanted to help them out so we thought that we'd just do it acoustically to take advantage of the room, not blast people out of there. And we thought, while we're doing that we might as well record it because we don't do that.
We didn't have any plans to make it into an album. We were hoping that maybe we'd get enough good recordings to make it into an album, but we weren't hell bent to get good recordings. We didn't even really know what we were going to do with it, maybe release some tracks for free on the website. We hadn't even talked to Bloodshot Records about it or anything. But we thought far enough ahead to do the same set list both nights just so we could have multiple takes, just in case something broke out. It turned out to be really great that we did that because there were tons of problems with the recording. Since we weren't [thinking that it was] absolutely going to be an album, we weren't really pressuring anybody to do anything other than record the damn thing. So there were a lot of technical difficulties and the two nights kind of saved our butts, because we did manage to milk out enough songs to make an album out of it.
The idea to officially release it as an album came after we heard the recordings. It was like, "Man this stuff is good enough to make an album out of." But we didn't hear the recordings for a really long time because they were in a format that none of us had any way to play. When we finally heard it, that's when we got the idea to go forward with it and get Eric Amble to mix it. If we would've gotten him involved from the start it would've been recorded a different way.
I think we played every song we knew over the course of those two nights. There were a lot of people that came both nights. Since we did the set list twice, on the second night, as a reward to them for sitting through the same set list twice, we did a 20-25 song encore.
Were the acoustic arrangements difficult to work out? Some of them are fairly different from the original album cuts.
Yeah, it took a little bit. Actually, what took the longest was figuring out how to play the damn banjo.
Did you learn to play the banjo just for these gigs?
I've flirted with the banjo my whole life. I've always wanted to try to play one. I always kind of sucked at it. I've done every kind of thing to try to get good at it. There was one time in my life that I owned three banjos. "Maybe if i get another one..."
Right, that didn't work out. Then I sold all of the banjos and went for years without one and got another one when this idea came up. And so then I thought that forcing myself to do this since we were going to have an acoustic show might force me to get better on the banjo. And it did to some degree. I sold the banjo as soon as we got done recording because I was so frustrated with it. And then I had to face the banjo again when we put the album out, to go out on the road with it. But this time I just wised up and thought, "Man, I ain't gonna do the fingerpicks and the thumbpicks. I suck with it." So I just played with a flatpick like a guitar and everything was great. Now I love the banjo! It only took me twenty years to figure that out. Listening to the these arrangements brings to light more of the folk and storytelling nature of the songs, more so than the rock arrangements did.
I agree, totally. We always suspected that, but I think the writing's on the wall now because everywhere we go people are loving this show. People love it. And I've had more people give me more heartfelt, glowing, "I love this new album" responses than for any other one that we've ever put out. So I think we've come to realize that we've been bludgeoning our songs to death for years.
I imagine that if you're in a bar and people are getting into the loud rock songs it's hard turn the volume down.
When you're playing electric guitar, too. I love to play electric guitar, and I love to play loud. But you're kind of cutting your own nose off, is what you're doing to some degree, because people are hearing the songs differently than they did before. So now for the first time it seems like people are getting it. They're thinking it's this hugely new thing. Really these aren't new arrangements, they're just live adaptations of the way the stuff was written in the first place. So it's a real eye-opener to see that you can do wrong. Some bands do right by blasting their shit out, and some bands can do wrong. And we're starting to see that we have done ourselves some wrong by doing that, just from seeing the way people are freaking out as they're /understanding/ the songs.
Do you think this realization will change your approach to songwriting, arranging and recording going forward?
Absolutely. Totally. I know it. I guarantee it. The future is wide open now. It's a whole new frontier.
Your other recent side trip, if we can call them that, was the collaboration with Marshall Crenshaw. Was there any similar reaction to that experience? Will that change the way you move forward?
Absolutely. Personally, it got me more in tune with cohesive, working-together guitar parts. I mean, we played loud with Marshall. And he's loud. He uses two amps and I only use one. So it's a loud thing, but his stuff is a different style of music altogether and it doesn't hit you like a sledge hammer over the head because everything has it's place. It all works together. So you can be loud as hell, but if you're playing a certain way... It's kind of like the Tom Petty story. Nobody says that Tom Petty has a loud band, but he does. You go to a Tom Petty concert and he's as loud as anybody.
The songs are working more on a structural, melodic level rather than just on a pure volume level.
Exactly. So with Marshall [the difficulty] was just learning his songs, which was very difficult when we first started doing it. They were so different from our songs. Different chords, different everything. But it's funny because we've been playing with him on and off since last January and now I've kind of gotten hip to his style and it's so much easier to figure stuff out. He threw three new songs at us to learn on this last trip out. Back in January it took us two months to get the shit right but we knocked it out in two rehearsals this last time. So that's absolutely been assimilated in all of this. We've figured out how to work in an entirely different electric style too. So this is a big year of figuring a bunch of shit out.
On the record you describe the evening as "stress-filled and self-indulgent." Where did the stress-filled part came from? From the technical difficulties that you had on stage and playing the songs in a way that you're not used to? Has that calmed down as a result of playing the songs that way again and again? We've got it figured out now. We're even nailing the technical end of it; we're playing science to it now. We were just making it up as we went along when we recorded those shows because it was the first time that we did it. But now we know how to set up on the stage. The whole trick to pulling it off is to put hardly anything in your monitors. The goal is to sit close enough to hear everybody just off of their instruments and then put just enough in the monitor to stop hearing any slap back from the main PA bouncing off the back wall. So we're getting the science down. Mark got himself an old 1930s snare drum that's not loud. We're working it like a bluegrass band works: if you can't hear the guitar, don't play the banjo very hard. It's pretty simple and that will also cross over into any electric stuff that we do. Now we're listening better than ever before, and that's great.
The self-indulgent part of that was just tongue-in-cheek? That everybody was humoring you for the experiment?
It was self-indulgent in charging people money to watch me stumble around on a banjo.
Which you won't be doing at the show at the Sheldon.
No, I've got it down now.