"We've been guilty of casting ourselves on the water and then just seeing where it goes," Brian Henneman says. Mark Ortmann, his longtime drummer and co-founder of the Bottle Rockets, still St. Louis' best and most widely celebrated band, nods in agreement. At Lemmon's in south St. Louis, it's free pizza and Monday Night Football. Henneman loves the former, hates the latter. "This is the first time we've made an effort to change things."
Blue Sky, the band's newest album and first record of original songs in four years, is neither a return to form nor a radical departure, but it is a declaration of change. The subtle country-rock sound is only modest on the surface and, like some of the best and most accessible popular music, its ambitions are no less meaningful for being measured. It's remarkable, really, that the record got made at all, let alone with a producer like Warren Haynes (yes, of the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule) and an equally heavyweight engineer like Michael Barbiero (check the mixing credits for your Cypress Hill and Guns N' Roses albums). The band had no record deal and no money -- certainly not the kind that Haynes, Barbiero and their Hoboken studio full of $10,000 microphones would ordinarily command.
What the Bottle Rockets had was a collection of demos and, finally, a dose of record-biz optimism courtesy of Chicago's Bloodshot Records, the label that released the band's previous album, Songs of Sahm, a loving, low-budget tribute to roots visionary Doug Sahm. "At that point, I was assuming we'd do the record with them," says Henneman. "We figured we'd go back down to [producer] Lou Whitney's, make another $5,000 record, and see what happens. The first sales royalty we ever saw in ten years was from Bloodshot; still to this day I love them. They did what they said they would do. They were the only friggin' straight-up record company."
The band members also had the faith of Haynes, who had been a longtime fan, and the encouragement of their manager, Stefani Scamardo, who just happened to be married to Haynes. Financial backing for the record took a back seat to the music.
"We just showed up and started recording. We didn't sign anything. We were like, somebody's paying for it. You got the engineer running the board who did John Lennon records. That looks expensive. You got a $12,000 microphone on your guitar. That's got to come into play."
"But they did it as a labor of love," Ortmann says. "They were such humble, bad-ass dudes, but they had total respect for the music. They did it cheaply, relatively speaking. Compared to what it should have cost, it was the bargain of the century. Barbiero's going rate would have been more than what the entire record ended up costing."
As it turns out, Blue Sky is the Bottle Rockets' best-sounding record, the one with the richest variety of tones, the most texture and the most subtle cohesion. Recorded and mixed in twelve days, most of the tracks were first or second takes, most were laid down with a foundation of just acoustic guitar, bass and drums, and some even feature live vocals.
"If anything took time it was because we were chasing down something that was already there," Henneman explains. "The idea was, let's make a countryish album, but with an actual Allman Brother. Let's get rid of the country trappings. We're not gonna put any fuckin' banjos on it, no mandolins, no fiddles."
Although they've been called the best bar band in America and have been labeled AC/DC-meets-Hank Williams -- "All bullshit," Henneman seethes -- the Bottle Rockets have always stood or fallen on the strength of their songwriting. On Blue Sky, some of the strongest songs are the most vulnerable and personal. Written for his recently deceased parents, "Mom and Dad" is Henneman at his most heartbreaking. And on "Baggage Claim" Ortmann captures the bittersweet frustration of lovers forced to meet in the least romantic of places -- an airport carousel of tumbling luggage. "It wasn't written directly under the influence of 9/11, but it was about the loss of simple things," Ortmann says. "It's a romantic view, a different angle on September 11. It is kind of metaphorical, the collecting of baggage."
The song's melody, Henneman's sweetest and most delicate composition to date, features a "soft rock orchestra" played by Mark Spencer (frequent collaborator with Jay Farrar), who had reintroduced Henneman to the majesty of mellow.
"He gave me a compilation tape of all this soft-rock stuff," Henneman says.
"I hadn't listened to that in twenty years. I then went and bought Bread's Greatest Hits and America's Greatest Hits. That music was in my head when Mark [Ortmann] sent me the lyrics. It was like peanut butter and chocolate. I wasn't liking it in an ironic way; I was floored by it."
"There's a lot of crap in soft rock," Ortmann adds, "but there's also some amazingly well-crafted, intelligent songs."
The album also features a more prominent role for bassist and singer Robert Kearns, whose song "I Don't Wanna Go Back" (co-written years ago with some former bandmates) is the album's catchiest pop number. "We never rehearsed the song before we got to the studio," says Kearns. "It probably took the longest to record, getting the arrangement just right." The new album ends with its oddest but also most touching gesture: Kearns's sweet ballad, "The Last Time," rendered with nothing more than his lilting voice and a gut-string guitar. "You can tell from the recording I was real nervous doing it," Kearns says. "Warren seemed to think the nervousness, the shakiness of my voice, was endearing to the song."
Blue Sky, then, is a record of subtle risks, personal but significant changes. In the past year, both Henneman and Kearns have quit drinking -- "I didn't even know Robert had quit," Henneman confides -- and the band's live shows have improved exponentially.
"After all these years we're finally making music," Henneman says. "On stage it doesn't sound that different but it feels different, because I'm sober. I'm not stumbling over strings or playing some stupid song nobody knows. We are in control instead of the crowd being in control. It used to be, someone would yell out some stupid song, I'd start playing it, then the whole show crumbles down. I'd crank my amp up, then the stage sound is gone, then I'm frickin' screaming, and I blow my voice, and then the next night I can't sing. It was this evil thing that we did for ten years. Is it any wonder Wilco is more popular?"
"It's a slow maturing," Ortmann says, "even though that implies all the wrong things. It was tough, back in the old days, but I stuck it out. People ask me how I could take it, given the drunken history of the band. But I believed in the music; maybe I was naive."
The band's refreshed live sound has also been shaped by their newest member, St. Louis guitarist John Horton, a humble perfectionist and sly avatar of tone and texture. Horton had been a longtime fan of the Bottle Rockets -- "I always got what they were doing," he says -- but he had built his reputation as a country player, and his new band demanded new sounds.
"Brian is a get-it-and-go guitarist," Horton explains. "That nerve you're always hoping to touch, he goes for it immediately. I tend to think about things a bit more. I love textural things. I've spent the last ten years trying to get the perfect country-guitar sound, and now things have come full circle, and now I'm thinking about a rock-guitar sound. I haven't done that forever."
The Bottle Rockets, however, have not come full circle. After years of persistent frustration and occasional chaos, they've found a new commitment, direction and focus. "We did a show in Chicago with Jason Ringenberg, and he said, 'You're one of the only bands where you changed members and you actually got better,'" Kearns relates. "I guess we're as good as we're gonna get, 'cause we can't replace Brian and Mark."