Reverb Interview: The Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman

Outlaw country, roots rock, cowpunk, Americana — in their decades-long career, The Bottle Rockets have been called those things and more, winning over fans and audiences with 10 records that capture and crystallize a blue-collar dignity and authenticity other bands would pay good money for. If only they could.

South Broadway Athletic Club

South Broadway Athletic Club, the band’s most recent release is no exception to this string of honest, insightful and rocking albums, and it marks a return to form for songwriter Brian Henneman, who had experienced writer’s block since the release of the critically acclaimed Lean Forward in 2009.

Henneman spoke with Reverb about the Rickenbackers that unlocked the songs on the new album, the vintage and weird guitars they played to record it, the band’s new approach to making records, and some surprising uses for some unlikely gear.

You've got these great guitars on this record: three Rickenbackers, a Gibson Hummingbird, a Bonanzinga and a 1960 Gibson ES-335; are you touring with all of those guitars?

Bonanzinga Clarksdale

Oh, hell no. No way. That 335 belongs to my boss at Killer Vintage, Dave Hinson. He just loaned us that because we wanted something with a Bigsby on it. That's the first guitar you hear on the album: that's “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around),” I was nervous having it. I don't want to drop it. I don't want to get it stolen. It was freaking me out because that's an expensive guitar. Dave's really cool like that, but still I don't want to be the one responsible for breaking the 1960 ES-335 when I trip over the cable in the studio and friggin' knock it off of the stand. We used it quick: got in, got out.

How about the Crestwood? That's an interesting guitar, too.

That's Dave's, too. That was a funny little guitar. It was a three pickup that he rewired. He probably paid $100 for it when he got it. It was sort of messed up when he got it. It's all original parts, except he had a new pickguard made and put three mini switches on it so he could turn all three pickups on individually. It didn't get used for much; it had the fretless wonder fingerboard and it was kind of a hard guitar to play. You had to put nine gauge strings on it to do anything with it. It overdubbed the intro lick on “I Don't Want to Know.” Eric Ambel played it for just like some chunky rhythm stuff. It was just like a little decoration machine is what we used that one for.

Recording the album, did you use any gear in new or unusual ways? It sounds like there was a fair amount of fun and experimentation going on.

The Bottle Rocket's Amps including the Vox AC4

The MVP of the recording sessions was the Vox AC4, which is a brand Chinese-built amp. We were using it straight as it came off the boat from China. There was not one modification done to it and we used it for so many things. It was such a versatile little recording amp. It was probably the least expensive piece of gear we had in the studio. We used it for heavy things, heavy guitar parts. It was just: Yay for the Vox AC4! It doesn't really do much for anything other than recording. It's not loud enough, unless you want to sound completely distorted while you play along with a folk singer. We loved it. We used it.

The other thing that was amazing was the Telefunken M80 microphone. That was the best mic I ever sang through. It was incredible. And we had it on a snare drum when we started! We were trying other vocal mics, and then Eric Ambel all of a sudden had the idea to try the M80. It was just the easiest mic. It was like singing live, like in a live concert. Usually we use those big friggin' hanging-from-a-rack-with-shock-mount crap; whatever those microphones are, they always get me uptight. I can hear myself too well. It's just like no fun for me to sing through. This was just like singing through a live damned band. And it was great. So we used that.

Every vocal was sung through that thing: backing vocals, lead vocals. Hell, even on the song “XOYOU.” I had a head cold that week. That was the last week of sessions and it was terrible. My ears were stopped up. My nose was stopped up. I thought we were going to have to cancel. And we just ran that down as the basic track, with a scratch vocal on it to guide the band. The first take scratch vocal is what's on the record, because there was no way I was going to do it any better than that. It was an amazing moment. But that M80 mic —we were not even figuring on getting a keeper vocal on it, so we didn't even have the pop filter on the microphone. I'm just out there with the band singing through this thing, with a head cold with my ears stopped up. We got the keeper vocal on the mic with no pop filter, no nothing. Yeah, Telefunken M80 is like a $279 microphone: the best one we've ever used to record vocals with, and we've used some that were at a cost of like $10,000.

I understand you were going through a dry spell in terms of songwriting and that these Rickenbackers turned the key and unlocked these songs. Is that so?

Brian Henneman's 2010 Rickenbacker 360/6
and 1989 340/12

That's totally true, especially the 360 six string. I had one twenty years ago, but I was so damned broke that I'd always have to sell guitars to make a damn rent payment or house payment or whatever. My first 360 fell victim to that. I made the house payment and then I didn't have one anymore. For some reason I was never able to land another Rickenbacker for 17 years. I couldn't get a credit card. I'd ruined my credit over the years. The only people who would give me a credit card, out of everything that I tried for, was Musician's Friend. They gave me $2,000 worth of credit and they were having a Labor Day sale. The 360s were down from $2,499 to $1,899 that weekend. It was the perfect storm.

Besides being the guitar I wanted, I made sure to order exactly what I wanted, too. I wasn't going to settle for a color I didn't want. Then I got the guitar and was so happy to have it. Ricks have always been guitars that have inspired me to write songs. That's just how it is for me: certain guitars do certain things. With Ricks, I just start playing chords; I’m coming up with melody ideas. This guitar was no exception. I got it and songs started flying out of it.

Brian Henneman's Creston Electric "Tele"

Then I fell into a 12 string. I had an old Fender Esquire, well, it was a Telecaster body. Nobody knew how old it was because it had been stripped and somebody had done this artwork all over the body and it didn't have one original part on in it. The neck was from the '70s. It was a cool old guitar, but I didn't really use it. The neck had been broken; I dropped it on my parent's steps when I was a kid. The body was probably early '50s, like super early. It was just too feeble to take on the road anymore. And I had another one that was made by Creston, so I never really used this old one.

Even though it was cool and I'd had it forever, I have a friend who had a 340 12 string and my friend just said, "I'll trade you for my 12 string," and so we just did a swap. He's perfectly happy and I'm perfectly happy. Both guitars ended up in better homes. He had the 12 string he never really played. He wasn't a touring musician or anything. So my guitar was better with him because it can live a nice, peaceful old man's retired life in his house. So the old feeble man gets a good home; the 12 string gets a good home.

I went from no Rickenbacker to a six string and a 12 string really fast. Then the 12 string started making more songs happen. I'm just a Rick guy. I always have been. Two of my favorite musicians are Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty. That's how the Ricks came to be. They ain't going nowhere. I'll sell my ass on the street before I get rid of these.

What kind of suggestions or recommendations do you have for a songwriter who is facing writer’s block?

The Bottle Rockets

I wish I had some. When it happens, you feel like you're crippled. It was sort of equivalent not exactly to a mid-life crisis but mid-life problems. We had just done the album Lean Forward in the year 2009, but that was the last original album we did. I was thinking at that time: Shit. We ain't getting any younger. We need to put more stuff out. I just had all of this pressure to immediately start following that thing up; the more I tried, the less it happened. Then I started to freak out on that: total performance anxiety.

For me it was as simple as getting a new guitar. It was just that simple, but it's not always that way. I was trying to do it through music, like listening to records. No matter what I listen to, nothing really kick starts me until I put a John Prine record on. I can listen to my favorite stuff in the world: Neil Young, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello records, Faces records; it was a wide-ranging thing. Tom Petty intimidates me. He makes me feel like I can't do nothing. But I put John Prine on and all of a sudden I start getting ideas in the back of my head. It was John Prine that at least made me feel excited about trying again. Then the guitar came and then it all started happening.

I saw the Rogue electric sitar on your gear list. What's the story?

I've had it for a while. It was back when we did our 15th anniversary tour: so 15 years from 1993. We only did 15 shows that year: like 14 in America and one in Europe and the fans picked the set list. If you're set list got picked, you were entered into this drawing for this custom made guitar built by Creston in Vermont. I played it on every one of the shows. At the end, there was a drawing and the winner won that guitar. It was a friggin' nice guitar, handmade.

You had to pick 20 songs plus one cover song, so it was hard to get your set list picked because it had to flow right. It turned out to be a really hard job. It was like being a schoolteacher grading papers. You could find ones that had the covers on them that you really wanted to do, but they would have made a terrible set list, with like six slow songs at the end or something.

But what happened was, in two of the setlists that we picked, one of them had “Paint it Black” as the cover song and the other one had “Come and Get Your Love,” by Redbone, as the cover song. So those both would be great for electric sitar, and Eric Ambel, our producer, had one of those Rogue electric sitars. He brought it to the gig and it was great.

Long story short, my wife bought me one for my birthday that year. She's really good at bargaining. Somebody at Musician's Friend made her mad and she ended up getting it for $200. It's great! I've played the Jerry Jones; I've played the old Corals. I really, honestly can't tell the difference in any of them. The whole thing is that bridge; the bridge is what does it. It's fantastic. So I've had it since 2007/2008, or whatever year that was. I've had it that long and rarely use it. I only used it once on the album on the song “XOYOU.” We had recorded it and then we thought it needs something; then I remembered: Hey, I've got that sitar at home in the closet. We just overdubbed that and poof there it was. The $200 sitar wins again.

You guys changed your typical recording style; you recorded in St. Louis, and rather than going in for three weeks, you did three five-day stands over the course of several months. How did that change what went into the songs or what came out of the session?

The Bottle Rockets In Studio

It made everything better: everything. We will do it this way from now on. The traditional way — you book two weeks in the studio and there's a point where all of a sudden we're running out of time. You lose track. At the end of every session we've ever done ever, you're always taking shortcuts. It's kind of like: We've got three songs to put a solo on; we've got this rig set up, so you end up doing three songs with the same exact rig: the same guitar through the same amp. You're doing assembly line work. Or you'll end up singing three songs on the same day, just to get a vocal on there.

But this way we could continue to add on as we went. We'd do three, four days or five days and then see where we were. But what we would do is finish each song, one song per day. Everything would be done. We'd go in, do the basic track, do the vocals, do the overdubs and at the end of that day you're done with that song. When you do that, you're tearing the studio down and moving things around. You'd come in the next day and you're starting fresh again. You can set everything up different: entirely different guitars, entirely different drums. Every day's a new day. And then you concentrate on that song.

If for some reason you got hung up, you can come back the next day. But we never had to do that. We were pretty much happy with everything at the end of the day we did it. Plus, the other advantage is your first batch — with a month off in-between them — you could listen to that for a while and decide if you wanted to change anything when you came in for the next round. You didn't have to just settle for what you did and throw it out to the world. You could live with it for a little bit and then have a chance to go back and take another swing at it. But we never did that either. If for some reason we would have needed more time, we would have just booked another little session later on. It was a really cool way to do it.

That's interesting. It forces you to make decisions and keep things moving.

That's right. It was sort of like having a home studio situation, you have the option to go back, but we don't do that unless there is something glaringly terrible. We did redo a couple of things, like the guitar solo in “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around).” We loved John's guitar solo, but he did not like the sound of it. He played it through his Deluxe Reverb and it might have been the Explorer, but he was not crazy about the sound. All we did was re-amped it from the board through my little Vox AC4. Then everybody was happy. We had the solo and the sound and all of that stuff. It was little easy fixes and stuff like that. Normally that would have been the type of thing that would have gone out to the world with the perpetual regret: “Man, I wish that guitar would have sounded different.”

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