Interview: Bit by Bit Logic: Conversation with Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets

Interviews

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BY MACK HOOLIGAN

Americana Highways had a chance to talk to Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets during the band’s break between touring for their new release Bit Logic, out last month on Bloodshot Records. [For our review of the album click here:  REVIEW: Bottle Rockets Kick It Up a Reflective Country Notch in “Bit Logic”] We talked about the band’s production process, their deep level of collaboration, Henneman’s songwriting process, how it evolved over his career, and, yes, even the album itself. Take a look!

AH: Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is your album producer, and on his website, he wrote that: “The band wanted to get a little more ‘country’ for this one and that means Bottle Rockets Country, not Wardrobe Country.” What did he mean by that?

BH: Well, some people do country just so they can wear the uniform. (laughs)

AH: Roscoe also said that, just like with South Broadway Athletic Club, you recorded Bit Logic “one song a day” at Sawhorse Studios in St. Louis and then he mixed it in Brooklyn. He goes on to say: “Every member of the band made big contributions on the record and we kept it ‘in house,’ with just Brian, Mark, Keith and John and I playing on it.” Can you talk a bit about how Roscoe influenced or shaped the songs and some of the new sounds on Bit Logic? Was that a democratic process?

BH: We’ve worked with Eric for so long and with such good results that we kind of defer to him. Because there’s four of us, we can go a million ways with everything, and so we listen to what he has to say. He has ideas and they’re pretty much always good ideas. So it’s a relief to have him around to say, “Try it this way.” Eric thinks way far down the line in the recording process. He will say things like, “Let’s put a single snare smack — right there — and it might sound weird now, but the compressor is going to do “this” to it in mastering.” So he’s thinking of all this stuff down the road while we’re still recording the damn song. At first, a few years ago, that was weird. But we went ahead and learned to trust him.

Eric’s contribution is to simplify stuff and it always works out great. There was a lot of simplification on this album, more than usual, especially in the drum department.

He’s been instrumentally involved on at least one song per album, and sometimes more. Like on the last album we had the song “Shape of a Wheel,” and we were recording it on George Harrison’s birthday. So he decided, “Let’s do a bridge, put a George Harrison-style bridge chord change in there.” So it was stuff like that, and he’s always got something.

The whole trick with Eric is knowing how to understand what he’s referencing, like when he says “well let’s do a ‘George thing’ there” and then, if you don’t know what a “George thing” is then it can be kind of a problem. [laughs.] You’ve got to learn the references.

AH: Yeah, well he’s a musical encyclopedia.

BH: Yep.

AH: The album is pretty diverse in terms of its stylistic approaches. “Stovall’s Grove” has kind of a Yayhoos feel to it. And some of the other songs don’t sound like other Bottle Rockets albums. Did you guys talk it through and then flesh it out? Or did he hit you with an idea and you either ran with or not?

BH: What was funny was, on “Stovall’s Grove” we had two ideas. Because we were working off of acoustic demos I made. We never rehearsed any of this album before we recorded it — zero. All this came to light in the studio, one song at a time, one per day.

From the original demo I made, it could have gone a lot of ways — it was just me and a guitar and that was it. And so he was like, “We have two inspirational songs to pattern ‘Stovall’s Grove’ after.” One of them was a total psycho-billy kind of thing. But the other song that he had the idea for, was “9 to 5,” by Dolly Parton.

So that’s what we went with. Yep, check out the intro on “Stovall’s Grove” and think “9 to 5,” and you’ll see.

AH: I love that! [Laughs.] I was also struck by “Doomsday Letter,” which seems to be reacting to all the noxious talking heads and people spewing bile on TV and everywhere you turn. “I turned you off and I found paradise right inside your gloom” is such a great line. I wonder if you can talk about the generation of that song?

BH: That was specifically my break-up song to Facebook. I was having this feeling of depression all the time, and then I finally realized where it was coming from. It was Facebook. Because you can’t get away from it. I mean, if you have friends that keep talking about how terrible things are, and then if you un-follow them and don’t see their stuff, but then your other friends you didn’t un- follow are liking the stuff they’re saying, and then that links you back to more of that stuff — and yeah well, it never goes away, there’s nothing you can do about it.

I loved being on there, I was on there for almost ten years, I had friends I only knew on Facebook, but it was just too weird, man. It’s too weird. Life is too short, you know? I ain’t got enough time left on this earth to be sitting there typing angrily by myself. [Laughs.]

AH: You had a great image for it at the Philly show. You asked us to imagine some guy in the wee hours of the night lit up by the glare of his computer, and he’s getting all upset as he’s responding on all these comment threads going on, and then you said, “And that guy was ME!”

BH: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right, that was my life. It’s absolutely the truth!

It wasn’t this past 4th of July, it was the one before that. I deleted the whole thing on the 4th of July, because it was Independence Day, and I decided: “I’m getting out of here!” I always do big things on symbolic days, so I can remember when I did it. I quit drinking booze on New Year’s Eve in 2003; that was the last time I ever drank. I always attach something to it, and so I was like, “July the fourth — what a perfect time, Independence Day! I’m getting free of this stuff.” And everything got better, as soon as I did.

AH: For your sanity, you needed to step away from all the clutter and noise.

BH: Yeah, it’s a personal thing. The older I get, the more I realize that you can’t let that stuff friggin’ waste your time and drag you down.

AH: Another song on the new CD that is getting a lot of attention is “Bad Time to be An Outlaw.” You said that Roscoe prompted you to write that song, that he said, “Let’s take it from a different angle.” Have you ever written a song to order like that before?

BH: I imposed an order on myself with the song “Smoking 100s Alone,” working from a title. I was like, “Okay I gotta make up something that this could be the title for.” But as far as being a straight short-order cook on a song, I think that might have been the first time I ever did that.

AH: It captures the feelings of a lot of people. A lot people were talking about it at the Americana Fest in Nashville last month. People could relate to it, because a lot of them had records coming out and everything, but nobody had any money.

BH: Yeah — ha! [Laughter.]
You know, that’s all it is. I had to think about, “Okay, how can it be a bad time to be an outlaw? You know, how can this be?”

But 2017 was the most expensive year of my adult life. My air conditioning in my house broke, my whole furnace, everything went out — and that’s expensive stuff! My car blew up and then my phone… it’s the true story of what happened.

And then you think about — so, I’m “Mr. Integrity Outlaw Country,” you know, “I’m gonna stick to my guns.” And yes, that’s true, but then you realize that you can become a “fair weather outlaw.” ‘Cause it’s a lot easier when you don’t have financial shit to deal with. And then you start thinking, “What if I had gone to Nashville and become a songwriter and wrote shitty songs?” What would the crime have been there, because now I could pay for my air conditioner! [Laughs.] It was literally about a specific moment in my personal life where it was a bad time to be an “outlaw.”

AH: Yeah, but you know, you’re also speaking for a lot of people when you’re saying this. You know, it’s not just “outlaw,’ it’s the whole music industry right now.

BH: Well the general rule is if it happened to you, it happened to somebody else. So all you have to do is take a real situation and chances are really excellent that a lot of other people have gone through the same thing.

AH: What are your thoughts on labels like “outlaw country” and “Americana”? I met a guy at Americana Fest named Mitch Barrett. He’s been around the scene forever and he went on a spiel about how the labels that we work under have changed — like, first it was “outlaw country,” then came “alt country,” then it was “roots,” and now it’s “Americana.” And he says to me, “Isn’t all this what we used to call folk music?” [Laughter.] I thought that was a great take on it.

BH: Well in my era it was all rock ‘n roll music. When I was a teenager you put on a rock ‘n roll station and you could hear everything from the Charlie Daniels Band to Black Sabbath on that same station.

That was before they subdivided everything, which is how it is these days. And it’s especially significant on the internet, where we’re searching through everything in the world. You go into a record store looking for stuff, and there’s X amount of things you can look at. There’s a ridiculous amount of things you can look at. I mean you’re looking at everything there is.

AH: So you think having the adjective “outlaw country” does help things, by narrowing down what you’re gonna get when you go down that particular aisle or category?

BH: Yeah. It helps you get a feel for what you’re looking for. You’ll get a sense from that label, if what you’re looking for is not modern “pop country.” It directs you right away. You can’t just put “country” because then anything could happen. [Laughs.]

AH: You have that line in “Bad Time to Be An Outlaw,” “Carrie Underwood doesn’t make country sound.” I listened to Carrie Underwood’s new hit song, “Cry Pretty,” and I can imagine it being done by you and the Bottle Rockets with a totally different production — get Eric Ambel in there, and it could be great.

So would you say the problem with pop country is not really the songwriting but everything around it — the over-production, the marketing — and the way that all works? Really, that’s kind of what makes it seem — to go back to the idea of some people thinking that “outlaw country” is more real somehow. It’s all that other stuff that makes whatever’s real in it seem plastic.

BH: Well yeah, and you know “country” is an abstract idea in the year twenty-eighteen anyway. Because really, what is country anymore?
It’s like everybody’s got a damn cell phone, everybody’s looking at the same stuff, you know. It’s like colloquialism is dead. We’ve all got a thing in our pocket that will wake us up, with everything there is to know about on it. Everybody’s got it. So “country” ain’t what it used to be. [Laughs.]

AH: Well, I knew that the moment I heard The Gourds’ version of that Snoop Dogg song —

BH: Yeah, “Gin and Juice.”

AH: — yeah, and when I heard that it was like, “damn, anything goes!”

BH: Yep, it’s true. My great realization-moment like that was a few years back we were on the road, way out in the sticks, and we had to get gas. So we pulled into this little gas station that was this tiny small-town gas station — you know, “live bait” out front, the whole bit, just classic country stuff.

And in the parking lot was a girl sitting on the tailgate of her pick-up truck, and blasting out of the pick-up truck was Lady Gaga! So there you are. What is “country” when you get this far out in the country, as far as you can get, and there’s Lady Gaga blasting through the parking lot?

AH: Bit Logic really captures the contradictions of our particular moment, with the theme of technology running through it all. The details in the songs feel very real.

One of the other songs that I wanted to ask you about was “Maybe Tomorrow.” You wrote that one from some hashtags on Instagram, right?

BH: Yep.

AH: A lot of people in the audience, when you said that in Philly, were like, “Are you serious? Did he really do that, is that true? How exactly did he —“

BH: Yeah, yeah — it’s absolutely true!

AH: How many hashtags in did you realize, “Hey man, there’s some lyrics to a song here”?

BH: It was not far, because it was stuff like, “#maybeTomorrow” was one of the hashtags, as far as “giving up” goes. And like, #Can’tWin,” #AintGonnaPlay” — stuff like that. And then I was like, “Holy cow, there’s the friggin’ song, right there!” [Laughs.]

AH: That’s so perfect, especially given the album that it’s on. It encapsulates both the craziness and the potential of technology.

BH: It’s a continual conundrum. If you’re a certain age, which I am, it’s like, “Ugh, this is just crazy, this whole thing is insane.” But both good and bad come from it. And there isn’t anything on the album that’s knocking or judging any of it, it’s just — living with it.

AH: Yeah, there’s that lyrical dialogue with the waitress in “Lo Fi,” on technology, where you conclude that it’s just a “new way of keeping things real.”

BH: Yup.

AH: There is an openness to things on this album. Is that a sign of your evolution as a songwriter? Some of the earlier Bottle Rockets songs feel more strident and they make things seem more black and white; songs like “Wave That Flag,” “$1000 Dollar Car,” and “Indianapolis.” They all have a similar voice but maybe not the same attitude as the new ones.

BH: Yeah well, that’s growing up. One of the few perks of old age is wisdom! [Laughter.] You gotta appreciate what few perks you get, and the more you live, the more you see, the more you realize that things aren’t all black and white all the time. So the natural by-product of getting old, is the evolution of the songwriting.

AH: That’s a nice way to put it. On this album you really pay a lot of attention to the “everyday things” around you. You talk about HVAC [systems], and baseball games on the radio, and traffic jams, and Nissan SUVs and Kia’s

BH: Yeah.

AH: … and all that knotty pine paneling. Are you consciously using those details to put us in the room, with all its contradictions — ?

BH: I’m simply telling the story. It’s like looking at the picture and explaining what’s in it for other people, saying: “Okay, here you go.” When you’re making music you’re basically explaining things to somebody who can’t see what’s going on, because it’s music, you can’t see it. So the song is a description.

AH: I think of the old fiction writers’ motto, “Show, don’t tell.” On this record you’re doing a lot more showing, and standing back and saying, “This is what I’m seeing in front of me,” and resisting telling the listeners what to think or feel about it.

BH: It’s a bad idea to tell people what to do. [Laughter] People don’t like that!

AH: You have this really distinct voice as a writer. In every review I see they mention at some point how you have this earthy, direct, straight-talk, workingman’s point of view. Is that just you? Or is it a persona that you’re working with, telling the story through?

BH: No, no persona whatsoever — that’s just how it is.

AH: Well, it makes the songs very real and appealing because everybody can relate to the situations that you describe.

BH: I probably don’t write as many songs as a songwriter should, because I don’t do fiction. I don’t make nothin’ up, it’s all real true stuff. And there’s only so much that goes on, that’s worthy of singing about. Some people sit down and diligently write a song, and if they have to make up the story, they make it up. And there are people that are really great at that. But that ain’t me, I don’t do that.

AH: At the same time, from the lyrics of “Knotty Pine” it sounds like you do at least have your little six by ten foot retreat. I love the line describing it as like a “composite psychiatrist’s office slash treehouse”!

BH: Yeah, that’s what it is. You know what’s funny about that room? I rarely use it for songwriting. That’s what it’s there for. But rarely do I go there with the intention of doing that. Most songs are written in my head while mowing the grass or driving or whatever. And that’s the truth. I’ve gotten more results from mowing the lawn than from anything else!

AH: How do you capture something you’ve got going through your head? Do you use apps to record those ideas?

BH: I grab a guitar and flow it into voice memos. Then if I want to send it to the other guys I can just do it — BOOM! — one click, and I mail it right to them. It never really gets any more detailed than that system — it’s just a guitar and a vocal, and that’s it.

AH: At that point do Mark or John or Keith write right back? Or is it sitting there in the vault, so you can access it later and then flesh it out?

BH: Well, they’ll hear it and put it in their pipes and smoke it. And then we’ll get together and everybody has an idea, and then if we record, Roscoe has an idea to add and then they develop organically like that. I take the quickest little sonogram of the baby [laughs], and then we’ll work on it as it comes — that’s what everybody’s there for, to add input to it.

AH: You are very collaborative.

BH: Yes, it’s always started as basic chords and lyrics and that’s it. And then everybody else brings the rest to the table. Because there’s no sense in coming up with something, as if you think you know exactly how every part should go. Because you know, I’m not a drummer, I don’t know how every part should go. I’m interested to see what the drums do to whatever I made up. And they can take it quite different places. I’m not that guy, I don’t have everything figured out in advance, I don’t know what the bass should do. I have no idea — Keith knows what the bass should do there. So, I let everybody bring what they can bring.

AH: The other song I wanted to ask you about is the last song on the album “Silver Ring”, which surprised me because it is so pared-down and direct, it’s beautiful.

BH: Mark wrote the lyrics to that one and then I put the music to it. I did a little editing, took a few things out, and repeated a couple lines. So I was an editor and brought the music. But he had the sentiment and the idea and we all liked it.

AH: Is he the one that wears a silver ring? [Laughs.]

BH: Yup, apparently so. But you know, I do too. So I can relate to it.

AH: Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne just turned twenty-five, and Rolling Stone had a write-up on it in which they mentioned that you were their guitar tech. And you also played guitar on a bunch of their songs. Is there anything that you gleaned or learned about songwriting from hanging around Jeff [Tweedy] and Jay [Farrar]? Or any other kinds of memorable takeaways you had from that experience?

BH: The thing I learned from those guys, especially the first time I ever heard this song, “Gun,” that Jeff wrote — is that you’ve got to write good songs. Because they always did cover songs in their sets back in those days, too, and they were one of the few bands where their own songs were as good as whatever cover songs they picked. I couldn’t tell the difference. And especially with “Gun.” I thought that was somebody else’s song!

I was impressed that they had written a song that I thought was somebody else’s. And so that kind of stuck: Make sure your stuff stands up to stuff that you like, to the stuff that other people you know and respect did. Be universally impressive. And if you can be as good as people you respect — if you like it as much as you like, the Rolling Stones’ song or whoever’s song — then there you go, you did the best you can do.

AH: Well, that sounds like the perfect kind of touchstone to carry away. Good luck with the rest of the tour, and I hope the album keeps doing good, and keeps getting to be number one, two, and three on the Outlaw chart.

BH: Yeah, whatever that is, the “Outlaw chart” — which is like some thing in some dude’s telephone, in his pocket. I don’t know what that is! [Laughter.]

For music, more information and Bottle Rockets tour dates, click here: http://www.bottlerocketsmusic.com/   For Eric Ambel’s Bottle Rockets quote and other info, click here: http://www.ericambel.com  For our earlier show reviews of the Bottle Rockets click here:  Show Review: Bottle Rockets Rock Their New Album Tour Stop at DC’s Gypsy Sally’s and here:   Show Review: Bottle Rockets and Marshall Crenshaw Tour Stops to Keep Fans on Their Toes at the Birchmere

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