Brian Henneman talks about the Bottle Rockets’ latest album, Bit Logic, available now.
The Bottle Rockets have been captivating audiences for nearly 30 years with their pure Midwest American roots rock and small-town charm.
The band came out with their 14th studio album, Bit Logic, in October, remaining true to the alt-country sound they pioneered but also breaking ground and proving they’re never at a loss for “a new way of keeping it real.”
Recently we caught up with Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman to talk about Bit Logic, painting outside the lines of typical Americana, and keeping it real.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve been in the business for decades. What have been some of the highlights?
Brian Henneman: There were lots of highlights along the way. The band’s been together 25 years, but I did time before that with Uncle Tupelo, so I’ve been doing it for 30 or more. I always say my whole deal peaked early because it was probably 1991 — early ’90s — when I was out with Uncle Tupelo and we did what was supposed to be a seven-week tour with Michelle Shocked and the Band and Taj Mahal and Uncle Tupelo. The first highlight came way back then, whenever I got to sing “The Weight” with Levon Helm, while he was drumming. So that was a big highlight way early on. It’s kind of been downhill since then.
Then we did the John Fogarty tour — that was really good — in 1997, which was the first time he ever started playing CCR [Credence Clearwater Revival] songs again. Oh, man, it just goes on and on and on. Did a couple of Lucinda Williams tours that were great. Every time we play with James McMurtry, something really good happens. I mean, there’s just so many things, I can’t remember them all. So, yeah, there was a lot of stuff.
C&I: And you guys recently released your latest album, Bit Logic. What do you hope your fans will get out of it?
Henneman: I don’t know, but they seem to be liking it, so that’s good. I’m glad people are liking it. We really didn’t know because it’s different from other ones we’ve done before. It’s going well.
C&I: Speaking of different, could describe whatever genre Bit Logic seems to fit into?
Henneman: What we’ve done is we’ve leaned harder on the country aspect of the band. It’s like every album we’ve ever made there were country songs on it, but we just went there and stayed there with this one. We didn’t use any distorted guitar sounds. Everything is country-clean. The drums are real stripped down, not a lot of cymbal smashing. Our motto when we recorded this was “clean and tight,” so it’s a cleaner, tighter album. We actually had to rehearse, which is totally unusual for us, just to learn how to play this stuff and it’s worked really well. We didn’t know if people would miss the big, loud guitars, but they don’t and we don’t either. It’s really cool; it’s working really well.
C&I: When you guys sat down to do the songwriting, what was your process? I read that you returned to your more democratic approach. …
Henneman: It’s kind of the same as it’s always been, and, really, there was only one oddball album, which was our last one that we put out, South Broadway Athletic Club. That one, I wrote, like, every song on it — that’s totally unusual. That never happened. It just so happened at the time we made that album, I was the only guy that had songs. That was pretty much coming from one source. But it was typical of what we normally do. The other guys might have some lyrics and then I’ll help finish them. In the case of Keith, our bass player, had the total lyric and I put the music to it. That’s kind of the way it’s always been. It’s not like we sat down and knocked things around all at once, but it’s always been other guys have stuff and I sort of set it to the music; that’s kind of how it goes.
That’s what happened this time. Basically, I took the other guys’ ideas that they had and then just recorded acoustic demos. That’s all we had when we went in the studio. We didn’t get together beforehand and work anything out. We just had these completely raw — just me and an acoustic guitar. And then when we got in the studio, we figured it out all at once. In that way, it was maybe even more democratic than usual. Usually in the past, we had at least some idea of what we were going to do with it, but this time we just kept it wide-open and figured it out when we got there.
C&I: When you start to write a song, what do you feel is a key to coming up with something that will resonate with your audience?
Henneman: Man, I wish I knew. If I knew, I would do more of it. I don’t know. What’s always worked is just don’t write fiction. Everything is just all true stories of stuff that has happened. Keep it real and it seems to resonate. I guess if something’s true for us, it’s true for somebody else. It’s worked all these years.
C&I: Were there any fun stories during the recording process?
Henneman: Nothing noteworthy. Just get in there, listen to the acoustic demo, and then start figuring it out. Ideas came from us; they came from Eric, our producer — a lot of them came from Eric. We actually trust him a lot with that stuff. So he was totally helpful in wrangling this stuff into place and we were pretty much just like diligent little ants working on this thing. We’re in the studio, no time for good stories.
C&I: You guys started the album without having an overall theme in mind but ended up with one: I read it was about existing in this modern world.
Henneman: I guess everybody was just separate and randomly in the same mindset at the same time and that’s how it sort of tied together. We weren’t looking for that, but everybody’s lyrics or whatever they had all sort of pointed, vaguely, in the same direction. It was sort of like watching a Polaroid picture develop. It went from blank into this thing that was kind of cohesive, in a way. It’s like I still don’t exactly know what the theme is, but I know there’s something, more so than the last album. The last album was like a bunch of separate singles. It was like it wasn’t even made with an intention to be an album. And neither was this one, but this one developed something. I don’t really know how or why, other than everybody was kind of in the same place. If you’re a certain age, you’re not suspicious of technology, but you remember when things were, depending on how you think of things, better with less of it. And we’re all that age to where that’s always going to be on your mind, stuff like that. And the world — especially America — is in a strange place these days, so everybody’s kind of living the same thing. That’s how it turned out, I guess.
C&I: Is there a song you’re most attached to on the album?
Henneman: That’s a good question. For personal reasons, I like the song “Doomsday Letter” just because it is my breakup song to Facebook. That one is because Facebook was really depressing me and I didn’t realize that that was what was doing it until I got rid of it and then all of a sudden, everything got way better. So pretty much that one nailed the moment of when I realized that Facebook was what was bringing me down. There’s a bunch of them. It’s hard to pick anything. I like everything that’s on it, so there you go, but “Doomsday Letter” has a little bit more of a personal attachment for me.
C&I: Is there a song that your fans have really taken to?
Henneman: It’s kind of early. We’ve only played, like, 10 shows since this thing came out. So it’s hard to tell, but they seem to be reacting to all of them. There’s kind of like no dud in the bunch when we play them. I haven’t really seen one rise higher than the others, yet, but that’ll probably develop more as we go. Ten shows in isn’t really painting the picture yet.
C&I: Speaking of playing in front of people, what can we expect from the live shows?
Henneman: It’s actually cool. It’s sort of accidentally turned into a cool show, without trying because what we’re doing is we’re alternating. We’re playing the whole new album, but then we’re alternating out: new song, old song, new song, old song, new song, old song. And by keeping the new ones every other song, because it is a cleaner, tighter album, it keeps the whole show cleaner and tighter. But then at the end, where we run out of the new songs, by that time, we’re pretty much at the end of the show. But then at encore time, we’re just anything goes, bombs away. It’s like a plane taking off down the runway. It starts from nothing and then it starts rolling and then it rolls and rolls and rolls and rolls, and then eventually it just takes off and flies into the air. It gets bigger as it goes and biggest at the end and with the stuff being cleaner and tighter all the way through. By the time it gets big at the end, it seems four times bigger than it ever did in the past. You can’t tell how big something is until you got something small to compare it to kind of a thing. Yeah, it’s actually working out good. People seem to be leaving very, very happy.
C&I: Wrapping up here, what’s something fans would be surprised to learn about you?
Henneman: I am a huge ABBA fan.
Speed Round With Brian Henneman
Favorite movie — It’s a Wonderful Life.
Karaoke song — “The Chair,” by George Strait.
Favorite Western-themed meal — “I do like barbecue, but let’s go with the Western omelet.”
Wardrobe staple — Dirty blue jeans. “I’ve got the Wranglers on, but there was a time when Levi’s fit better.”