By Kasey Anderson &
“Under-appreciated” is a tricky label, especially when applied within the context of a discussion about art. If one were to say the Bottle Rockets are an under-appreciated band, the claim would imply the existence of some sort of rock ‘n’ roll meritocracy, and no such thing exists (as evidenced by the popularity of Greta Van Fleet). To label a band as under-appreciated also carries with it the implication that said band is somehow less critically and/or commercially successful than is deserved, and there’s no objective way to measure that; there is no metric for what any given band “deserves” to sell or draw.
We cannot say, then, that the Bottle Rockets are an under-appreciated band. We can, however, acknowledge that over the course of their 25+ year career, the Bottle Rockets have come to be taken for granted -- a band without which the genre of Americana may not exist, though front man and chief songwriter Brian Henneman would insist (rightfully) the genre has always existed. Henneman was the primary guitarist on Wilco’s AM, an album often cited as essential within the Americana (née Alt.Country, née Country Rock, etc.) canon. Shortly after the release of AM, Henneman and Co. made their own contributions to the canon with the Eric Ambel-produced album The Brooklyn Side and its follow-up, 24 Hours a Day.
Every few years, the Bottle Rockets crank out another reminder that they’re one of the most dependably great Americanalt.countryrock outfits of the last three decades and often, Ambel has been on board as producer and auxiliary Rocket. Their new album, Bit Logic, is just such a reminder — by turns acerbic, swaggering, and tender.
It’s a Bottle Rockets record, after all. Maybe Bit Logic is the record that will find the Bottle Rockets on the podium for next year’s Americana Awards, accepting a trophy they would very richly deserve, if there were such a thing as merit in art. If the AMAs don’t take note, Bottle Rockets fans can take solace in the quality of the work, and in the knowledge that the next album will likely be just as good as Bit Logic; just as good as The Brooklyn Side or 24 Hours a Day. It will be a Bottle Rockets record, after all.
We cornered the laconic Henneman for a few questions about the new record.
How long did you work on this batch of a dozen songs?
Not that long really. They were all written pretty fast, and pretty last minute. It was our most immediate album. We didn't even rehearse them. They were born in the studio, everybody just going off of acoustic demos I made. Just me and a guitar.
I notice Roscoe Ambel, who produced this record, will actually be opening for y'all on some of your upcoming tour dates. How far back does your collaborative history go with him?
We met Eric right after our first album came out in 1993. He first started working with us in 1994. We've worked together off and on ever since. He's good for us. He's "The George Martin Of The Bottle Rockets."
The Bottle Rockets are regularly mentioned in the same breath with the other pioneers -- for lack of a better word -- of alt country, having come of age in the mid 1990s. You yourself were part of the Uncle Tupelo crew, and I think you might have played on an early Wilco album. Do you ever reflect on being part of the foundation of a musical scene? What if anything does it mean to you personally?
I was the guitarist on Wilco’s A.M. I don't think about this at all, 'cause I'm old enough to know this was not the birth of this kind of scene. It's existed for years. It just gets unearthed with every new batch of writers. Right before this wave we're associated with, there were bands like Rank & File, The Long Ryders, Jason & The Scorchers, etc. You can take it back to CCR if you wanna. Hell, Elvis mighta started it. It's all the same deal: Country/Blues with electric guitars adding up to rock and roll. They didn't really give it its own category name 'til our wave though. But it's been around a long time.
You once described The Bottle Rockets as "reporters from the heartland," and there's a blue-collar, everyman ethos is a trademark of your music. You're kind of a contrarian -- some might say ornery. Then you drop a poignant, tender ballad like "Silver Ring." Tell me about that song's inspiration.
Our drummer Mark wrote that one. We liked it, so we did it. It's a sentiment I can get behind...
Y'all recorded a live album in Germany several years ago. I've asked other artists about this phenomenon: A lot of roots-type acts from the U.S. find really strong support in Europe. Why do you think that is?
I don't know why, but they have more interest and respect for American roots music. That fact is pretty much what brought us the Stones, and Clapton and whatnot. They seem to have more interest in our musical roots than we have in theirs. Maybe even more than we have in our own. Don't know why. They're just cool like that.
The title cut of the album has an old-man-shaking-fist quality to it; how annoyed are you, really, with modern technology? Show your work.
The album is really more about coming to terms with it, than shaking a fist at it. But if you are old enough, a distaste for it will come through. I'm old enough. I vividly remember when people were smart enough to know how idiotic and dangerous it would be to read and type while driving a car.
Finally, I have to ask about a song from the first BR album I ever bought, "Waitin' on a Train." So gut-wrenching, and it literally has a train wreck quality to it -- I can't not listen all the way through. Where did that song come from?
Bob Parr, the bass player in my old band Chicken Truck wrote that one. You'd have to ask him. Another one we liked, so we did it.