ARCHIVE: Horton Heat’s a Hoot

stagecoach0426vmflTaste the Heat: The Reverend Horton Heat returns Shoreside Friday night, accompanied by the lilting tones of Nashville Pussy.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 4, 2009)

You’ve heard him even if you’ve never heard of him — on TV commercials and cartoons as well as in major motion pictures and video games.

The Reverend Horton Heat is the onstage persona of Dallas-based Jim Heath, a recovering coverband dude and sometime soundguy who hit upon the name as a way to bottle his own brand of figurative hot sauce; as an homage to ever-underappreciated Johnny Horton, and as a vehicle to convey his almost evangelical zeal for chopped ‘n channeled hotrod psychobilly, Cold War clear-channel country radio, and panhandle pitstop western swing.

Reverend Horton Heat is also the name of the band rounded out by the splendid standup bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Paul Simmons; a sharp-dressed trio of ambassadors from the musical republic of Texas, and a combo whose sonic-hi-colonic attack shares as much with the surfpunk of Agent Orange as it does the Enerjets-driven truckstop pop of Buck Owens.

Over the course of nearly a dozen albums (including the Yuletide wigout We Three Kings), RHH has patented a power-trio take on a kind of hopped-up Cowtown hoedown; an outta-control mechanical bull exemplified by the likes of “Psychobilly Freakout,” “Bales Of Cocaine,” “Martini Time!” and “Big Red Rocket of Love.”

This crew of crack musicologists has a more measured, if hardly mellow, side — and it’s one that comes to the fore on their brand new release Laughin’ and Cryin’, “a record full of country-heavy tunes about bad habits, well-meaning but clueless husbands, ever-expanding beer-guts and, well, Texas.”

Conceived as a project by alter-alter ego “Harley Hog”  (an inversion of sorts on the whole failed Garth BrooksChris Gaines thing), the new album has a presence in the band’s current tour sets — although, with frequent touring partners Nashville Pussy also on the bill, it’s a safe wager to say that the Rev will continue to preach toward the raucously rocking side of the choir when he rolls into the Stone Pony this very night, September 4.

It’s another return engagement for the two bands, who over the course of several memorable gigs have found a fervent pocket of support here in this neck of the weeds. In case the time frame’s too tight, you’ve got a second chance to see both bands this weekend, when they share a bill with Lemmy Kilminster’s well-oiled Motorhead, down at the House of Blues Atlantic CityRed Bank oRBit rang up the Reverend for a dial-up sermonette; Continue Reading for the word.

RED BANK ORBIT: Thanks for talking to us on such short notice, Reverend. First, should I address you as Reverend? And second, is it my imagination or are you guys and Nashville Pussy becoming almost inseparable?

JIM HEATH: Please, call me Jim. And yes, we have toured a lot with them over the years — we’re buddies. We make a good team.

You’re also doing a slew of shows with Pussy and with Motorhead, including down at the AC House of Blues on Saturday. Between the three of you bands, something tells me there’s not gonna be many slow dancing opportunities going on.  

Well, the Motorhead shows are metal and the new album is more country, so we’re playing more rockin’ out stuff there. Maybe about four songs off the new album, but mostly older stuff in that case.

Your recent releases have been on the Yep Roc label, which seems to be providing a good and nurturing home for a lot of my favorite bands. Now, we’re supposedly in a post-record label era these days, but it looks to be a supportive environment over there.  

Sure, they promote us even when we don’t have a new record out, and we need them to help us with the live shows, but — how do I say this — my business has almost nothing to do with labels, you know? I’m a musician, and being a musician is one of the more valid art forms. Whereas being a recording artist is almost like being in advertising. When you make a record, you’re making a commercial. So,label, schmabel!

So being a recording artist is not being an artist?   

A studio session is a sterile environment. You play a few notes and play it back and listen to it, tweak it, do it again a different way, then maybe eventually you say it’s finished and you put it out, it’s like a book, it’s done and it’s like that for the ages. When you’re actually playing music for people, you play a few notes and they disappear into the air — it’s a streaming art form.

What you’re saying is a little surprising, because I get the impression from listening to your records that you guys have a lot of fun making them.  

Making an album is kind of fun — but then again, kind of not. From my point of view, Mozart sat down with sheet music and meticulously thought out every part for every instrument, and when he finally wrote the last note, do you really think he said, well, that was fun — I can’t wait to do that again!

So if you had your druthers, would you prefer to make records the old school way, with everyone in the studio the same time, just roll the tape and see what happens?  

It’s still technology, though — you’re stuck in a room instead of playing for people. And old school is really not that old. The history of music is long-storied, centuries old, but the history of recording, from wax cylinders to ProTools, is only about a hundred years.

When you go back and listen to a Led Zeppelin record, every song has five guitar parts. And with Queen, the same thing. It’s not made to be reproduced onstage. Maybe someday I’ll do it that way, but I doubt it. ProTools has made it very easy, so easy that a lot of these guys are not even really musicians. A lot of kids who can’t even spell a D9 chord are making 50 million dollars, while a real genius musician, the real players of accomplishment, are relegated to playing Sunday brunch at the Hyatt Regency.

But — I don’t get all bitter about it.

Not at all. But if you did get bitter, you could always channel that negative energy where it really matters, into a furious live performance for the fans. Now, your live shows are always a lot of fun — but do you ever get a little darker mood going up there, and do the crowds pick up on it?

It doesn’t really matter to the audience if they’re smiling and happy!

I have to say you’re playing to just about every kind of crowd imaginable — the too-cool-to-dance crowd, the festival goers, country fans, old punks, bikers…  

We play to all kinds of audiences, certainly — the strangest being the kids and grandma shows. We did a city civic sort of event, a big outdoor thing, and I looked around and saw all these families with little kids; I saw an old lady leaning on a walker with an oxygen thing on it, and I got nervous as hell! We had to do a little last minute editing, a little reworking of our set for a family sort of crowd.

Yeah, but then if you see that same old lady at the next gig you know you’ve done your job. Anyway, I think what people pick up on with you is your love and knowledge of all kinds of music; what The Blasters called American Music in general.

I got to sit in with Phil Alvin and the band at a gig in California — it was a really cool experience. The Blasters would always play around Dallas, all the neo-rockabilly bands like The Rockats, so I grew up with the rockabilly thing. The old rockabilly guys were the kickin’ dogs of all music.

That reminds me of a story you’ve told, of seeing Lux Interior and The Cramps years ago and experiencing a real epiphany moment. Now Lux was a true musicologist too; we unfortunately lost him a few months back and I’m wondering if you could revisit that first time you heard his band.  

In Dallas, around 1979, 1980, punk was kind of new — although the Sex Pistols did play there. When I went to see the Cramps I thought I was going to a punk rock show, and certainly there was that punk vibe to what they were doing — but I was amazed to hear that they were playing “The Way I Walk,” by Jack Scott! The guitarist Ivy had those Duane Eddy sort of licks — I realized how much the wild rock and roll of the 50s influenced what the wilder new bands were doing, how they fueled each other — so yes, it was something that got me started on what I would eventually do.

What kind of household did you grow up in? Was there a generation gap going on there as far as musical tastes?

My parents were into music, although rock and roll was a little bit after them — they would give it a listen, though. My mom could play piano and sing — she always listened to the radio, to the pop of that day. And she loved movie themes, which I do too, movie and show soundtracks, like The Sound of Music. I have a couple of young girls, a 2 and a 5 — as well as an older daughter who’s 25 — and the young ones are into soundtracks also, like Annie. If you think the song “Tomorrow” is bad, try listening to it a hundred times a day!

So then, a lot of people would be surprised to learn that Jim Heath likes to listen to…  

Let’s see, I get asked that question every now and then — I like to listen to cheesy organ music, like James “Gonzo” Booker. And I enjoy listening to goofy TV show themes!

Here’s something for you — every now and then around the house I listen to smooth jazz! For me, it’s like the only thing that’s meant not to be listened to. Because if I put on something like Jerry Lee Lewis Live, I’m gonna stop what I’m doing and just listen and get into it, think about all the cool things he’s doing — whereas if I’m working or studying I’ll put on smooth jazz and it’s like an ambient thing. A cool little vibe.