Of all of the bands to emerge from alt country's heyday in the mid to late '90s St. Louis-based band the Bottle Rockets has exceeded most in longevity, quality and consistency. After nearly twenty years of creating scorching and intelligent Southern-style country rock the band is still finding ways to move forward and turn heads. Earlier this year the group took to the road as the backing band for Marshall Crenshaw, the veteran songwriter and master of classic power pop. And the Bottle Rockets recently released Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening With The Bottle Rockets, which chronicles the band taking on acoustic versions of many of their well-loved tunes for the first time. The album was recorded live over two nights in April 2007 in the long-since closed Lucas Schoolhouse in Soulard.
We sat down with lead singer and guitarist Brian Henneman to talk about the new album, struggling with the banjo and lessons the band would've preferred to learn earlier in its career. The Bottle Rockets will be performing an acoustic show at the Sheldon Ballroom tonight, October 6th.
RFT Music: The new record, Not So Loud, is fairly different from anything the band has ever done before. What was the motivation for doing the acoustic shows in the first place?
Brian Henneman: That place opened up, the Lucas Schoolhouse. That was back, I don't know what year it was, '06 or '07, something like that. And they wanted us to play there really badly because they had just opened up and were trying to get some business down there. So we went down and took a look at the place and it was a beautiful place, but it just didn't look like the right kind of place to have a wild rock 'n' roll show. It looked like the kind of place to have an acoustic show. They wanted us to play there so badly and we wanted to help them out so we thought that we'd just do it acoustically to take advantage of the room, not blast people out of there. And we thought, while we're doing that we might as well record it because we don't do that.
We didn't have any plans to make it into an album. We were hoping that maybe we'd get enough good recordings to make it into an album, but we weren't hell bent to get good recordings. We didn't even really know what we were going to do with it, maybe release some tracks for free on the website. We hadn't even talked to Bloodshot Records about it or anything. But we thought far enough ahead to do the same set list both nights just so we could have multiple takes, just in case something broke out. It turned out to be really great that we did that because there were tons of problems with the recording. Since we weren't [thinking that it was] absolutely going to be an album, we weren't really pressuring anybody to do anything other than record the damn thing. So there were a lot of technical difficulties and the two nights kind of saved our butts, because we did manage to milk out enough songs to make an album out of it.
The idea to officially release it as an album came after we heard the recordings. It was like, "Man this stuff is good enough to make an album out of." But we didn't hear the recordings for a really long time because they were in a format that none of us had any way to play. When we finally heard it, that's when we got the idea to go forward with it and get Eric Amble to mix it. If we would've gotten him involved from the start it would've been recorded a different way.
I think we played every song we knew over the course of those two nights. There were a lot of people that came both nights. Since we did the set list twice, on the second night, as a reward to them for sitting through the same set list twice, we did a 20-25 song encore.
Were the acoustic arrangements difficult to work out? Some of them are fairly different from the original album cuts.
Yeah, it took a little bit. Actually, what took the longest was figuring out how to play the damn banjo.
Did you learn to play the banjo just for these gigs?
I've flirted with the banjo my whole life. I've always wanted to try to play one. I always kind of sucked at it. I've done every kind of thing to try to get good at it. There was one time in my life that I owned three banjos. "Maybe if i get another one..."
Right, that didn't work out. Then I sold all of the banjos and went for years without one and got another one when this idea came up. And so then I thought that forcing myself to do this since we were going to have an acoustic show might force me to get better on the banjo. And it did to some degree. I sold the banjo as soon as we got done recording because I was so frustrated with it. And then I had to face the banjo again when we put the album out, to go out on the road with it. But this time I just wised up and thought, "Man, I ain't gonna do the fingerpicks and the thumbpicks. I suck with it." So I just played with a flatpick like a guitar and everything was great. Now I love the banjo! It only took me twenty years to figure that out.