Music News

Brand New Year

A Taco Bell just outside St. Louis might seem like an odd place for a life-altering epiphany, but for the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman that's just where it happened.

"It was just a bizarre scene, man. I was sitting there eating my frito burrito or whatever the hell it was. The radio was going and they had just played a David Bowie song, 'Young Americans' -- and then right after that 'I'll Be Comin' Around' comes on."

It was a cruel shock hearing one of his own songs played on the radio as he sat there eating -- dirty, sweaty and on a break from his job making tee shirts. The terrific irony of the situation was a welcome slap in the face for Henneman. "I was just sitting there thinking, the way I was looking that day on my lunch break from work, if I would have stood up in that Taco Bell and tried to explain that it was me singing on the radio, they would have probably called the police or something."

It was then that Henneman realized how trivial the indignities and misfortune of the last year had been. At that moment, Henneman understood more than ever that label deals, record distribution and album sales were completely inconsequential in the face of what really mattered -- making music.

Brian Henneman spent 1997 in a dizzying state of flux. It had been just a few years earlier that the Bottle Rockets had released their self-titled indie debut, following it up with a brilliant sophomore effort, The Brooklyn Side. The album was snapped up and rereleased on Tag Records, a new imprint of Atlantic.

The album went on to spawn a minor radio hit, "Radar Gun," and earn the band reams of praise for its insightful songs about down-on-their-luck losers and the perils of small-town life. It seemed a good start, but things began to turn sour when Tag folded and was absorbed by Atlantic.

The group recorded its third album, 24 Hours a Day, but had to wait almost a year before it saw the light of day. When the label finally consented to put it out, it was only after a string of delays and false starts that ensured that the record would die an ignominious death.

Despite all this, the group soldiered on -- thanks to a solid fan base and hard-won critical acclaim. The band even earned a coveted spot opening for John Fogerty on his sold-out comeback tour. "The week the record came out was the same week we got the John Fogerty tour. There was not one ad taken out anywhere to say that the album was released, let alone say that we were on the tour," recalls Henneman from his Festus, Missouri, home. "They wouldn't even sell us any CDs to sell at the shows. The whole thing was as ridiculous as government works."

Like one of the hard-luck characters in his songs, Henneman and the band had the added misfortune of releasing their album in the midst of the nationwide UPS strike, which meant that most stores didn't even get it until weeks after its release, if at all. "We didn't even see what the album looked like until we were out on the road with Fogerty and got to Fresno, California, and found it in a record store there," remembers Henneman.

Not long after, the group parted ways with the label, embittered by the fact that the public had not even been given a real opportunity to hear what was by far their finest and most mature effort. After all that, Henneman was left without a record deal, back home and stuck doing manual labor when he had his lunchtime revelation.

Brian Henneman is not one to quit so easily. His rough appearance, which some have likened to a redneck Muppet, tells at least that much. After the Tag/Atlantic debacle, Henneman regrouped, found an interested label (Doolittle Records) and released Leftovers, an album of unused tracks from the 24 Hours a Day sessions. The band also appeared on River of Song, a PBS anthology celebrating the music of the Mississippi. Finally, the group returned to the studio for the first time in more than three years to begin work on Brand New Year, their fourth and most strident record to date.

The group again recorded with longtime producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. Henneman and the band elected to work with Ambel despite pressure from the record company to get someone else behind the board. "They would have liked us to have used somebody else, I think. But as far as I'm concerned, he's like the fifth member of the band. He's George Martin and we're his low-budget Beatles. We're very cheap versions of that."

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr