Hi Brian. When I listen to Lean Forward, it sounds to me like everyone in the band is having more fun being The Bottle Rockets than they have in a long time. What did you do to regain that energy in the band?
Well, it had been a while since we had made an album, probably like three years…no wait, losing track of time here, it was probably only two years. But we were planning on making this album earlier, in November 2007, but we had just been on the road for a year and a half and I was pretty much burned out at that point. We had the studio time booked at that point, but I just wasn’t into it. I said, man, no, we gotta stop. I just called the whole thing off and told everyone to forget about. It was a terrible time to make another record. So we kinda just disbanded for a while. Quit playing and took some time off. And sure enough, you know, it all started coming back. It was like “here’s a song”, “I’ve got a song too” and you know, even while we weren’t playing, nobody really believed we were gonna break up. It was never mentioned or anything. But by the time we got back together, everybody was just ready to go. We just needed that break. During the time off, the idea of getting Eric Ambel to produce it again came up. It was just like a happy reunion, everybody was in a good mood when we got there.
Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is THE producer when it comes to country rock. Why did you stop working with him back then and what made you come back?
Well, we had been with him consistently for three albums in a row, and I think it was just that old “let’s see what happens if we try something else”. We learned along the way that if it wasn’t broke, you don’t fix it, but it was one of those things you had to prove to yourself. I don’t regret the stuff we did without Eric – it was a good thing - but it just made it that much better when we were back with him. We had the perfect thing already.
Tell me about your relationship with Eric. What does he add to the band?
It’s funny to say, considering how different the whole situation is, but it’s kinda like the relationship George Martin had with The Beatles. Eric knows more about the studio than we do, but he probably also knows what we do, probably as well or better than we do. He can call bullshit on us, say stuff like “no no no, you don’t wanna do that”. We trust his opinion, cause every time he says that and we kinda begrudgingly go through with what he says, it turns out great. He lives in New York now, but he’s Midwestern, so we all grew up the same way. We respect him and he’s been in bands way before us. He knows what every band member does and he can get more out of everybody.
So you don’t have to spend weeks in the studio?
Exactly – he’s absolutely fantastic for that. He can cut through all the bullshit and get you straight to the point. He really does have the knack for making records that sound like you’ve been in studio for ages, when really, you’ve just been there for two weeks. We’ll start wandering in all different directions, especially with the two new fantastic band members. We’ve got four good ideas going at a time, and he knows how to cut through that stuff instead of spending time trying to figure out which of those four ideas we should go with. He stays the course.
Going back to the break you all took. What was the first thing on your mind the first morning you woke up after putting the band on this hiatus?
That’s a good question, man. I don’t know. I was totally mystified and I didn’t know what to do. We had played too many shows, one after another for almost two years. Some of the shows were great, but we just stayed out there for two long. We should have quit six months earlier. We reached the point where we were going back to the same places and getting diminishing returns. I didn’t know what to think at first, but then it felt really good not to be doing anything. That lasted a while, but then, as I said, I began thinking that we probably ought to be doing something. You know, if this is what you do, naturally you’re always gonna come back to it, and luckily we all felt the same way. But yeah, it was weird for a while there, but we survived it.
What went wrong along the way? Was it mainly just about having to take some time off from each other after having been together for more than 15 years?
Yeah, and that was like crisis-time! We had been doing this for too long. We had been through so many changes and just kept pushing on through it the whole time. It was like, you lose a band member here, keep going! You’ve got a new bass player here, keep going! You’re just continuously moving with the changes as you go. We never really had any time to let any of the changes sink in. All the record label changes, blah blah blah…it was just time to stop and smell some different roses for a while.
And it did do you some good, didn’t it? You can actually hear it on the record. There’s a new energy there.
It feels that way. The band is solid. I have every belief there won’t be any more personnel changes. There won’t be. If it happens again, we’re not going to roll through it. This is the perfect line-up and I don’t think any of us have the interest of going through that again. If we were making millions of dollars, you might bullshit your way through it, but as it is now, everyone in the band loves it, everyone gets along great, so yeah, it feels like a brand new band. Like we just made our first album.
Looking back at your career, do you think it’s a miracle that you’ve managed to keep the band going for so long?
Looking back on it, it probably is, but when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s the advantage of keeping on rolling through all the stuff – you’re still around. The disadvantage is that all those years swept by and you don’t get the sense of “man, we probably should have stopped right there and adjusted some things. It’s like throwing a log into a stream. It bumps into all kinds of things along the way, but it still keeps on going. But looking back, I can think of a lot things we could have changed. We probably should have speeded up the process of getting to where we are now, but you can’t think like that. We’re still here, so yay for us!
The music business has pretty much turned itself upside down since your first album came out 16 years ago. How do you feel about the whole digital revolution thing? Do you, erm, Twit?
We’re a low-tech band in a high-tech world. When our first album came out, there was literally no Internet. Back then, the major label deal was the thing you aspired to and that’s all changed. These days you go on the Internet and there’s so much music there, but nobody’s telling me what to listen to. I look at this guy on MySpace, and he might be the new Bob Dylan, but how the hell am I supposed to know? Nobody’s telling me so. I miss the days of the Gatekeepers of rock n’roll. If Clive Davis says this is good, then it’s good, you know! You’re on your own now. But we try to keep up. We still have an actual record deal which is kind of unusual for a lot of bands today, but we’re holding on to the things we recognise.
I remember buying this t-shirt from your website last year. It read “What The Hell Is Alt. Country?” on the front? A bit tired of that classification, I guess?
I can’t say that I’m tired of it, but it’s too bad they’ve separated stuff as much out as they have. Alternative country is truly a ghetto-classification of music, it’s something you can never get out of. If this was 1974, just look at what they called rock in 1974. You had everything from Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath to The Marshall Tucker Band. By today’s standards, The Marshall Tucker Band would be called country, but it was all just rock back then. It didn’t really put anybody off. People could appreciate all of it at the same time, but now you separate it all out. Somebody might never even have heard alternative country, but they still get the idea in their head that they don’t like it. The stuff they call alternative country today is the one of the widest ranging groups of music that’s out there. They call Wilco alternative country and that’s about as far from alternative country you can get. You can’t really get a sense of what it is. I think we’re a straight up rock band if this was 1974, that’s what anybody would even think to call up, but today, if anyone’s a straight up rock fan, they’ll never listen to us because of the alternative country classification.
They’ll probably be calling you classic rock in a few years?
Yeah, man. People should ease up on their sub-divisions! But it’s too late, it’s not going to happen, but you do what you can.
You worked for your friends, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo as a musician and guitar tech before you formed The Bottle Rockets. Looking back at those days, why do you think both you, Jay and Jeff are still working so hard for the sake of music?
That is a good question. Out of the three of us, Wilco certainly had the most commercial success, so I’m sure they’re still here because it would be ridiculous for them to stop. But if you take somebody like Son Volt and us, I guess we’re still around because we’ve realised that this is what we do. And when you realise that, you just do it. As long as people are still interested, there’s an audience for it. But we would probably be doing this, even if there wasn’t an audience. But man, I don’t know why were still here. The reasons to quit get stronger every day, but still, you just don’t.
The Bottle Rockets’ Lean Forward is out now on Bloodshot Records. For more, visit bottlerocketsmusic.com and myspace.com/bottlerocketsmusic