Returning to Chicago as part of the "Mods vs. Rockers 2013 Rockabilly Rumble" extravaganza Saturday at the Aragon Ballroom alongside JD McPherson, The Supersuckers and more, I spoke with the Reverend Horton Heat himself about the band's recent signing with Chicago based indie label Victory Records, a return to an edgier sound on their forthcoming fall release, growing up amidst Texas blues and much more...
Few bands better symbolize the diverse array of musical influences that exemplify the state of Texas better than the Reverend Horton Heat. Specializing in a unique blend of rockabilly, punk and country that was even, for a moment, dubbed "alternative," once upon a time in the mid-nineties, the Reverend Horton Heat continues to log over one hundred live dates per year as they speed with reckless abandon, whiskey soaked, toward their thirtieth year.
Last November it was announced that the Reverend Horton Heat had signed with Chicago based indie label Victory Records. As the band continues work on their first new album in nearly four years, and first release for the Victory label, I spoke with the Reverend Horton Heat himself, Jim Heath, about growing up as a music fan in Texas, continued work on the band's new album and fond memories of performing so often in Chicago over the years...
Q. Over the years, you’ve really run the gamut when it comes to the label you’re on (everything from an indie like Sub Pop to a major in Interscope). How does the move to Victory Records feel?
Jim Heath: Well, it feels really good. [Victory founder and CEO] Tony [Brummel] is very passionate and it’s a super well run organization. It’s more of a harder edged label and I was thinking about kind of getting back to that because our last couple of albums have kind of leaned into the country thing a little bit. I had already had songs that were gonna be a little bit more harder edged, a little bit like our earlier stuff, [though] there’s no way to really repeat that. They’ve got the Voodoo Glowskulls and we’ve done a lot of touring (I even recorded a little session with them). So I think it’s gonna be good.
Q. What I like about Victory is that they celebrate not only national acts across a variety of genres but some great local ones from Chicago too. This isn't your first time on an influential indie label like that. In the early nineties, you guys were on Sub Pop. What was it like being on a label like that, at that time especially, with everything going on around you in regards to the Seattle talent on that Seattle based label? The Reverend Horton Heat was certainly different in style than those alternative/grunge acts…
JH: I think that was a great move for us. They offered us the deal because we were touring around and playing the same venues as Nirvana and Soundgarden and Tad and all those other bands. Mudhoney, things like that. And we were there basically in that same scene by virtue of the venues we were playing. We were playing the same ones. So In that respect, it kind of made sense. But in the other respect it didn’t because it was supposed to be about underground Seattle bands. The whole grunge thing is happening and here comes a rockabilly band from Texas with short hair.
But in a way it worked and was a great move because there was nothing else like us on Sub Pop and I really think that if we had been on another label that had a lot other rockabilly and roots acts, I think we might have fallen through the cracks on a label like that. And a label like that may not have gotten what we were into, which was playing the alternative and punk rock venues back then.
Q. You guys have always toured quite a bit. You just announced another run of what, fifty dates? What does it mean to you to still be able to tour like that after all these years?
JH: Well the short answer is that that’s my art form is playing music live. Technology comes and goes but live music is there and of course enabled by technology with the simple fact that we can plug an amp into the wall or plug an amp into the wall socket. So that’s my art form. We tour and play music, so in order to do that it means travelling and that’s what we do. We used to do a lot more but we slowed down several years ago. Maybe about six or seven years ago we slowed down but we still average 120 shows a year. We tour [Chicago] regardless of any album release.
Q. Obviously, there’s so much over the years that has gone into the melting pot, so to speak, to make up the Reverend Horton Heat sound. What were you listening to at a young age growing up in Texas that probably had an impact down the line?
JH: Back when I was a kid, a lot of the fifties songs were still very much in the consciousness of people. Even though the music business had kind of stomped it into the ground, it was still there. Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. My cousins would play songs by them. Top 40 radio and of course Elvis and all that was there.
But then rock n’ roll too. The rock n’ roll and the great guitar players of the day: Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Deep Purple… all of that. At some point, when I was a kid, when I was about twelve or thirteen, I latched onto the fifties music, especially fifties blues. Chess Records really is the albums I was buying when I was twelve years old. But there’s just so much there. The brass tacks of it is, I’m influenced a lot by rock n’ roll from the fifties and mid-century American music: rockabilly, the blues, country, surf guitar, stuff like Henry Mancini, big bands, singers and standards as well. So… it gets a little much to talk about. (laughs)
Q. Texas has such a cool music history. I don’t really think it gets its due. Pantera, Buddy Holly… There's so much different stuff. Texas itself had to be quite the influence too…
JH: Yeah. And you know, as far as the blues, Freddie King was a Dallas guy so I got to see Freddie King play all the time. He was quite a character. He had his own band and did all of his blues stuff… but then he liked to show up at the rock n’ roll clubs and flirt with the ladies and get up and sit in with whatever band was up there. It could’ve been a really lame cover band and he’d get up there and sit in with them. And it always made it better! He was great.
But getting to be around the rebirth of the blues thing in Texas with Jimmie Vaughan and of course Stevie Ray Vaughan and Anson [Funderburgh] & The Rockets and a lot of great bands like that. The Tailgaters and The LeRoi Brothers really were a big influence. I mean, Texas was a real hot bed for stuff because there was kind of nothing else to do I think. (laughs)
Q. Well, the Reverend Horton Heat have played in Chicago many, many times... Everywhere from a small club like Metro to an outdoor festival this past fall in Riot Fest. What stands out for you about performing in Chicago?
JH: I remember our first gig at Lounge Ax. We’ve had tons of great gigs. Everything from the Double Door up to the [Aragon]. The Riviera. We played the Riviera with The Cramps. All sorts of great gigs over the years. Almost too many to recant! (laughs) It’s a great party town and it’s a great town for music. People love music there. It might be because it’s so cold. There’s not much else to do outdoors so they kind of save it up for going to see bands at night.
We love Chicago and we’re really happy to be on Victory. I think it’s going to be a really great fit. I’m having to really work hard! I looked at my schedule the other day. We’re supposed to do an album for Victory and I don’t know how we’re ever gonna do it. I look on my website and see all the dates we’re playing and I’m like "How is this gonna even happen?" But I’m workin' on it. It’s all good… but it’s actually very scary. Fear is a great motivator. It’s the best motivator!
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan
(Details on Saturday's Reverend Horton Heat/Mods Vs. Rockers show at Aragon after the jump)
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(Part of "Mods Vs. Rockers 2013 Rockabilly Rumble")
Live at the Aragon Ballroom
1106 West Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, IL 60640
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Doors open at 6PM
Also performing: JD McPherson, The Supersuckers and Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats
Click HERE to purchase tickets