Reverend Horton Heat … still on fire
You kinda have to lend an ear to a band when Lemmy from Motorhead says, ” Reverend Horton Heat – he’s great and plays the music he believes in and nothing else. Go see him or I’ll kill you!”
For over 25 years, the trio of Reverend Horton Heat, the name a nod to country singer Johnny Horton, has been recording and performing the cross genres of blues, punk, rock ‘n’ roll, country, rockabilly and jazz for audiences all over. The band has recorded 11 studio albums and have been on the Heatseeker and Indie alternative charts. Their recent album, REV has charted on the Billboard 200.
Reverend Horton Heat have weathered their share of record label changes – with Sub-Pop and Interscope being among them – and personnel changes, having had four drummers and one other bassist. Their music has appeared in TV, films and the popular Tony Hawk video game franchise. The current trio is comprised of Jim “Reverend Horton” Heath on guitar and vocals, Jimbo Wallace on upright bass, and returning drummer Scott Churilla. We got a minute of the band’s time recently while they are currently touring the U.S.
Graffiti: Many feel that you have not gotten the recognition due for reviving rockabilly, country; music deemed “American” music, to share with a new audience. What are your thoughts?
RHH: Getting recognized for it would be nice as there wasn’t the scene around what we do like there is now. For instance, from about 1986 through about 1992, just about every interview that I did, the first question was, “So, what is rockabilly?” I had to explain it to the so-called ‘expert’ music critics! We broke through in areas of the music industry that were not previously into rockabilly, much less even knowing what it was. There was hardly anyone playing upright bass and hollow body guitars – especially in the alt/punk/rock scene.
But, I don’t live and die by that. I’m just glad I get to do what I do. And, I owe a lot to the rockabillies that came before me, so, it’s all good.
Graffiti: Touring in the grunge era of the ’90s gave audiences exposure to Reverend Horton Heat and the rockabilly/psychobilly genre. What do you think it is about the music that has drawn a new audience?
RHH: Well, several things. In one respect, it was easy pickings as the grunge movement at the time was kind of a shoe-gazing thing and people loved that we tried to interact with them and put on a show. Smile. Other than that, I think that we were pretty high energy – we played a lot of very fast songs at a time when there was a lot of slow churning going on. We could really wake people up.
Graffiti: There’s definitely a visual; an aesthetic and culture to the genre. Do you think the visual is important to the music as an artist?
RHH: Well, I think that rockabilly is highly stylized music. So, it’s kind of the whole package. You know, you can write a great song about your dog and it could be a big hit and make people cry – so it can be a great song, without really being very stylish at all.
But that’s not really what I do, I don’t just write a song, I design a song. So, I don’t just play music, I try to give people something to see, too. And the style in my world is everything. Hot rods in the style of the ’50s, mid-century modern furniture, pin-up girls, pompadours and big E Levis are all part of it. Even stuff that’s a little more high-brow is in there, too – if it’s from the right era – like Eames chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
These rockabilly people can be really meticulous about their houses, cars, clothes and style of music they listen to and play. I was that way for a while in my life, too, and I still am all about mid-century stuff in some respects, but I now try really hard to just be a regular guy that people feel comfortable around. I live in the ‘burbs and I’m a dad (laughs).
Graffiti: Reviews have been favorable for REV. The primary reason expressed is that the album returns to the sound of earlier “Heat” records. Was that a conscious effort or did it just happen in the writing process?
RHH: Yes, we made the conscious decision to get back to that. It’s kind of funny, our album before REV was really good, but it leaned country. I’ve now come to realize that the only way to make modern country fans like you is to rap. I’m not going to rap. I’m into classic, old style, real country and it doesn’t seem to sell (laughs). So, REV was getting back to our early ’90s sound when we were taking rockabilly and getting more aggressive with it.
Graffiti: REV is your first album for Victory Records. What is it about the label that let you know this was the place you want to be?
RHH: Well, (founder)?Tony (Brummel) actually called me and talked to me a lot. He still calls to just talk about stuff. I’ve never had a label that the owner or higher-ups did that. A lot of people don’t realize how big his label has become. It’s a pretty amazing story.
Graffiti: Your career has spanned enough years to where you have seen the dramatic changes in the music industry. What have been the pros and cons for you, regarding the industry in the digital age?
RHH: One down side is that people can get the one song, digitally, that they like without really digging deeper into a genre or band. The money side has been decimated for artists. That’s sad, because money is very hard to come by in the industry. So, when you do have a product that finally makes some profit, it is money that is the fruit of years and years or decades of working for very little money. The dwindling money thing may be responsible for the fading quality in music nowadays – like the rise of the DJ who pretends he’s a musician.
The up side is that, in the digital age, bands can record themselves almost as good, or better than they could spending tens of thousands in a commercial recording studio. They can also, then, reach the masses through their on YouTube channels and websites. It’s great that bands can take out the middle man (record companies) and get their music out there. It’s also great that all of the great vintage music that influenced me from the ’40s through the early ’60s is available on mp3 or CD.
Graffiti: In your career you’ve had the opportunity to appear with Johnny Cash. What was it like to go from performing “Folsom Prison Blues” early in your career to playing with the “Man in Black” himself?
RHH: Uh, we only played one show with him, but it was a good one. We got to meet Johnny and June and the band. We’re still friends with a couple of his band members because of that one gig. But, oh yeah, it was a dream come true. I wish I had gone ahead and bothered him for pictures. At the end of the night, June grabbed him by the ear and started pulling him out the door. He wanted to stay and talk, but she was ready to go (laughs).
Graffiti: You’re on the road again in support of the latest album. As a touring act, how do you keep it interesting and exciting each year? Is there something you look forward or get excited about for each leg of your tours?
RHH: Yes. I get excited about getting to go out and play gigs. It’s actually even more fun than it was in the early years. However, the traveling is a lot less fun than it was in the early years, but it sure is easier than touring around in a smelly, old Chevy van that breaks down once a tour.