Monday, December 9, 2013

Our Interview With Bottle Rockets: "Our audiences these days are the best they've been."

If you've paid much attention to our hijinks over the years, you'll know that we have a special fondness for the kind of rough-around-the-edges 90's "alt-country" that seems to have given way these days to...a lot of polished posers hijacking the roots scene.  And you can bet we STILL dig ourselves some Uncle Tupelo, some Old 97's, some Whiskeytown, some Slobberbone, and (obviously) some Bottle Rockets.  So it was a real treat for us to get to interview original Bottle Rockets' drummer Matt Ortmann on the occasion of Bloodshot Records' 20th anniversary reissue of the band's long out-of-print first two albums:  93's Bottle Rockets and 94's The Brooklyn Side, a reissue which also contains 19-unreleased tracks and a 40-page booklet on the band's history.  Yes, it's badass. 

Visit the band's page on the Bloodshot site here for a lot more info on the reissues and drop by Soundcloud to stream a song from the release:  the Bottle Rockets' very cool '91 demo of "Indianopolis" featuring Tupelo's Mr. Tweedy and Mr. Farrar.

Sadly, Mark and the boys aren't hitting Lawrence on the current anniversary tour (though they DID just play in Colombia, MO over the weekend...damn it, fellas, you were so close!).  But you could ostensibly catch them in Chicago at the Hideout on December 13 before they head overseas for a sweet tour with the great Marshall Crenshaw.

Enjoy this interview with Mark in which we evaluate the old scene, the new scene, the old fans, rowdy shows, and a very weird  long-ago Bottleneck jam-session with A.M-era Wilco and...the drummer of the Presidents of the United States of America!

Richard:  First off, thanks for doing an interview with our silly blog! I’ve always been a big fan of you guys and that whole scene from back when the “alt-country” term was still more prominent. Why do you think today’s musical climate has shifted toward the more polished sound of “roots” bands like the Mumfords and the Lumineers and such? And how do you feel about those kind of bands? (I often think of it as roots-lite).

Mark: It's a natural progression for a musical style to become more polished as it develops in following generations. For example, classic rock sounds more polished than rock n' roll from the '50s, and today's music sounds even more polished than that. Of course that raises the debate about music losing bits of its soul along the way as it becomes more polished, but then does that mean the Sgt. Pepper album had no soul when it was released? Historically, "roots" music hasn't had a large audience, but the current popularity of scruffy-bluegrassy-folkie-old-timey-acoustic-bands-with-beards-and-vests-and-suspenders (a.k.a. roots-lite) has indeed exploded into a successful formula that I believe is connected to the popularity of the acoustic-jam-band formula. It's not too much of a stretch to connect dots between Yonder Mountain String Band and Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford And Sons. Although The Bottle Rockets are typically too electric to fit those trends, it would be cool to share some of their enormous success! [laughs]

Chip:  I’ve been checking out the tunes on the awesome Bloodshot reissues of your first two out-of-print albums and I particularly love rocking out with the songs that are about chicks like “Gas Girl” and “Trailer Mama.” What are your personal favorite tracks from that era? And tell us in general about how this early work fits into the “bigger picture” of the Bottle Rockets sound?

Mark: The subjects of love and lust in songs like "Gas Girl" and "Trailer Mama" are universal emotions that people share and can relate to. However, some personal favorite songs of mine from that era are "I Wanna Come Home" and "1000 Dollar Car." These two early albums are good examples of the guitar-driven sound we've used throughout our career. We've never drifted too far from that being the Big Picture.

Richard:  I love the angry tone of “Wave that Flag,” with its take on redneck, rebel-flag-waving culture. How did a song like that go over early in your career when you were no doubt playing to some pretty rowdy crowds in Missouri? Also, can you tell us a tale or two about a few memorable shows from those early days?

Mark: I can't think of a time when playing "Wave That Flag" has caused problems. Actually, I'm surprised how often that song gets requested in the most unexpected situations and is received with enthusiasm. But there was that one rowdy time we played the Altamont Speedway while a Hells Angels biker attacked a fan... wait, I'm getting confused...

Chip:  Our readers love stories about Lawrence and I know you guys have played here a lot over the years. We caught you not long ago with James McMurtry and I’m pretty sure I have a drunken memory of being at a long-ago Bottleneck show that may have had local heroes Arthur Dodge and the Horsefeathers on the bill. Do you have any favorite memories or funny tales from Lawrence shows? Did you ever get to party with Split Lip Rayfield very much?

Mark: I think I remember playing once with Arthur Dodge at the Bottleneck, but the details of the show have escaped me now. And I know we've played with Split Lip Rayfield a few times, but I don't remember if it included Lawrence (I remember a time at the Blue Note in Columbia, MO.) However, I distinctly remember a time at the Bottleneck when we played with A.M.-era Wilco and the drummer of the band Presidents Of The United States Of America jumped on stage and sat in. I never liked their annoying song "Movin' to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches" and I don't like ironic bands in general. Anyway, POTUSA had played elsewhere earlier that night and some of their band/crew came bar hopping to the Bottleneck after their show. The drummer sat in during the encore of the Wilco set, which was a haphazard group jam where the Bottle Rockets joined Wilco on stage. I don't remember the song we played, but I'm sure it was a mess.

Richard:  So let’s talk about some of the authentic “roots” acts that I do like. Lyrically, my favorites are probably James McMurtry and Drive By Truckers. Both of those acts write songs that are better than most novels! Who are your personal favorite roots/Americana acts right now and why? And are there some lesser-known artists (perhaps on Bloodshot!) that we and our readers should be watching out for?

Mark: We've co-toured with James McMurtry a couple times and he's currently my favorite roots artist. His lyrics are so rich and literary without sounding forced or contrived, and I like his dark sense of humor and guitar playing. I also like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle and of course the Drive-By Truckers. However, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm out of touch with many new artists, but have been told to check out Lydia Loveless on Bloodshot.

Richard:  I've caught her in Lawrence on at least two occasions.  She's great.

 Chip:  With these reissues on the way, are you digging deep into the back catalogue at live shows? And how are your audiences these days? Do you still get some rowdy crowds or are they mostly checking their watches to make sure they get home in time to relieve the babysitter?

Mark: Yes, we're adding some of the very old songs to our anniversary shows just for the fun of it. Our audiences these days are the best they've been. Although there is a percentage of fans who can't last the whole night like they used too, I'm surprisingly pleased at how rowdy our audience can still get, especially when they body surf the mosh pit while still holding onto their geriatrics walker.


The boys in '95:


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