Reverend Horton Heat: The TVD Interview

For over 25 years, the Texan trio-de-force known as the Reverend Horton Heat has been unleashing their unique brand of psychobilly music to fans worldwide. Their infectious blend of rockabilly, country, surf, swing, and hard rock has earned them a spot as one of the founders of American psychobilly alongside acts such as the Cramps and later Tiger Army. Their 11th studio album, Rev, is out today, January 21st, and is a full-throttle return to the harder, frenetic sound that Reverend Horton Heat made famous.

We had a chance to talk to The Rev himself, Jim Heath, about the new album, vinyl, Texas, drunken fights, and more.

Your first studio album in four years, “Rev,” comes out on January 21st. What do we need to know about the new Horton Heat album?

Well, uh, I decided to get back to a little bit of the aggressive, edgier sound that Reverend Horton Heat was kind of known for in the mid ‘90s. So, basically just kind of getting back to more of what we do. Our last album leaned really country. That album was actually going to be a straight country album, but instead it just kind of heavily leaned country. You know, we’re a rock and roll band, our crowd is a rock and roll crowd, and so we may do some other stuff like that, where we may kind of veer off a little bit, but that was the intent of the album going into it.

Laughin’ and Cryin’ actually reminded me more of the one kind of obligatory country song you have per album.

Yeah, a little bit. There’s some stuff that’s a little bit not really necessarily a country-type-thing, but there’s a lot of that going on on that album.

Rev is getting a vinyl release, correct?

Yes, there’s gonna be. It looks really good, too. I’ve seen red vinyl, white vinyl, I think a grey vinyl.

rev

Sounds nice. Are you personally a fan of vinyl?

Oh yeah! I love vinyl. Got a ton of it.

What are a couple of gems from your collection?

I really, really love my Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps album. I really love my Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio album. I really love my Chess Records blues albums. Those are always on.

Nice. I’m a huge Gene Vincent fan myself. Pick one record from when you were a kid. The young Rev, what was one record you couldn’t let go of?

Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash was a pretty big influence on me when I was a kid. I got this little guitar that was really difficult to play, and I tried to play the licks off the record. I thought I was trying to play like Johnny Cash, and it wasn’t until years and years later I discovered that I was really trying to play like Luther Perkins.

Then one of my cousins – I have an older cousin who plays guitar – he played that song, and he says he can remember me being a little kid asking him to play that song again and again and again, because I was trying to learn to play it myself. I’d say “Play that part again! Stop! Play that part again!” He would just say “Man, you’re driving me crazy, stop it!”

What a great memory.

Yeah.

What are you listening to these days? Anyone on your radar nowadays?

I listen to the Les Paul Trio. Les Paul and Mary Ford. Deke Dickerson, Dead Kennedys…there’s always stuff that I’m working with. I’ll tell you what, I really love Dale Watson.

Oh yeah.

I really love Wayne Hancock.

Wayne “The Train.” Good stuff.

Yeah.

Who is Reverend Horton Heat’s dream collaboration? If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be with?

Elvis.

I would love to see that. That would be pretty awesome.

[laughs] I am really more of a Jerry Lee Lewis fan. It would be pretty cool to have Jerry Lee do something, but it’s kinda hard to get him. He’s kinda…he does his own thing.

Scott Churilla is back in the band. What’s it like having him back?

Oh, it’s great. He’s a great drummer, a great guy, and so it’s a lot of fun. We loved Paul Simmons too, but Paul had his time, and it’s kinda hard. What we do is really difficult.

Life on the road?

We’re a hard-working band. You spend a third of your life out here, just in the bus, with us. It has its life span, if you will. Scott’s back, and it was really seamless.

Had you all stayed in touch with each other while Paul was in the band?

Yeah, somewhat.

If we can reminisce for a moment…take us back to the beginning in Deep Ellum, Texas. Give us a random memory from way back then.

Well, it’s kind of funny, because I had started kind of latching on to the blues when I was a kid because of the record store in our neighborhood. The guy had a lot of blues, a big blues selection, and he would always play it in the store and it was the coolest thing ever. I really loved it. So I knew about the blues, I would read these books about New Orleans and about St. Louis and Memphis and Chicago and Dallas. I lived in Corpus Christi and my grandparents lived in Dallas, so we went to Dallas on vacation when I was a kid, and I told my grandfather, “I want to go see Deep Ellum. [laughs]

His head cocked to the side, and he kind of looked at me across the ridge of his nose, like “You want to go to Deep Ellum? Why?” I would tell him “That’s where the blues is.” He was like “Yeah…” He knew, because he was a horn player, a musician too, so he knew about the musical history of Deep Ellum, but this is like the ‘70s, and he drove me down there during the day, it wasn’t at night. [laughs]

That might have been a little overwhelming.

Yeah, there was a lot of the old barrelhouse, roadhouse-type blues places, but there were a lot of pawn shops too, it was definitely a seedy part. Then, in the ‘80s, I was renting a PA system and a guy from a band called me to go do a gig, and it was in Deep Ellum, and it was like the first club that was actually in Deep Ellum proper that was, that started the resurgence of Deep Ellum, and so within the next 5 years, it just exploded with activity, and a bunch of bars and restaurants and things moved in there, clothing stores, and that kind of thing. It was really an exciting time, it really was musically too, because…I’m getting a little long-winded here…

That’s ok.

One of the best things about the Deep Ellum thing, the resurgence of Deep Ellum is that you could park your car, and walk between a 3 square block area and see 20 different bands. All kinds of different bands, alternative bands, they’d have a blues club, a jazz club, for a while  they even had a country place down there, but by and large, it was a lot of alternative bands that were playing their own music. It kind of was a big change from your normal rock club with a band playing cover songs. That type of thing was all you really had. There were punk rock clubs, that were important too, before Deep Ellum.

I visited Dallas back in February, and I went down to Deep Ellum and that was sort of the vibe I was expecting, and I was shocked to see how much it had changed.

Yeah, it kind of morphed, it morphed into something that wasn’t so good, because it started attracting people who weren’t really into music, they were just there to cause trouble, and crime started to get to be an issue. Then, in the mid-2000s, like 2005, it was just dead.  I mean, you’d go down on a Saturday night, and there was nobody down there. It was really crazy.

It’s sad when an entire scene like that just dies.

Oh yeah, but you know, a few clubs held on, a few clubs are still there and managed to hold on and pull through. Now it’s all coming back…it’s not quite as strong and as crazy as it was in maybe the late ‘80s or through the ‘90s, but it’s pretty strong, it’s coming back pretty well.

That’s good!  A few years back, you were in a project called Reverend Organdrum. How did that come about?

Well, one of my best friends, his name is Tim Alexander. He’s a really great piano player and keyboard player all around. He played for a long time for a band called Asleep at the Wheel. That’s some serious music, those guys are western swing, and they play country places, but they play jazz. Western swing has a lot of jazz going on, so he’s really an off the charts great player, and I think he won five Grammys during that era.

Wow. He guested on albums like Liquor in the Front, correct?

Yeah, he’s played on a bunch of our albums. Me and him are golf buddies, we like to go pay golf. I was riding with him out to play golf and he had a tape of all these kind of cool songs that I loved too, you know, kind of your standards, r&b kind of stuff. I said “You know man, we ought to do an organ trio,” because I was getting really into organ at the time, and he’s great, he does [Hammond] B3 really great, and he was going, “Yeah, let’s do it.” He said “Me and you should do this, if we could just find a drummer in the neighborhood.”

It was really weird when he said that, because my next-door neighbor is this guy, he hadn’t really been in any bands before, but he had this practice band, and they were always playing in his garage. He had a Hammond organ in there that he was always playing around on, and they were playing a lot of the same types of songs that we were kind of wanting to play. They were playing things like Booker T and the MG’s, they were playing Goldfinger, so I told Tim “I got just the guy.”

So, I got my next-door neighbor to play drums. It was a fun project. The reason, what an organ trio does, is the organ holds down the bass with his feet on the pedals of the B3, or his left hand does the bass part, so an organ trio, a lot of times, doesn’t have a bass player. Organ takes the bass. Yeah, I loved doing that, and those guys were really good friends, and I love ’em to death.

It was a fantastic album.

Yeah, I was kind of getting their hopes too high…I really don’t have time for that, man. Reverend Horton Heat is my baby, and I gotta nurture it, you know. It’s quite a bit more time-consuming, and having a side project really made me realize that I don’t have time for much of anything except for Reverend Horton Heat. [laughs]

So, no plans to revisit that, or never say never?

Actually, I talked to Todd, the drummer, the other day about possibly us trying to make a new recording, and us trying to play some gigs again, so now would be kind of a good time since I’m going to be in between albums, with not any kind of a new song activity with Reverend Horton Heat for a while, so yeah, I might do that again.

That would be great.

We’ll see.

You made a couple of acting appearances back in the ’90s, most notably the movie Love and a .45, and the TV show Homicide as a brilliantly crazy preacher in a motel. Any desire to get back into a little more into acting?

No. That was enough, that was plenty for me. You think about it, all these actors, even the best ones. Johnny Depp, he really wishes he was in a band. All these guys, you know, want to be musicians. It’s really hard, and it made me realize that I’m kind of lucky that I do what I do. I love what I do, it’s fun and easy.

Acting is really hard work. You’ve got people telling you what to do all day. “Hurry up. Stay here. Ok, be ready. Are you ready? Are you ready?” I go, “Yeah, I’m ready.” “Ok, then wait here for an hour.” [we both laugh] “Ok, I’ll wait here being ready for an hour.” Aw, man. It’s just hard. You go into a room, and it’s full of people. They go, “Stand right here in the middle.” Then they start saying “Wow, he’s way older than we thought he was. Yeah, and fatter too.” [laughs] I look at them and I’m like “Hey, I’m standing right here.” [laughs]

Does it give you a little bit of appreciation for where you’re at now?

Yeah! The world of acting has very little time for common courtesy. There were parts of it that were fun, sure, but I don’t like waiting around all day long. You know, 8 hours. I don’t know.

That would be like telling you to stand up on the stage and just wait there.

Yeah, man. I like to get ‘er done. I know what I’m here to do, and I go do it.

After moving through the labels over the years – you’ve been with Sub Pop, Interscope, Yep Roc, tell us about the recent move to Victory Records.

A lot of that has to do with my manager. I have a long-time manager named Scott Weiss, he’s been with me probably 20 years, at least. Maybe longer. He has kept us, and this is another thing about Reverend Horton Heat. Reverend Horton Heat has not been without a record deal since 1990. He was knocking around looking for something different, because the money that we were being offered by our label, when we were on Yep Roc, wasn’t really what we were looking for, honestly.

He was kind of looking for some way to promote us better, and you know, Victory is a machine, I mean, that’s a music promoting dynamo. They do real well, they know what they’re doing on that end. Whatever you say about the bands that they’ve got, the music that they’ve got, they’ve got a ton of bands. It was kind of a coincidence, really. We’re kind of thinking about getting back to some harder-edged stuff, so to have a harder-edged label, it kind of made sense.

Did any of the previous labels, aside from the money issue, did they ever creatively stifle you, or was that never really an issue?

Yeah, there’s been instances where they overstepped their bounds, but, you know, it’s been fairly workable. Labels are crazy things, so you gotta kind of deal with them. That part of it I don’t like very much. I appreciate Sub Pop, what they did for us and everything…

Well, you weren’t the norm for Sub Pop back then.

But at the same time, we were playing the same venues as all their other bands.

Very true.

This new album, there’s some pretty extensive liner notes, more than I’ve ever written for any album. I went song by song, and there’s a story I wrote in there about Sub Pop, the meeting that we had with them there that was really crazy. Musicians like me, we get to deal with music critics enough, so to have a label be criticizing you, you know, it can get funny.

They’re supposed to be your support system. Not your critic.

Yeah, but I guess you can’t blame somebody. Our music isn’t for everybody. No band is. Some people really love Nickelback. Some people really hate Nickelback. You can’t argue with their success. If you’re working at their label, you might really hate ’em, but you’ve still got to promote ’em. Trying to go in and have a meeting with Nickelback, saying “Listen, can you guys stop being so…”Seattle-ish,” except not as good?” [we both laugh] You really can’t do much except insult people when you get into that kind of realm, so…I don’t know that much about Nickelback, so I really shouldn’t have said all that about them, I don’t know that much about them.

Ah, you were fairly spot-on.

[laughs]

I think with Reverend Horton Heat, though, you know what you’re getting. You’re not going to get number 1 on Billboard, MTV airplay, and right there behind Kanye on the charts, but you’ve proven yourself. You know what you’re getting with Horton Heat.

Right. Well, crazier things have happened than that. I mean, we want to be promoted, we want to reach a wider audience.

Absolutely.

I want to reach  wider audience, but then again, I don’t think that I could handle the “fame thing” too well. One thing I’m having a problem with right now is, Victory Records, they’re this machine, and they line me up with all this stuff, every day I’m doing stuff.

Annoying interviews?

[laughs] Since I’m a guitar player, I don’t have time to be a guitar player. Which is screwed up.

Well, they are getting you out there.

Yeah. I don’t know, there’s things more important than that. We’re still competitive, we’re still trying to get out there, and you don’t make an album just so 100 people like it. You want it to be accepted.

Funny story time. I’m gonna quote the “Jimbo Song”…”Sent me to the doctor, 30 stitches on my face.” Can you tell us that story behind that?

[laughs] Well, one time we were on tour, and it was one of these tours that was two and a half months, with nothing but long drives. This is a long time ago, this is before Scott Weiss. We had this, in quotation marks, “manager,” if you will.

Is this before Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em?

Yeah. We were on our way back, and back then it was all pay phones, so we had to stop and call in every so often. We were on a long drive back, I think we were driving all the way back from Chicago, or somewhere, and I called him, and he said “Hey, I’m glad you called. If you all are gonna get back before tomorrow night, tomorrow night, when you get back, if you want to do a gig that night, it’s at this restaurant and they can’t have drums. They were thinking maybe it’s just you and Jimbo to come do this gig.”

It was one of those deals where I wasn’t gonna do it until they told me how much they were gonna pay us to do it. [laughs] So, the money was real good. So, we took the gig, and we were dog tired. We drove all through the night and day, and made it back to Dallas, and instead of going to our apartments, we went straight to this restaurant to set up to play a gig. We weren’t in a very good mood, and I think that we started getting drunk, and started saying shit to each other, like “Can you turn down, a lot?” [we both laugh] “You’re kind of playing the  same song as I am.” It was one of those gigs where you play a set, then take a break, so we played the set, we took a break, and we went straight outside and just started beating the crap out of each other, me and Jimbo. Well, not really beating the crap out of each other, it was more like two drunk guys sloshing around.

The sloppy drunk fight.

Yeah. Well, what happened is we kind of got into like a mutual headlock, and just kind of fell on the brick sidewalk. I landed just right on my head, had to get rushed to the hospital, there’s blood everywhere. It was so crazy, because I was drunk, and I was sitting there, and they pulled us apart and I kind of looked down at my hands, and there was blood everywhere. I was thinking, “Oh man, I must have really hurt Jimbo.”

I went over there, and there was all these people and I looked over there, and this maître d from this restaurant – I mean, it was a nice place – the guy had on one of these, you know, $600 Italian suits, and it was just covered with blood. I was going “Oh man.” I saw him, and I go “Is Jimbo ok?,” and they were going “Uhh, Reverend, Jimbo’s ok, it’s you that we’re worried about.” [we both laugh]

I’m going “What? What?” They go, “Yeah, your head is bleeding profusely.” I though “Oh crap, it’s my head!” So, I had to get rushed to the hospital, and I got 27 stitches, but I rounded up to 30, a nice even number.

Why not. Wow.

Well, you know it’s funny, of course, you know, Jimbo called me, he called up to the hospital and  I talked him, and he’s going “Oh, I’m sorry man!,” and I’m “Oh, I’m sorry too.” No big deal. I said, “You know, man, we left our equipment there.” He goes “Yeah, I know, we’re gonna have to go get it, so it was a restaurant, so they opened at 11, so we had to be there at 10:30 in the morning. So, we walk in at 10:30 with our leather jackets, and me with this bi ol’ giant bandage on my face, and the people are looking at us like, “Whoa, you guys are back? Are you together again?” We were just like “Yeah, it’s ok.” We got our stuff.

Did they pay you for the gig?

I really don’t remember, I don’t know if they paid us or not. [laughs]

Looking out beyond Rev…you’ve got a new album, new tours. What are you future plans for Horton Heat? What do you see beyond Rev?

Man, I’m gonna do what I do, and I hope to do it for a long time. I’m not exactly sure when or what our next album will be, but for the time being, what’s kind of happening right now is we are getting so many big festival offers. We’re gonna be doing Coachella, and Punk Rock Bowling. There’s a big one in Montreal we’re doing, then I’ve got my own festival called the Elm Street Music and Tattoo Festival. That’s in Deep Ellum, it’s gonna be in June, the weekend of Friday the 13th. It’ll be the 13th, 14th and 15th of June.

So, a lot of that kind of activity, then of course just kind of promoting the album. Hopefully, the label will be pumping it even as we go though this next year or so. That’s about it, no kind of…I did talk to Todd about maybe rekindling the Reverend Organ Drum thing, and frankly I don’t have time for Reverend Horton Heat, so I don’t know how I’ll do that. [laughs]

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