ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 24, 1995
By Steve Newton
Sometimes it’s tough coming up with decent opening questions when you’re interviewing rockers; other times it’s way too easy. When Jim Heath—aka Reverend Horton Heat—answers the phone at his Texas homestead, he’s in the middle of paying some bills. There’s a shuffling of paper as he moves the bills aside, and there’s only one thing I can think of asking: “So, does rock ’n’ roll pay the rent?”
“It’s amazing,” drawls Heath. “It’s just flat-out amazing. I didn’t get into music to make money—’cause that’s the stupidest move in the world—but here lately it’s been pretty nice, and I’m real grateful. You know, most people have regular jobs where they could be the best employee in the world, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they get paid any more. But the more we play, the quicker we can pump out albums and everything else, it’s more money. So I have to admit that’s part of the motivation for touring all the time like we do, because you gotta pay the bills. There’s a lot worse ways to make a living…and I’ve done ’em, too.”
The good reverend—who’ll pay off a few more bills with a trip to the Commodore next Thursday (August 31)—saw plenty of lean times before finding his niche in the music biz as a raging redneck rockabilly maniac with a guitar that kills. He spent much of his teen years in an eastern-Texas juvenile correctional facility before hitting the streets, supporting himself as a street musician and pool shark. Then came countless low-income gigs in a variety of Texas show bands and ’50s revival acts. He was broke, divorced, and living in a steaming hot, rat-infested Dallas warehouse when the strange transformation to the persona of Reverend Horton Heat began.
“The owner of this bar I was doin’ sound gigs at started calling me Horton,” says Heath, “ ’cause he said I looked like some guy named Horton. So pretty soon everybody called me Horton. Then he gave me a solo gig, and when I showed up to play he said, ‘You should be Reverend Horton Heat.’ And I thought it was really corny. I was goin’ ‘No way,’ but he had already put up flyers everywhere. So I got up there and started playing, and I guess I did pretty good—the people were callin’ me Reverend and everything. Hell, I ran with it, man. I started buyin’ all the cheesiest polyester suits I could find.”
Eventually, Heath formed a trio with stand-up bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Patrick “Taz” Bentley (recently replaced by Chicago skin-basher Scott Churilla), and when the band performed he would play up the reverend angle by delivering “insanely stupid sermons”. In recent years, Heath has backed down from that approach somewhat, not wanting to become just a novelty act, but he still pulls out those wacky suits now and again.
“I am the leader of the band,” he says, “and I write the songs, but it is a trio, you know. Jimbo, the bass player, has been with me for seven years now. He lived on my floor for a year and a half, and we toured around in really unbelievably crappy vehicles together and have gone through a lot. All those years of touring and not making any money, living hand-to-mouth, it gets a little weird, ya know. But here in the last coupla years, things are a lot better. We actually have reason to believe that we can make a living doing this.”
The band is getting some help in achieving that goal from the likes of Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, who produced the group’s latest release, Liquor in the Front. Jourgensen follows Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, who helmed the previous SubPop release, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat.
“We had this idea,” says Heath, “that if we were gonna have to work with any producer, they might as well just be crazy and off-the-wall. We didn’t want somebody that would have our sound all dolled up for commercial airplay, so we got Gibby, and then Gibby hooked us up with Al for the second one. He’s really, really into the ’50s and early ’60s country-and-western music, and so we kinda hit it off on that point.
“He’s a crazy guy,” adds Heath. “He showed up backstage at one of our shows, and he’s down on all fours, kissing our feet. And we didn’t even know who he was at that point. We just thought he was some goofball, man.”
Heath claims that Jourgensen’s skills in the studio didn’t have all that much to do with technical know-how, but when it came down to it, the Ministry wild man knew a helluva lot about one particular aspect of the music biz.
“Partyin’,” says Heath. “Lemme see, what are some of his other talents? Scaring the people that come by—he’s good at that. Doesn’t allow any record A&R people in there anyway, to begin with, so he doesn’t even have to scare them. He’s a pretty nutty guy.”
Although all record-company weasels were banned from the recording sessions, the suits were no doubt impressed once the results of Jourgensen’s carousing efforts were revealed. Liquor in the Front kicks butt, Texas-style, with furiously rocking numbers such as “Baddest of the Bad”, “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ ”, and the raging instrumental “Big Sky”. But best of all is a speedy tune called “Five-O Ford”, which bears a striking resemblance to “Hot Rod Lincoln”.
“When I was learnin’ how to play guitar, ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ was one song that you had to know,” says Heath. “And most people still couldn’t learn it just right, because that lick is kinda tough. But I used to imagine that someday I would do the world’s fastest version of ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’, and so I practised it and practised it and practised it and practised it and then realized: why not come up with a whole new song? So I consider it artistic licence to go ahead and make up my own ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ song.”
“Five-O Ford” is somewhat of a vehicular homage to Heath’s own 1950 custom Ford, albeit a slightly censored one. Somebody let those record-company weasels in during the song-titling process. Where’s Jourgensen when you need him?
“It’s actually called ‘Fucked-up Ford’,” says Heath, “but the record company said they couldn’t do that. I believe in the right to free speech, but heck, I don’t care. It’s just our little thing, you know.”