ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 2, 1998
By Steve Newton
Just before Reverend Horton Heat singer-guitarist Jim Heath is due to ring the Straight from his Missouri hotel, I’m checking out his band’s Web site, searching for last-minute interview clues. I see that he personally contributes to the site with sporadic updates from the road, and an entry from April 13 has him griping about “little-minded” rock critics who “wouldn’t know energetic and fresh music if God himself was wailin’ through two Fender Twins in their bedroom”. He’s particularly ticked off by the critics in his hometown of Dallas.
“I tell ya, it’s bad in my hometown,” drawls Heath when the call comes through. “The guys there are really tough. Like, we’ve got this one writer who, the day Frank Sinatra died, decided it would be a good idea to reprint a really bad review he had of Frank’s show in Dallas five years ago. Anybody that’s gonna cut down Frank Sinatra two days after he died…I mean, that’s the worst. Nothing against you, but music critics are not generally people that I think are really performing a function.”
Heath is entitled to his own opinion, of course, but it’s kind of a drag that he kicks off our chat by slagging my livelihood. Functionless or not, this music critic responds by commenting that—nothing against the Rev’s vocals—it’s the instrumentals on his band’s new Space Heater CD that really turn my crank. Far more impressive than the ill-conceived “Jimbo Song” or tiresome “Baby I’m Drunk” are wordless ditties like the spaghetti Mexican–flavoured “Pride of San Jacinto”, the speedy two-stepper “The Prophet Stomp”, and the surfin’ jazz title track.
The band proved its prowess with instrumentals a few years back when it covered the Jonny Quest theme on the Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits CD. That exotic jingle provokes memories of myself at seven years or so, hunkered in front of the tube with a bowl of Frosted Flakes (“They’re grrreat!”), anxiously awaiting the perilous jungle adventures of Jonny and his turbaned pal Hadji. Boy, did I ever love that mid-’60s show.
“Me too!” enthuses the 39-year-old rocker. “When they asked me to do it, I remembered—I didn’t remember the whole tune, ’cause it is kinda complicated—but I remembered how cool it was. I remembered the tom-tom type of fast swing beat, and the flute part. We showed up at the studio to start cutting it, and we plugged in the original version, and it just had all these different horn parts. I could see the producers goin’ like, ‘Wow, this might be a little harder for a three-piece band than I thought.’
“So I said, ‘Well, just give me about two hours to come up with somethin’ here.’ The guys went to have lunch and they came back and I had my part worked out, and we did the song. So it was a real challenge to figure out how to do all those horn parts with guitar, but it worked out pretty good.”
Considering his band’s impressive record with both original and cover instrumentals, I wonder aloud if Heath has ever thought of releasing an all-instrumental CD, but the query leads to some spiteful preaching from the Rev regarding his band’s label, Interscope.
“We thought about doing an all-instrumental album and tour,” he explains, “but the label and our management warned us against doing it. I wish that I could be like Cher and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that, I want to do this,’ or like Neil Young: ‘I don’t want to be sponsored by anybody, that’s not rock ’n’ roll.’ Well, Neil Young has been rich since the ’60s, okay, and our band is not rich—we’re havin’ to feed our families. And at the same time, our record company really isn’t behind us very much. I could do anything that I wanted to do—I could do an album of us playing kazoos—but if a record company isn’t gonna put it out, then it’s not a project.”
If Heath sounds a tad bitter about how his band’s been dealt with by Interscope, that could be a good thing; sometimes a little animosity makes a group perform better. Local rock fans will find out for themselves when RHH performs as part of the Vans Warped Tour at the PNE Exhibition Bowl on Wednesday (July 8). The trio will be performing in the company of Bad Religion, Rancid, NOFX, the Specials, the Deftones, and about two dozen other acts.
“Those summertime gigs are sometimes real easy,” reveals Heath, “’cause we only have to play, like, 30, 40 minutes, and then we have the rest of the day to kinda hang around and watch bands. For some reason or another, though, those things aren’t very good for record sales. Whenever we go out and open up for a major band, or go out and do one of these festival tours, our record sales fall off.
“So maybe it’s kind of a mini-lesson for other bands out there, who think, ‘Wow, if we can just get out there and open up for White Zombie, I know we could be big stars!’ When you go out there and do that it does help with exposure, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Whatever the financial pros and cons for its touring stable, the current Warped show’s wide array of musical styles is bound to impress open-minded music fans. Reverend Horton Heat is itself a walking compendium of diverse influences, which range—according to its Interscope bio—“from Perry Como and Tennessee Ernie Ford to Buddy Guy and Sonny Boy Williamson to the Cramps and the Butthole Surfers”.
“I guess I have been influenced by a lotta stuff,” says Heath, “but you can’t really talk about that till you talk about Scotty Moore, Elvis’s guitar player. Actually, both of Elvis’s guitar players—Scotty Moore and James Burton. But then also Cliff Gallup, the rockabilly guy. At the same time, I really like the way Carlos Santana plays guitar, too. So the stuff rubs onto me.
“But it’s funny about influences,” he adds. “You know, gettin’ back to this Neil Young thing; he’s a great songwriter and all, but I’m really not too fond of how he plays lead guitar. And I had this roommate who just loved Neil Young, and I mean every morning and every afternoon he was playin’ some Neil Young record. And I was like goin’ ‘You know, all those songs are okay, but I really hate the way he plays guitar.’ And my roommate would get mad: ‘Come on! Neil Young’s one of the best guitar players ever!’
“And I’m goin’, ‘Well, no, he really never was close to bein’ that.’ But I was in some little band at the time, and I heard a tape of us playin’ live, and I heard the solo that I did, and it sounded like Neil Young playin’ guitar! So I guess the point is is that it’s pretty easy to be influenced by everything, whether you like it or not.”