Q&A: The Reverend Horton Heat
Jim Heath has been preaching the custom-psychobilly gospel as The Reverend Horton Heat for nearly three decades, but his band’s performance is as incendiary, and the songwriting sharp as ever, on latest album Rev. Along with bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott “Chernobyl” Churilla, the Reverend is weathering bus fires and windstorms as the trio regenerates the concert-going faithful with the support of Victory Records. He performs at Vinyl at Hard Rock Hotel on Sept. 16. Heath took time to speak with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen while on a brief tour break.
You had a bus fire earlier this year and got caught up in a windstorm while playing Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Wednesday night, but you guys planted your boots and powered through “Folsom Prison Blues.” Does that symbolize the Reverend Horton Heat’s staying power after three decades of preaching the custom-psychobilly gospel?
(Laughs) Yeah, it might. That’s kind of the way we are. We power through no matter what. We’re kind of on a hamster wheel. Once you get on it you can’t stop ’til it’s done. I hit the point in the set where stuff was blowing over, but Scott finished his drum solo and I could have either introduced Jimbo or stopped, and I decided to introduce Jimbo and keep it going. That was kind of crazy.
It looked really dangerous, but in the audio you can hear the crowd screaming and egging you on. I imagine that had something to do with it.
Yeah, yeah. They were egging us on.
It wasn’t like everyone was running from the stage. Where does that rank on the scale of touring hazard incidents in a nearly three-decade career?
Well, I don’t know. It’s one of those shows we’ll never forget, so I guess it’s pretty high up there. We do epic shows all the time, or what are epic to me at least … not because of us but because of the circumstances surrounding the gig. That same tour we just got off of, we did a show with The Melvins in Fort Collins, Colorado. and it was epic. It wasn’t because of us. It was because of them.
You seem to be the kind of band that can be paired off with a lot of other bands with contrasting styles. I was kind of surprised to learn you were good friends with Lemmy, and when I was listening to Rev there’s a song called “Scenery Going By” that reminded me of “Ace of Spades.” I could see where Lemmy found himself in your music.
Yeah, well, you know we came from a lot of the same places. He really loves the ’50 s rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what really got me into this whole Reverend Horton Heat thing—’50s rock ‘n’ roll, ’50s rockabilly. He was really into it. We kind of came from the same place and kind of ended up in a couple of different places. We really miss Lemmy. A lot of our friends do too, because he was a really personable person.
Were you able to keep up with him? Did he like to have his friends drink with him?
Well, the one time I tried I ended up in the hospital. … He had a bottle of Maker’s Mark and I didn’t realize what a strong constitution that old guy had. It was crazy. I ended up in the hospital. I gave myself alcohol poisoning.
Yeah, you don’t seem like the type of person that would wear yourself out to the point that you couldn’t play shows. Seems like anyone who hangs out with Lemmy would be expected to keep up with him.
Yeah, we had a lot of good times together. Keeping up with him? Nah, I quit trying after that. I just hung around after that (laughs).
You were probably a good influence on him. So you just wrapped up your summer tour, and from the looks of some of the shows you seem to like to keep things interesting.
Well, yeah. I go around a little bit from thing to thing, but you know, I try. I kind of got bogged down a little bit in the whole business side of Horton Heat for several years. … About five years ago I started spending a lot more time in my studio, and doing stupid stuff like buying vintage microphone pre-amps and vintage microphones and tape machines and stuff (laughs). I’ve got all this stuff but I don’t have time to use it, but I’m kind of forcing myself to be in here doing it.
There was about five years between your last two albums. Is that what you were doing, reconfiguring the way you want to record music?
Yeah, well, that’s right because right before we got involved with Victory Records, we were hitting a point where—a whole lot of bands were—the money that they were offering to record an album was so low that it was just making it where you’d have a week to go in there and record a whole album. For me it seemed like it would be more fun, and it would be better, if we just recorded ourselves. For one thing when you’re generating new songs it’s hard to get it right the first time. The songs on our new album, there’s several of those songs that we recorded five different times. We would do it once and I’d go, “God, I would be better if I sang in a different key.” And it was better when we changed the key. And then “Well, you know, we’re doing it a little too slow. We need to pick it up a little bit,” or “We’re doing it too fast. We need to slow it down a little bit.” That kind of thing. When you go into a big studio you don’t have time to go back and redo stuff unless you’re rich, or you have a giant record deal. So it’s been fun. We have our own studio and we go … it’s a rag-tag little space that adjoins other rehearsal studios, so it’s odd but it’s ok. It’s a pretty dry room, so I can add my cheesy reverbs and my cheesy Sun Records backslap delay, and that kind of thing.
You can definitely hear a contrast between Rev and Laughin' & Cryin’, and I couldn’t put my finger on it because I like Laughin' & Cryin'. “Ain't No Saguaro in Texas” is my favorite song on that album. It’s almost like you took time to educate us (Heath laughs), but there’s a contrast. It’s almost like there’s a freshness, or inspiration. I don’t want to have that reflect negatively on the previous album, but you can just hear it. It sounds like that came from recording at home.
Well, yeah, a lot of that is because we went into the studio to do that album without a producer, and I really love the guy, the engineer at Audio Dallas. He’s a great guy but he wants it to be really dry. Just really, really, really dry, and I’m all about 1959 when they had a big reverb chamber at Capitol Records, and RCA Studio B in Nashville where they had a big reverb chamber. I’m all about Sam Phillips, where you had the tape machine that did the tape echo thing. I’m all about that kind of production value, but that production value is older than I am (laughs). It goes back 65 years, 60 years. So, you know, I’m having fun with it. And man, it’s sent me to this whole other area where I’m building my own microphones and I’m building my own microphone preamps. I’m all of a sudden into the tech side of the whole thing a little bit, so I’m having fun with it.
The newer record sounds like it has a richer palette. It’s more colorful, if that’s a word that can be applied, but you kind of said why—you were working with an engineer that was keeping things a lot drier before.
Right, right. Well, you know, these guys have the most high-powered, best equipment in the world, and man he just makes it sound super clean. For me it really helps the colorfulness of the album if some stuff is actually recorded distorted. Maybe not the whole thing, but yeah I think it adds something. You gotta perk your ear up with the recording side of it, and that something that I think helps a lot if you’ve got a three-piece band, if you have that power thing going on a little bit. It gives it more of a rawness and more of an energy level. But yeah at the same time they’re two different albums and songwriting styles.
That comes through in “My Hat.” It’s Bill Haley-esque, but the sound achieved really transports you back. It makes you feel the era, so I think the extra effort paid off. And then, how do you come up with a sing like “Let Me Teach You How to Eat?” Where does that come from after you’ve been going for nearly 30 years? From jamming, or did it just pop in your head one day?
Well, the song title’s been with me for almost 30 years. The guy [Russell Hobbs] that named me Reverend Horton Heat—that’s a whole other story I don’t want to get into—he was kind of this club owner/guru guy. He started to get into micro-biotic foods one day or something, I don’t know, but I went in to see him one day and he’s like going, “Jim, let me teach you how to eat,” and he started talking about all this micro-biotic food. And I was like, “If I didn’t eat I’d be dead.” So I was asking around and everybody’s like going, “Yeah, man, every time we’re around Russell he’s always trying to teach us how to eat.” Thirty years later I have a song that’s really about sex.
You know it’s about sex, but you listen to it and try to connect the metaphors, and it’s not quite dirty. It just sounds dirty.
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah I’m all about that.
Can you talk a little bit about what led you to Victory Records?
Well, what was happening gets back to what I was saying a while back: “I’m going to get Pro Tools, and we’re going to record ourselves.” It’s just ridiculous, because the music industry’s really moving to a D.I.Y. kind of phase. And plus, me and Jimbo, we kind of had a discussion on the bus one day while we were on tour. “You know, Laughin' & Cryin’ leaned country. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band.” We kind of made our mind that Rev was going to get back to more rock ‘n’ roll stuff, and just the way record companies don’t offer much money, I said “We’re going to do it ourselves.” Then in the middle of all that Victory Records … we’ve got a really good manager, Scott Weiss. He got us in contact with Victory, and Victory wanted to put out a record. Tony (Brummel, Victory Records’ founder) is great. He gave us plenty of money, so it all worked out. It’s been great for us to be on Victory.
So by that time you had things set up to where you could really make that money stretch.
Yeah, oh yeah. It was a real godsend, and to this day Tony’s pretty cool. He’s really the first record executive/record-label big guy that actually will call me on the phone and talk my ear off for an hour about all sorts of stuff. That’s a very heartfelt thing for somebody to do, you know? So me and Tony got to be pretty good friends and talk on the phone about all sorts of crazy stuff.
You’ve talked before about how you’ve managed to create a consistent living for you and Jimbo for many years, but a lot of other bands fall by the wayside. You haven’t even injured a finger. What is it about the way you have things set up that allowed you to keep going for so long?
I think it’s fear. Fear is a great motivator. Fear is a lot better motivator than confidence. Confidence will lead you down the path of thinking you are so great that you don’t have to practice or you don’t have to keep going. You can take a year or two off and it will all be ok (laughs). We never did that. We just kept going and going and going. See, the thing is we used to work so hard. We used to play 250, 275 shows a year. I mean it was insane. That was when we were younger, and when the kids started coming we backed it down to about 120 shows a year, which still makes us one of the hardest working bands out there, because we consistently do that, that average. So we did back it down a little bit, but we’re still out there working, still out there all the time. Like I said, fear. The fear that it’ll all go away. Maybe that’s it. We don’t take it for granted. It’s like we’re really lucky that we were able to do this, so we’re not gonna quit. We’re gonna try hard to get better.
I want to ask you about a few “firsts.” You were the first band on Sub Pop that was a departure from what a Sub Pop band was supposed to be, so … do you remember your first Vegas show?
I think I do remember the first Vegas show. We played a reggae club.
How many people do you think were there? How many people were coming out to shows at that time?
Maybe we might have had a hundred people.
Do you remember your first guitar lesson, or your first guitar teacher? Or your first introduction to playing guitar?
Oh yeah, I remember that very well. I had got caught with cigarettes, and my dad had a big discussion: “What do you do? You don’t do anything. You go to school, you don’t play sports any more. You just hang around with your low-life friends listening to Black Sabbath records. What are you going to do? Learn to play a musical instrument or something.” I said, “Well, I’ll learn to play guitar.” So he goes, “OK, but you’re going to have to stick with this.” They took me to get lessons in the local music store, and the guy was a very, very bland person. He reminded me a lot of Ben Stein, the guy in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you know? (Deadpans) “Bueller … Bueller.” I took lessons with that guy … I don’t know, I must have done about six to 10 lessons, and in the meantime I had a friend of mine that was my age but he was already an accomplished classical guitar player. He started showing me 9th chords, and so I was listening to blues records and playing 9th chords, playing B.B. King licks, and the guy says “No, no, no, no. You don’t want to be doing that.” I was like, “Well, it’s just what I am. This is what I want to do, this is what I love.” So I quit taking lessons from him, and basically just started hanging around other guitar players. They would show me licks and concepts and ideas, and I would get books and learn. I eventually took some music theory in college for a while, and all that stuff.
Your first guitar teacher can definitely affect the way you look at playing. It’s cool you got past that.
At the end of the day it’s all about guttin’ it out. I would get albums and a song I wanted to learn, or a guitar solo I wanted to learn note-for-note. I would just drop the needle, or as gently as I could put the needle back where the licks I was trying to learn would happen. Eventually I was learning licks by B.B. King, Freddie King, Duane Allman, ZZ Top. I liked a lot of blues stuff back then. Oh, James Burton. I was learning James Burton and Chuck Berry a lot. Those kinds of guys, I put the needle on the record and … I ruined a lot of records back then (laughs).
Did you have one of those turntables you could make go down to 16 rpm, or something like that?
Yeah, I think it could go back to 15 1/2 instead of 33. It was almost an octave lower so I didn’t have to really … I could still stay in the same tuning, the same key I guess. And yep, that’s how we used to do it.
That’s a forgotten learning art. I don’t think a lot of young players know that’s what people used to do. Do you remember the first time you picked up a Gretsch?
I wish to God I had really been a cooler kid. I lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Hispanic music, Mexican music was really big in Corpus Christi. In fact, I think the studios there were some of the best studios for Mexican music. It was kind of the Mexican-music Nashville, and there was one music store that sold all that stuff, all the Mexican type of instruments and everything. They also sold guitars and amps, but the main guitars they had were Gretsch. We’d go back there and play ’em, but you know back then we wanted Les Pauls and Telecasters, Fenders and Gibson. You didn’t want Gretsch, you know? Eventually I figured out how cool they were. When the rockabilly started when I was a kid, I played a Guild guitar a lot.
Which was a hollow-body.
I played Fenders too. Mid-’60s Guild hollow-body, which was really great. Then I had a Gibson ES-175. I’ve still got these guitars. A lot of good one’s I’ve sold.
That’s a pretty organic journey to Gretsches. It’s not like you picked one up because they were cool. You actually thought they were uncool.
Well, yeah, when I was a kid. Back then Gretsches were really out of favor. It wasn’t just me, it was the way things were. Music stores really didn’t have them as much anymore. It was the late ’60s/early ’70s, so it was a weird time for Gretsch in general. But what happened is when Reverend Horton Heat was going, my main guitar was a mid-’50s Gibson ES-175B, and it had a Bigbsy [vibrato tailpiece], and it was a wide-bodied hollow-body guitar. And it was breaking every night we were on tour. That was when we were trying to play every night. We were doing 275 shows a year or more, and every day I would get the soldering iron out and I would fix it, and it’d be “OK, it works now.” Halfway through the show it would start cutting out. The electronics … I couldn’t figure it out. We didn’t have time to think. I went to the guitar shop. I had to get a backup guitar or something, and that’s when Gretsch’s reissues came out. And I tried it, and it played great. It had the jazz thing like I could do with my hollow-body, but it also had kind of a spanky Telecaster sound. It had great sound, and I got it. The first night with it the guys in the band were going, “Wow, that guitar sounds great.” From then on I just kind of stuck with the Gretsch reissue guitars. In the studio I mess around. I have some nice vintage Gretches. Really nice. Old ones that I have now that I don’t play too much live.
I only recently found out that classic country singer Johnny Horton was inspiration in-part for the name of the act. Have you ever covered him, or did he just provide his surname?
That’s a whole other story. I was a rockabilly guy, so I loved Johnny Horton. I played Johnny Horton covers in other bands I had been in, but when Reverend Horton Heat started it was built around the idea that I would write my own songs. Anyway, I’d been in bands and I had this little P.A. that I would set up for gigs. They’d hire me … this guy Russell Hobbs hired me to do the P.A. at his club, and I ended up living there. It was a really weird time for me. I went through a divorce. I got married young and I was living in this weird art gallery without air conditioning. It was crazy.
In (Dallas-area scene) Deep Ellum?
Yeah. And we were doing a lot of shows I was doing the P.A and it was Russell’s club. Jeff Liles’ the guy … he would book the bands and we’d work together, basically made Deep Ellum happen. We took it from being just an industrial district into being a full-on neighborhood of alternative music. Russell Hobbs had nicknames for everybody, so instead of calling somebody Eric, they’d call him “Beak” because he had a funny nose. He started calling me “Horton,” and so everybody at the club and in the neighborhood knew me as Horton. I’m not sure exactly why. I’m not sure he knows why. He told me it was because the writer Horton Foote was in town.
So that didn’t have anything to do with Johnny Horton?
No, not at all. Here’s what happened: He heard me playing one day, and he came up and goes “Horton, you really have some good songs. Listen, I’m opening up a new place across the street in two weeks. Two weeks from Thursday I want you to play. And I said, “Oh wow, great!” It was just going to be me by myself with a guitar, no band or anything. So anyway I showed up at the gig, and I was setting myself up on the stage. It was in the afternoon, no one was in there, and he came up on stage with me and said “Listen, your stage name is going to be Reverend Horton Heat.” And I said “Reverend Horton … what? Reverend Horton?” I said “No, uh-uh. You’re trying to give me a stage name?” And he walked off. So later that night I played my first set, and after the first set people were coming, walking in saying “Hey Reverend! Reverend Horton, that was great! Reverend!” And I actually had a crowd of about 40 or 50 people for my very first set, just me playing with my guitar, playing, and the reason they were already doing that was he had already listed it in the paper as Reverend Horton Heat, without asking me. And he had already made flyers that said “Reverend Horton Heat” without even telling me (laughs). I didn’t notice the flyers, because it wasn’t my idea. I didn’t know I was walking into … but you know I was so desperate at the time.
That’s a great story.
If they said, “Your stage name is “Dog Doodie” I would have said “Hey everybody, I’m Dog Doodie!” I was desperate. I was living with roaches the size of small mice and rats the size of small dogs. No air conditioning, child support payments, so yeah I was desperate (laughs).
I think a lot of people assume you constructed this persona, and the actual story is it was completely organic. You have the most fatalistic career.
Yeah, and I’m super grateful that it happened that way. In later years he kind of denied he came up with the name. He said it was someone else, so … I might not know the exact story. I just know what I remember.