Sometime in the early 1990s, the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman penned a Springsteen-style tune called “Building Chryslers” about a distracted factory worker who “drives a Toyota because he knows the guys on the line.” It’s both grim and funny, with a bluesy structure and a sharp hook. Henneman recorded an acoustic demo onto a four-track in his basement with the idea of including the song on the band’s second album.
For whatever reason — he doesn’t quite remember himself — the song didn’t make the cut, instead collecting dust with the hundreds of other song scraps the band has accumulated throughout its career. Twenty years later, “Building Chryslers” is finally seeing life as a bonus track on Bloodshot Records’ new two-in-one reissue of the Bottle Rockets’ first two albums — The Bottle Rockets (1993) and The Brooklyn Side (1994).
Long out of print, these albums showcased the band’s penchant for witty lyrics, everyman (and, in the case of “Welfare Music,” everywoman) characters and crunchy guitar riffs. They’re early blueprints for the alt-country movement of the ‘90s, influencing acts as diverse as Whiskeytown, Todd Snider and the Drive-By Truckers.
With the albums back in print and the vaults cleared out, Henneman is faced with learning these old tunes again.
“We never played ‘Building Chryslers’ ever,” he says. “Ever. The one time it got played was on that demo. We’ll probably add it to our set list, which means I have to sit down and write out the lyrics again.”
CMT Edge: What was the impetus behind these reissues?
Henneman: Those albums were out of print for years, both of them. And The Brooklyn Side was problematic because people still wanted it. That’s our most famous album, yet it was caught in all this legal limbo because it was originally released on a small label called Eastside Digital Records out of Minneapolis. Then Atlantic picked it up and licensed it for seven years. After that seven years, it reverted back to Eastside Digital, which had gone out of business. It took 10 years to track this stuff down and finally get it back.
As soon as we were able to get it back, job one was, let’s put it out again. It’s been unavailable for so long. We’re trying to gather the back catalog in one place. It’s so scattered and screwed up that when we get a piece of it, we’re going to grab it and take it to Bloodshot.
Why did you decide to release them together?
Getting The Brooklyn Side back out was a big deal. That’s the one most people wanted, and it was the one that was gone the longest. What was cool was that when we got it, we got the first album back with it. A lot of people think The Brooklyn Side is our first album, so all of a sudden, there’s this little surprise that came before it.
That happened to me with Cheap Trick when I was younger. I always thought In Color was their first album. Then I discovered they had one before. It changed my life.
It’s funny, though, because these records were made under completely different circumstances. It’s amazing the first one got made because we only had five days to record it. And we got snowed out on the way to the studio. We got there two and a-half days late and still got the thing done. That was a crazy way to make an album. We got there at 3 in the afternoon, got all the music done by one in the morning, came back the next day, sang it all and mixed it on the third day. That was it.
That was our introduction to recording music — which was not a hell of a lot different than what we had been doing in our basement before that.
How did you end up recording The Brooklyn Side in Brooklyn? It sounds like the least Brooklyn-sounding album imaginable.
The head of Eastside Digital knew Eric Ambel. I don’t know how. But he sent him the first album, and Eric loved it and said he’d love to work with us. I already knew who he was. I was a fan of his band the Del-Lords, and he had another band called Roscoe’s Gang. He had played with Joan Jett way, way back. He was the first — quote-unquote — famous person who was interested in us. We jumped at the chance to work with him. The first album was busting ass and trying to get done on time, whereas with The Brooklyn Side, we actually made an album. We stayed in New York for a week ahead of schedule, rehearsed things, made arrangements, then went into the studio.
Both of those albums sound like they’re intrinsically rooted in the Midwest. Did leaving that region give you a new perspective on your home?
Not at that time. The songs were written in the Midwest. Once you get into the recording studio, there ain’t no damn windows. It looks like it’s night all the time. You could be in freaking Anywhere USA. And we weren’t out of the studio much. It was just a place to work.
What was it like revisiting this material after so long? Had any of the songs changed dramatically from how you remember them?
Going over those songs was like looking through an old photo scrapbook. That was life 20 years ago. I don’t know that they changed much because I knew what they were about at the start. After 20 years, I can still stand to sing every one of them.
Not that I was thinking that way at the time. I just got lucky and wrote some songs that I can stand. I guess if you just tell the truth and don’t make up fantastical things, you’ll be all right. And we still play a lot of them to this day. I don’t think we’ve ever done a show and not done “$1,000 Car.” We’ve tried it, and people won’t leave till they hear it. On the Springsteen Conversion Chart, that’s our “Born to Run.”
There are so many songs off The Brooklyn Side that sound like they’d be must-plays.
People love “Gravity Fails” and “Welfare Music,” so they’re usually in the set list. We went through a phase where we had to stop playing “Radar Gun.” We were just sick of it, and for three years or so, we didn’t play it ever. But we came back around, and I actually like to play it now. It’s just like anything. You get tired of something, but if it’s any good, you come back to it. If it’s not any good, you don’t.
How do you feel about the alt-country label that was applied to both of these albums, albeit somewhat retroactively?
Back in those days, I don’t even know how much that phrase “alt-country” was going around. We always thought we were a rock band. We weren’t thinking anything other than that. We were just a rock band in the style of Creedence Clearwater Revival and groups like that. Of course, if they came out today, they’d be called an alternative country band.
I grew up listening to every damn thing. I liked Glen Campbell and the Ramones. I liked Skynyrd and John Anderson. But you can’t put a date on electric guitars, bass and drums. We never got cutesy with anything. No studio trickery. Just the age-old formula.