“The Ramones doing straight 8ths on the guitars and the Sex Pistols doing straight 8ths like Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s kind of my thing.” – Jim Heath
Jim “The Rev” Heath is the baddest of the bad. He’s the martini timin’, big blue car ridin’, life of sin embracin’, red rocket of love racin’, crooked cigarette smoking, bails of cocaine openin’, Big D boogyin’, longest gonest Texas rock-a-billy rebel, and he’s got a Whole New Life– right now, right now, right now, right now.
After a three-decade long psychobilly freakout, The Rev and his latest lineup are in top form. With the recent addition of drummer Arjuna “RJ” Contreras and keyboardist Matt Jordan, Whole New Life is more than a song or album title, it’s the next chapter for one of the greatest guitarists and songwriters that Rock-A-Billy has ever seen.
Battling power outages and venue changes, I climbed aboard the Reverend Horton Heat’s famed sleeper coach before their relocated show at the House of Blues San Diego in January. We chopped it up about the new album, guitar slingers, the art of songwriting, the importance of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the dreaminess of mid-century music.
ListenSD: You land one incredible instrumental every album. Ride Before the Fall is one of my favorite songs on your new record – and any of your records. How many instrumentals do you write, are the vaults filled with riffs?
Rev: There are some that haven’t made it around but in general if it’s not a pretty good idea then I don’t finish it. The last several years I’ve been writing instrumentals that are more geared to movie theme sounding stuff. I’ve only done demos of those, so they’re not actual Reverend Horton Heat recordings yet. But hopefully they will be at some point.
ListenSD: Whole New Life is a Rock ‘N’ Roll record, but it also shows off how well you write a slow song. Is it hard to work those kinds of songs into the album?
Rev: Well, it’s hard to get those into the live set ‘cause you have to keep the party moving. The new one is called Don’t Let Go of Me and its working real well live, so that one is going to be around for a while. These songs on this new album are working better than new songs have worked for quite a while. I’m not exactly sure why, just might be that the timing is right, but it’s nice. You know a band that has been around as long as we have – it’s hard to get new stuff in there. It’s true across the board, bands like The Rolling Stones will release a new album and only play one song in their set. They have to play Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and all their hits, they have to give the crowd what they want.
ListenSD: In the past I’d drive around smoking cigarettes and listening to The Devil’s Chasing Me or something, now I listen to Whole New Life and dance with my daughter. (Rev laughs) The new record feels overwhelmingly positive, was that a conscious decision or a reflection of life?
Rev: It might just be where my life is at, I’m not sure. A lot of it wasn’t really planned out. When I try to write a song, it turns into its own animal. I’m just the medium for something hitting me from outer space.
ListenSD: You are one of the rare musicians who is a legit guitar virtuoso and a true songwriter – a craftsman. In a genre filled with guitar slingers, did you make a concerted effort to develop as a songwriter, or are you naturally driven by the song?
Rev: I’m actually hoping to start working on guitar playing more again but at some point I had to put guitar playing to the side in favor of the whole song. So rather than me getting real-good at Jazz improvisation, which I would love to be able to do better, I had to give up on that to focus on singing and arranging. For me, it was better if I would come up with a really hot solo instead of just improvising, something that is really going to work in the song. So, in that respect I think I’ve done pretty well. But yeah when I see some of my friends and people I admire that can fire off all sorts of really cool Merle Travis songs, Chet Atkins, and Nashville slingers to all the great Jump Blues guys that are around now, it’s like ‘wow, I’d love to be able to do that.’ But it is what it is, I had to focus on my songs, on my singing and the arrangement. There are only so many hours in the day.
ListenSD: Do you think that focusing on the song is the difference between your career and so many others?
Rev: Oh yeah sure. I started out being a blues kid. I could’ve just been happy in a good roots band, blues or maybe a country band where I could be a guitar slinger – and had the songs driven by that more. I learned to play guitar. I took some music theory in college and I kind of had a grasp of guitar techniques from learning from guys and books and what have you. I was always the lead guitar kid. Then, I realized that I had to write my own songs if anything was going to happen. So, it was immediately evident that it was going to be impossible to be like ‘Hey you singer, come sing my song I just wrote’ so I had to sing. Over the course of time I’ve done pretty well. There are certain things about my vocal ability that’s kind of cool cause for one thing, I sing six nights on, one night off, for 6 weeks in a row ya know? A lot of singer can’t do that. I wasn’t a real singer, I was just a guy who started doing it. So, I got a vocal coach before this album and started working on the nuts and bolts and techniques of singing. It really helped me a lot, I should’ve done it a long time ago. That had a bit of an influence on this new album ‘cause I have a little bit of a higher range on a lot of the stuff.
ListenSD: I can hear that, it’s interesting that you spent some time expanding your vocal range. Maybe some of the melodic progression, songs like Sunrise Through the Power Lines, are a product of that?
Rev: I think it helped a lot. The funny thing is that when I was writing a lot of these songs, I was kind of thinking about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I played a few gigs as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ guitar player and he was always doing all these crazy noises. He was always going (Raises his voice) “Hoobaddoobaw” and all this stuff and I was thinking I got to get a little bit of that craziness into what we’re doing here. Jimbo was laughing at me, we’re working up these songs and I was over there screaming and making all these weird noises and he’s going, “Man those vocal lessons are really paying off.” (Laughing). I’m over here screaming and making weird noises. (Laughs).
ListenSD: (Laughs) Last time you played San Diego, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a very intoxicated Jimbo (Rev laughing) and he was telling me, “You know every Reverend Horton Heat song has a little bit of truth.” So, there is one song that I’ve always wondered about, what’s the story behind Sue Jack Daniels.
Rev: (Shakes head) There is one line in Sue Jack Daniels, fell into a rose bush, can’t remember the line, but fell into a rose bush and having a big canker sore looking thing on my lip from hitting the rose bush – that actually happened. (Laughing). When I used to get really drunk, I had this terrible problem of just taking off running. (Laughing). And I don’t know why. I was blacked-out and I would just run. One night I just went running outside of the hotel and went “Bang!” (Claps Hands) into a rose bush. And I’m like (Groans) ‘Why am I here?’ The next day I got this, it looked like I had a canker sore, it was really embarrassing…
ListenSD: (Laughs) Starched by a rose bush?
Rev: Yeah. (Laughs)
ListenSD: After 30 years, you are responsible for bringing a lot of classic American music and traditional guitar techniques into contemporary counter-culture. In a sense, you’ve taught two generations of punks music history. Is carrying that torch something that you consider, in a Woody Guthrie, Chet Atkins, Mance Lipscomb kind-of-way?
Rev: You know, I just really love the dreaminess of the music from the mid-century. That guy right there, (Points to Big Sandy), he’s got 60,000 records and he’s a music historian like no other. I’m not really that. I’m just a guy that likes that era. What I did was I hung around guys like him, but hopefully I can share what I think is really good.
ListenSD: What is it about that era for you?
Rev: The recording industry was still very much attached to live music. Somewhere along the way with the advent of multi-track recording, it got more and more detached from live music. Until now today, so much of our stuff is just made with computer samples. That era of music was really something special. The singers and the standards, when I listen to the radio in my car its usually singers and standards, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, the great singers like Bobby Darin. That kind of thing. That, all the way into Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rock-A-Billy, and like I said, I was a blues kid. The blues that I like is more the late 50’s, Chess Records stuff. Rock ‘n’ Roll was an important thing that really went away just about as soon as it started. They started calling all sorts of stuff Rock ‘n’ Roll that really wasn’t. For instance, in the 60’s around the time that The Beatles started getting psychedelic and their lyrics started getting really abstract, to me that’s when Rock ‘n’ Roll ended. The Beatles were really kind of a Rock-A-Billy band. They were doing Carl Perkins’s Honey Don’t and stuff like that – Rock ‘n’ Roll you know? By the late 60’s they were calling stuff like The Mamas & the Papas Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s not really Rock ‘n’ Roll, it’s folk music with psychedelic guitars. For me, the Punk rock thing is what brought back the Rock ‘n’ Roll beat. The Ramones doing straight 8ths on the guitars, and the Sex Pistols doing straight 8ths like Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s kind of my thing. But the dreaminess, I just love the dreaminess of that music.