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Return of the Rev
New label, new producer has Horton Heat back on track
By Matt Weitz / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
To apply a metaphor that any right-thinking clergyman would applaud, the Reverend Horton Heat has emerged from the wilderness and dwells now in a land of milk and honey.
The means of deliverance is a new label - Time Bomb Recordings - and he's celebrating his salvation with the March 21 release of Spend a Night in the Box.
Box's 14 cuts harken back to what many consider his finest album, 1993's The Full Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat. The new disc is the same combo platter of rockabilly, country, hard-edged swing and jump-style blues influences that first made the Rev's name. It features a fuel-injected mix of road songs ("Sleeper Coach Driver"), good-time celebrations ("Big D Boogie Woogie," the bouncy, rawly sexual "Whole Lotta Baby") and heartbroken laments ("Unlucky in Love").
This is more than just a slight return: The Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary - who produced Box - assisted when fellow surfer Gibby Haynes twiddled knobs for Gospel Sounds. The Reverend had wanted to work with him again ever since.
In between, however, different producers were tried, sometimes with less-than-stellar results: Al Jourgenson, the silly-hat aficionado behind Ministry, did his best in 1994 to make Liquor in the Front sound like something other than Horton Heat; two years later, Tom Panunzio brought things back to baseline and at least partially anticipated the swing revolution with It's Martini Time.
Two years after that, another industry pro, Ed Stasium, tried to inject the Rev's formula with big rock swagger on Space Heater, again with mixed results.
That didn't seem to hinder Horton's hearing the call of Hollywood, however: While taking critical flak for his recorded output he appeared in a film (Love and a .45) and television (The Drew Carey Show), while his songs were heard in Varsity Blues and a Mazda Miata commercial.
Still, his creative situation was filled with frustration.
"On Sub Pop [on which Gospel Sounds was recorded], we were the guys who could take care of ourselves," recalls Heath, in a phone interview from his hotel in Philadelphia. "The label liked us, but they were always going to see some new band playing their first show."
When the band signed with Interscope, the situation went from bad to worse.
"At Interscope, we were at the bottom of their list," Mr. Heath remembers. "Their main concern was how to keep us from being complete losers. It was like pulling teeth. They'd tell us stuff like, 'Hey, this song is really good. It doesn't sound like you at all.' We'd pull into a town, and their own reps didn't know we were coming. No posters, no publicity, no nothing."
By contrast, Time Bomb is "easy as pie," he says. The label has gone out of its way to encourage Mr. Heath's restless creativity.
"What we're talking about now," he says, "is my trying to put out a new CD every tour - like two a year. That's awesome. I write a lot of songs, and I've always been frustrated when I've been tied to this schedule of an album every two years." Output is one thing, and content is another. In many ways, Mr. Heath finds himself swimming against the current of popular taste - and it works for him.
"So much of our current culture is this corporate, computerized product," he says. "The people who are into rockabilly, or swing, or vintage country - they know that when they go see a band, they're going to see a real band, really playing real songs. They know that Limp Bizkit isn't the baddest band out there - there are a hundred thousand bands as good in Southern California, but Limp Bizkit is the one being pushed. There are only a few companies that own almost all the radio stations in America, and they decide what is big."
To Mr. Heath, that awareness is what impels the increasing popularity of what he calls "hot-rod culture."
"Instead of kids being chosen by this marketing technology," he says, "they're choosing the technology that they like. Instead of buying some brand-new Yamaha Ninja motorcycle, they'd rather have a 1949 Indian - for the artistic considerations."
It's an attraction that gives the Reverend a sense of permanence.
"I get slagged for being the same," he says, "and I get slagged for being different. I don't much care about any of that. As long as I can write the songs I want to write, for me that's awesome."
Matt Weitz is a Dallas free-lance writer.