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Reverend Horton Heat leads a revival

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Reverend Horton Heat recently played a private event at which singer Jim Heath had an unusual encounter with one of the attendees.

“There were these young people there,” Heath recalled in a recent phone interview, “and this young girl came up—and I say young, she was late teens, early 20s—and she said ‘You guys are going to bring back rock-and-roll.’”

While this youngster wasn’t old enough to bear witness to the Golden Age of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Heath said her observation was 100 percent correct.

“I said [to her] ‘Well, that is the goal. It’s astute of you to notice that’,” Heath said. “That’s what I’m thinking here.”

But there’s rock-and-roll and then there’s rock-and-roll.

“What I started thinking about lately is just a particular type of rock-and-roll. See, I have a very tight idea of what rock-and-roll is,” he said. “What I want to do is bring back rock-and-roll. We can play rockabilly. We can play country. We can play our old stuff and whatever is fine. But just straight rock-and-roll—and we have those songs that are on all of our albums—I’m about to start bringing those back. To me, rock-and-roll is that straight-eight, Chuck Berry [with] Johnnie Johnson pounding straight-eights on a rock-and-roll piano, or Little Richard. I’m influenced a lot in my playing by piano players, Jerry Lee [Lewis], and that straight-eight kind of feel.”

As Heath suggested, he has been recording songs that fit his strict definition of rock-and-roll since he formed Reverend Horton Heat in Dallas in the late 1980s. And with the group’s new album, Whole New Life, he’s focusing more on creating songs in the vein of America’s original rock-and-rollers.

That isn’t the only thing that makes Whole New Life stand out in the group’s catalog of 12 albums. This disc marks a new era for the band itself. After being a trio for nearly all of its 30-plus-year history, the group is now a quartet, with the addition of pianist/organist Matt Jordan.

There’s also a new drummer, Arjuna “RJ” Contreras, who took over just prior to the recording of Whole New Life. Erstwhile drummer Scott Churilla spent a grand total of 16 years behind Reverend Horton Heat’s drum kit—easily the longest tenure of any of the band’s five drummers. Contreras has a palpable command of a variety of rhythm styles, but most important for our purposes, he’s throwing a bit more swing into the Reverend Horton Heat sound.

It’s Jordan, however, who has revolutionized the band dynamic. His piano is the most noticeable new ingredient in the music and it helps the band achieve more of the early rock-and-roll sound that Heath wants to emphasize going forward.

Heath points to the title song as well as “Wonky,” “Perfect” and “Got It In My Pocket” as prime examples of Whole New Life tunes that embody the early rock-and-roll spirit. These songs still feature Heath’s guitar work, but Jordan’s driving piano lines and Contreras’ high-octane tempos are edging into the spotlight.

Whole New Life, though, is not a one-note album by any means. “Tchoupitoulas Street” is a rare—for Reverend Horton Heat—foray into New Orleans R&B. There’s a bluesy, barrelhouse feel to “Hog Tyin’ Woman,” a tune that continues Heath’s tradition of writing an occasional off-the-wall yarn. The ballad “Don’t Let Go of Me” is one of the few songs that downshifts the tempo, mixing rock and hints of classic R&B over a measured beat. The song also gives Heath the opportunity to showcase his vocal range, as he croons his way through the song’s strong melody.

“I’ve been working really hard on my voice,” Heath says. “I should have done it before. I’m singing a little bit higher on this album and I’m showing a little bit more range.”

As a lyricist, Heath also brings different themes to Whole New Life.

“It’s by far the most positive album I’ve ever written lyrically,” he says. “Most of my stuff is kind of dark and blue, and this one has some positive ideas going on.”

The quality of the Whole New Life album is impressive, especially considering it had to be recorded under less-than-ideal circumstances. Churilla unexpectedly vacated the drum stool on the eve of the band’s recording session at Modern Electric studio in Dallas. Heath was able to get Contreras on board just in time to learn the material.

“On about 10 days’ notice, he learned all of these songs,” Heath explains, adding that the studio session itself lasted a mere two days. “We went in the studio, rehearsed them for a while and recorded it. That was the only way we could do it. It was crazy because we were out of time. We had that time blocked off to do an album. We had to do it or else no album for, like, two years.”

With the basic rhythm tracks recorded, Heath then overdubbed guitar and vocal tracks at his own Dallas studio. Jordan also added piano and backing vocals to create the finished tracks for the album.

Heath likes what he hears so far from the new quartet. He said he had long thought of adding a piano to the mix, but could never find a keyboard player who was available for the band’s extensive touring schedule.

“I really do love Matt,” Heath said. “He’s very positive, and he practices incredibly hard. One day, we had a day off and it was about 50 degrees outside. We were parked in the Kmart parking lot, and he pulled all of his stuff out of the trailer and pulled this piano out of the trailer and wheeled it out in the parking lot and practiced for, like, five or six hours. He had to go in and get some gloves in Kmart and cut the fingers off so he could play it. It was so cold, I couldn’t believe he was doing it. That’s been great. And our new drummer, RJ Contreras, he’s so great. That’s been something that, really, he came in and just stabilized the whole thing very well. He’s a very stable drummer, and then he brought in his own style a little bit, some of that, the jazz and Latin stuff in there. It’s really cool, man.”

Fans can expect to hear the new material when Reverend Horton Heat hits town for Horton’s Holiday Hayride. The set also includes reworked versions of classic Horton jams like “Psychobilly Freakout” and festive interpretations of holiday tunes like George Jones’ “New Baby for Christmas” and Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

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