The Popdose Interview: Reverend Horton Heat’s Half New Band and Whole New Life

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

In the year 2019, some 33 & 1/3 years after they started (give or take), The Reverend Horton Heat is bigger than ever. This past November, Victory Records released the band’s 12th album, Whole New Life, described by front man Jim Heath as “the most positive material I have ever written. It focuses heavily on rock and roll but there is a human interest parallel – songs about growing up poor, vices, marriage, having children and walking the rapturous streets of America.”

The album landed high on my Best Albums of 2018 list and keeps getting better by the day. There are few sure things in pop culture these days, but the Reverend’s albums always entertain and their live sets are guaranteed to shake your booty and soak you to the bone. The mosh pits might be lively, but you’re not going to meet a nicer crowd anywhere on Earth.

With this new album and tour, two new members, drummer Arjuna ‘RJ’ Contreras and pianist Matt Jordan, join Heath and his trusty sidekick Jimbo Wallace (slapper of the stand-up bass). The band, one that plays up to 200 dates annually, is off on the road as we speak, preaching the gospel of rock and roll to the masses. Popdose caught up with Heath between gigs.

POPDOSE: In the early press for this album, you mentioned you were channeling a Sam Phillips/1950s vibe while recording Whole New Life. How did this recording experience differ from your time in the studio with the likes of Al Jourgensen and Gibby Haynes? 

JIM HEATH: I’m the producer and studio engineer on most of this record. I pretty much try to channel the energy from Sun Records all of the time. It’s hard to do. Those are great, great records. Sam Phillips was a genius. I think the pumping piano on ‘Whole New Life’ channels Jerry Lee Lewis.

I’m now getting more and more into tape. This album actually has some vintage style microphones and microphone amps that I built myself as well as a lot of old equipment. From a studio engineer point of view, my favorite recordings are Bill Haley and the Comets, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. If I could get the sound that Bill Haley and the Comets got, I’d do that all of the time. Fortunately, I can’t, therefore I’m forced to find my own thing.

These days, especially in Texas, people either feel like we’re living in heaven or hell; did the current social/political climate inspire the positive tone of the new songs?

JH: People need positivity in their lives no matter what’s going on in the news. My job is to make people smile.

Your guitars – and Jimbo’s — are as much the stars of show as the band – do you still play the same ones or do you upgrade with new models every few years?  

JH: Jimbo has been through multiple basses. I’ve been on the same Gretsch RHH 6120 since 2004. I’ve got several of my model of Gretsch, but there’s one main one and then another that I put heavier strings on for solo shows and some recording sessions. I’d love to dig my old guitars out of the closet, but I don’t have time!

Congrats on the new members – how long til they are immortalized with a theme song ala J.I.M.B.O? 

JH: Thanks. RJ and Matt are so much fun to play with. Super fun and they are both extremely talented musicians in their own ways. Awesome. 

I’ve been a fan almost since the beginning but clearly don’t have the stamina to enter the pit at one of your shows anymore – how are the crowds these days? Slowing down? Or are the new kids up front and the rest back at the bar?

JH: One thing that I think that Reverend Horton Heat has more than any band on the planet is diversity of the types of shows that we do and diversity among our fans. We’ll play a country place one night with elderly square dancers, then the next night we’re playing to a giant mosh pit of metal or punks, then the next night its hippies or something… I genuinely love anybody who is nice, respectful and willing to rock out! It’s really crazy. I’ll adjust our set list to the crowd as much as it takes, but it’s still our original songs and it’s a Reverend Horton Heat show. Of course, there’ going to be some rockabilly people at any Rev show too.

Quick aside – one of the all time coolest things I have ever seen at a live gig. At one of your shows at Metro in Chicago back in the day, a kid in the pit had his glasses knocked off mid-song everyone around him stopped on a dime until someone found them – and the pit picked right up once they were recovered. No question there, just awe at how cool your fans are.

JH: Right. One thing that all RHH fans have in common is they’re nice and have a good sense of humor. Well…most are nice.

As you get older, have your vices and habits on the road changed at all? Or are you still sticking with the classics? With this new style of raspier singing, how do you keep your voice fresh for 200+ annual shows? Does whisky help?

JH: No, whiskey does not help. I don’t drink before the show ever, but once we start, I’ve got a little cup of whiskey – hey, I want to have some fun too! But, yes, we’ve changed. We used to be pretty much of a 24/7 travelling party. Then, one day Jimbo and I had a long heart to heart and decided that we needed to be really on top of performing for EVERYONE – not just there to party with the old hanger-on’ers from ‘back in the day’. That discussion saved our career and maybe our lives as well. Professional singing coaches are amazed that I sing six nights on/one night off. I’m kind of surprised I can do it as well. I have to sleep a lot during the day when we’re on tour.

Viva Las Vegas is such a natural cover for the band, how has this version ever not ALWAYS existed? Has it been in the live set for a while? What inspired you to record it?

JH: It’s kind of a long story why we recorded it, but it does work very, very well with all sorts of crowds. It’s what we call a barn-burner.

Who’s heading out on the road with you this round? Any special guests as openers or on-stage guests?

JH: We’ve got Big Sandy with us a lot these days. He’s so busy with his band and regular gigs we can’t always get him. He is with us in January and February of 2019. We’re going to be doing a thing at the Ameripolitan Awards and possibly at Viva Las Vegas this year with Big Sandy as well. He’s a dear friend. We’re also excited to get Bloodshot Bill as a guest in the middle of 2019. As far as openers, there are too many to list. Voodoo Glow Skulls and The Delta Bombers. Hopefully more with Junior Brown and the Blasters.

I still feel the Heat on CD, always have, always will. But now that streaming is all the rage, have you made enough to at least buy a good beer with the royalties?

JH: The streaming thing is hurting artists, producers, musicians and everyone who makes recorded music. I hope that they figure out something more equitable very soon. In the meantime, my artform is music, which actually has very little to do with recording.

Whole New Life by The Reverend Horton Heat is available to buy on CD and Vinyl from your local, independent record store, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby, or Amazon if you don’t.