By: Dennis Cook
"Oh, just call me Jim," says Reverend Horton Heat when I ring his Texas home . Born Jim Heath, he picked up one of rock's coolest goddamn names by accident.
"I didn't think it was cool when I first heard it [laughs]. I thought, "Me, a reverend? I don't think so, man.' I was working at this club, and actually lived there, too, and this guy there had nicknames for everybody. He gave me Horton and said he'd give me a solo gig," recalls Heath. "I was setting up my gear and he tells me, 'Your stage name is going to be Reverend Horton Heat.' I didn't want to compare myself to Reverend Gary Davis or that whole deal, but I was really poor and two hours later people were calling me reverend. He'd made flyers and distributed them without even asking me. He was committed to it! The nicknames you come up with for yourself are like 'Ace' but a nickname isn't really any good unless it's like 'Stinky' or 'Tiny' if you're a big guy."
Since the early '90s, Reverend Horton Heat, now as much a band as one man's name, has been churning out what many call "psychobilly," a vaguely possessed offspring of Speedy West, Dick Dale and Merle Travis mixed liberally with a bit of punk 'fuck-y'all' and Ventures spring. In his new side project, Reverend Organdrum, Heath swings in a mostly instrumental vein with legendary keyboardist Tim Alexander (Asleep at the Wheel) and drummer Todd Soesbe. Put on their debut, Hi-Fi Stereo (released by Yep Roc on January 8), close your eyes and you can imagine this is the band playing at getaway weekends in The Poconos around the time The Dick Van Dyke Show was riding high on TV. Starched dresses and brutally tough cocktails slosh around as the guitar gives a peck to the warm, spinning Lesley cabinet as the drum skips like a dragonfly over guys who wear suits on vacation.
"Reverend Organdrum is focused on being an organ trio that sounds like and plays songs that a band in maybe 1965 would have to learn – 'Night Train,' 'Harlem Nocturne,' different blues, that kind of thing. We're like a bartender/waitress band that plays on Tuesday or Wednesday nights just for fun," says Heath. "We play three one-hour sets. Play a set, take a break, play for another hour, take a break and then finish the night. There's a little of this on the CD but live we get into some crazy, extended solos. We'll do trade-offs and a lot of improvisation. Tim will be blowing the roof off on B-3 and I'm yelling at him, 'Keep going! Keep going!' He gets this look on his face and somehow takes it to a new level. That's when it gets really fun."
While Reverend Horton Heat shows signs of Heath's love of Creem, Hendrix and power trios in general, Reverend Organdrum rolls like a classic '60s Hammond organ-guitar-drum trio, a happy child of Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, early Grant Green and even the swoony no-name radio bands that adapted popular songs in that era.
"I've always liked Booker T & The MGs and the Bar-Keys, and then I started getting into Jimmy Smith and the Hammond B-3, which has such soul. Even rock & roll bands that have it are the best. As I got further into it, finding out that Wes Montgomery's first album was a Hammond organ trio and such, it all sort of pieced together," explains Heath. "It's not necessarily my deal but I was trying to figure out how to mimic organ players on the guitar. I don't need to do that in Reverend Organdrum but I wanted some of those chops for Reverend Horton Heat. Then, I was hanging around Tim who said he'd never done the trio thing. We just needed to find a drummer in the neighborhood to rehearse with. As it turned out, the guy right next door to me was both a drummer and a Hammond organ enthusiast."
"I wrote an essay about modern drummers, who've lost all sense of what I call 'sonic responsibility.' Drums are extremely loud, and more so with the advent of rock & roll," continues Heath. "PA systems up till 1968-69 were just for vocals and that was it. Now, the first thing they work on is the drums, where they put eight mics on the drum set and tweak it and tweak it out. Now you can't hear the guitars! They've taken the chainsaw of rock out of rock & roll. Back in the jazz drummer and early rock drummer era there was breath to drums. Now every time rock drummers hit the snare as hard as they can hit it. Old guys would save that and use it just when they wanted to send chills up your spine. When you play that way it makes a great statement."
"Todd is perfect for this project. He's a great, vintage style drummer, which has been a big help to make this thing work and sound like we wanted. All three of us are really on the same page, even with some of the kookier stuff like Ethel Smith and James 'Gonzo' Booker. We love doing Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle and the movie themes like 'Hang 'Em High.'"
Tim Alexander & Todd Soesbe
The swift pace and innate brevity of Hi-Fi Stereo echoes the recordings that inspired this project, which invariably were lightning in a bottle moments and one-take wonders.
"We did the whole album in 10 hours, two 5-hour days. My playing hasn't changed much [in this new band]. When Reverend Horton Heat releases a new album I basically stop trying to write and I'll go get music instruction books and work on my sight-reading or new, different ways to play arpeggios, just building my chops. My playing never changes that much," Heath offers. "That said, the great thing about being in Reverend Organdrum is I get a sideman perspective. Tim's won five Grammys and toured all over the world with some of the best bands ever, and Todd isn't that. He's been in a few practice bands that play a few gigs, so he's totally into this. With me, Reverend Horton Heat is my main deal and always will be. Here I get to be on the side a little. When we play I just plug in my amp and guitar and tell 'em, 'I only got one more hour so let's play three more songs, boys!' In Reverend Horton Heat I'm either singing lead or playing lead guitar or talking to the crowd. Reverend Organdrum takes a lot of pressure off. I can show up 30 minutes before the gigs and just plug in."
One thing longtime fans will largely miss with Reverend Organdrum is Heath's distinctive pipes. His voice is a gruffer version of a classic sound, the combination of '50s country star Webb Pierce and Clash man Joe Strummer, high and lonesome AND caked in axle grease and city soot.
"Well, thank you. I like both those guys! I think I'm little underrated as a singer. I'm not out there singing like Stevie Wonder or anything. I try to keep it simple and I can't do some of the gymnastics I can do with a guitar, but I'm serious about it. I want a classic, soulful style. Style is more important than simple, sheer ability," says Heath.
Another famously unique singer Lemmy of Motorhead joined his old pals in Reverend Horton Heat last December in Denver.
"Motorhead is one of my favorite heavy metal/hard rock bands," Heath says. "He wouldn't do 'Ace of Spades' but we did a Rolling Stones style version of 'Route 66,' 'God Save The Queen' (Sex Pistols), 'Wigglestick' (Rev. Horton Heat song), 'Run Rudolph Run' since it was around Christmas, 'Going To Brazil' and 'You Better Run' (both Motorhead songs)."
It's been three years since the last Reverend Horton Heat album, and we won't likely see a new one until 2009 or a national tour from Reverend Organdrum. Still, Heath gets out on the weekends with his Horton Heat fellas and neighborhood shows with Organdrum during the week. For him, it's really the only way he feels completely connected to his craft.
Rev. Organdrum with a Roller Derby Queen
"I've come to the realization in the last five years or so that music is a valid art form. And music is played in front of an audience. Mozart didn't sit down, write one of his symphonies and then lean back and say, 'Ah, I feel good.' He wanted to hear it while the crowd heard it. Music is a live streaming. It's not like a painting, where you finish it and it's done forever. It's streaming and the crowd feeds back to you as it builds. I've come to the conclusion that the recording artist isn't really a valid art form. It's more like being in the advertising business. Maybe that's taking it a little to far though," laughs Heath. "It's just the way it's supposed to be. You're not supposed to go into this sterile environment with these weird headphones. Now, play with soul! You can do your thing and get it but for me it's nowhere near as satisfying. To play to a packed Fillmore audience is just sheer excitement. There's no studio in the world that can reproduce that."
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