For 29 years, the Reverend Horton Heat has been the go-to band for rabble-rousing Southern rock that has both feet planted firmly in the sounds of the 1950s.
Known as a hard-touring act who, at their peak, performed 275 shows a year, RHH is now supporting a new album, REV, their first release in four years. On March 29, they’ll be swinging by San Jose’s Blank Club.
For songwriter and guitarist Jim Heath, it’s new inspiration. “This is really exciting,” Heath says. “We have more new material than we’ve been able to do since the mid-’90s.”
For their 11th album, Heath and longtime bandmates Jimbo Wallace (bass) and Scott Churilla (drums) have put out a set of high-voltage numbers that live up to RHH’s reputation for madcap psychobilly.
Heath’s songs celebrate the hallowed subjects of garage rock: muscle cars, girls, zombies, and the indomitability of rock & roll in the face of the squares. Profound? No. Fun? Hell, yeah!
Says Heath, “This album, it’s good, you know? This one’s really fun and fans are accepting it pretty well. So it’s a good time right now.”
It wasn’t always a good time to be a rockabilly band. Although this homegrown strain of proto-punk has roots that stretch from Elvis Presley back to country swing and into the blues, rockabilly was utterly eclipsed by the British Invasion. By the ’70s, when Heath was starting out, it was a cult genre kept alive by small pockets of aficionados.
Despite the success of the Stray Cats and a fleeting cowpunk moment in the early ’80s, rockabilly never went mainstream. Since forming in 1985, the Reverend Horton Heat have never had a commercial radio hit, but they have secured a niche for themselves and a loyal fan base. And they caught the attention of some big names, touring with everyone from Johnny Cash to the Ramones, Marilyn Manson to Motörhead.
A featured song in Guitar Hero II in 2006 garnered new fans and greater recognition.
“Being on a big video game is like having a hit song,” Heath says. Neighbors who used to refer to him as “that guy who doesn’t work” or “the one in that band thingy,” now know him from their kids air-guitaring “Psychobilly Freakout” in the living room.
The Reverend Horton Heat may make quintessential party rock, but Heath himself is a quiet-spoken country boy from Texas. At a recent New York show, he kicked out an editor from Penthouse magazine when she burst backstage bearing smutty gifts.
Want to impress the man who wrote the musical double-entendre “Let Me Teach You How to Eat”? Remember your manners.
“Sometimes people get a little extreme, instead of realizing that we are just kind of regular guys who appreciate you being polite. Coming in, right in front of my wife and little girls, and saying ‘Hi Reverend, I’ve got some porn for yo-o-o-u!’—that’s really not cool.”
That’s not the worst example. Heath’s had frenzied fans stick fingers down his throat and up his nose. One looked as though she were going in for a kiss—only to take a bite out of his cheek. (“It was really painful and really weird!”) Perhaps most wanton of all, natty dresser Heath has had audience members deliberately stomp on his shiny stage shoes.
“Something I wanna say: If you’re polite to someone, they really do appreciate it,” Heath says.
In closing, I ask if he ever fears the day when it’s all over, when he’s finally set down every possible permutation of rockabilly.
“There’re so many different licks, I’ll never get there,” he says. “That’s what’s really cool about music: It’s just seven notes—but the things you can do with those seven notes is pretty incredible.”
“The only thing that does scare me? Whenever I sit down to write a new album, I think, ‘How am I going to write another that’s got enough stuff in it to be a real album.’ I’ll sit there and noodle around and play the same old stuff. But if I keep trying, eventually something new comes out.
“But you gotta try, man, you gotta try!”
The Reverend Horton Heat
The Blank Club, San Jose
March 29, 8pm
$30 advance/$35 at the door