Turn Up de Heat

The scene's not difficult to imagine. The Reverend Horton Heat -- the Lone Star State's most aggressively high-profile Texan export to the rock world since ZZ Top toured the globe with live Longhorns and rattlesnakes in tow -- is holed up in a Dallas studio with the band's latest producer, Ministry's Al Jourgensen, noted toxin consumer and consummate rock-and-roll wildman. An MTV crew is on the way to the studio, chasing an exclusive bit of insider-dom for a segment on the sure-to-be-eventful recording sessions for the Heat's major-label debut, Liquor in the Front (the planned Poker in the Rear addendum has since been banished to the inside sleeve). MTV arrives, accidentally enough, just as Jourgensen and the band are laying down the tracks for a mangling of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." Which means that guitarist and singer Jim Heath, drummer Taz, stand-up bass slapper Jimbo and Jourgensen are enthusiastically over-dubbing a series of gut-twisting belches onto the piano-tinkling end-of-album throwaway. "We were just over-dubbing burps. Basically, sitting there burping into the mike," recalls Taz during a recent phone interview. "And Al gets up, actually on top of the console, and pulls his pants down and sticks a pencil up his butt. So that was their big scoop. They packed up and hauled ass out of there."

Actually, Horton Heat's image has been dominated more by the suavity of gin-and-tonic drinking, pool shooting and rockabilly worship than by public self-penetration, but the band's raging purism and psychobilly aggression have always begged for partnership with the over-the-top element. The Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes filled the role when he produced the Heat's last album (and final for indie Sub Pop), The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat. Jourgensen clinched the job for Liquor in the Front when he arrived backstage at a Heat gig in Chicago, prostrated himself, and began licking the band's shoes. Thus was a pairing made between a self-styled reform school preacher and the man who's often said he wants to start a country band with Buck Owens called Buck Satan.

All of which is the sort of titillating gossip that comes out in the wash when your band makes the jump to a major label, starts attracting famous friends and lands the opening slot on tour with behemoths like Soundgarden. The rock high life takes over, and suddenly you find yourself elevated (or is that reduced?) to a Rolling Stone "Random Note" in the passing parade. It's happened to rockabilly bands before (remember the Stray Cats?), but from the sound of things, both over the phone with Taz and on the new record, the jump to the majors -- both label and league -- doesn't seem a serious threat to the band's sense of self.

"We've stayed very busy from the beginning. I think for the Soundgarden thing we're getting a bigger bus, but I don't even know if we're going to keep it. We haven't changed or stopped or begun anything new, we're just doing the same stuff. It's helped out, having a bigger label, just for tour support. We're able to carry an extra one or two tech people and our merchandise guy, but as far as our work ethic, nothing's changed. We're still touring hard."

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It's been obvious in home-away-from-home Houston, where the past two years have seen the Dallas-based Heat playing everything from the UH Perpetual Park Party to the Vatican to Emo's. And any fan who's made a point to check the band out on consecutive visits couldn't help but notice the way that the Taz-and-Jimbo rhythm section has gotten progressively tighter, and especially the way that Jim Heath (the Rev) has delved ever deeper, and with ever greater mastery, into his grab-bag of reverb-laden speed-twang influences: everything from rockabilly to surf to country to punk. It's the roadwork paying off in skill paying off in popularity -- a time-honored path for musicians, but not, shall we say, dominant in the new rock crop.

"We toured about a year and a half without any product, we didn't have a record deal, we didn't have anything, we just got out on the road and played, and obviously starved," Taz says. "We had to make enough money for gas to get to the next city, and sometimes when we didn't have shows we"d go and talk a club into letting us play their city en route to another one. Once the first record came out, obviously that expanded us quite a bit, but we didn't stop. I don't think we've taken time off to -- I don't wanna say "bask" -- but just to relax. We haven't taken the time to see what all has happened and transpired around us, so it's pretty much like it's always ever been. We're just doing our stuff."

What's transpired around the band has been a flood of glowing press and attention, including, according to Taz, an offer to play an early slot on this year's Lollapalooza tour -- a slot the band turned down because they weren't willing to forgo the pleasure of touring with Soundgarden, for whom they have great musical admiration. And touring is what Reverend Horton Heat likes most.

"We do a whole lot of drinking, obviously, a lot of partying, but if we get a chance, every now and then Jim and Blair, our bus driver, and Dave, our merchandising guy, and myself will probably go out and play golf. But a lot of it's just driving to the next city and sleeping and waking up and playing and driving to the next city and sleeping. It's not as glamorous or as fun as most people think, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. I guess you just have to be built for it, and geared up to do it. If you really want it, it's not that hard."

Recording, though, is a slightly different story. The Heat originally brought in Jourgensen, says Taz, "for an absolutely crazy mix. We wanted it over the edge, raw, hard-core, distorted, everything." Oddly enough, says Taz, what the over-the-edge Jourgensen came up with sounded "slick and pretty." So much so that the band enlisted the help of L.A. engineer Thom Panunzio to dirty up almost half the tracks on Liquor. The inconsistency is a noticeable flaw on the album, but one that doesn't particularly bug Taz. "There is definitely an art form to recording, and we're not really in search of it. We're definitely, without a doubt, more of a live band, and we get our point across much better live than in the studio."

But if Liquor's sonics fall below par, they're more than made up for with Heath's budding command as a songwriter. While the past two albums have moved the band further away from pure, danceable rockabilly and closer to punk-rock sound and fury, Heath's guitar explorations have led the band's sound down some fruitful cul-de-sacs. "In Your Wildest Dreams" is a swanky bossa nova retro-fit of an old Heat song, and it adds a grainy lounge-lizard texture to the full-bore rush and megaphone-distorted vocals of more typical romps like "Yeah, Right" and the "Hot Rod Lincoln"-derived hairpins of "Five-O Ford." "Liquor, Beer and Wine" is an arrow-straight trad country song, complete with piano accents, pedal steel and barstool lyrics like, "I drink until I can't see, and wonder where you are." It's not, musically anyway, a typical Horton Heat song. "No," says Taz, "but not all of them are."

Which means that The Reverend Horton Heat is turning out to be more than just a rockabilly retro-act, and more than just a Texas-sized novelty -- more, even, than the baddest-ass live band presently barreling down the interstates with a highball glass in one hand and a spit-shined Gretsch hollow-body on its lap. The Reverend Horton Heat is turning into a genuine, road-tested traveling show of the best that Texas hard-core music has to offer, complete with adulatory fans, classic songwriting and amped-up stage presence, and nearly everyone who's seen the show knows it, though the band is too busy working to let the kudos, or even Al Jourgensen's camera-grabbing antics, get in the way.

"I guess," says Taz, "we try to stay away from the knowledge of it, because we're very happy just being party guys and hanging out with the crowd. It's not like any of us want to get a big head, and I'm sure we all realize that if we let it get to us then it would probably happen."

The Reverend Horton Heat opens for Soundgarden at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 21, at the AstroArena. Tickets cost $18. Call 629-3700 for information.

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