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The Long Countdown

Bottle Rockets-Still Earthbound

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The Long Countdown

Tom Ray might look busy: he shows real estate by day, tends bar by night, and picks up other odd jobs in between; he's also rejoined the locally ubiquitous Waco Brothers on bass. But if you ask him what he's doing with his life right now, he's likely to tell you he's just waiting.

That's because he would rather be earning his keep on the road with his main band, the Bottle Rockets. (Ray lives in Chicago; the band's based just across the Illinois border in Festus, Missouri.) But in the music biz it doesn't make sense for most bands--that is, those in the voluminous up-and-coming category--to tour without a new album to sell. The bulk of the Bottle Rockets' third album, 24 Hours a Day, was recorded last July. But the band's label, Atlantic, only recently set a firm release date: August 5, a year after the recording and nearly three after the Bottle Rockets' previous album, The Brooklyn Side.

Though the delay is hardly unprecedented--the hardscrabble roots-rock four-piece is only the latest in a regular armada of bands to run up on the sandbar of major-label bureaucracy--it's nonetheless been rough on the Bottle Rockets. "Trying to have a life gets frustrating," says Ray, who turned down all employment offers this past winter in anticipation of a tour. "I just hung around waiting for the call and it never came. All of a sudden I started running out of money. I take this old Catholic martyr guy approach to it--the meek shall inherit the earth, so fuck it."

It was the group's critically hailed second album, originally released by the Minneapolis independent label East Side Digital in late 1994, that got the Bottle Rockets noticed in the first place. The Atlantic affiliate TAG reissued The Brooklyn Side in the fall of '95, and the album has since sold 70,000 copies--a respectable figure for a band of the Bottle Rockets' stature, but not what a major label would consider a "hit." Since then, their relationship with Atlantic has been practically nonexistent, thanks largely to an internal restructuring in which TAG got folded into the parent label.

Brian Henneman, the Bottle Rockets' singer, lead guitarist, and primary songwriter, and producer Eric Ambel (who also did The Brooklyn Side) admired big-time engineer Richard Dodd's work on Tom Petty's Wildflowers and wanted him to mix 24 Hours a Day, lending it the same radio-ready sheen. Henneman says Atlantic ignored the request for six months, until someone at the label made the same suggestion. "When they thought of the idea it was OK," he says. "You get along fine as long as you let them think they're coming up with the ideas." Dodd couldn't fit the job in until February, which helps explain the holdup, but Henneman's beef with Atlantic goes beyond the delay.

He says the manner in which the Bottle Rockets met their current A and R person (Henneman isn't even sure whether their first quit or got fired) in February 1996 was symptomatic of the general lack of communication they experienced with the label even before the restructuring kicked in. "Not only did no one tell us he was going to be our A and R man, but no one told him either," says Henneman. "We had dinner with this guy at a convention, and we sat at opposite ends of the table. Neither one of us had any idea it was supposed to be an introduction." Since then, Henneman says, he's seen the guy only twice: once at a New York gig and once in a New York studio while the band worked on an early mix of the album.

Ron Shapiro, senior vice president and general manager of Atlantic, admits that bands like the Bottle Rockets bore the brunt of the label's downsizing, which "basically consumed the company from July to December of last year," he says. "We focused on hit records, our developing records that had a foot up, Christmas, and completely revamping and restructuring the company. Unfortunately, some acts didn't get the attention they wanted and records have been delayed."

Part of the revamping, Shapiro says, is a policy of promoting each record longer, and to accomplish this Atlantic needed to pare down its release schedule. In 1997 it will put out between 80 and 90 records, down from its peak a few years ago of 140. "Just about every hit we have, with one exception, took anywhere from nine months to two years to break," Shapiro says. "I would rather have an act complain that I've delayed their record, and that they had nothing to do for six months, than put it out, spit on it, spend 20 grand on it, and have it disappear."

Postscript

This weekend Lounge Ax hosts "Viva Godzilla: The Show That Ate Chicago," a combination art exhibit and rock show. The art part features work by a host of rock-affiliated Chicago artists, including Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt of the Sea and Cake, Kim Ambriz of Fifteen Couples (who play Friday), and Mark Greenberg, formerly of the Coctails, as well as by accomplished graphic artists Dan Grzeca, Diane Radford, and Steve Walters. If today is Thursday, May 15, you can catch the opening-night lineup, which includes Mount Shasta and Cash Money, Sally Timms and Dianogah playing under pseudonyms, and a new band fronted by Rian Murphy. Friday's bill features a disco project by Red Red Meat's Tim Rutili, Fred Armisen's salsa band, and primo punk-rock trio the Nerves. Call 773-525-6620 for more info.

Clarification

A few weeks ago I reported that proceeds from a CD series on Delmark recorded during a benefit for Blues Before Sunrise did not go to host Steve Cushing, who's trying to raise money to pay for his independent broadcast. While this is true, it should be noted that Delmark did pay Cushing a substantial advance in return for permission to release the performances, and that between the CD deal and Jazz Record Mart's sponsorship of the show, no one has done more than Bob Koester (who owns both companies) to keep the show on the air.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Bottle Rockets.

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