Posted May 15, 2013 by Sam in Tunes

Bottle Rockets’ Mark Ortmann: We’re just doing what we do

Bottle Rockets
Bottle Rockets

The Bottle Rockets‘ smart storytelling, heartland sensibilities and great guitars have earned them critical praise and diehard fans who’ve stuck with the Missouri band for 20 years. Preparing to once again head out on the road with singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw (playing their own music and also serving as his backing band), the BRox are also working on new songs and getting ready to reissue two of their seminal albums and release a new retrospective documentary. We took a walk down memory lane and a look at the future with drummer Mark Ortmann.

You and Brian Henneman are the two original Bottle Rockets. What’s it like to be in a musical relationship that spans two decades?
It’s what I imagine being married is like, first of all. A lot has changed in 20 years, not only the band members along the way, but the industry has changed. We were there before the internet and now that has changed the game for everybody. Record companies aren’t even necessary all the time anymore.  People can self-record and self-release their stuff worldwide. There are no gatekeepers anymore and that is good and bad. It’s good that anyone who is truly talented can rise to the top, but it also leaves the doors wide open for everyone else to get in the way.

There are no gatekeepers anymore and that is good and bad. It’s good that anyone who is truly talented can rise to the top, but it also leaves the doors wide open for everyone else to get in the way.

Is digital the way Bottle Rockets are moving?
We’re still pretty old school that way. We come from the era of records and of making albums, not singles. We still like having a label. We still like physical, tangible recordings. We are going to reissue our first two albums finally after all these years. They’ll include bonus tracks, unreleased material, demos and stuff from Chicken Truck which was our band prior to the Bottle Rockets. That’ll all be on Bloodshot Records.

So we all need to re-buy these albums because there is new stuff we don’t have, huh?
Well, there’s a bunch of new stuff, so it’ll be worth the reinvestment. I have had fans tell me, “I lost that CD a decade ago” or “my brother-in-law took that album with him when he was thrown out of the house” and they wish they could find it again. We’re reintroducing it with bonus material.

How did you and Brian meet?
That goes back to high school. I was in and out of bands then. Brian went to a different school across town. He was playing music with some of my some of my childhood friends and neighbors. They couldn’t keep a drummer. I guess I couldn’t keep a band going and they couldn’t keep a drummer.  Still, we didn’t have a lot of interest in each other. After four years of high school, after the sheer process of elimination, we both got to the same place at the same time: Well, I guess we ought to try playing together. We hit it off immediately. It stuck ever since.

What was your first gig?
That would have been the Blue Moons, our first band.  Our first show together . . . there’s a venue in Festus called Caveland. It was just what it sounds like. It was a roller skating rink cemented into a cave in the side of a hill.

Bet the acoustics were fantastic.
Exactly. It was a big long tunnel and the walls sweat and sand fell on the rink. But there are bragging rights. Back in the day, the Bob Seger System played there. So did Ted Nugent early in his career.

How has your audience changed over time? Have you picked up new fans from this sort of folk roots resurgence going on right now?
Our audience seems to be two generations—the ones who liked us right from the start and grew along with us and, now, their children who grew up hearing us. Music does seem to go through cycles and Americana, alt-country, roots-type music reinvents or repackages itself along the way.  Back in the ‘80s you had Rank and File and Rockpile, and in the ‘90s you had the roots rock scare going on, then you had the whole “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” bluegrass roots thing everyone jumped on and now you have bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons.

What do you do if Brian or you stops wanting to do this?
All of the band members, somewhere along the way at one point or another, have quit. But the band continues on, so we keep going. There’s no board meeting where we sit down and question whether there is another record in us. It’s all pretty natural for us now. We’ve taken away the expectations and pressures. It is what it is. We’re doing this for the love of it and we’ll keep going because that’s what we do. We’ll know when we’re really done.

You’ve been pulling the plugs on your hard rockin’ guitars with your “Not So Loud” album and your house concerts, would you say you’ve mellowed over time?
House concerts, by design, have to be acoustic. So many music venues are closing and people have discovered they can have a little small concert at their house, have 60 of their closest friends there and have a blast with their favorite bands. That’s what that’s about and it’s not mellowing out, it’s trying to find creative places to perform. But the Bottle Rockets, we wrote so much of our catalogue on acoustic guitar originally and then transferred it to electric full band. So, we’re really continuing to do our own thing . . . just not always fully plugged in.

When you were on the last house tour you let people shout out whatever and you played their requests. Did you find there are certain songs that resonate with people?
There are ones that are obviously favorites, but every now and then you get a super fan who requests something really obscure they found on a bootleg copy.  You wonder how they even heard about them sometimes. But the beauty is we’ll be releasing some of those this year on the reissue. We’ll even have some of Brian’s acoustic demos, and Chicken Truck songs, and outtakes and some live stuff. It’s going to be special.

Anyone ever stumped you?
It’s case by case. Some songs we can still pull off, and others we’re like, “Man, we haven’t played that in 20 years and it’s not going to happen tonight.” And sometimes it just doesn’t fit the mood of the show. When you get 60 people yelling songs at you, you still have to pick up on the one that works for the moment.

Ever get tired of playing “1,000 Dollar Car?”
Not really, because it’s such a great song. Brian wrote something that is so engaging and entertaining that I don’t really ever get tired of it.

Do you have a personal favorite?
I’ve always liked “I Wanna Come Home.”

What moments stand out to you over the last 20 years?
Signing the first record deal. Then, that was the goal: get a record deal. That was your way into the business. Then, moving up to Atlantic Records—a major label represented the big leagues. Then there were the major tours with Lucinda Williams and John Fogerty, those were really exciting.  Although personally, the most fun I have had was a tour through Spain a few years ago. It was two weeks and it was a blast. I loved the country. I loved the people. And I really liked loved their whole approach to music. It felt like it was the 1970s. They really came out for the music, not because it was an event.

Everyone there already knew your catalogue?
Yeah. You never know where this stuff is going to land. You make your record and out it goes. There’s no telling where it will land or how far it will reach.

You make your record and out it goes. There’s no telling where it will land or how far it will reach.

What does the future hold for the Bottle Rockets?
Man, who knows? We’re working on new songs, so we hope for a new record in 2014. Plus the reissue this year. And we’re wrapping up a DVD of a live performance that includes a mini-documentary that includes interviews with current band members talking about our history.

How did that come to be?
A while back we had an idea to record a live show and we did that.  So it’s been a project in the works for a few years. We have a director, John Boston of Whiskey Bender Productions in Chicago. We’re making sure it matches our collective vision and hope to have it in time for the reissue.

You were featured in the Chevy Music Showcase, praised as smart songwriters by The Atlantic and included on a list of the “35 Most Important Roots Albums of the Last 25 Years.”  To what do you attribute the recent kudos?
You know, I am not able to objectively look at our career. We’re just doing what we do. We’ll let the critics sort that all out.

Upcoming 2103 Tour Dates

May 30

May 31

June 1

June 2

June 3

June 4

June 5

June 6

June 7

June 8

July 5

August 24

September  14

Sportsmen’s Tavern w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Buffalo, NY

Beachland Ballroom w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Cleveland, OH

The Ark w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Ann Arbor, MI

Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Grand Rapids, MI

Shank Hall w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Milwaukee, WI

Cranky Pat’s – w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Neenah, WI

Famous Dave’s Blues Club w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Minneapolis, MN

City Winery w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Chicago, IL

Hoogland Center for the Arts w/ Marshall Crenshaw – Springfield, IL

Twangfest@ The Duck Room w/ Marshall Crenshaw – St Louis, MO

FitzGerald’s – Berwyn, IL

Orton Park Festival – Madison, WI

The Shed – Maryville, TN


Sam is live-music -loving vegetarian communications professional with an entertainment, travel and tourism background. A restless soul, Sam believes in getting out there and doing things because you only go around once but knows she could benefit from a little more sleep. Give her a reason to see a movie, catch a concert or explore a new destination at [email protected].