I have a guitarist friend who thinks you’re the greatest living American electric guitar player. What do you think?
(Laughs.) Well, that’s really nice. I’ll tell you what: I’m best Reverend Horton Heat guitar player. I’m pretty sure I got that down.
When did you first begin to realize that you weren’t ever going to grow up and get, like, a normal job?
When I was about 14 years old—and started realizing that I could get a lot better at playing the guitar if all I did was practice. There’s a lot of confusion when you’re that age. Some things . . . well, everything’s uncertain at that age. So I got a little off course. But I always knew I had to be in a band. And I did have some other jobs, you know. I worked for Manpower a lot. I was playing in bands, and that didn’t make ends meet, so I worked for Manpower because they could let me off temporarily whenever I needed. So that was a big help.
Wow. Hard to imagine you as, like, our dude Friday.
I could type numbers really good. This was back when there weren’t a whole lot of computers, you know—around the early 80’s. So they were still typing checks by hand. I typed checks for a bunch of different companies.
I guess you’re glad not to be doing that anymore.
Yeah, it’s one of those deals where I feel real lucky. Because I basically knew that I wanted to play music when I was fourteen. I had a goal, you know? A lot of people get out of high school, they go to college, they gotta decide, “Oh, I’ll be a business major.” They go through that, and they get a degree—and they end up getting a job they hate. That’s bad, you know? But that’s the reality of life, in a way. But luckily, it’s not my reality.
No, you headed that off. How? What music turned you on so hard when you were fourteen?
Well, around the corner from my house there was a record store, and the guy there was real hip. He knew all the new modern rock bands and all that, but he also had a real extensive blues collection, a lot of stuff off Chess Records, and a lot of urban blues—a lot of the Chicago, electric guitar blues, like Freddy King, Buddy Guy . . . . So I was kind of lucky enough to have somebody to get me into something that was kind of obscure—like blues sort of was back then. And that really shaped me. It was kind of easy to play that kind of guitar style, so it got me into guitar.
You must be grateful to that guy.
I am. I’m grateful I had that opportunity. It’s kind of funny, because I could play blues licks, but I’d never been in a band before. So there was this little high school band—these people that had this 50’s rock and roll band—and they called me up because they heard I could play 50’s type blues, and they said, “Oh, rock and roll’s just the same as blues—it’s just a little faster.” The guys in this band—it was two brothers and a sister—they were real talented. They all played all the instruments: they could switch ’em around, and play everything. They were a lot better than I was. So I learned how to play all these popular 50’s songs— “Chantilly Lace” and “Soldier Boy,” stuff like that. And it’s real funny, because this one guy could play the solo to “Rock Around The Clock”—the Bill Haley tune? It’s one of the most difficult solos in rock and roll. And whenever they called that song, I had to give this guy my guitar, and go sort of sit on the side of the stage. And I’d sit over there and think to myself, “I’m gonna learn that damn solo if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
And eventually I did, you know?
No kidding. I mean, look at you now! A reverend, for goodness sakes. (Laughter.) Okay, what’s up with that? What’s with “The Reverend Horton Heat”?
Well, there used to be this guy who ran this place where he booked a lot of really hard-core shows—real alternative type gigs. He hired me to hook up his little soundstage for him—to handle his PA system and all. And this guy used to give everybody nicknames all the time. So he used to call me Horton—I guess I looked like this guy he used to know named Horton. But pretty soon everybody knew me as Horton. And my last name is Heath. And this is when I had just started trying to get a solo gig going. I’d been playing in all these bands, doing nothing but rock covers for so long, and I was just sick of that, man. I wanted to do something different, you know? Something more earthy, more in a rockabilly style. It wasn’t ever gonna be anything except “Jim Heath.” I didn’t have any ideas or anything. Anyway, this guy hired me for a regular gig. So I show up for the gig that Thursday night, and about thirty minutes before the show he came down and he goes, “Your stage name should be Reverend Horton Heat.” And I was going, “Reverend? Why?” He’s going, “Man, just trust me, okay? Your music is like gospel.” And I was, “Well, I don’t know. That’s pretty ridiculous.” But see, what had happened was, he had listed “Reverend Horton Heat” in the papers for that Thursday night. He had put up flyers for “Reverend Horton Heat.” I’d seen the flyers, but I didn’t really pay attention to them, because of the big “Reverend” written on ‘em.
So I’m up there playing the show, and after the first few songs, people are saying, “All right, Reverend! Yeah, Reverend!” And I’m like, “Oh, no.” And then, after all that, it worked. I mean, at that point in time I was living in a warehouse with rats the size of small dogs. So he could have said, “Your stage name is Dogshit; I’ll give you a gig every Thursday.” And I’d be on stage, “Hi! I’m Dogshit!”
I was ready to run with anything at that point. What’s really funny is that this guy gave up the bar business, and actually became a preacher. He’s a born again Christian! And he shows up at our shows now, and he’s like, “Jim, you really should drop this whole Reverend thing.”
What? Unbelievable! You owe that guy a big chunk of your career!
Man, that’s right. At this point, I should just get “Reverend Horton Heat” tattooed on my forehead.
And now you’ve got this whole Hollywood thing going on: you’ve appeared on the Drew Carey Show, and Homicide, and the movie Love and a .45. Is there any end to your talent?
You know, when people ask me to do these TV things or whatever, I feel real gratified, and usually they offer me enough money where I go do it. But this acting thing, man. That is a tough gig. That’s like really working. That’s not for me, you know? I have to stay far off in my beautiful little fantasy world, where I don’t have a real job. I mean, if I get asked to do something I’ll probably go do it, you know: if the money’s right and all that. But it’s not anything I . . . . I mean, man, it’s tough. When we appeared on the Drew Carey Show, I was sweatin’ up a storm. It’s really hard to do, to remember your lines and everything, when everybody’s just staring right at you. You think I’d be used to that. But that whole gig was just plain hard, man. That’s why Keanu Reeves will give up 2.5 million to go tour with his band, you know? ‘Cuz that’s fun. He knows acting’s a tough gig. I have much more respect for it than I did before. Not that I ever disrespected it, but I just didn’t really understand how hard it was.
So you’re gonna keep your day job.
(Laughs) Oh, yeah, man. I mean, I do have a dream job. I’m paid to get drunk in front of crowds of people, and play music. Now that’s a job. I tell you, I feel grateful for it every day.
Yeah. You’ve managed to make a living off the same manic, gnawing thing that most guys respond to by holing up in a seedy motel and behaving in ways they wouldn’t want anybody to, like, photograph.
(Laughs.) I know it, man. I’ve learned a lot about women too, oddly enough. It’s like, when I looked a lot better than I do now—when I was, say, twenty-three or four, I looked a lot better than I do now—I couldn’t get laid to save my life.
And now here you are.
And now here I am. I got the old man spare tire, getting a little older. And all of a sudden, you know, I’m in a band that’s popular, and there’s young girls everywhere. And it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” I think girls look at things differently than guys. You know, girls like cute guys, but they like the older man thing, too. I don’t really understand it. Well, you know: successful older men. That’s the key. I mean, comes a time when they’re looking at your butt to see how big your wallet is.
I believe there is some truth in that.
And I say, “Thank you, Jesus.” I’m grateful.
Of course, you are the most testosterone-drenched act in rock and roll today.
(Laughs.) Well, I dunno . . . .Wait. Doesn’t testosterone make you go bald? Man. You can’t win for losing.
(Much cracking up.)
It is hard to listen to your music, and not just think of, you know, um . . . it’s a real libidinous kind of presentation . . .
Yeah. It really is. It’s kind of funny that our music is . . . I mean, I don’t want to slam anybody here, but you know, just kind of our style is like, we’re obviously, blatantly heterosexual. You know? And it’s really funny, because we’ve always done huge in San Francisco. We’re kind of like a novelty act there. We don’t play naked . . . We just wanna drink beer, watch the Superbowl, and chase girls. So in San Francisco we’re a novelty! We’re huge!
Plus you dress well.
Yeah. We’re, like, the anti-grunge.
Do you ever worry that you’re going to lose your muse? Are you pretty confident you’ll always be able to write the music you do now?
(Long pause.) Wow. I mean . . . I guess I always . . . well . . . . Man. That’s a really very interesting question. You know . . . sometimes, you know, I think writer’s block is just caused because the person isn’t really committed to doing the work. If you force yourself to sit down and just crank it out, it might sound forced. It might sound so forced that it’s not working as a song. But there’s always something in there that will work as a song—and will work as a great song. I mean, I do wonder sometimes if it’s always going to be as fun and easy as it is now. But, you know, you can’t worry about that stuff too much.
And since your whole thing is grounded in work, you’re okay, because you know you can always work.
That’s exactly right. My whole philosophy of life is, like . . . like people believe that Andre Aggassi has a God-given talent to play tennis. But there’s really no such thing as talent. Talent is something that you work hard to get. I say that Andre Aggassi wasn’t born with any more talent than anyone else. It’s just that he for some reason had the desire to hit a million tennis balls against the side of his house when he was 15 years old. That’s the way I see it. I feel like God’s gift to me is that He showed me that if I worked hard enough, one day I just might reach the point where people would say that I had a natural-born talent.
So for you, it’s all about the work ethic.
Absolutely. If you look through history, any time you look at anybody who has every accomplished anything, they’ll all say the same thing. Because that’s just the fact of the matter. A lot of time people will claim God-given talent because they’ve already tried to be in a band, and it didn’t work. They know they have God-given talent, and that’s why they don’t have to practice that hard, you know? People sometimes set themselves up for failure that way. The way you set yourself up for success is by throwing all that God-given talent bullshit out the window, and saying, “Hey, if I do this one hundred million times a day, I’m gonna’ get better at it.” And the funny thing is, you will.