Bar Exam

When Brent Best laughs, it sounds like the slide racking on a shotgun. Sounds that way when he coughs, too. Sometimes when he sings. Depends. It's a little worse than usual right now; he and his band, Slobberbone, were on the road in Europe for a few weeks and have only been home a few days. Touring means plenty of late nights and last-calls, cigarettes by the carton, alcohol by the case, colds by the time they get back. Best calls it "the European hacks" because he's had it enough times to name it. Kind of like a pet. So the souvenir T-shirt reads the same as it always does: Slobberbone went to Europe and all they brought home was this stupid cough.

Best is at home in Denton, and he's got a few more days to rest and recoup before it starts again, this time in this country. First with a string of shows with Tennessee's Glossary, later with Centro-matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, with a few dates with the Drive-By Truckers sandwiched between. Even though he's still recovering from Slobberbone's last tour, Best is excited about the one coming up, his life for the next two months. Partly, because every show means sharing the stage with musicians he loves and respects. Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood sang on the group's 2000 record, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, and Best frequently sits in with Centro-matic, and kills beers and brain cells with them in various Denton bars. Glossary, Best just likes their music, and that's recommendation enough.

There's more to this tour than that: Best is also eager to get out on the road and show off Slobberbone's latest album, Slippage. And it's a good one, too, a rock record (see: "Springfield, IL." and "Write Me Off") that knows it doesn't always have to ("Sister Beams" and "Back"). It's "classic rock" if you mean "timeless," "modern rock" if you mean "now." Best tells better stories than most--check the regretful "Butchers" who can't "get the bloodstains off their hands" if you want to know what it would sound like if a rock show broke out at a Larry Brown reading--and the band does much more than fill in the gaps behind him.

Slippage hit stores on September 24, but other than a gig in New York and a few low-key warm-up shows at Muddy Waters, the group has spent much of its time since then in Europe. Which was good: In some places overseas, at more than a few of the government-subsidized venues they play, the members of Slobberbone are treated like the rock stars they deserve to be.

"Holland is just off the scale now," Best explains. "Everywhere we go, it's either sold-out or almost sold-out. They're real rabid there and stuff. We're still kinda working on Germany. We've only been a couple of times before, but this was really, really good this time. They're just a different kind of crowd, you know? They're very stoic, and you don't think you're doing anything until you get done, and then they're very..." He pauses, searching for the right word. "Uh, non-stoic. I guess it's kind of a respect thing, but it's kinda weird.

"But, yeah, it was really good," he continues. "It was probably our best run yet. It was fun. But at the same time, you know, no matter how good things are going over there, after a couple of weeks, it makes you miss every crappy club you've ever played at in the States." He laughs. "It's kinda weird, coming from the States, 'cause, you know, you kinda become endeared to crappy rock clubs with bad sound and stuff."

That's probably where the band is at its best, presiding over the sweaty and smoky, holding the crowd in the palm of one hand and a longneck in the other; if Slobberbone is not America's finest bar band, then it's on the short list. No, forget nibbling at the corners of the plate: Best and company (guitarist Jess Barr, bassist Brian Lane and drummer Tony Harper) are, well, the best, legitimate heirs to the Replacements' shit-hits-the-fans sovereignty, literate and, occasionally, obliterated.

You can hear that on Slippage more than any of the group's previous albums, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, 1997's Barrel Chested and 1996's Crow Pot Pie; they were, in some ways, Polaroids that weren't fully developed, especially the first two. The disc is leaner, if not meaner, ditching Everything You Thought's session musicians to focus on how much life the group can wring out of the guitar-drums-bass format by itself. The first thing to go, Best says, was the banjo. And it didn't really have much to do with the songs. Getting rid of the fiddles and steel guitars and horns and all the rest, however, did.

"We've got the crappiest banjo in the world, the most temperamental thing to make work right every night," Best says. "It was like, screw it, you know? The songs for this one, going in, they were just kind of more subtle, I think, in terms of what's actually going on musically and lyrically and stuff. And so I wanted to streamline instrumentation-wise, but I still wanted the songs to feel very varied. Like, it's easy to get this broader palette of sound when you're using a bunch of different acoustic instruments in addition to electric instruments and everything. But this one, I tried to do it more with just guitars, but by varying the sounds of guitars and stuff."

Danbom did drop by to add his keys, and there are a few other guest shots here and there. But the quartet cut the rest of the record live in the studio--Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park, California, specifically: "It was the '80s, hair-metal place," Best says--with Don Smith at the controls. If you don't know Smith's name, you likely know his work; he's recorded albums by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty, among many others. Best liked the idea because Smith recorded one of his "favorite-sounding rock records ever," Bash & Pop's Friday Night Is Killing Me, the first (and only) album by Tommy Stinson's post-Replacements outfit.

"Don, you know, there's a reason why the Stones and Petty and all those guys use him," Best says. "Because he's not the producer who tells you, 'OK, this is how you're going to sound.' He's just the guy that knows, whatever you're doing soundwise, especially kind of subtle or specific things, he knows how to get it all onto tape without screwing it up. Like, without screwing it up for the sake of, say, a more commercial sound or whatever. He's just a kick-ass engineer, instead of Mr. Godhead Producer Guy. And that's what we wanted, just a really natural, kind of classic rock-rock album sounds. And he did it. There were times where I wanted guitars louder than vocals, even, you know, and most big-time producer guys would scoff at that. Call your label guy on you. Tell them what an asshole you're being. But Don would be like, 'Yes, I agree.'"

Obviously, Smith was right to trust Best and the band's instincts. Despite Best's kind words for Smith, they could probably make the records without anyone's help if they wanted to; after four albums, they know what works for them and what doesn't. Even the group's cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" makes sense, once you hear it, at least. Funny thing about that? Best didn't even know it was a Bee Gees song.

"We'd just started doing it, actually, a few weeks before we went to record," Best says, setting up the story. "There was a time there when [Pleasant Grove's] Joe Butcher had been playing steel guitar with us and stuff. And I had a version of it from a Flying Burrito Brothers album. I didn't even know it was a Bee Gees song until we played it with Joe, who was raised on the Bee Gees. He's like, yeah, it's a Bee Gees song. 'What? Bullshit.' Turns out I was the only guy in the world that didn't know. And I think when we recorded it, we were just planning on using it for a B-side or something. Then we went back and listened to it in the control room. Everybody kind of had goosebumps and stuff. It was like, 'Ah, shit. Now we gotta put a damn Bee Gees song on the album.'" He laughs. "But I like it. With everybody making a big deal out of this being a rock and not very country-ish album, I kinda like the idea that one of the most rootsiest things on the album is a Bee Gees cover." He laughs again.

About that last part: Slobberbone's never been a country band, no matter how many times it's taken home the Best Country trophy at the annual Dallas Observer Music Awards. (No one seems to know what category to put the group in, though "rock" has always fit just fine.) No matter how often they've been written up in No Depression. (The magazine has lately featured more "whatever that is" than "alternative country music," to corrupt its cover tagline a bit.) No matter how much twang people got for their buck on their debut, Crow Pot Pie. (They had a fiddle player back then, and they'll never be able to help growing up in Texas.) Slobberbone has always just made music without every worrying where it'll end up, which genre will claim the group this time. Because, as they've found out, most people will come around to their way of thinking eventually.

"It's not like we've ever truly considered ourselves even remotely country," Best says. "But I guess with a big majority of fans, that had always kind of been the thing. You know, early on, like, the first couple of records, when the alt-country thing had just kinda blown up, that was something we would get slammed for back then. Being too loud and too sloppy. Not enough 'true country' or whatever, which we didn't give a shit about. But everything we got slammed for back then, I swear to God, I've read reviews and articles now from the same authors, people in Chicago or somewhere, and everything they slammed us for back then is what they praise us for now." He laughs. "I'm glad we never wavered."

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain