Stumbler Party 

Slobberbone may just be the best bar band in America. Here's the proof.

When Brent Best laughs, it sounds like the slide racking on a shotgun. Sounds that way when he coughs, too, and sometimes when he sings. It's a little worse than usual. He and his band, Slobberbone, toured Europe for a few weeks and just returned home. Road life means late nights and last calls, cigarettes by the carton, alcohol by the case, and colds by the time they get back. Best calls it the "European hacks" -- he's had it enough times to name it. 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, Texas, and he's got a few more days to rest before the tour starts again, this time in his home country. First there's a string of shows with Tennessee's Glossary, and later with Centro-Matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, plus a few dates with the Drive-By Truckers sandwiched in between. Even though he's still recovering from Slobberbone's last tour, Best is excited about the one coming up. 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.

There's more to this tour than that. Best is also eager to get out and show off Slobberbone's latest album, Slippage. It's a good one, too: a rock record (see "Springfield, IL" and "Write Me Off") that knows it doesn't always have to rock ("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 last September, but other than a gig in New York and a few warm-up shows at Dallas' Muddy Waters, the group has spent much of its time since then in Europe. In some places overseas, at more than a few of the government-subsidized venues they play, the members of Slobberbone are treated like rock stars.

"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 ... uh, non-stoic.

"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."

That's probably where the band is at its best, presiding over the sweaty and the 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 shortlist. Change that: Best and company (guitarist Jess Barr, bassist Brian Lane, and drummer Tony Harper) are the best, legitimate heirs to the Replacements' shit-hits-the-fans sovereignty.

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. Those albums were, in some ways, Polaroids that weren't fully developed, especially the first two. The new disc is leaner, if not meaner, ditching Everything You Thought's session musicians to focus on the guitar-drums-bass format. 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."

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 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 know his work. He's recorded albums by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Tom Petty. 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 the Stones and Petty and all those guys use him," Best says. "Because he's not the producer who tells you, 'Okay, 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 kickass 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, 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 the band's instincts. Despite Best's kind words, the band could probably make the records without anyone's help. After four albums, the band knows what works for it. Even its cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" makes sense. 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.

"But I like it," he says, laughing. "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 often they've been written up in No Depression, no matter how much twang people got for their buck on 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 ever worrying where it'll end up, or which genre will claim the group this time.

"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. I'm glad we never wavered."


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