Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 | interviewZ, musiX
It’s no secret that The Days of Lore is cuckoo has a bit of a soft spot for the Old 97′s. That said, the band’s last couple of records lacked the urgency of classics like Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care—just ask any kook who follows the band (2008′s Blame It On Gravity came close, but sounded at times like they were aping some of their older material).
Now I’m not sure what the members (that’s singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, for those keeping track—the same four guys that formed the band in 1993) have been up to for the past two years, but they sound rejuvenated on their eighth LP The Grand Theatre, Volume One (out today on New West Records). Not only does it reclaim some of the twang, but it one-ups that by dipping into garage and power-pop. “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” sounds like the Bay City Rollers playing a Dallas honky tonk with a roomful of six-shooters aimed at them. And Hammond’s “You Were Born to Be In Battle” is the kinda song you wish Johnny Cash recorded during his Rick Rubin years. I’ll even take “A State of Texas,” an ode to the Lone Star State that could be considered cheesy if it didn’t come off so sincere.
If there’s ever a band that’s brought the two disparate worlds of England and Texas together it’s the Old 97′s. Miller wrote most of the material for The Grand Theatre while touring the UK with Steve Earle, and he and the rest of the 97′s convened at Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas to lay down what ended up being almost two-dozen songs (Volume Two will be out next May).
“It’s sort of that moment where those two cultures intersect,” explained Miller, who wrote the title track after Birmingham’s Grand Theatre. “And I think that sort of speaks to where this record is coming from.”
TDoL caught up with Miller to talk about songwriting, his hero David Foster Wallace and looking back on a career that spans almost two decades.
TDoL: You did the recording in Texas, and I know you live in the Hudson Valley now. Would you ever consider living in Texas again?
Rhett Miller: It’s a place I’d live again, but it’s a place I’d have a hard time convincing my wife to live. Years before we met she spent a year living in Dallas … well, a year living in Dallas one summer [laughs]. She was over it pretty quick. I come back enough to visit where I don’t feel like I’m losing my connection. There’s a song on the new record called “A State of Texas,” and the chorus is “I’m living in a state of Texas, and Texas lives in me.” I may not actually live there anymore, but I’m still a Texan.
Do you still listen to country? Is it still a part of your musical world?
Yeah. My wife and her family are all huge Willie Nelson fans, as am I, so there’s a lot of Willie that goes on in our house. There are a couple stations on satellite radio that play traditional country and bluegrass. It’s so funny, the similarities between bluegrass and punk rock are so great. They’re two styles of music that people never really think about being similar, but to me they’re right there next to each other—the speed and the intensity. All my favorite bluegrass and the punk rock and glam rock I like seem to have more howling vocals. I spent a couple of years right at the beginning of the Old 97’s as just a touring member of this punk bluegrass band called Killbilly, and I learned about a guitar player’s right arm. Like I can’t make a lot of jazz chords and I can’t do blistering leads but I can strum faster than most people I’ve played with. And I’m proud of that. To me there’s something very propulsive—it’s a marriage of percussion and melody when an acoustic guitar gets played like that.
Yeah, I’m definitely more into the energy and spirit in the music.
I think that’s what people look for. They want a release where they can enjoy themselves and have fun. I’ve had moments in my catalog where I’m sort of being introspective and quiet or sad or whatever, but they’re not my favorites. My favorites are the ones where people can really have a whole sort of joyous exuberance, you know? They get to be part of a crowd of people singing fun songs. I love that.
You’ve been doing this a long time. How have you gone about balancing making a career in music and keeping your integrity?
For me that’s always been a bit of a self-correcting problem. Every time, and there haven’t been many times, but the few times I’ve calculated an attempt to have something that’s really accessible or commercial it’s fallen so flat on my ears and on the ears of my bandmates. There are people out there that are really good crafters of pop—and not in the sense that I like pop music, but pop in a sense that it’s going to be popular. And those people are great, and they write for the Disney network, or the tween bands, and they’re making a lot of money and they’re not doing anything evil. But I just can’t do that, I can’t. The few times I feel like I’ve tried to be something I’m not, it sounded exactly like a guy trying to be something he’s not. I kind of wish I was good at it because the alternative is to make a living by going on the road and playing gigs. As much as I love doing that it becomes harder with each passing year to leave my wife and my kids. You know, that’s a tough way to make living, and it’s really the only way to make a living.
Is there an Old 97’s album that maybe you hold a little more dear than others?
I know that some of my bandmates have records they feel like, “Well, that was our watermark; that was our high-point, the moment we’re striving to reclaim.” I have a hard time thinking like that because the glorification of the past gets in the way of the present moment. I would rather think that the record I’m making now is the best record I’ve ever made, and I’ve always tended to do that. In retrospect I can be a little more objective about records. I think Too Far to Care was a really great moment in our band because we had just gone through the courtship of all the major labels fighting to sign us and we had a huge budget to go off and do whatever we wanted. We didn’t really understand how unlikely it was for us to have enormous commercial success, so that still was dangling out there as something that was really possible. But as things went along we thought enormous commercial success is reserved for a few people that tend to be a little more flash in the pan, accidental kind of successes. And we always said we wanted to be a career band before a hit-singles band.
One thing the Old 97′s have is a rabid following …
Yeah. From what I’ve been able to gather a few things happened: Right when we started in the early-, mid-’90s it was the beginning of the Internet chat-room phenomenon, so I know we were able to build up a little following through word of mouth—the beginning of what is now the medium for finding out about bands. I also think we were lucky not to have a hit, you know a song that became annoyingly ubiquitous. And we were lucky that we never really had a huge clunker. We never made one of those swing-for-the-fences kinda records that had a bunch of horns or a bunch of keyboards. I think there’s a couple records that I think in retrospect are a little less listenable, but even those—objectively speaking—have a few good songs on them.
Can I guess which album?
Drag It Up?
I’ve gotten in trouble with the band for pointing out that that’s not my favorite record before so I won’t dwell on it, but yeah that was a tough one to make. But if we hadn’t made that we wouldn’t have been able to survive as a band. It was coming out of me making The Instigator, and we were just feeling out how we were going to work in this post-modern music industry.
Is there an artist or band that has influenced you in taking sometimes bleak themes and setting them to pop hooks?
I haven’t really thought about it, but off the top of my head I could rattle off a few of the people I’ve been obsessed with at various points in my life. I spent my fifteenth birthday seeing The Smiths on The Queen is Dead tour. Even though Morrissey is famously mopey, there’s something about Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, and sort of the song structure and the liveliness of the drums and arrangements. Even the Buzzcocks—their songs tended to be kinda complicated with very dark undertones, but super happy, poppy stuff. I recently got to be friends with Steve Garvey, the old bassist for the Buzzcocks. What sweet guy. I was told that Steve Garvey was coming to this gig, and I was like, “OK, I don’t really follow baseball.” And then he walked in and he’s British, and I’m looking at him funny. And he goes [in British accent], “I’m not the baseball player; I’m from the Buzzcocks.” And I was like, “Fuck yes!” And I made him and his wife hang out with me all night long. We’ve stayed in touch; we exchange ideas about audio books—that’s what my friendship with Steve Garvey of the Buzzcocks is based on [laughs].
You were talking about audio books … I know David Foster Wallace has been an influence on you in some capacity …
Are you familiar with his stuff?
I’ve only read a few essays from Consider the Lobster.
That was a great one. It was such a relief because he had A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and then his sort of apex of his career in Infinite Jest. And after Infinite Jest he put out Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which was … fuck, talk about dark. I mean that’s as dark a book as I’ve ever read. And the fact that it was so well executed made it even more painful to read. That was the first time I ever really got a glimpse into how hard it must have been to be as perceptive as he was. Anyway, when Consider the Lobster came out I felt like this was a good sign about DFW. It still makes me so sad that it worked out the way it did for him.
Were your songs more autobiographical when you started? Are they more character-based now?
I have a hard time even saying, just because I try not to think about it too much. I find that when I do, I edit myself to the detriment of the song. I guess if I’m an observer of my songwriting I’d say that the fact that I sang more about getting drunk and maybe having a looser moral code was more reflective of where I was in my mid-20s writing early 97’s songs. And now my songs have less of that which is reflective of the fact that I found true love and settled down and had a family. I guess there’s an element of autobiography with the debauchery that happens in the songs. I feel like it was only yesterday. If I feel like going to a weird, dark, drunken, angry place it’s very easy to go there. The new songs feel very autobiographical to me but when I sit down and look at them I realize this stuff is just a story and it could be anybody and the details aren’t necessarily the details from my life.
The Old 97′s are one of the few bands I know that still play a large chunk of their catalog …
You know what’s funny, is that twice we’ve done four-night stands—once in New Jersey and once in Dallas—where we did zero repeats except for “Timebomb” at the end of each show. Over both of those four-night stands we played almost 100 songs. Really, the number of songs we didn’t play from our released material was under 10. It’s crazy. And now we’re about to add anywhere from 16 to 20 songs to that list, so apparently our sets are going to have to be even longer.
And you hardly rehearse …
We do pre-production on a record where we’ll get together and play those songs. And like for me I do solo gigs where I play a lot of the catalog in that situation. Every night I dream about the band—I check into a hotel, or I’m playing a gig. That’s rehearsal.
“The Grand Theatre” – Old 97′s
Photo by Allison V. Smith