Rhett Miller

New Old 97′s never gets old

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 | musiX | 1 Comment

It was finally announced this week that the Old 97′s new album, entitled Most Messed Up, will be released on April 29 on ATO Records. I wouldn’t call it a concept album, but looking at the song titles there does seem to be a theme of the debauched life of a touring musician (“Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On,” “Wasted” and “Intervention” leave little to the imagination … or do they?).

Normally wouldn’t do a news bit announcing an upcoming release, but if you’ve followed The Days of Lore for any time you’ve probably noticed I’m a big fan of the Old 97′s (there’s a now-imfamous mix of mine still floating around among friends and friends of friends). It seems like the band has hit their stride after a few years of sorting out how to fit frontman Rhett Miller‘s solo career alongside the Old 97′s. In 2010 and 2011 the band released The Grand Theatre Volumes I and II, which mixed the country twang, pop hookery and garage rock grime found on their 1995 gem Wreck Your Life.

Judging by Most Messed Up’s silly, but fun first single “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the 97′s sound like they’re wading in the Fountain of Youth while screaming at the kiddies to get off their lawns. I can relate. Although I’m not sure what to make of the band premiering their single on Entertainment Weekly. Is that their demographic? And by liking the band, does that make me also part of that demo? Hell no. I say we premier the next single right here. I ain’t no square.

UPDATE: “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” is now available for free download here. And here.

“Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” - Old 97′s


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TDoL Best of 2012: 25-21

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 | musiX | No Comments

21. Tyvek – On Triple Beams (In The Red)

22. La Sera – Sees the Light (Hardly Art)

23. Skelator – Agents of Power (Metal On Metal Records)

24. Rhett Miller - The Dreamer (Maximum Sunshine)

25. The Pharmacy - Stoned & Alone (Seayou Records)

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Light Songs

Monday, January 31st, 2011 | musiX, pdX | 3 Comments

LIVE: Old 97′s at the Wonder Ballroom, 1.25.11

“I’m surprised no one’s had a seizure yet.” Old 97′s frontman Rhett Miller delivered a good-natured jab in what ended up being a running joke throughout the night: the Wonder Ballroom’s newly installed stage lights, which were a cross between a KISS concert and a Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular. At one point I thought the mother ship had returned from Abell 3267.

The lights were only a slight distraction from an otherwise typically gritty and sweaty Old 97′s performance. TDoL’s favorite Dallas drawlers are a live band through and through, which might have something to do with their longevity. With the music industry shifting (or collapsing, depending on how you look at it) one thing is clear: If a band wants to make a career of it, you’d better hit the road and play like you mean it … or sell songs to TV commercials. The Old 97′s have wisely done both. Call it survival skills.

OK, it doesn’t hurt that Miller and Co. have almost two decades-worth of sturdy pop gems to pull from, most of which they can crank out on any given night. And tonight’s performance delivered a few surprises, including the excellent “Buick City Complex” from the band’s 2001 Brit Invasion nod Satellite Rides. In fact, the thing I noticed most was how well the Old 97′s poppier material meshed with their twangy stuff. I don’t even like “Murder (Or a Heart Attack).” But the song—peeled from the band’s most polished effort Fight Songs—became a raucous power pop classic on this night. Bassist Murry Hammond divvied up a fair amount of his tunes, including the neo-Cash shuffler “You Were Born to Be In Battle,” “W. TX Teardrops” and the acoustic heartbreaker “Valentine,” one of the band’s greats (I may or may not have teared up a little, just don’t tell anyone). All this is backed by guitarist/secret weapon Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, who I’m betting has to change his snare head after every show.

The performance was marked by the occasional flubbed note and missed start, but that’s what makes it an Old 97′s show—this is punk rock at heart, and I’d trade in perfection/pretension for energy any day. I’ve also decided that an Old 97′s show is a good place for sociological experiments: The interplay between members who’ve shared the stage for 18 years—the grins, the glares. Not to mention the people who make up an Old 97′s audience: Mustachioed hipsters, leather-clad punks, pearl-button snap aficionados, babysitter payers, babysitters, me, you. All drenched in whiskey, a little Rhett Miller sweat and the Wonder Ballroom’s lighting system, which I’m happy to report did not cause anyone to lose their minds. The Old 97′s took care of that.

Photo by Mark Lore

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Rhett Miller dreams Old 97′s

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 | interviewZ, musiX | 4 Comments

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

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Old 97′s: New double album?

Monday, April 26th, 2010 | musiX | No Comments

Anyone who knows me, or keeps up with TDoL, knows I’m a bit of an Old 97′s freak fan. Why wouldn’t I be? Better yet—why wouldn’t you be? So imagine my giddiness when I saw The Dallas Observer had dropped in on the band while they recorded basic tracks for their forthcoming record at Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas.

The following clip offers a nice chunk of a new tune, a song title in “Every Night Is Friday Night Without You” and a ghost story from bassist Murry Hammond. Salim Nourallah, who produced 2008′s Blame It On Gravity, is manning the boards again, and it sounds like there’s a lot of material. The Old 97′s always modest frontman/looker Rhett Miller explains in the waning seconds of the clip. Sounds like I better reserve a spot on The Days of Lore (2010? 2011?) year-end list.

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