A conversation with Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s
The Old 97’s have been a band for almost three decades now. The same four dudes, too. I jumped on board right around the time they released their 1997 major label debut Too Far To Care, a sparkly, country punk record that felt as indebted to R.E.M. as it did X or Waylon Jennings.
I’ve been a fan ever since. I mean, how could you not? The funny thing is people assume that since I like the Old 97’s I probably enjoy a lot of the bands they came up with during the short-lived “alt-country” movement in the early-’90s. Not so much. I mean, I like me some Wilco or Drive-By Truckers, but a big reason I love the Old 97’s is their frontman and main songwriter Rhett Miller’s vocals. The juxtaposition of his emotive and occasionally unhinged voice, with the dusty punk of their early records on Chicago’s Bloodshot, makes the band stand apart from their contemporaries.
Even when the Old 97’s gunned for radio with 1999’s Fight Songs and Satellite Rides in 2001, or dipped into the more mid-fi and maudlin Drag It Up in 2004, Miller’s playful, bookish lyrics always gave those records some weight. And the band just flat-out rips–bassist Murry Hammond, lead-guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples are a machine.
And that machine keeps chugging. The band is putting the finishing touches on their 12th proper record, which is set to be released in August. How that plays out, of course, is anyone’s guess. This interview took place the day California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order for the state’s 40 million citizens. Things obviously escalated from there.
“You know, with the current homebound, virus-determined lifestyle I’ve had to learn a little bit more about how to be able to sit on my laptop and do gigs virtually,” says Miller, who’s been doing streaming shows via Stageit to cover canceled gigs. “Which is not in my comfort zone.”
It’s not a perfect system by any means, but for the time being it’s keeping Miller somewhat connected, and keeping him working. He’s a real sweetheart–gracious with his time under the circumstances, and always candid. And we touched on a lot of topics, including the new Old 97’s record, the current state of affairs, and raising good kids. Find a comfy chair–it’s a long one.
The Days of Lore: I was going to ask you this anyway, but now this question takes on new meaning with our current reality. How do you navigate the day-to-day of what’s going on, especially over the past few years with the current president?
Rhett Miller: I have to be aware that a certain portion of our fanbase—probably less than for a lot of artists in this genre, because we tend to be outliers on the punkier end of this roots world—but some of our fanbase does tend to be, you know, umm, more red state.
It’s tricky because my politics are incredibly progressive, and liberal, and always have been. When I was a 15-year-old kid, I volunteered for the whole summer at the Dallas Peace Times newspaper with a bunch of Vietnam vet, hippie, peacenik activists. I was obsessed with reading about Ghandi, and non-violent forms of protest. I’ve never wavered in my belief that people who believe might equals right, are people who are trying to win some perceived game that I think is bullshit, and was only ever there to make women, or sensitive men like me, mush under the boot heel of some fucking asshole.
That said, I’ve never felt like it was appropriate for me to try and make a bunch of political speeches, or influence people’s opinions. I just don’t feel like I’m qualified. It doesn’t feel like a calling, no matter how strongly I feel about my own personal beliefs about peace, and love, and the way we need to treat each other. So I’ve tried to stay away from politics, certainly in my music, but also in interviews and my public communications. That’s becoming increasingly hard to do.
I strayed from that self-imposed rule one time during the Bush years…second Bush, during that stupid fucking war where we pretended that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. I had a buddy that went over there and came home with PTSD, and it fucking pissed me off. And I wrote a song called “Government Man” that’s a B-side somewhere. I think it’s out there. If it hasn’t come out, it will eventually. It’s a folk song in the style of protest-Dylan, and it’s just a faceless government man and I’m singing to him. And the chorus basically culminates in, “Fuck you, government man.” That was a rare thing for me. And I never felt super comfortable with it.
But my bandmates and I all feel really strongly that this is a fucked time for our American society. We headlined a big fundraising campaign event for Obama in Ohio [in 2008]. That’s as close as we ever came to really doing anything overtly political. I don’t know, man. I feel like maybe I should have done more.
It feels helpless sometimes. Well, let’s talk about music. I know the Old 97’s started recording the new album in Nashville.
Yes, we pretty much finished. There might be a couple of tiny guest appearances on the record, but there might not be. And this record is fucking great. I just got off the phone with my manager, though, trying to figure out when and how it’s gonna come out. It’s really hard to plan anything right now.
But my instinct is, even if we can’t go ahead with the plan that we originally had, where we dropped the album in mid-August and start touring in mid-September and go through the end of the year—which now seems like a real long shot—I would rather just get the record out. I just feel like the world needs creativity and new art. I’m really happy with this record. And I feel like it would be stupid to just sit on it for another year because we because we think we might be able to work it harder, push it more commercially.
I like that idea. I think people are already finding ways to be creative. I think some good things could emerge from this.
I think so, too. I’m really trying to see a lot of silver linings—the time we’re able to spend with our families. My hope is that there’s going to be a massive reset with regard to priorities, with regard to the polarized nature of public discourse. I really think that people are really going to look at each other and see the humanity in each other in a way that we haven’t in a long time. That’s what I hope.
Me too. I’m trying not to get too cynical. So you guys knocked out this record pretty quickly.
Yeah, it’s not like the old days. I remember with The Instigator, Jon Brion and I took over one of the top three studios in Los Angeles for four months. For The Believer I took over Sound City for six weeks. But nowadays…it’s true–you never needed four months to make an album.
We didn’t even do that much pre-production. I did a lot in terms of writing and rewriting of songs. And then the band went back and forth for weeks and weeks, culling and deciding which songs would probably work best. You know, we do what we do. We’ve been a band for 27 years. And if we really try to subvert our own style and our own instincts, I think we would wind up with diminishing returns. I think what we wound up with was really good.
What might cause the band to say no to certain songs?
I have no idea. All these years, I still can’t figure it out. Like there is a song that wound up on sort of my least well-known solo record, which is saying come because my solo records tend to be more obscure. The self-titled solo record I made a decade ago, there was a song called “Another Girlfriend” that to me was the most slam-dunk Old 97’s song. And those guys just couldn’t be bothered, you know? [laughs]
On this record, I basically went in with, I don’t know, 30 or 40 songs. And there’s any number of records you could make out of that pile of songs. And the record I thought the guys would make was the record that I keep expecting us to make: The sort of going-gently-into-that-goodnight-acoustic album that’s more, “we’re clearly part of the Americana subgenre”…you know, kind of quieter. Like we’re finally settling into our John Prine years [It was just reported that John Prine died from coronavirus complications. Rest in peace.]. And no, the guys went into the pile of songs, and dug out the rattiest, gnarliest, most rocking, weird, oddball, artsy songs.
Honestly my secret dream was that we would wind up with a record that felt…maybe this is a dumb word, “artistic.” Like I had a dozen songs that I felt like was me trying to enact the lessons I’ve learned from the Wheels Off podcast I’ve been doing. That if you make something with the idea that it will make your fans happy, or that it will make you money, or that it will fit easily into the artistic persona you’ve developed, because of the calculation inherent in the creation it’s going to be less good or less successful, artistically speaking. The songs where you wake up in the middle of the night in a hot sweat, and you have to write down this idea. Or when you have to do this song, even though the whole time you’re confused as to what the fuck you’re doing. Or there’s no way the guys are going to be able to play this. Those are the songs that got me really excited.
I don’t know what it was this time around, but for some reason they approached the choice of songs, and the way we recorded them, with this weird kind of bravery, this kind of, “Who gives a shit what the world thinks about what we’re making?”
I’m intrigued! So do you think this new record is going to surprise some people?
Well it’s funny, because I’m trying so hard not think about what people are going to think. But, now that I’ve laid down my final notes, I guess I can start to look at it as a thing separate from myself. I do think people will be surprised. And maybe what’s weird to me won’t be weird to a lot of people, but I do think it goes places we’ve never gone before. It doesn’t try super hard to make you love it, and I think that may be its greatest strength.
I love records like that. You know, I always tell people the Old 97’s have never really put out a bad record, although I did give Graveyard Whistling an average grade in my review. For some reason that record just didn’t click with me.
I forgot about that. That’s right. One thing about that last record was there were a lot of co-writes. And, honestly, I think maybe it’s been a thing since I’ve been sober five years. I feel like I’m maybe more insecure about my own writing, just because I’m not so fucking self-medicated all the time. So when it came time to make this record, one of the things that we decided, that I decided, was that I wanted to make a record that was all original, no co-writes.
There are two Murry songs that are fucking beautiful, and then there are 10 songs of mine that I feel like are me. They’re just straight from my voice. I’m not diluting it by lowest-common-denominatoring them with some other writer. Inevitably, with a co-write, you’re trying to make another writer happy. And then the two of you are trying to calculate what’s going to make an audience happy. And so it’s the opposite of what I’ve learned out of these Wheels Off interviews. With this record I feel like it goes back to the earliest days of our band when I was frantically speaking in tongues and basically just stream-of-consciousness writing.
I think maybe I was expecting you to settle into something different, you know, like that John Prine type record, or even another Fight Songs or Satellite Rides type of record. I mean could you guys even do a record like that now?
We did actually talk about those Grand Theatre albums, which should have been one record. We did a lot of really interesting, weird stuff on those records. They kind of got diluted and sort of put out in a real haphazard way. With this record it kind of feels like the best moments from those sessions. But for me it’s almost like its closest comp would be Satellite Rides, where the band is really kind of slamming and doing things that are fun.
There’s a lot of that on this record. You know we would come back from the studio, and we’d sit around and listen to mixes, and kinda go, “What is this? What are we doing here?”
There’s a moment on the record, a song called “The Old Belmont Hotel” that I thought would be a straight up “Question,” which is, you know, just me and an acoustic guitar. And then Philip came to me and said, “Dude, you have to let me play drums. This is the only three-quarters time song on the album, and I think we could make a really beautiful, sweet thing out of it.” And I do think that’s the way it wound up.
Would you say your solo stuff is more personal, and that the Old 97’s material is more character-driven?
I think if they hear something that sounds very first-person singular, they balk at that. And if they reject a song, it becomes a solo record song or nothing at all. And that was, again, one of the things that surprised me about this record, because I do think there is there are a lot of songs that fall into the category of what you’re describing as more the solo record model. There’s a lot of first-person stuff on here. It feels very personal—and again, no co-writers, no over-thinking of how it’s gonna be received. I was really just working through stuff. My favorite songs have always been that.
And sometimes it’s more fun. “Barrier Reef” to me feels personal and cathartic, but the story that comes out of it is like a fun, party singalong. That’s like a really personal, weird song where I was kind of dealing with my own father and his newfound single life, and how he was going out to bars and getting laid all the time. And I was singing from the perspective of this guy who has the same name as me. That’s when I feel like a song is most successful, when it’s coming from a really personal place, but winds up translating into a larger thing.
Yeah. I think some of my favorite Old 97’s songs are the ones where I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into something real.
So you touched on it, and I know it’s something you don’t talk about a lot, but you stopped drinking five years ago. Were you just getting a little too comfortable doing it, or was it more of a general health thing?
A lot of it had to do with my kids entering their teenage years. I have an older boy and a younger girl, and I had this vision of either one of my kids calling me like at midnight and saying, “I’m in a bad situation. I need you to come get me right now.” And what if I couldn’t? What if I had to tell my teenage daughter, “I’m sorry, you’re on your own.” Like, how fucked would that be? And that hypothetical scenario started me thinking about all sorts of things like, you know, really being there for not just your kids, but your partner, and then being there for myself and my career. I want to create as much as I can while I’m around, because it’s the thing that I love to do that gives life meaning for me. And I was able to do it less and less as time was going on when I was drinking and smoking weed all the time.
I haven’t done a ton of AA…it’s an incredible program, and I’ve used it some, but it’s not a giant part of my life. But there’s something that people in AA say a lot, which is, “It wasn’t working for me.” And that’s really the bottom line: It was no longer working for me. Like, it was only going in one direction, and it had passed the tipping point to where it was no longer fun. It was no longer healthy. It was no longer helpful.
You know, as someone who has small children it’s something I think about. And I definitely like to have some drinks and smoke weed occasionally when everyone’s in bed.
Well, you’ll know. I do believe that when you’re ready, you’ll know.
I think you’re right. How is it being a father of teenage kids?
My philosophy throughout their entire childhood, from the moment they were born, was I’m going to talk to these kids as if they are intelligent, sentient creatures. I’m not going to baby-talk them. I’m not going to talk down to them. I’m going to use words that are too big for them until they figure out what those words are, and then use words that are too big for them again. The nice thing about that is all those seeds that my wife and I have sewn their whole childhood…they’re now in full bloom. These are sentient, hilarious, intelligent, opinionated human beings. And they hold their own at every point along the way. All day, every day. And I fucking love them.
Yeah, that’s our philosophy. We have a 5-year-old that I forget is 5 all the time. I can see his future already. His name is Carl.
C-A-R-L, Carl? Oh my god, I love it.
He’s a really sweet boy. That reminds me, you have a lot of projects going on these days. There’s the podcast, and you recently wrote the book No More Poems! with Dan Santat, which I love. Beekle was one of our favorite books around here.
Isn’t it sweet? So sweet.
And his illustrations are just magical. How did you find Dan?
My buddy Ben Acker is a writer, and he told me about a podcast he appeared on called First Draft with this author, Sarah Enni. I listened to a few more, one of which was Dan. And I didn’t know anything about it since my kids were out of that age group before Beekle came out. I just liked the way he sounded. I thought he sounded like somebody I would get along with.
And so I went to my editor at Little Brown and said, “I heard this interview with this really cool illustrator. Maybe we should reach out to him to do the illustrations for the poems.” And she was like, “Well, that would be incredible, but there’s no way we’re going to get him. You’re a first time author—no offense.” [laughs] I don’t know if she was that negative about it.
And a week later, she came back and said, “I can’t believe this, but he agreed to do it. He likes your music. He likes the book. He thought the poems would be really fun to illustrate.” I didn’t get to meet him until the book was finished…I think they keep us apart intentionally so that I don’t harass him during the process. But then once it was over, we met and we struck up a fast friendship. We did a lot of book-tour events together. I don’t think they’ve announced this, but he’s already signed up to do my next book—which is not poems, but one story. Again, it’s that thing—don’t think you can’t get something just because it’s great. You know, just try. Just ask. You never know.
Well, since we’re quarantined I was going to have you recommend one book, one record and one movie.
I think the book recommendation I will give you is The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It’s the first book of the Travis McGee series of books that came out in 1964. The reason I would recommend that book is because there are dozens of subsequent novels that follow the exploits of houseboat living, private detective, salvage expert Travis McGee. And it’s just great. They’re just really beautiful, well-written books. They’re in the thriller genre, but there’s just a lot to them, a lot of depth and a lot of humanity.
I don’t know why, but for some reason Willie Nelson Stardust just popped into my mind, which is weird, because that’s all covers. Maybe it’s just when I try to think of musical comfort food that pops into my mind. I mean, you think about Willie Nelson…you think of him as a songwriter. Like he’s one of my all-time, top-five songwriters. But then him as an interpreter, having been told his entire career that he had a bad voice, you know, and him singing “Georgia On My Mind” or “All of Me,” or “Someone to Watch Over Me,” I just think that’s a pretty beautiful thing.
OK, a movie. Maybe a movie or a TV show.
Well, my family, with a 16-year-old son, we’re about to do a re-watch of The Godfather. I can’t remember ever having watched The Godfather. I feel like I know it as a trope rather than as a piece of art that I consumed start to finish.
Yeah, that’ll be a good one.
We finished watching Fleabag, which I know did not go under-awarded or under-discussed. It was actually quite good for just being a dumb thing. I really liked it. What I loved about it was that it was a voice. You know, it was an auteur.
It was kind of what I’m saying about this new Old 97’s record. It felt very first-person singular and very connected to the human experience. And, you know, I’m sure there were loads of elements of calculation–how it should be presented, or even in the writing of it. But at the same time, it really did feel like it was a human being wrestling with what it means to be a human being. And to me, that’s what art is all about.