THE OLD 97’S: A PREHISTORIC SITUATION WITH ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
Stream: The Old 97’s “Four Leaf Clover” (f. Exene Cervenka)
Rhett Miller and the Old 97’s have probably seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night on several occasions, and they return to earth when whim and inspiration combine to release albums of distinct and considered country-style rock ‘n’ roll. Miller—who is opening for his own band with a set from his new solo album—speaks now about writing a song while little children shriek all around him. This interview by Thomas McMahon.
So you guys had a greatest hits album come out a few years ago. How did that feel?
Rhett Miller (vocals, guitar): Very weird! Very weird. But it’s OK—I feel if you have a greatest hits album come out and you’re still relatively young, then you’re doing something right. I think we live in an era where there’s still such a premium placed on youth, but I think less so maybe than in a long time—I think people are willing to stay with you for the ride through a few years. But it’s nice. The record itself and the way it was put together and the liner notes by Robert Christgau and stuff—it was very cool. It’s very nice to have that out there. But I worry way less about that than the actual ‘record’ records.
How did you get Christgau to do the liners?
They had a shortlist of people that all seemed very obvious to me. Nobody bad, but one guy that had reviewed us in Rolling Stone when Too Far To Care came out had given us kind of a bad review—well, not bad, but just incredibly lukewarm. And this was from one of the editors of No Depression, and it was like a real judgmental kind of review. Like, ‘It’s too loud for country, and it’s too country for rock.’ I’m like, ‘What? When did your rules become the rules?’ And they wanted him to write the liner notes, and I was like, ‘No way, man.’ It’s not like I’m holding a grudge against every reviewer that’s ever given me a bad review; I just remember that one hitting a little too close to home in the very early days. And I remember Christgau having written some really nice but—more importantly—really intelligent things about what we do. So when they said, ‘Well, do you have anybody better in mind?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, Robert Christgau.’ He’s only the best rock critic in the world. I’ve actually really made a point to read fewer reviews and just not try and be in the loop very much. I used to get a Google Alert so I would know anytime anyone blogged about me or said anything. And eventually I realized I was really just making myself crazy. It’s like, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? It’s hard enough to shout down the voices in my own head. Forget about the random people on the Internet.’
Do you find songwriting easier or more difficult now than you did in your early days?
It’s different. Everything’s kind of different. The main difference is logistics. Now I’m a dad with a couple of kids. And I work really hard—I play a lot of gigs. And so there’s a lot of stuff that fills up my time. So I’ve had to learn to write songs in a crowded room. I used to be very precious about where I was able to write a song. I used to convert, like, little closets under stairs or places like a garage. I’d have to find these places and be very secretive about it. Now it’s just wherever I can do it, man. I’ll sit in the middle of the living room with the kids going insane and write away. Nobody’s listening to me anyway.
I don’t know how you can do that.
Do you have kids?
Yeah, a 2 ½-year-old and a 1-year-old.
We’ve got a 5 and 3. It gets easier. Once they get out of diapers and more into, like, rational human thought, it’s a little easier. Not much. My daughter was just throwing a fit right now because we didn’t have the right treat in the house. I’m like, ‘Well, you’re getting a treat anyway.’ But whatever, you know. Just life.
It seems rare for a band to have been together for as long as you guys have—more than 15 years now—with no line-up changes. What’s the secret?
Murry and I have been playing together on and off forever. But it took me a long time to flesh out the rest of the lineup and find bandmates that felt right. There’s a lot of dudes out there, and a lot of different egos. That’s the hard part, man—all the egos. But once you find the right guys, it’s just a matter of … I think one thing that really was good for us was sharing publishing like we do, where everybody gets a cut of the songwriting. A lot of bands, the drummer doesn’t get any money off songwriting just because he’s a drummer. And that’s a big reason bands break up. Because the lead singer will be driving a Mercedes, and the drummer will be driving a Ford Focus or whatever. We don’t split it completely evenly, but almost. And I think that’s been good for us. And also I think it’s served us well that we haven’t had huge breakthrough success. I mean, it’s nice that we can go pull a thousand or two thousand people in most every city, but we’ve never had to have the public burning out on the sound of us. I remember we were on the label with Third Eye Blind at the time, and I wouldn’t want to trade places with those guys.
Murry said in an interview last year that he didn’t think you guys had had a real rehearsal since ’95. How can you get away with that?
That’s a good question. We did a run of dates at this famous old punk rock club in Hoboken, N.J., just last week—a four-night stand at Maxwell’s. And over the course of those four nights, we only repeated ‘Timebomb’ during any of the nights. So we played about 90 total songs over the stand. And we did have to have long sound checks for that. We won’t call them rehearsals, but they were long sound checks. That was about as close as we’ve come to having a rehearsal in a long, long time. It’s just that thing—it’s like we’ve gigged so long, and our songs are not super complicated. So once you get to a certain point, if you’ve played it 200, 300 times, you’re not going to really ever need to rehearse it again. Not to mention that pretty much every night, I have some sort of band dream—where I’m on stage with the band. You know, that’s got to count for something like a rehearsal, right? In my dream, I’m playing the songs. So it’s kind of a rehearsal. But our stuff is pretty straightforward, you know. It’s classic American songwriting. You know, there are some tricks here and there, but it’s pretty straight. And that combined with the fact that I don’t think any of us in the band or in our fanbase get really hung up on us being technically perfect. I think there’s something to be said for spontaneity and a little bit of a raggedness to our sound. I don’t think anybody begrudges us that.
Both with Old 97’s and solo, you’re on smaller labels now after being on a big label for a while. How is it different?
Well, Shout! Factory is part of Sony. It’s funny, though, because really Sony now feels like one of the indies. I mean, not exactly. They’re still working with big, big massive artists, but there’s just not that many of those anymore. And everybody has to work so hard just to figure out ways to get any attention in the marketplace and break through. It’s kind of nice. There’s an exciting element to being back in a sort of prehistoric situation with rock ‘n’ roll. And I think it’s got to be good for music. And in the end, it’s got to be good for those labels, too, because the people that ran those labels in the ’90s made such a huge mistake in ignoring the Internet and the inevitability of file sharing. And now, here we are. They’re having to kind of start over from scratch. Kind of a good thing, because I think that they appreciate artists who have built up a following over the years. You know, it would be so hard to be starting out right now. If you have a fanbase of 100,000 or 200,000 people, you’ve made their job pretty easy right off the bat.
When you make a solo album, do you make a conscious effort to do something different from Old 97’s?
Oh, yeah. Well, I don’t even have to try. I mean, there was the one I made in high school, which was the first record I ever made. That was produced by Murry, and he played bass on it. So in a way, it wasn’t even exactly a solo record. But the ones I’ve made since then have all been about giving a space for the songs that the band has rejected—the songs that don’t fit with the 97’s. And so the definition of the solo album is its otherness. It’s the idea that, here, this is all the stuff that’s in my head that I can’t find room for within the confines of this democracy.
And with the new solo album, you worked with the same producer as the latest Old 97’s album?
Yeah, Salim Nourallah. And we’ll work with him again for our next 97’s record. I kind of see no reason to stop. We work so well together that I just feel like I should strike while the iron’s hot. That’s sort of why I’m impatient to get in the studio again with the 97’s, too. We’re in a better space than we’ve been in years and years and years, and we found sort of our dream producer.
There have been a few songs that you guys have redone. Two songs from Hitchhike to Rhome, ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and ‘Doreen,’ ended up on later albums. And then ‘Question’ from Satellite Rides was on one of your solo albums. What makes you want to take another crack at a song?
There’s always a different reason. ‘Doreen,’ when we recorded it, it was like bluegrass and a little more laid back. Then it became our set closer—the big rock song that we ended every show with. So we just made a decision that we wanted a version of it on Wreck Your Life that represented more of what it had become: very electric sounding instead of acoustic instruments. And then with ‘Four Leaf Clover’: I had written a song that later appeared on [solo album] The Believer, ‘Fireflies,’ during the Too Far to Care writing sessions with the idea that Exene Cervenka would sing the harmony on it. And I brought it to her. It’s this real Tammy Wynette-George Jones kind of classic country song. So when I brought it to her, she said, ‘Rhett, you know I don’t sing like that.’ I said, ‘God, now that I think about it, you’re right. You don’t, really.’ So I said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ And she said, ‘I really love your song ‘Four Leaf Clover.’ How about something like that?’ And I thought, ‘Well, “Four Leaf Clover” appeared on a record that only sold like 2,000 copies.’ Or, actually about 10,000, but still. And I was hoping that the Elektra debut would sell a lot more, so I figured why not revisit it and do something totally different? Make it a duet instead of what it was. And then ‘Question,’ I wrote that in the studio basically when we were making Satellite Rides, and the producer walked by while I was just playing it, and he said, ‘Don’t move. Don’t move.’ And he brought over mics and set them up and just recorded it like that: just one vocal, one guitar, live. But it’s great. I mean, that song has gotten more usage on TV and in film, and people seem to connect to it more than any song I’ve ever written. So a few years later, I decided that I wanted to take another crack at it—maybe flesh it out a little bit, give it some instrumentation beyond just one guitar and one vocal. So I tried it. That was really more for me. That was just kind of a whim. I wanted to hear one of my very favorite songs I’d ever written with Jon Brion playing organ on it or something.
THE OLD 97’S ON WED., JULY 8, AT THE HENRY FONDA THEATER, 6126 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 8 PM / $22.50-$25 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. THE OLD 97’S BLAME GRAVITY IS OUT NOW ON NEW WEST. RHETT MILLER’S SELF-TITLED ALBUM IS OUT NOW ON SHOUT! FACTORY. VISIT THE OLD 97’S AT OLD97S.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/THEOLD97S. VISIT RHETT MILLER AT RHETTMILLER.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/RHETTMILLER.