By Lynne Margolis
For a guy who rocks out with what seems like such reckless abandon, Rhett Miller, Old 97’s’ lead singer and songwriter, really sounds more like a mild intellectual than a Dallas native with a wild streak, a Replacements-rooted musical sensibility and a love for Texas twang, British beats, fuzzed-out punk and power pop. He’s a responsible husband and dad who takes care of the kids while his wife naps; who finds peace and sanity on their 3-1/2-acre spread an hour and a half outside of New York City. He talks about his bad-boy days, but he also was a top student who earned a scholarship to the elite Sarah Lawrence College (which bandmate/bassist Murry Hammond talked him into giving up in the name of pursuing their rock ’n’ roll fantasies). Clearly, he didn’t need a B.A. to write the kind of clever, relentlessly hummable tunes that characterize Old 97’s’ output: “19,” “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” “Jagged,” “Time Bomb,” “Rollerskate Skinny,” “Up the Devil’s Pay” … even “Oppenheimer,” a song about falling in love on a street named after the father of the atomic bomb, is impossible to scrub from the brain’s running soundtrack once it lodges itself there.
Fifteen years into his music career, he’s still with the same bandmates (the others are lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples ) and still gets excited about the music they make together — which, on the upcoming release, Blame It On Gravity, contains more of the instantaneously connecting melodies and lyrics we’ve come to expect from this foursome. They may have named themselves after a train wreck, but they’ve never sounded like one — despite those loose-sounding arrangements that sometimes seemed like they could derail at any moment. The fact that they didn’t is proof of just how tight they really were, but this time around, under Salim Nourallah’s production, the music’s so taut, it bounces like a trampoline — and jumps with the same sense of adventure. And the guitar work … well, Miller rightly says Bethea has hit a career peak; whether he’s twangin’ or rockin’ — or both — it’s nothing less than sterling throughout.
On an album full of just about perfect tunes, picking standouts is a challenge. The propulsive “Dance With Me” is one. The sweet and pretty “No Baby I” is another. “She Loves the Sunset” is a cool half tango, half Beatles confection; “The Color of A Lonely Heart is Blue” is a new classic. And “The One” neatly captures everything there is to love about Old 97’s — including their attitude about cashing in, something they’ve never gotten around to doing. And ideally, will never have to.
When we spoke, Rhett was watching his son, Max, 4-1/2, and hoping his daughter, Soleil, just about 2, wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the interview. I kidded him about a reference he made in the band bio to the name Hammond and wife Grey DeLisle gave their baby: Tex. Miller said it’s a good thing they live in L.A. because you can’t have a kid named Tex in Texas.
So nobody named Tex, huh?
[Laughs] No, nobody named Tex.
Where do you live ?
In the Hudson Valley, about an hour and a half north of the city. We’ve got about 3-1/2 acres in the middle of a bunch of horse farms
That sounds wonderful. Almost like being in Texas except the leaves change color and you have winter.
Yeah, a lot of winter.
So you recorded the album in Dallas. Did that feel like being a visitor or that you were back home again?
It really felt like being back home again, because we rented a house in the same neighborhood where the band started, where I moved when I dropped out of college and lived as a young adult. And my mom still lives there and my dad and my brother and his family. It was really such a sweet time. It was funny because we were within blocks of all the places where the band members had all lived in all of our early 20s and where the band formed. It was nostalgic but at the same time, it felt very of the moment. It felt very real, like we were part of this Dallas scene. Something about it felt so appropriate and warm, and really good. It was inspiring.
Did you have your family with you?
Yeah, I did. I brought my family down for a big chunk of the recording. Salim Nourallah, the producer, he and his wife, Jamie, have a son, Gavin, who’s great friends with my kid, Max. They found out they were pregnant while they were both on tour with me for one of my solo records. When we made The Believer, Salim came out and recorded with me and brought his whole family and we all lived together.
Oh wow. Sounds really communal.
Yeah. Very communal.
Did Dallas feel like a different place than it did when you grew up there?
Ah, certainly. You can’t step in the same river twice. It’s moved on, the city’s moved on in a way, and I’ve certainly moved on. Now I’m an adult with a family to take care of. Most of my time spent there was pretty irresponsible, young — although I say that and I worked so hard to make money when I wasn’t on the road and then when I was on the road, I worked so hard to make this dream come true of making a living out of doing music, and it’s funny — as much as I laugh about how irresponsible I was in my youth, I think about it now and I didn’t play around. I was working all the time.
It’s like when you thought you faked your way through English class and then you realize, “Hey, I really did deserve those As.”
You’ve had so many songs appear in pretty high-profile films and TV shows, etc. It’s not uncommon to turn on some repeat and catch an Old 97’s song. Is that a kick for you when that happens?
I love that. I love it. I have friends in the business that think that there’s an element of compromise involved in having people use their songs like that, but I’ve never felt that. That’s not true; there was one usage that I felt was inappropriate. There was a sexually explicit murder happening during one of our songs. I’m like, “You know, I’m not all (that keen on this).”
Oh wow. What show was that in? I think I missed that episode.
I shouldn’t even say it but it was an early cut. In the final film, they 86’ed it, which I was grateful for, but it was the movie called Clay Pigeons. They used our song as the title track at the beginning, and then later on, they used “Big Brown Eyes” during a scene that they eventually cut. … So the compromise was not that bad, but since then, when they call me to ask if so-and-so can use a song, I’ll say, well what’s happening on screen? [Laughs]
The band’s cameo in The Breakup … that was pretty impressive. Did that do anything for you guys in the bigger picture, careerwise? I think by then you were already pretty well known, but did you feel like it changed anything?
I think if anything, what it did was just to further the branding of our band. To keep our name in the public eye and to introduce some kids who might not have been around when Too Far to Care was released or any of our Elektra records. You know, I feel like anytime you can do something high-profile that keeps you in the public eye, it extends the life of your band, and to me, that’s what it’s all about — just getting to do this forever.
But you guys already do a lot of that; you spend so much time on the road. How many Austin City Limits fests have you played so far?
You know, it seems like more than it is. I think we’ve only played two ACL festivals. And I love the ACL festival. I mean, I love Southby (South By Southwest); I grew up going to it, but Southby, to me, is a little more nerve-wracking ’cause it’s so industry-centric, whereas ACL is all about the fan. And it’s so cool, and they really have it set up well, and I don’t know if we’re on it this year, if they’ve announced, but I’ve been on my people to make it happen.
Oh, good. I mean, I know you don’t do it every year, but to me, it’s like you belong there. That is what the vibe of that festival is, in a way (Old 97’s, roots rock, good ol’ Texas bands, etc.) Which leads me to another question about the new album … although we think of ACL as kind of alt-country/Americana, would you characterize that album this way? I don’t hear twang all that much, not that that’s a bad thing. I don’t know if that’s the right terminology for it. What would you say?
Oh, sure. Sure. It’s funny because our whole career has been sort of defined by this question, or argument. And there was a moment during Wreck Your Life when I felt like we were such a part of this kind of movement. And I felt like it was almost centered in Chicago more than Texas …
Right, with Bloodshot.
Yeah, the Bloodshot Records and the insurgent country movement, and there was just so much going on. You know, it’s funny, because there were even some expats, like (Bloodshot labelmates) Jon Langford and his Waco Brothers, as Welsh as they are, they were still part of this movement, the alt-country movement. And since then, it’s been a little bit of a monkey on the back, that term, because we spent 10 years after that on a major label who didn’t appreciate the nuances of, “Well, it’s not country, and it’s certainly not indie-rock or anything like that.” It’s certainly not the kind of pop that our labelmates at the time, Third Eye Blind, were cranking out. It’s some weird hybrid thing. And now it’s funny. Now I see so many bands that are total hybrids and proud to describe themselves as ska slash folk slash whatever.
And even if you look at, like, Bright Eyes, that’s come up in the last few years, those records, if you listen to them, they’re pretty country-sounding. If they had come out in the mid-‘90s, (creator Conor Oberst) would have been part of the alt-country movement. But because it’s now, people get less hung up on that … I wonder if it has less to do with the demise of the major-label system or what, but yeah, you know, some of my best friends started in that movement, the alt-country movement, but there have certainly been moments where I felt really angry at the sort of cultural ghettoization that that term implies. And there’s a reductive element to it, where you’re like, “Well, you can call it that, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that.” At the same time, I can’t get too worked up about it because if people are talking and listening, they’ve gotta say something.
Exactly. And it’s funny, because now the term Americana is supposed to be the catch-all for whatever, and the Grammys have even added a, what is it, contemporary folk/Americana category?
Yeah, Steve Earle, my labelmate and management mate, won it this year, I think.
Yeah, he did, as a matter of fact. And it’s kind of just because they didn’t know what else to do with it (the Americana category). And they couldn’t decide whether to make it a whole category or what, so they still consider it part of folk. But — I mean, I would put you guys in Americana but I would hardly call you folk, even contemporary folk.
Which is funny because, A) I grew up loving and listening to folk music almost exclusively; the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan’s acoustic stuff, and still, when I write the songs, they might as well be coffeehouse folk music. Me and an acoustic guitar.
I can hear that, I guess. Yeah.
I think it’s at the core of all of our music, but its way too much fun to turn the amps up and rock out.
One of the songs that’s on a permanent soundtrack in my head is “Murder (Or a Heart Attack).” I just love that song (about a cat who escapes, causing angst about a girlfriend’s reaction). So I have to know: Did the cat ever come home?
Yeah, The cat came back while I was writing the song, actually. Sadly, he’s since deceased. That was some time ago. Oh, Charlie. He was a sweet cat and it’s funny, I joke about it, but I think there’s some truth to it, that that’s why there’s no third verse in the song. ’Cause he got home. So there was no necessity for it.
I guess he took away the drama of the whole thing. But I’m glad Charlie made it home. You’ve also said in your bio for this album that, as opposed to the last record, Drag It Up, which was full of songs about mortality and aging, Blame It On Gravity “is more like a second childhood.” I think some of these songs reflect something beyond a second childhood. They sound to me like some of them are (about) growing up, having families, maturing a little bit … am I off base there?
No, no, not at all. I think Murry’s song, “This Beautiful Thing,” is very much — and it took me forever to realize what it was about — it’s totally about him falling in love with his wife, and they’re having kids. And even mine … it’s funny, the songs on this record; I was going through it with my wife, realizing that the first four or five songs each have a death in them. Some allusion to impending doom, or something like that. There’s a lot of mortalitiy in it but I think it’s always been a part of our music. I think there’s something, I don’t know, growing up in Texas, I liked that sort of Gestalt, the Wild West, you know, where there’s a criminal element always lurking right below the surface. My favorite books all play on that; the Elmore Leonard canon is one of my favorites. I love that … for a lot of years, I thought the best song I’d ever written was a song called “The Other Shoe” — a guy under the bed listening to his wife about to cheat on him and he’s holding a gun and it’s all spinning off into what’s gonna happen. And there’s sort of a murder that’s talked about in the future in that, so it’s a murder ballad, in a way. But the stakes in a song like that, to me, are more interesting than just a typical love song. But I mean, I like those too, don’t get me wrong.
But there’s drama, and a sense of danger in it, which I think is what characterizes that whole Elmore Leonard thing you mentioned, and that whole thing you get in Texas, that whole sense of … I’m not a native, I’ve been here four years, and I was just blown away by the mythology, the kind of larger-than-life sense of adventure and possibilities that people feel here. They take it for granted.
Sure. I’m a seventh-generation Texan, and my family, throughout Texas history, was part of all the stuff that went down, which gets glorified, but really in the end it was just us stealing land from Mexico.
I’m gonna get in trouble with my family for saying that. But I had relatives in the battle of San Jacinto and there’s pictures of relatives of mine right in the rotunda at the state Capitol building. There’s one of a doctor attending to Gen. … was it Stephen F. Austin? Somebody … but the doctor attending to him is my great, great, great ,great grandfather.
Do you have relatives in the state cemetery?
I don’t know. I’m sure my uncle could tell me in a heartbeat. I’ve gone and found my relatives’ names, though, on the list of dead from various battles that sort of won Texas, because there’s marble memorials all around the grounds of the Capitol. I’ve done that before. I’m not much of a genealogist, but I kind of feel it. I felt it even — well, my grandfather being born into money and losing all the money, and it’s just this weird sort of renegade thing. It always feels a little … like I said. And then … when I went into music, there’s sort of this feeling of not quite being on the right side of the law.
Like walking the lease on your house or you’re walking a water bill or you’re quitting a job without telling them that you’re quitting. You know, there’s all this … you know. Steeling beer from the restaurant you worked in
Oh, but you didn’t do any of these things, right? You just thought about them.
Certainly not. Although actually, now that I think about it, the statute of limitations doesn’t — (sighs in relief) it would make me OK.
Two years, I believe it is. Unless you killed somebody. But you’re right. Playing music — I think one of the things people love about it is that it’s almost like being an outlaw. You know you’re doing something so non-traditional and you’re getting away with it, in a way, because there’s so many people who can’t succeed at it. That’s an interesting perspective.
That’s funny, though. The last song on this new record is called “The One,” and it’s all about the band as a gang of bankrobbers stealing money from a bank, and then instead of taking Highway 5 or something fast, going up the leisurely coastal Highway 1 because we just don’t care.
Speaking of caring, you also said in the bio that you cared much more about making the songs perfect this time and much less about what happens to them after they’re recorded. How can you detach yourself from them now?
It’s like they exist more as songs and less as little units, little pieces of a product. Over the years, I felt really good about my relationship with Elektra records and the band. But it was the last gasp of a dying industry that was very sad about its own demise. All these people working in this business could feel the axe about to fall. It was a weird time and it was fraught with a lot of emotional tension, and it’s nice to be in this post-major label world where it can be about the music, and people discover music more based on the music itself and less based on what’s sort of shoved in front of them in the record store, because they don’t even really go to record stores anymore.
It’s funny, because you said now it’s so out of your hands, but I thought the idea of being on a label like New West was a little bit more about bringing it back into your hands. But you don’t have that sense with them?
Yeah, I do. I do. But I’m less concerned about it. Like, I almost feel like the music will do the work. It’s like — one of my favorite quotes of all time was (from) Tom Waits (speaking) at an ASCAP awards presentation. And he gave a speech in-between playing some songs and he had this line, he said, “I love it when I write a song because after I’m finished, I say, ‘OK, now fly away and go make daddy some money.’” And there’s something beautiful about that and I think its part of the reason why I got into this profession. You know, you create something, and you send it out into the world, and you hope that it makes people happy and does all this stuff, but in addition, it’s always working for you because it’s just like this little human being or baby. It’s something you create that goes out and has a life of its own. I’m less worried about … you know, whatever. I’m less worried about the machinations this time around. Although, that said, now as the record’s release grows nearer, I’m trying not to read reviews and worry too much about it because it’s nerve-wracking.
I can imagine. But you’re getting good reviews on this one.
I feel like, how could we not? I really feel so strongly about the record. But you never know. There’s always gonna be somebody that’s so mad, you know. [Laughs]
Oh, well, I think people who are fans of yours should know better than to expect just one thing out of you.
This is true to your influences and your roots, and what’s wrong with that? And even if it’s somewhere else besides that, what’s wrong with that? It’s the question of do you want a band to evolve or do you want them to churn out the same thing over and over again? Like what if the Beatles had not evolved?
Wouldn’t we have gotten tired of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” after a while? I’m still not tired of it myself, but I’m not tired of the other stuff, either.
I did the little Wikipedia search and it mentioned that at one time you and Ryan Adams had had some sort of a feud. But you were both on Bloodshot way back when alt-country was just starting to become what it is. Do you even remember what that was about?
It was a manufactured thing. Ryan was a little bit younger and we both got signed at the same time. And we were very friendly. We had a lot of fun in those days because they were heady days, a lot of labels, a lot of attention. It was the end of this tour we did for No Depression magazine and it was three weeks in and Ryan was sick of opening. He wanted to be the headliner, but we had more records and more fans in general. So he got drunk one night at soundcheck and came to me and said, “I think we should have a feud.” And I said, “I’m not really into that.” He goes, “C’mon, it’ll be great. Like the Beatles and the Stones.” And I said, “I call the Beatles.” And I said, “No, I don’t want to base a career on negativity.” And Ryan went ahead and did it, man, so for years, I had to hear these reports and quotes in interviews and stuff from people who told me about where he was, like, trashing me and trashing the band. It was like high-school name-calling. I couldn’t believe it. And then we made up over the years. We don’t have that much contact now. But I try not to worry about it.
Yeah, well, I think he’s grown up a little bit since then. I mean, he had a long way to go before he could be called grown up, but it sounds like he’s finally gotten some parts of his head on straight, which is good, because he makes great music.
Yeah, I’ve heard from mutual friends that he’s doing pretty well.
So now you’re ready to hit the road for the album. Got anything you want to say about that or any particular songs you want people to focus on?
I’m so proud of “Dance With Me.” I really feel like it encapsulates everything about our band over the years. It’s got that Tex-Mex beat and it’s got these kind of creepy lyrics that tell a story that I feel has some depth to it, more so than most pop songs, and, you know, Ken’s guitar work on that song and throughout the album, I feel, may be the best of his career. Certainly right up there, and I just … I love the whole record; I feel like the first five tracks are undeniable. I feel really great about it. I hope people listen to the record a lot before they come to see the shows. That’s why we’re giving it a few weeks to breathe before we go out on the road, so people hopefully will be familiar with some of the new songs. I mean, we’ll still play a big selection off all the other albums, and I think the way we’re going to address adding in 12 new songs to the set is simply adding 12 songs to the set and instead of playing two hours a night, playing more like 2-1/2 hours a night or three hours a night or something like that.
I don’t think anybody will complain about that.
I might. [Laughs]
Well, it takes a little more energy, you know.
What’s the old Bruce Springsteen quote about you have to prove it all night long?