By Lynne Margolis
(LSM July/Aug 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 4)
When Rhett Miller let his pal Murry Hammond talk him into forsaking a Sarah Lawrence College writing scholarship to pursue music instead, they likely never imagined they’d still be in the same band together 20 years later — and that two decades and 10 Old 97’s albums in, they’d be earning some of the finest reviews of their career. The latest accolades are coming around for The Grand Theatre Vol. 2, which follows the fall 2010 release of The Grand Theatre Volume One. Both volumes were originally intended to be released together as a double album, before they split, like a twin-spawning embryo, into separate entities.
But the two Theatres are hardly identical. Where Volume One is full of the band’s deceptively reckless, Clash-meets-country punk-twang rockers, like “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You),” “A State of Texas” and “Champaign, Illinois,” Vol. 2 has a slightly sweeter, less rough-and-tumble side, like a sibling who manages to keep his hair combed for a few minutes. That’s the yin and yang personality of the Old 97’s that has made the band a favorite among Americana fans since its earliest days in Dallas. Lead singer-songwriter Miller, bassist-harmony singer Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples have a knack for wrapping hummable pop hooks inside danceable rockers and updated twangers, and delivering them with punked-out abandon.
Miller, who’s also cataloged three solo discs (technically four, but good luck finding his long-out-of-print debut), now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife and two kids, son Max and daughter Soleil. Considering that Miller named his daughter after the French word for “sun,” it seems a little ironic that he admits many of the songs on the new Old 97’s album were inspired by rain — or more specifically, rain-dampened moods. But for a guy who finds creativity in gloom and likes to give his songs some dark twists, he’s also easily amused by life; in fact, he starts an incredible number of sentences with “It’s funny …” and injects “fun” into many of them.
When he talked to LoneStarMusic, Miller was walking along the beach in San Juan Capistrano, trying to hold a late-afternoon conversation over an intermittent cacophony of screeching seagulls and children (which, he observed, sound remarkably alike). The sun, at least, was cooperating — just as it was the day the band headlined their record label’s South By Southwest party in Austin with a fabulously energized show, during which Miller literally shed blood for his art.
When you played New West’s South By Southwest party this year, you bled all over a beautiful new Gibson acoustic. Was that a loaner?
No; actually, they had just given me that guitar. That was the very first time I ever played it. [A Songwriter model, it retails for about $3,000.]
Oh, no! So what was bleeding — blisters on your fingers?
My right hand, my strumming hand, hits the guitar, especially when I do my windmill move. And so I’d gotten a hole in the cuticle of it, which happens a lot. It’s pretty gnarly.
Ouch! So there’s nothing you can do? You don’t tape your fingers before you go on or anything?
Well, yeah, when it gets bad, I start duct-taping. This tour, I’ve been able to not go so tough on it, so it hasn’t bled yet on this run. I think it kind of adds to the show, and it doesn’t hurt that bad, so I don’t mind.
Let’s talk about the album. Why did you decide to release The Grand Theatre in two separate volumes instead of as a double album? Because of listeners’ short attention spans?
Yeah, it was that and stuff like record-label concerns about the cost of packaging versus the cachet of a double album in this climate. And I’m kind of glad that we wound up not getting to release it as a double album because I got to a throw a couple of new songs onto Vol. 2 that I think really make it a better record. So it’s a happy accident.
“Perfume,” which is such a cool song. It’s kind of a sequel to “The Dance Class” on Volume One, where the guy finally gets the girl, but he’s still agoraphobic and he can’t leave his house, and he watches her have fun and he’s miserable. Like a lot of our songs, it just sounds like a fun, happy song, but it’s a little dark. The other song [was] “The Actor,” this really crazy punk-rock song.
What inspired that one?
We had a day off in Salina, Kansas. The only place I could go was this windowless room on the inside of the hotel suite. It was just feeling a little dark. I tapped into that and used it to make this character study of an actor who is owned by his audience while he’s out in front of them.
Have you ever done any acting?
No. I recently got asked to audition for something, but I don’t know, I don’t think I’m a very good actor, actually. I’m a bad liar.
What did you audition for, or did you turn it down?
I’d rather not say, because I don’t know if they chose it or not.
It’s still up in the air? TV or film?
TV. It’s probably not worth mentioning because it’s probably not gonna happen. I’ve been asked to audition for a bunch of stuff over the years but my schedule, with the touring, it usually makes it impossible for me to do it.
Do you any have interest in doing it?
Not enough to really do it. I got asked to audition for Fight Club, for what ended up being Jared Leto’s part. God, it would have been a tough acting gig. I feel like I would have to devote at least some of the hours that I spend doing music to acting because it’s such a delicate craft, and it’s so easy to be a poor actor and I would hate to do that, so I probably will not wind up doing much acting.
But it’s interesting that you seem to write almost little movies sometimes in songs; you really develop characters in an even shorter platform. Is that where you prefer to keep doing it, instead of having it exposed onscreen?
(Chuckles.) Yeah, probably. It’s funny, I recently had dinner with Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist and all-around smart guy. And he has gotten asked to do a little acting, too. He did a cameo in a movie they made about the mysteries of Pittsburgh. He was just saying that he’s a horrible actor, and I was saying I think I might be, too. It’s so hard not to be real.
I’m also from Pittsburgh, so I know who he is and I love that book (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh). Are you friends with him?
Yeah, we’ve become friends over the last year.
He’s a great, great writer. Have you ever thought of collaborating with anybody like that on a book?
Sure. He’s a friend, and there’s a guy named Ben Greenman, a New Yorker editor who’s an amazing writer, and Ben is a friend, and I really admire them. They’re doing what I dream of doing, writing fiction, but so far, nothing’s come of it. Maybe someday there will be a musical.
Let’s talk about some of the other songs. “Manhattan (I’m Done)” really caught my ear. It sounds so Buddy Holly/Ricky Nelson/Everlys-like. I hear a lot of James Burton/Holly guitar influences … is that intentional?
I don’t know. I never really think in terms of — it’s funny, Murry always thinks about who he’s sounding like when he’s working on a song. And he’ll come to me and he’ll say, “Oh, this is a Johnny Cash song, the Carter Family … ” But I always just kind of go with the mood I’m in and try and make something that’s a self-contained little piece. I remember that day I was in Grand Rapids. That song started its life as a song called “Grand Rapids (I’m Done).” But it was more fun to sing “Manhattan.”
So the emotion in it, it’s not really directed at Manhattan or anything, it’s just the musicality of the word.
Yeah, it’s more about — it was a very rainy Saturday; it was kind of a depressing day. A lot of my songs, I end up writing when I’m feeling really bummed out. I don’t think they sound bummed out, but it certainly makes it easier to write — for me, I think. Like, we had that day off in Salina, Kansas, and I wrote “The Actor.” We had a rainy, bummed-out day in Grand Rapids on a Saturday, and I wrote “Manhattan.” I’m tapping into something on the rainy days on tour.
I’m curious about “White Port.” It starts out almost like an Irish-style drinking song, and then turns twangy and yodely. I know that’s Murry’s song, and he loves to twang. Where’d the yodeling come from?
We’ve been covering a song by Don Walser for a long time called “Rolling Stone from Texas.” And that’s a big-time yodeling song, and Murry’s just great at yodeling, so he wrote this, I guess, to showcase that and have fun with it. And it was his idea to get super-pirate with it and do the kind of Monty Python gang vocal intro. It’s fun, man. Kids love that song.
I bet. Well, let’s see, what else do we want to talk about on this particular album? Let’s just go down the list. “Brown Haired Daughter”?
That was a song Murry started and I got to come in and finish it up. Some of my favorite songs that we have are the ones that Murry is the genesis of. And that one, it’s got the pretty harmony, and … it’s sort of just a quintessential Old 97’s song, which is why I felt like we should open the record up with it.
Volume One has “Please Hold On While the Train is Moving.” This one has “I’m A Trainwreck.” What’s behind that one?
That was fun. I kept thinking about that phrase. Somebody had said to me, “Well, the Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads,” and they went through all the different bands and what their fans were called. “Jimmy Buffett fans are called Parrotheads. What would Old 97’s fans be called?” And I never felt like it was that important, but it was the kind of puzzle that I like. So I started thinkin’ about, well, how would we identify ourselves? I guess it’s such an overarching theme in our songs about these messed-up people living with the decisions that they’ve made, and laughing about the fact that their life is such a shambles. And so I came up with that. “I’m a Trainwreck.” That song, it’s kind of written to every Old 97’s fan. It’s a personal thing as well, but I tried to make it for us.
So we’re all trainwrecks, huh?
A little bit.
I’ll tell ya, that’s an awfully accurate description for some days. So how about “No Simple Machine”?
That was fun. I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard short stories and novels. There’s always such a tight scene where there’s such friction going on. I like that song because there’s a little plot, where he’s now with this woman and he’s talking about the guy she used to be with, and then the guy that she used to be with shows up and they get in a fight, or they almost get in a fight and she pulls him away. I had fun with that one because there’s dialogue in it, which doesn’t happen a lot in songs. It starts right off with, “He said, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ But what he meant was, ‘Can I buy you?’” It’s just like a little scene, which I had fun with. I don’t get to actually write fiction, but I get to at least make it into songs.
It sounds like you need to get around to it sometime. In the meantime, let’s talk about “Ivy.”
“Ivy” is an old song that had existed as a Ranchero Brothers song only, since the very beginning of the band. [Miller and Hammond call themselves the Ranchero Brothers for the occasional side gig.] And Murry and I recently did a Ranchero Brothers gig, and – it’s actually the case with two songs on this record – we’d done a Ranchero Brothers gig in Los Angeles at a club called Largo. And we looked at each other after the gig, and we’re like, “Dude, what are we doing? We’ve got these two songs that are as good as anything we’ve ever done and we’ve never released them.” So we recorded “Ivy” and “Visiting Hours” as an experiment just to see if they would sound natural alongside stuff that has been written 15 or 20, 18 years later. And they sounded so good, and contemporary, that we left ’em on the record. I was a little nervous about it just because they are what some people call back-catalog or trunk songs, but they fought their place onto the record and I think they sound great on there.
I guess I’ve heard it live enough times so that when it came around on the album, I liked the familiarity of it. If that counts for anything. And “Marquita”?
That was Ken. We haven’t had him do an instrumental in a long time. Ken actually had a lot of input on this record. “Perfume” started with a riff of his that I took and turned into a song, and then this song, “Marquita,” was just him doing that big, kind of twangy surf guitar that he’s so good at. I liked it. It reminded me of something the Pixies might do, just like a little instrumental piece in-between two other songs. And it’s fun; it’s a great song to play because it rocks.
We’re up to “Bright Spark.”
“Bright Spark” I wrote in Birmingham, England, on a rainy day off on a tour with Steve Earle. I was just walking around in this rainy factory town in northern England and I was imagining being a young man there and trying to figure out what would make it not be a depressing place to live. And of course, it all came back to a girl. So, you know, “Here she comes, my girl, a bright spark in this dark world.”
Now you know why people like Michael Chabon and I don’t live in Pittsburgh anymore. Because it rains there. All the time.
“How Lovely It All Was” is another one of those upbeat songs with a downside. What’s its story?
That’s a Murry song, and it’s such a pretty song. It’s a sad one. It’s written on the passing of our friend Alex, who was a drummer and had been in a bunch of bands. Wound up livin’ in New Mexico for like, the last 10 years, and then overdosed. And it’s just such a shame. Those last 10 years were a bit lost for him, but we didn’t expect it to go in that direction. It’s a sad thing. We’re kind of getting at that age now where our contemporaries are, you know, it’s all kind of shaking down. Some of ’em — it’s just a numbers thing. Some of ’em aren’t gonna make it. That was a sad one about Alex.
And then you take it out with that little skiffle-ish number, “You Call it Rain.” It’s ironic, but fitting, that you end it with a happy number about rain. Speaking of a theme.
That one, I was in Mexico, on vacation with the family. It’s funny, I really do think geographically about these songs whenever I think about them. Even onstage when I’m singing them, I go right back to where I was sitting when I wrote them. And that was, I was in, not Cancun, but … Playa del Carmen. And I was sitting, it was a rainy day and I was looking out the window, and just wrote kind of a little ditty. It’s sweet. To me, that song ends the record on a light note. Plus, I have the sweetest recording of that one. The day I wrote it I made a little demo of it and my son, Max, was sitting in the room listening to me, ’cause he was stuck in there ’cause it was raining. And so when I sang it, at the end I repeat the phrase, (sings) “Right now is a pretty good time.” I repeat that a couple of times, and I remember, I looked at Max the last time and pointed at him and he sang the very last repeat of the chorus line on the demo I made. The very last line is just a little boy saying, (sings) “Right now is a pretty good time.” It’s very sweet.
Now that you’ve got these two albums, do you find yourself weighing which one you like better?
Mmm, I always like the one that’s the most recent. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, but I have to think like that because I’m making these records. But I kind of see ’em being one piece.
The artwork on Volume One was from the theater you did preproduction in, right? How about the cover for this one?
No, the last artwork was actually from a theater out here in California. We stopped off on tour at a theater called the Warner Grand and shot a bunch of photos for the cover, and then this record, we did the cover shoot in a kind of similar, beautiful theater in Knoxville that I’m blanking on the name of right now. The Bijou. The Bijou Theater in Knoxville. But I wrote the title track (“The Grand Theatre,” featured on Volume One) in Leeds, in a theater called the Grand Theatre, which was equally beautiful. All of the places that we chose to shoot were inspired by that original Grand Theatre.
Anything else you want to talk about? How’s everybody else in the band doing? Your kids are growing up; they’re both in school now, right?
Yeah, Soleil will start kindergarten next year. She’s the last, little one. I’ve got two of ’em. But they’re doin’ great. Everybody in the band is good, the touring this year has been the best of our career. It’s feelin’ really great. It’s strange to have such an upward arc at this point, this many years in, but it feels great.
When you say that, do you mean in terms of sales and recognition or just creative juices and things like that?
Well, sales are what they are, just because all of the sales are totally destroyed by the current business model. But it just feels good. There’s more people coming out to the shows, the write-ups are all pretty glowing. We’re starting to get talked about in terms of, I don’t know, being some sort of forefathers. Not exactly legendary, but kind of moving toward that place, and it just feels great. I love it. I think everybody’s happy. We’re happy to be Old 97’s.