New Slanged: Rhett Miller of Old 97’s

Photos Courtesy of the Artist

Photos Courtesy of the Artist

by: Thomas D. Mooney

Every so often, an album is released that just sticks with you. It never leaves. The CD is in your car. It’s on your phone. You’ve been able to memorize the lyrics in a matter of days. You remember the first time you heard it. You show it to your friends–and more often than not, it becomes one. Memories attach themselves to specific songs and lines. They stick out and shine a little brighter than the rest. You feel an automatic connection with others who have done the same. You turn it up as loud as possible and dance around the house alone. You don’t sing along, you scream along (So much that I’m actually not even able to write this article and listen to it at the same time since it’s so distracting). 

 That’s “Too Far to Care” for me.

It’s recently celebrated its 15th anniversary this past year receiving a deluxe edition release (which included a reissue of “TFTC with four additional songs as well as a second disc titled “They Made a Monster: The Too Far to Care Demos”) and an anniversary tour where the Old 97’s played the record in its entirety each night.  I mean, by all means, it’s kind of a big deal.

When I first heard the news of it being 15 years since it’s release, I thought there was no way it was already that old. It’s already been around more than half of my lifetime. Which some of you will laugh at me thinking 15 years is a long time while others will think it’s even longer than I do. But most of you, you’ll know exactly what I mean by that. 

Looking back, I find it almost comical that I’d even think as a 12/13 year-old that I connected to this set of songs about being heartbroken, living on the touring road, drinking, and hanging out in bars the majority of the time. And I don’t even have an answer to why that ever was. There’s no reasonable answer to why. It just was.

Looking back without the personal aspect, TFTC feels like it was certainly before it’s time. It was the alternative country version of “Is This It” by The Strokes…except that it came out four years earlier. It’s actually one of the many questions I’d love to ask Julian Casablancas in an interview (Don’t count on that happening anytime soon). It’s not like Rhett Miller and company invented the concept of being a 25-year-old touring musician who drinks beer and has a few girlfriends and flings.

Could you say “Guitar Town” by Steve Earle is like the ’86 model? I suppose you could.  

But overall, what I think “Too Far to Care” was able to do was capture that wandering musician’s highs, lows, and in-betweens over the course of an entire record better than any individual record around its time. And I think there’s more than enough evidence that it rubbed off on some of their contemporaries.

More than anything though, what set The Old 97’s a part from others though, was that they weren’t engulfed by only doing “Too Far to Care.” They’re always looking forward. They’re not on a stationary bike rewriting “Barrier Reef,” “Timebomb,” or “Streets Where I’m From” a hundred times over. It’s something some modern bands could actually take lesson on.

Evolve and Grow. With that, it’s certainly alright to look in the rearview mirror from time to time and reflect and revisit.

We caught up with Rhett Miller earlier this week. The Old 97’s are playing The Blue Light tonight (Feb. 23) along with The O’s and K. Phillips & The Concho Pearls.

New Slang: When you guys started out, there was this rise of great alternative country and country-tinged rock bands. Guys like Whiskeytown, The Wallflowers, Uncle Tupelo, etc. You guys are kind of the last remaining band from that era who is either A) still around or B) who hasn’t gone through some major lineup overhauls or anything. What’s that mean to you? The longevity of The Old 97’s.

Rhett Miller: Yeah. Well, it’s weird. It’s really hard to keep a band together with the same lineup intact. It’s been a good one. You know, Murry and I had been together a bunch of years before the band was started. We had a few different lineups for bands. I think we just kind of figured out what it takes to make it. So much of it is personalities meshing. It’s not easy. There are moments where I’m sure where any member of the band is considered it (leaving). But I think we all appreciate it as something special. We all recognize how rare that is don’t want to screw it up.

NS: In your songs, there’s a lot of mentions of different locations. You’ll mention a place here or a place there throughout records and in songs in general. Why do you think location has crept into your writing so much–other than obvious touring?

RM: I don’t know [laughs]. I don’t know. You are where you are. You sit down to write a song and places pop up. We were in Arkansas last night. We played a song that references Fayetteville–and not in the nicest of ways. People, they like to hear their town’s name. That’s part of it. But it’s not trying to play towards the audience. I’m not sure why location plays a part. I like details. I like approaching the lyrics as if they were a short story. That’s the thing about short stories, they’re filled with details. For me, the details are the key.

NS: Another element in your songwriting–I don’t want to generalize it as being just these two things or anything–but I think it’s true to a point. It feels like a lot of your early songs, there’s a lot of first-person barroom and touring experiences while now there’s more third-person stories. Do you think that just comes with growing as a songwriter? Exploring more territory?

RM: Yeah. That’s a good question. I do still write some first-person stuff, but you’re probably right. I do tend to lean on characters more because I’m complaining less about my actual life and trying to make a story that’s more compelling than me driving my kids to school.

NS: Like you mentioned, you’ve been writing and playing music for a long while now. If you add up your solo records and Old 97’s records, you’ve got a good 15, 16 records worth of songs. Looking back, has there been anything you’ve written that you’ve regretted putting out there?

RM: I don’t know if I think like that. I’m proud of 16 records. I don’t think there’s anything in there that I’d wish to take back. Sometimes I wish there was more and sometimes I think how can there be so much. But yeah, it’s a body of work for sure.

NS: Is songwriting harder or easier now?

RM: It’s harder–when you’re young, I think there’s this thing where you think every feeling you have, every observation that you see, you need to rush out and share it. That’s sort of a young man thing. Like the entries of my diary are going to be so important. So that part seems harder, but the actual craft part of songwriting, it’s easier.

NS: Y’alls recent project has been “The Grand Theatre” records. What ultimately made you guys decide to split that into Volume I and II rather than releasing it as a double record or something?

RM: We just had a ton of songs. We floated the idea about a double album, but it just seemed like it made more sense to hang back with a few of the songs and give us a chance to write a couple of extra to really push out the second. We felt like were in a good place and, I don’t know, show off a little bit to everyone what we could do.

NS: One of those songs is “Champaign, Illinois,” which is you guys basically writing your own set of lyrics for [Bob] Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

RM: Yeah, which is crazy.

NS: Yeah. It’s one of those things that most people wouldn’t have the nerve to do. Where did that idea come from?

RM: Well years ago, it was back before the Electra records (“Too Far to Care,” “Fight Songs,” “Satellite Rides”), we were driving ourselves from town to town. It was back in the day when they even let me drive the van, which has been a long time. Nobody will let me behind the wheel of a vehicle with a trailer attached to it. Anyways, I was pulling the shift between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. To keep myself awake, since I couldn’t play guitar, I just figured I’d take a melody I was familiar with and try and write something just for fun. It wound up being too good to just throw away, but you know, you can’t really release it without getting Dylan’s permission. So it took a bunch of years where we ended up getting a manager who was friend’s with his manager. We sent Bob himself a copy of the song. And he listened to it and approved.

NS: Yeah. That’s definitely really cool to get his best wishes. Now obviously, last year was the 15th anniversary of “Too Far to Care.” I know you guys have done a ton of press coverage and interviews about “Too Far to Care” this past year, so I’ll try and keep the obvious questions to a minimum. It’s a record that isn’t just important to what the Old 97’s are or even important just to Texas music or alternative country; it’s a record that’s really important to American music and how it’s evolved. I’m sure you’ve heard a million stories from fans who have told you how important it is to them. I mean, for me personally, I remember the first time hearing the record and how blown away I was. But what have other musicians told you guys about the record affecting their sound or music preference?

RM: That’s really nice of you to say that first of all. I’m pretty stingy with those kind of stories. But I haven’t heard it a bunch. I’ve heard The Decemberists, those guys are really nice… I think it’s a combination of it being a good record and it being our first big national release. It was the first introduction for people to our band. But yeah, it’s a very special record. It’s funny, Lubbock will be the very last stop on the final leg of the tour for “Too Far to Care.”

NS: Oh yeah? I was going to ask if this show was going to be technically part of the “Too Far to Care” Tour or if it was more of a regular show. That’s really cool. I’m really glad it is.

RM: It is. It’s the final show of the final leg of the anniversary tour.

NS: Yeah. You know, when this record was released, I was 10 years old. I wasn’t listening to it until a few years later though. But the first thing I thought when I read it was the 15th year since being released was that there was no way it was this old. I guess part of why I thought that was because I really wasn’t introduced to it until a few years later, but also because it feels like it was before it’s time. It feels newer than 1997. Was there any thought about doing it at 10 years or pushing it for 20 years or did you guys always think it’d be 15?

RM: We never thought about it ever. We’ve always been a band that’s got a new record or working on a new record. We’ve never really done it for nostalgia. The actual idea came from our booking agent who was a fan long before he became our booking agent. This was his favorite record. He was like “Well you guys did ‘The Grand Theatre’ last year. What would be cool is if you did something about the anniversary.” So even though we’re predisposed to dislike anything that’s packaged as nostalgic in nature, we thought, if we’re ever going to do this, it’s now. We could wait five more years, but we better do it now when we know we’re all happy and healthy [laughs]. Who knows what’ll happen. It’s already unlikely to be a band after 20 years.

NS: So how do you relate to these songs now 15 years after recording them? Are they kind of like a time machine or do you do more reinterpreting the songs differently?

RM: We play them really close to what they sound like on the record. And you know, most of them have been in the setlist for years for pretty much every night since it came out. There’s not been a long stretch where I didn’t play these songs. But it is, it is a time machine. I definitely get transported playing the record in order and everything. I get to relive those moments a little bit. It’s funny, it was such a fun, heady time, but at the same time, I was already weary about the commercial aspect of the music business. It’s funny that some of the things I sing about are warnings to myself that either came true or that I was able to get through that effected some of my peers.

NS: Yeah. There’s a lot of lines that are interesting to hear now and remember how much different they would be taken in the late ’90s. Like in “Niteclub,” there’s a line about how “phones make strangers out of lovers.” Like that’s still true, but the phone aspect has changed so much.

RM: Yeah, there’s a lot of little references that I made in there like that. Like in “Barrier Reef,” the line about I thought I was the president. I guess when I wrote that, it was Clinton’s first term. And whenever it was released, it was his second and the whole Lewinsky stuff and how it brought to that line a whole nother meaning. It’s kind of a funny line. Lot of little things like that. One good thing about our music is that it doesn’t feel trapped in time. There are little things though that looking at them now, they make me laugh pretty hard.

NS: Yeah. And see, I was going bring up the whole difference in time with just how all the different lines about phones have been changed a little by time. But of course, we’ve had some cell reception trouble today and are now four calls in, so how much has it really actually changed [laughs]?

RM: Oh I know. Though in the old days, I’d be standing out in the ice-cold by the side of the highway trying to talk–but we would have had better reception [laughs].

NS: After “Too Far to Care” came out, was there any pressure to make another “Too Far to Care?”

RM: I think when it came out, “Too Far to Care,” there was some critical acclaim, but it wasn’t overwhelming or resounding. It wasn’t immediately beloved. Some people I guess really loved it and I guess didn’t want us to ever change or do anything different. There’s a lot of opinions that don’t belong to the four members of the band. I personally have never paid much attention to them. I’m sure my feelings would be hurt or I’d feel stressed out after a speech from a record label person, but in the end, it’s never really changed the way I write or do things. I try to not let it.

NS: I guess switching gears, this past year, you had another solo record come out, “The Dreamer.” You self-produced the album. Is that possibly the next musical frontier for you, producing work?

RM: I like producing. I’ve done a little of it. There’s a lot fo different kinds of producers. Like I did a record (“The Believer”) with the great George Drakoulias and it had bass, drum, and me. And that’s what he does. There are people who are great engineers and who are great with post-production. They’re great with a lot of technical stuff that I don’t get. I do enjoy choosing songs and trying to make them as good as they can be. Helping people to make records. But I don’t know if I’ve got the drive to go out and sell myself, especially in a world where’s not a lot of–you have to really go out and produce a lot of records. It’s not like the old days where you could get $50 or $80,000 dollars to produce a record. It’s a lot more a labor of love. And between the 97’s and my solo stuff, it doesn’t leave a lot of time. And I really care about the two that I’ve got. Production is something I’ll probably do a little bit, but I won’t make it a priority. 

NS: Now I’ve read interviews with you in the past where you’ve spoken about writing other things. Short stories, essays, working on a novel. Do you think anything will come out of that as far a book? A memoir or something?

RM: Yeah, the memoir, I don’t know. I think I’ve got to wait a while. I don’t know, I’ve had people approach me wanting me to write a memoir, but I don’t know. For the time being, I’m going to stick to fiction. The essays, they could be considered memoirish. At some point, they may collect and become something. But my real love is fiction. It just channels into my songwriting. 


2 responses to “New Slanged: Rhett Miller of Old 97’s

  1. Pingback: The Curtain Falls On TFTC Anniversary Tour | Old97's·

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