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"I remember when Beyoncé Knowles announced she was going to make a solo record, but Destiny's Child was still gonna be a band," Rhett Miller says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he's lived off and on for the past few years. "I laughed when I heard about it, because I was like, 'Oh, come on, Beyoncé just wants all the money for herself.' And then all of a sudden it was me in that position, and I was like, 'Oh, shit.'"
Last year's announcement that the Old 97's singer-guitarist was making a solo album kicked off a contagion of cocked eyebrows and rumors that the band was splitting up, that the group had been jilted by Miller. Fans of the group--a passionate, if dorky, bunch--wagged their heads at the inevitable unraveling, at the unfairness of it all, after all those nights spent singing along to "Salome" till their throats went raw. Their anxiety is understandable, and even Miller admits that probably, if he had it to do all over again, a few strongly worded press statements might have worked nicely.
But to clarify: The Old 97's have not broken up. Repeat: The Old 97's have not broken up.
"There's no reason for the Old 97's not to be a band," Miller says, a couple of weeks before his album, The Instigator, hits stores. "We're gonna be the Old 97's till we're old and withered and shaped like pears and question marks. We're just too good of friends and too good of a band, and knock wood, but I can't imagine what would change that. I'm hoping that I get to keep making solo records whenever I want and the band gets to keep making records and we get to keep doing it till we're sick of it."
So, this is not a scandal or a smack in the face to the band members. Simply, as he says on track two of The Instigator, "This Is What I Do."
It lacks the hard-bitten howl of Too Far to Care, the band's 1997 broke-down, boozing classic, and it is more humble in its presentation than the band's latest, the sweeping Satellite Rides. It feels instantly familiar (catchy twangy sing-alongs, perfect two-minute ballads), but it has its surprises, too. Some of that can be attributed to Jon Brion, the producer/musician/pop guru who collaborated with Miller on the album. Brion is the force responsible for such artistic triumphs and unlikely success stories as Aimee Mann, Macy Gray and Rufus Wainwright.
"I don't think there's anybody working right now who's better than Jon," Miller says. "The guy is just crazy. He can do anything. He promised me, and I trusted him, that everything on the album would be something I was proud of and would sound the way I wanted it to sound."
Brion also introduced Miller to Largo, the intimate and welcoming Los Angeles nightclub that has hosted artists like Elliot Smith and, more recently, former Austinite David Garza (who played on The Instigator) as they hashed out new material. He settled in nicely, playing sold-out sets to an audience that quickly learned all his lyrics. Old 97's fans may cringe to think of their guitar-banging, hip-shaking, drunk-poet Romeo nesting in the land of silicone and Scientology. Miller did, too, once upon a time.
"I used to have those sort of biases," he admits. "It is what it is. If you come out here as a 17-year-old and you're looking for fame and fortune without any real idea of how to get it and you wind up doing a bunch of coke with a bunch of actors in Silver Lake and then the next thing you know you're doing porn--it could be really creepy and depressing. But I moved out here as a grown man. I already had a career going. It's good for me to be here. I feel comfortable in the scene, but I stay home most of the time. I might as well be in Dallas, or Austin, but the weather out here is so beautiful. And my wife likes to garden."
He's talking about Erica, a model and documentary filmmaker for whom Miller once wrote a song to the tune of "America the Beautiful," whose chorus went like this: "Oh Erica, oh Erica, God spend some time with me." They got married this year, and some songs fairly hum with the joy of it. "I cannot believe that you're my lover," Miller sings on "Hover," which is all well and good, of course, except it confronts Miller with that nasty old problem: What do you do when a life of smashed-up love affairs--with all the pain that breaks the man's spirit and fuels the artist's imagination--turns into a life of domestic bliss, you on the back porch while your wife plants tulips?