Miller's Crossing

Rhett Miller's The Instigator isn't the wreck of the Old 97's. It's just what he does.

For one thing, you make stuff up (he majored in creative writing during his brief stint at Sarah Lawrence, after all), and then you get the hell out of the house. Miller holed up for a month in a West Hollywood hotel to finish the 30 songs that would be considered for The Instigator. He needed the space and the time, since life, though bristling with true love, had not been without its sucker punch. There was one day in September 2001, for example.

Miller was living in New York with Erica, writing a song called "Lovebird" outside his place near the World Trade Center when something happened. A noise, a clamor and then before anyone knew what was happening, they were fleeing their home. Two days later, he talked about it in an interview with Rolling Stone (which appeared in their September 11 overview issue), how he and Erica were essentially rendered homeless, how they had to fish everything out of their apartment.

"I started crying in the middle of the interview," he says, "because I hadn't talked about it, and it was so emotional for everybody. And then I'm mad at myself and I'm going, 'I can't believe what a fucking cheeseball I am that I'm crying on the phone with Rolling Stone.'" Don't listen to him, though; the piece is honest and moving, one of the best contributions in the issue.

"I didn't feel like I wanted to make a record about September 11, but there are places where I can hear echoes of that day," Miller continues. Like in the song "A World Inside the World," the plaintive little ballad at the album's center, inspired by Don DeLillo's Underworld and asking such questions as, "If love is all we're made of, then what am I afraid of?" Even more explicit is the third verse of "Your Nervous Heart": "I know somebody must have gave you hell/Maybe you went running, as the sky just sort of fell." The songs aren't tragic, just wounded, just wondering. Like practically everything Miller writes, they are smart and wry and lonely and, finally, hopeful.


Oh, but those rumors. Like the report that ran in this publication stating that none of the Old 97's could play on the new album, which gave at least this reader the sad image of Ken, Murry and Phil at home alone on prom night while Rhett beer-bonged Zimas with the head cheerleader.

"That would be confusing," Miller says. "One is one, and one is the other. The whole point was that the band wanted to take a year off, and I said, 'Will you guys give me your blessing to make a solo record?' And they said sure. So they're at home with their babies and wives, and I went on to make a solo record." It's not like he doesn't miss them (he does, terribly) or call them from the road to bitch about the hotel room and all those yucky industry smile-and-nods he's forced to attend.

Or what about the report (same story) that Elektra had dropped the band and simply signed Miller, who must sell 75,000 copies in order to stay with the label? Man, it's complicated. Miller could explicate the whole byzantine business--involving options and mergers and debt accrued by the 97's over time--but the bottom line is this: "I wanted to make a solo record; the record label wanted to futz with the accounting. Everything's fine. Nobody signed away their souls."

So Miller hasn't gone L.A., but he knows that with every slight change of course, with every risk taken, he will have to weather a little criticism, a few curt dismissals from the kids in the club wearing thrift-store clothes.

"I just do what I do," Miller says. "I write songs. I make records that never sell or make enough money."

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