Q&A: Old 97's Frontman Rhett Miller Talks The Grand Theatre, Accepting The Alt-Country Tag and The Trouble With Releasing Double Discs.
The Old 97's are looking sharp once more.
In tomorrow's print issue of DC9, I take a long hard look at the Old 97's eighth studio release, The Grand Theatre, Volume One, which earns its release on Tuesday, October 12. And I find, as we've been saying since we first heard the disc back in August, that it's as strong a release as we've heard from the 97's since the '90s. The reasons for that are plentiful--the sense of urgency and the return of some angst in the songwriting chief amongst them, as well as the band's long-time-coming admission that, OK, maybe they are an alt-country band after all.
On Monday afternoon, I spoke with frontman Rhett Miller about the disc, the fruits of which show up somewhat in my print piece. But the bulk of that conversation, for sheer space reasons, couldn't fit into the paper. So, after the jump, I present you with that conversation, in full, uncut and unedited. In it, you'll hear Miller musing on everything from the new album and the band's place in Texas music to the 97's early days practicing in his mom's garage and differentiating between band and solo material. Check it out.
First and foremost, what happened with the double album plans?
The marketplace can no longer sustain the idea of a double album. Between the record label, the publishing company and management, a) nobody thought that anybody would want 25 songs at once any more, and b) they wouldn't put it on two discs, so it would've been kind of crammed under one CD, which maybe only bothers me in theory. And then there was also the problem that the publishing company was only willing to pay for 12 songs a record no matter how many songs are on it, so if you put 25 on it, you're basically going to be giving them an album for free. And something about that really rankled me. And I loved the idea of there being Volume One and Volume Two, so it still exists as a piece, but it keeps the momentum going over a longer window for the 97's. You can get on people's nerves saying, 'Here's 25 songs. Bow down before my brilliance.' Now it's more like, 'Here's something good and here's something else good, now that you've gotten used to the first thing.'
Was it a disappointment to find that out, though? I know you guys were super stoked on the whole idea of the double album at the start of recording this.
I was. I really was. [Producer] Salim [Nourallah] and I both had to go into it kicking and screaming. But when we had the idea of making it a two-volume set, that answered all my major problems with that. And it's kind of cool because it really gives us a chance to go in and polish off Volume Two and make sure it's really amazing.
How did things change once you realized that it was going to be two single albums as opposed to one double album? Are these literally the first dozen songs?
It changed. We let ourselves kind of front-load it a little bit. I'd say it's the songs we're most excited about, but then there's the songs we saved for Volume Two that, y'know, I can't believe we didn't put on the first record. Like, "Brown-Haired Daughter," which might be the best song out of any of the songs that we've recorded. That'll probably be the opening track of the next recording.
Are there any sonic or stylistic differences between the two volumes or was it just a matter of having to split it up somehow?
I think Volume One is going to be a little more garage rock. And Volume Two is gonna be a little more swing and a little more, well, not softer, because I know that there are a handful of songs we're going to record to supplement Volume Two the week of the first one's release. We're actually going to be going into the studio that week to finish Volume Two and the handful of songs we've got there are really rocking. I don't really have Volume Two figured out in my head yet. We've still got that X factor of the four or five new songs that we're gonna throw in there. Because we did take two songs off Volume Two to make them as bonus tracks for Amazon and iTunes.
That's a lot of shuffling you had to do, I guess.
Yeah, but you know I like the challenge.
Tell me a little bit about the process of this. How long did it take?
Not including any of the writing, which was months beforehand, we did the week of pre-production and then we did about a week and a half in Austin and then we had, like, three weeks in which [guitarist] Ken [Bethea] and [drummer] Philip [Peeples] went in to Salim's and did overdubs for percussion and guitar. And then [bassist] Murry [Hammond] and I both came in to do backups on each other's songs and re-recording different vocal stuff here and there. And that was when we were still planning the double album. And that was finishing 24, 25 songs.
How does that overall time compare to the past recording efforts?
It's very quick. And, like, with The Instigator, that took four months, where Jon Brion and I were locked in the studio in North Hollywood and everyday, who knows what we'd get done? We'd get maybe one guitar part done all day. But that's really old-school. The way things work now appeals to me a lot more. You're trusting your instincts and flying by the seat of your pants and not really thinking too much--because you can kill something by re-visiting something too many times. I mean, you think about people with their first album and they're just trying to capture something, and, Jesus Christ, you're just never gonna get it done. So I liked that. And I think that that's the thing with this record. So much of it was done live. All the drums, all the bass. Most of the guitar, most of the vocals. All of it was cut when we were doing our first takes--and we didn't do too many takes. We had done the pre-production to the point where we were ready to go in and take a shot at these songs. So a lot of them are first takes, with everything live. I mean, how fucking rare is that?
Was that a matter of confidence? Both in the songs and having the comfort level with Salim, having worked with him before?
Yeah. And also the work we'd done the previous week in Sons of Hermann where we'd really answered a lot or most of the questions. But that's it: A song presents a list of problems that need solutions, and we came up with most of the solutions at Sons. So when we got in the studio, it was mostly just making sure that the sound was right to tape and just making sure that the feeling of it was good and that nobody was pushing too hard or forgetting the good thing that they had already hit upon.
Well, what kind of feelings were you trying to conjure? Was there something in mind that you were trying to do with this collection of songs?
I kind of had this vision of when we first started our band. When Philip first joined, and we would go and rehearse in my mom's garage. I didn't live at her house. Well, actually there was about a month when I had to move back in during the early days because I was so broke. But my mom had a garage where we could plug in. And the sound was terrible and it was close quarters, and I'm sure the neighbors were annoyed, but the essence was of a garage band. Literally and idealistically, that's what it was. We were just four guys with a dream. And it was really at that point that Murry and I had given up on the idea of getting a major label for our stuff because we'd been trying to do rock bands forever, and we just said, "Well, let's just do this. People like this, we like this." And so I just remembered that those were loud and kind of clangy, weird rock-sounding rehearsals. But it was such a great feeling--just the sheer volume of it and the noise and there's a connective-ness that happens when you're in that position--and I wanted to go back to that. And I feel like we did a pretty good job of getting there.
Is that to say that you left that?
Well, y'know, as things progressed, we got nicer recording studios and rehearsal studios. Then we're at King's Way in New Orleans, working at Daniel Lanois' mansion. Then we're at Willie Nelson's sprawling recording studio in the top of the Hill Country with multiple swimming pools and hot tubs. At a certain point, you get to where it's not all about being in a tiny shitty room, making loud rock. And even though we were still at a recording studio that had a swimming pool, nobody got in the pool once. We were all in one room making loud rock.
Was there a sense of urgency with wanting to get back to that idea? I mean, it just sounds like an urgent record while listening to it.
Yeah. Well, I mean, the sheer number of songs imposed a sense of urgency to the session and just the kind of scope of this thing that we'd challenged ourselves with completing sure made things have to move quickly. But I think there's also that we hadn't recorded in a while. We kind of missed it. And we really wanted to feel vital and to be doing something instead of just talking about it and thinking about it. At a certain point, you want to prove it. There's some Ted Nugent quote, and I'm not a fan of his necessarily, but he says, "I don't watch shit, I do shit." I love that.
Just heading in with that batch of 24 songs--I mean, yeah, it ended up with fewer on this first volume--but it sounds like that gave you a big burst of energy.
Oh, yeah. And it changes the conversation. Instead of that interminable fucking conversation of 'Who are we? What is our place in music? What should we do next? How will they react?' All those questions do not help music. Those questions are obstacles. So, we changed the conversation and made it be about, 'How can we possibly do this? What do we have to do to make it work?" Those are questions that help music. Those are answerable questions.
I guess it distracted you from the things that could have gotten in the way.
Going back and listening to this album, what's the reaction you're hoping for?
In terms of an experience, I hope people want to play the record loud, in a car, or at a party. I hope it can live in a lot of places. I know there are a lot of records that I really love that can only get played, like, in your headphones, by yourself, in a solitary listening experience. But I feel like this is more like our live shows where it can bring people in and be something they can experience together. So, experientially, that's what I'm hoping for. As far as what it does for the career, I've kind of given up on the hope of having too high of an expectation for anything. I do feel like "Friday Night" is the kind of a song that could live on radio stations, if those still exist. But I do really love the idea of the Old 97's moving into the next phase of our career where we're sort of regarded as a staple of Texas music or some sort of elder statesmen of Texas rock. I like that.
So you're old men? Is that what you're saying?
Well, I don't know if I'm ready to be an old man. But I'm ready to be a legend. How's that?
I noticed that you called yourself an alt-country band in that Office video you shot and put on Twitter.
I know, right? I guess I've come all the way around. It's just easier, I guess, than telling people well, y'know, it's a lot like Tom Petty or maybe the Beatles or whatever. But I was also kind of making fun of myself. I mean, dude, it's hard to hold your own against those two. I was cracking up, which you're not supposed to do apparently, and the worst part was my friend Erica, who was holding the iPhone, was laughing the whole time.
Sure, but is there any sort of admission there? You've been staunch against that in the past.
Well, I've always believed that there's something reductive about it. Because it's not all we are. But if you had to call yourself something--like, Steve Earle used to make some speech between songs, and I think he was quoting Townes, and he'd say, "Gun to my head, aliens landing on Earth, and they say what kind of music do you make? I'd say the blues." And so, I guess, if I had a gun to my head, and had to say what kind of music the Old 97's make, it'd have to be alt-country. For fuck's sake, we were there when they coined the term. The first time it got used was in a freaking article about our band. OK, that's fine. I'll be that.
It's taken you a while to get to this point, though.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. When I was younger and more idealistic and more irascible...
And not ready to be a legend, apparently.
Yeah, I'll take that: An alt-country legend.
I've asked this of you in the past, but how do you differentiate between the Rhett stuff and 97's stuff. Were any of these songs in consideration for solo material?
Well, now I've got the most simple solution, which is that I just give them first dibs. If they don't like it, or it doesn't fit, then I take it. Like, for a while, I was really concerned that "A State of Texas" wasn't gonna make the record because a certain guitar player in our band wasn't crazy about the song and had a beef with it. And I thought, "Well, you know what? More for me." Because I know that that's a song that people are going to love. And I can see how you would think that there's a certain jingoistic element to it or whatever. If you really don't like anything anthemic, then you're not gonna like that song, because it's written to be an anthem. So, for a while I thought, "Well, that's gonna be on my solo record, and whoever said no to it is gonna feel stupid because people are going to fucking love it." But now I think--and, obviously, we're talking about Ken--Ken appreciates that song for whatever reason.
So you don't write for solo or for 97's? You just write and where it ends up is where it ends up?
Well, I frequently have a feeling as I'm writing about where the songs will end up. But I'm also frequently wrong. Like, on the last solo record, there's that song "Another Girlfriend," that I figured would always be a 97's song. But it ended up on that. I dunno. I try to roll with the punches.
You mentioned a "A State of Texas," and that kind of goes back to Blame it on Gravity with "The Easy Way" and its City of Hate lyrics. You've also got your token train songs on this one. It seems like you're going back to some things in your wheelhouse for this record. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, it is. And I knew you were going to say wheelhouse. Absolutely. It's sort of like how you said maybe I'm OK with the term "alt-country" in a way that I never was before. This is what we do. And even with "A State of Texas," that was inspired by the fact that the Texas tourism commission hired us to be the headliners for Texas on Tour, where we were essentially ambassadors for the state of Texas. That was over the summer, we did San Fran, New York City, Chicago. But the day they asked us to do that, I got the call, and it was really nice and accommodating and they paid us really well, and I thought, "Y'know, this is who we are now." I mean, we've been in this band for nearly two fucking decades, and we've got a body of work that I'm really proud of, and I know people really respond to the roots element of what we do. And while that may not be entirely what we're made of, it is the defining sound of our band. So why fight it? If somebody wants me to be an ambassador for the state of Texas, there's way worse things that I could do with my life.
It sounds like you guys are finally getting a sense of what the band is, even if the whole double-album thing kept you from discussing it.
Yeah. All those years on Elektra, writing on the old end of the business model, where, really, you did have to be so aware of radio and you had so many people trying to market you and pigeonhole you. Certain people in the record label were trying to make us feel bad because a) there was such a roots element to our music, and they didn't know how to deal with that in anywhere but the South and certain major cities in America and b) obviously, there's the name, which was a problem for marketers because apparently the word "old" isn't good for marketing. And then there's my songwriting, which ironically, the problem with that was that, "Oh, it's just too sophisticated." I can't tell you how many times I heard that from record labels. And I'm like, "Well, I dunno. I don't know what you even want me to do. You signed me knowing that this is what I do and you think that I'm just gonna start writing 'Mmmbop' ditties?" I mean, it was always frustrating. You talk about distractions. And that's exactly the distractions that we were able to avoid on the new record. They were always around. And now, maybe because fo the demise of that business model and maybe because of our band having sort of cemented our place in the world of music, it's just less of a distraction. I don't worry about that stuff so much.
What's the plan moving forward? Any videos or plans of the sorts for this new album?
I hope so. We're talking to people about a video, or maybe a handful of videos. And they may just sort of be small, low-budget things. It's not really my thing. I've never really cared that much about marketing. Murry always made the fliers, for instance. I like to write songs. I like to sing. Everything beyond that is sort of a necessary evil. I guess I hope we do a video, and I hope it's good. I liked the one we did for "Dance With Me," and I know people were annoyed that you only saw us for five seconds in the video.
Still a fun video, though.
Yeah. I think so, too. I just saw Tricia [Helfer] the other day, and she's doing good.
When are you planning on releasing Volume Two?
Volume Two is scheduled for May. Which is cool because that's what, seven months between releases? We at one point went four years between releases.
You've been around playing shows and whatnot a lot. Are you trying to reconnect a little bit with the local scene?
It's funny. When my kids were little, the band toured less, and I consciously tried to be home more. And now my kids are older--I mean, they're still four and six--but they're not puking infants, so I have more freedom to bounce around. I've been to Dallas a few times. I miss Dallas a lot. I miss my friends and my family. And I love the local scene a lot, even if I'm not as connected to it as I was even 15 years ago, but I stay connected where I can.
And you've got the shows coming in town this week?
Yeah, we're doing the Border's thing and then something at the AllGood, like, a listener's thing for KXT on the 11th. And then Waterloo and KSGR down in Austin. And then the Carrollton thing.
And the tour comes in December, right? Because of Ken's football team?
Yes. Because of Ken's football team.
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