He's not nearly as sheepish when he discusses Sleepy Heroes, the outlet for the first batch of songs he wrote with Hammond. In fact, the duo had planned on including one of the songs from Sleepy Heroes' 1990 debut, and finale, Under a Radio Sun--"Let it Go at That"--on Fight Songs, until they realized they had too much good new material to start retracing steps. "Victoria," the first song off the band's 1995 album Wreck Your Life, was a staple of Sleepy Heroes sets. It makes sense: Under a Radio Sun is only removed from the Old 97's by Ken Bethea's single-string twang and Philip Peeples' insistent shuffle, and Miller admits that the band's latest material is merely a more fully realized version of what Sleepy Heroes were trying to do.
Back then, no one wanted to hear that. They wanted Rhett Miller, folk singer, period. Even after he stopped playing by himself, it took a while for audiences to move past that phase of his career. In the 1991 Dallas Observer Music Awards, Miller was voted Best Acoustic/Folk Artist, though he had not played a single solo acoustic gig in more than a year.
It wasn't all bad for Sleepy Heroes. The band received a decent amount of press, including a mini-feature in Seventeen magazine that mapped the road to Miller's heart: "Grooviness is essential." Sleepy Heroes would finally find a following, but, as Hammond says, it was "that same following that everybody gets if they stick around long enough."
Most of the shows the group (which also included drummer Benjamin Warrenfells) had were in front of half-filled venues that only half cared about the band. Local photographer James Bland, Sleepy Heroes' manager, remembers a show the group played at the long-gone Rhythm Room at which an audience member--annoyed that the band's set was interrupting his drinking binge--renamed them Those Three Fags.
Miller couldn't understand why Sleepy Heroes didn't work, couldn't figure out what happened to all the fans and critics who had been singing his praises the year before. For a 19-year-old kid, it was hard not to believe the things people had written about him, and Miller read every single word--still does, actually.
"I was convinced that I could make a career pretty easily out of music," Miller says. "As long as I just put something together, I could probably get signed, because Billboard had said it. When Sleepy Heroes made our album, when we first finished it and I had rough mixes of it, I took it to L.A., and I met with the few people who I'd come across during my few years as a musician. Kim Buie [then of Island Records] took a meeting with me, and she was so honest. I put on the Sleepy Heroes record, and she said, 'You're gonna release this?' I honestly thought that even if I didn't get it exactly right, the label would see the potential and want to make a star out of me or want to give me a big career in music."
Sleepy Heroes broke up three days before Under a Radio Sun was released in the summer of 1990, and for a time, Miller and Hammond went their separate ways. Hammond went on the road for a while, moving from place to place, and Miller formed Rhett Miller's Third Eye with members of Fever in the Funkhouse before going out on his own again. The pair reunited again pretty quickly, though, and according to Hammond, "did basically one shitty band right after the other, but fortunately, in a very short time."
Hammond and Miller spent the next year or so shuttling from band to band. Miller admits now that most of the bands were formed under the assumption that they would probably get signed, that he and Hammond were struggling to make it work. None of them ever did, and as the failed projects piled up--from Buzz, which featured End Over End-Pleasant Grove drummer David Mabry, to Rhett's Exploding, Miller and Hammond's blessedly brief foray into alternative rock--Miller seemed to go further and further into a tailspin.
True to one of those band's names, Rhett was exploding, all over the place. You could practically hear him searching onstage, trying to find his career amid an avalanche of missed opportunities and wasted potential. When he stopped looking for it, there it was.