"I Might Have a Late Surge and Kick All Those Guys' Asses"

An Interview with Rhett Miller

by Drew Fortune

8 June 2009

Photos: Jason Janik 

Have you ever had an objection towards the tag "alt-country"?

Have you ever had an objection towards the tag “alt-country”?
There was a time when we were on Elektra, doing maybe our second or third album, and I really felt that we had so outgrown the classification of “alt-country”.  I understand when it started, and Bloodshot Records was trying to call it “insurgent country”, and the national press kind of picked up more on the alt-country tag, and the big joke we had was that like alt rock we should just be “alt-cunt” [Laughs].  That’s no good though.  Alt-country, at the beginning, was something that just felt right, because we were running around with all these other bands who were doing some sort of variation on American roots music, and some bands were a little more honky tonk, or some were more like us, who were this sort of country rock hybrid.  So I always preferred alt-country to cow punk, and in the beginning alt-country really didn’t bother me, when we were on Bloodshot it really made sense.  When we made our first record for Elektra, it still fit pretty well, but after a while it just began to feel derivative, or reductive and insulting. 

I’ve kind of come around now to the point where I really don’t care.  People need to talk about music, and the people who like alt-country music, whatever that is, tend to be pretty cool, and I talk to them and I like them and I like a lot of the bands that we get lumped in with, so I’ve kind of come full circle, from embracing it, to begrudging it, and now I’m back to being fine with it.  People will ask me, “What’s your music like?” and I’ll say, “I’m in a band called Old 97s. It gets called alt-country, and that’s probably a good name for it.”  After all, we’re from Texas, and it’s got a little twang to it, and I make solo records that are probably a lot poppier.  There are a lot of modifiers, but we live in a post- everything world, where we sort of have to figure out ways to talk about two things.

There was a four year dormant period between Old 97s records.
Between releases.  I made The Believer in there, and then we worked on Blame it on Gravity for awhile.  We did a cameo in the movie The Break-Up, and a lot of touring.  There was no self-imposed hiatus or anything.  [Bassist] Murry Hammond had a baby, and he was the last one in the band to have one.  I had my second baby, my daughter, in that period which was right around the time The Believerwas coming out.  I used to be so impatient, so part of that was me, sort of just letting it be a little bit.  I don’t know if it’s been good for our career as a band.  I’ve always just been really driven.  Not driven to be famous or rich, but just kind of driven to keep doing this.  I dropped out of college after one semester on a full scholarship because I just couldn’t wait.  I thought, “Why am I going to get a degree? So I can not use it and go play music?  Forget that man ... I gotta do this now.”  There were a lot of years of me just not letting up and not letting up, and it was nice to have a little bit of a breather, but I got very antsy.  So it feels good to be back on the one album every year tip.

What brought you and Murry together?  Artistically and as friends, and what were the musical influences that helped shape the Old 97s?
Murry was my mentor. When I was 15, he was a few years older and we were both dating girls named Jennifer who were best friends, and we met and eventually the Jennifers fell by the wayside, and he and I stayed friends and became partners in music.  He recorded my first demos on a little two-track recorder, and he produced the record I made when I was 17.  I used to watch his band, Peyote Cowboys, play all the time and just be blown away by the onstage energy.  We started eventually writing songs together, and he was instrumental in me deciding to drop out of college.  We started a band called Sleepy Heroes, and we were roommates and put out a record and broke up the day it came back from the manufacturer. 

We’ve been doing this together for a long, long time and I learned about most of my favorite music—I mentioned Robyn Hitchcock, but also Syd Barrett—from Murry.  I came in, I was only 15, when I was really on this trip about British music.  David Bowie and Aztec Camera (wait ... they’re Scottish) and Echo & the Bunnymen, it was all this really kind of Anglophile stuff, and Murry was really into punk rock and hardcore and the American psychedelic, the Paisley Underground movement in L.A., and he taught me all these things that I still think about and am still obsessed with, and Murry brought it all in.  And then later, after Sleepy Heroes, we tried a few more bands and got really frustrated, and we felt like we were out of touch.  We were trying these rock and roll bands and it was starting to feel disingenuous, and we were getting harder and harder and Nirvana had broken, and it was kind of like, “Well, what are we doing?  Does this even seem natural?” And then both Murry and I kinda quit music for six months, and Murry really got into listening to old-timey country stuff, and he got me into it, and we just got into this whole other thing that just felt really right, and after trying too hard to be something we weren’t, suddenly there was this thing that was our birthright.  I’m Seventh-Generation Texan, and I grew up loving Willie Nelson and Buddy Holly, and I’d been surrounded by bad country music all through the rock and roll years, and then suddenly I get introduced to the really beautiful country music.  I got obsessed with Hank Williams.  So we started the Old 97s, and it was all Hank and Johnny Cash for a couple of years, and then everything morphed into something.  I started missing all that British stuff, and the next thing you know I felt like we had really found our voice.  And it was somewhere between Hank Williams and London.

How did you feel being thrust into the role of the heartthrob of alt-country?
It was hard to get upset if that’s what people were saying.  I mean, we’re talking about alt-country being reductive, when I first started to play gigs, the Dallas Observer would call me “pretty boy teen folkie Rhett Miller.”  When we made our first record, the self-financed Hitchhike to Rhome, I made a point that in the album artwork, you could see everybody else’s face but mine was a blur.  During the early years of the Old 97s, I wore huge glasses and I’ve always made it a point to not play up the heartthrob angle.  But at a certain point in my mid-20s, I thought, “What am I doing?”  If I’m going to take this to the logical extreme I’ll wear a burqa.  I mean, am I really so debilitating good looking [Laughs].  I don’t care man.  So what if some girls think I’m cute.  I had a guy walk up to me one time at a gig and say, “God, I wish you looked like Jeff Tweedy, because it would be a lot easier to like your band!”  I think it was a really weird thing to say, because I think Jeff is a pretty good looking guy.  I was thinking, “Wow, you are fucking shallow dude ... I mean, that’s your criteria for liking a band, and thinking they’re honest?”  I always thought Jeff Tweedy was such a boyish-looking cutie pie—and you can quote me on that.

When you look at bands like Wilco or Ryan Adams—who have achieved a certain level of celebrity and notoriety—is that something you would ever have felt comfortable with?
I’ve certainly had moments of envy, probably for all those people you mentioned and many more, and I’ve tried not to feel envious of anyone, because I feel “What’s the point?”  Doesn’t that seem like the biggest waste of resources?  I’ve tried to get my music out there, and be successful, and I really hope that every record I put out does better than the last, and I would not mind if something I did really broke through on a bigger level, in a way that Wilco has, and I’d love to play on SNL and to get some of those little milestones that I haven’t gotten.  But every time I start to think like that, I think about the things I have gotten: I’ve gotten to play all over the world, and I still get to make a pretty good living at it, but I haven’t done SNL ... so what?  I’ve done Leno five times. 

I could split hairs and be jealous, but I’m glad for Tweedy and I’m even glad for Ryan.  One of his songs came on the radio, and I hadn’t heard his new Cardinology record, so I didn’t know who it was and it wasn’t a voice I recognized, and they announced that it was Ryan off his new record, and I just thought “Wow!”  I just felt a total shift in my thinking about him as a person.  I wish the best for him and I’m proud of him and his music.  I knew him when he was really young, and I haven’t really known him since then, but I think he’s done really well.  I’m not counting myself out of the race yet ... I might have a late surge and kick all those guys’ asses.  I do hope when it all comes down and I’m an old guy sitting around, I would like to be remembered in the way that the people I really admire are remembered, as one of the people who really did great work.  All I can do to make that happen is do great work, and try and keep making records as well as I can, and do the requisite work that comes behind it, by going out and doing shows and meeting people and doing press and doing whatever I need to do to get the word out there.

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