“I Support My Family Singing Songs and Shaking My Ass”: An Interview with Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller
The Dreamer
Maximum Sunshine

Rhett Miller isn’t used to being in control.

“I’ve never been a producer before,” Miller said by phone from his sister’s house in Austin. “I was not necessarily steering the ship in the past.”

With The Dreamer, his fifth solo album, Miller makes his first foray into the world of production. The album is the second to be released on Miller’s label, Maximum Sunshine Records.

The album, Miller said, is free of any corporate oversight. Not only is Miller releasing it on his own label and producing it himself, but it was also funded entirely by fan contributions received via PledgeMusic.com. Miller said that when he launched the PledgeMusic campaign, he had been thinking about doing a fan-funded album for some time.

Miller, who is better known as the frontman for Texas quartet the Old 97’s, is no stranger to major labels. The Old 97’s released three albums on Elektra Records and Miller’s 2002 solo album The Instigator was also on Elektra. “You had guys in boardrooms making decisions,” he said.

The Dreamer, however, didn’t turn out as Miller imagined. Then again, he said, they never do.

“No record I’ve ever made turned out the way I thought,” he said, adding that in most cases, that’s a very good thing. “It’s a really straightforward album.”

Even with the additional control he had over the music as producer, Miller said The Dreamer still turned into something he didn’t imagine.

“As soon as I saw the turn it was taking, it sort of crystallized before my eyes,” he said.

Straightforward may be an understatement. Miller said about 90 percent of what’s heard on the album is simply Miller and his band, the Serial Lady Killers (a nod to the Old 97’s classic “Barrier Reef”), playing the songs in the studio.

“Almost everything on the record was recorded live on the floor,” he said. “Almost everything you’re hearing is performed live. My band — the Serial Lady Killers — they rock.”

Between his career with the Old 97’s and his solo career, Miller hasn’t had a “normal” job since 1994 — the year the Old 97’s released their first album, Hitchhike to Rhome. “I was a maître d’ at an Italian restaurant in Dallas,” he said. “For a while there, too, I was a plumber’s assistant. I was mostly digging holes.”

Oh how far he’s come. In a mere 18 years, he’s gone from hole-digging and seating customers to recording music with the likes of Ben Kweller and Rosanne Cash — both of whom co-wrote songs on The Dreamer.

“He’s just such a magic guy,” Miller said of Kweller, who co-wrote “Lost Without You”, the album’s opening track. “He’s just overflowing with music.”

Miller, who has made a living making music and performing for the better part of two decades, has apparently passed on some of his musical talents to his two kids — 8-year-old son Max and 6-year-old daughter Soleil.

“Max is taking drum lessons and Soleil is a singer extraordinaire,” he said. The rocker/family man jokes that he’s worried about his kids following him into the family business. “They think that my job is so cool,” he said. “I’m a little afraid they want to go into it.”

Family life hasn’t affected Miller’s ability to write songs about heartbreak or hard times, however. “The miseries I felt as a 20-year-old are still readily available,” he said.

Though a native of Texas, Miller has lived on both coasts and now resides with his kids and his wife — model Erica Iahn — in New York’s Hudson Valley. Texas — and a handful of other cities — will occasionally make appearances in Miller’s songs, but he said his songs haven’t changed since he left Texas. The geography has never had that much of an effect on my songs,” he said. “Usually, I’m writing whatever song I write.”

Instead, Miller says, he prefers to write about that which he knows and has experienced.

“I’ve never been a writer that writes from his diaries,” he said. “I like hooks. I like my lyrics to be hopefully a little more deep than the average pop song.”

Miller, now 41, has been creating deeper-than-the-average-pop-song lyrics for 22 years. His first album, Mythologies (recorded with Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond), was released in 1989, when Miller was only 19 years old. Miller said listening to Mythologies nowadays is difficult.

“That is very hard to listen to now because of my affected voice,” he said, adding that he sang in a fake British accent. “I was just an anglophile. My singing voice was eluding me.”

Miller’s music — both as a solo artist and with the Old 97’s — has evolved since the days of his affected British accent. Most would likely describe Hitchhike to Rhome as a country album (Miller notes that he definitely sang with more of a twang back then), though the label would not be totally accurate. Less than a decade later, in 2001, the 97’s released what many think is their most “poppy” and least “country” album, Satellite Rides. The following year, Miller released The Instigator, which falls firmly into the pop-rock category (though it keeps with Miller’s desire for “deeper-than-the-average-pop-song” lyrics with references to DeLillo, Kafka, and Wagner).

More often than not, though, you’ll hear the music described as “alt-country” — a term that used to bother Miller. If Tom Petty — one of Miller’s favorite songwriters — were just starting out today, the rock icon’s music would likely be described as “alt-country.”

Though the “alt-country” label used to irritate Miller, it doesn’t anymore. And he knows why people use it. I don’t really begrudge anybody their labels,” he says.

Though the songs of Miller and the Old 97’s cover topics from lost love to lost cats (see “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” off the 1999 Old 97’s album Fight Songs), one theme not really seen in the music is politics. That’s not to say Miller has no political tendencies. The Old 97’s made an appearance on the Future Soundtrack for America — released in 2004 with proceeds benefiting Music for America and MoveOn.org.

While this is an election year, Miller said neither he nor the Old 97’s have any plans to venture into the political arena with their music.

“We’re not a terribly political band,” he said. “I haven’t given it much thought.” That’s not to say he’s ruling out using his music for political purposes as November draws closer. “As the election gets closer, I may get more freaked out by the possibility of Obama losing,” he said.

Miller begins a tour with the Serial Lady Killers June 4 in Vienna, Va. From there, he’ll play dates on both coasts, as well as a June 13 date in Austin. When that tour winds up, he said, he’ll begin gearing up for a tour with the Old 97’s. In August, the band will set out on a tour marking the 15th anniversary of their album Too Far to Care.

Miller said he thinks a bit lately about how the Old 97’s have been together for nearly 20 years. At times, it’s hard to believe. But mostly, he said, he’s happy about it.

“Usually it just makes me feel proud,” he said. “I support my family singing songs and shaking my ass.”