"I Might Have a Late Surge and Kick All Those Guys' Asses": An Interview with Rhett Miller

Photos: Jason Janik

Rhett Miller has a newfound respect for Ryan Adams, some bones to pick with Malcolm Gladwell, and -- oh yeah -- a new solo album filled with heartbreak and communication breakdowns. Right on the cusp of turning 40, it seems that Rhett Miller has finally hit his stride ...

In these turbulent times, in this foul year of our Lord 2009, Rhett Miller is dealing with the shitty economy and the death of his idol the only way he knows how: by writing songs.

The Old 97s front man is creeping up on 40, but still retains his eternally youthful good looks, the looks that have simultaneously been a blessing and curse for the Texas native his entire career. After garnering national attention with the release of his first solo album Mythologies at the age of eighteen and the formation of the Old 97s, Miller was pegged as the next "it" boy of the burgeoning sub-genre known as alt-country. His whiskey soaked sentiments dealing with love and loss, punctuated by deceptively clever lyrical wordplay, won the band a devoted following and critical praise. To many fans of the notoriously superficial genre, Miller was always viewed as a marquee poster boy who favored pop and lacked the honesty or experimentation of Jeff Tweedy or Ryan Adams.

As Wilco and Ryan Adams broke from cult status into the mainstream in the early half of the decade, Miller and the Old 97s remained on the fringe of superstardom, and were never invited to join the party. With seven full-length Old 97s releases (and two solo albums: 2002's The Instigator and 2006's The Believer) the band and Miller are still soldiering on, happy to recruit new fans through their cameo performance in the 2006 Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Break Up, and content to handle fame, success and growing older on their own terms.

On June 9th, Miller's third solo album, the self titled Rhett Miller, will be released on Shout! Factory Records, with a tour in support featuring the Old 97s and solo acoustic Miller performances. With a model wife and two small children, Rhett has settled into a life of quiet domesticity on his three-acre property in the Hudson River Valley. For a guy who used to stay up all night writing and drinking whiskey, fending off models and actresses (Winona Ryder was a gushing fan) and touring relentlessly, Miller has spent the last five years adjusting to fatherhood, while coming to the realization that chasing superstardom is futile. Speaking to Miller on an early Wednesday morning, I find the good father sharp and engaged, laughing about the fact that he doesn't get much sleep because of the kids. The background noise of the Miller household reverberated with the sound of children laughing, and as we talked about living and creating during these troubled times, Miller also reflected on his two decades of making music, and why he may have a late surge and end up kicking Jeff Tweedy's and Ryan Adams' asses.

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You've mentioned that you were in a dark headspace writing the new record.

I don't think it was anything spectacular or unusual. I'm an artistic personality, and right now it's tough times in a tough world. My wife and I are getting along just fine, and we have two small kids and that's what they say is one of the toughest times for a parent, having to subjugate yourself to them. So there's that, but there's just a lot. A lot of my friends were going through divorces, and my Grandma died and David Foster Wallace fucking hung himself. The guy was one of my heroes. Infinite Jest is my favorite book and now he's gone. By choice. It's not like he was just my literary hero, he was, but it was more than that. He was my intellectual hero. I looked up to him and thought, "this is somebody whose brain is bigger and more powerful than anyone I've ever witnessed or come into contact with," and his brain kind of works, certainly on a higher level than mine, but he thought about things the way I thought about things, and his priorities and the things he cared about ... I just felt really connected to him. So that really threw me for a loop. And it was just what everybody's been going through. My father-in-law lost all of his money in the stock market, not that he had that much, you don't have to print that [Laughs].

But it's just sort of dark times. If I'm in the room with a couple that's fighting, invariably I'll get depressed and nervous. I don't know if that's genetic or something that came from being the product of a broken home. For some reason this record -- and I think maybe it was because it was a solo record -- I gave myself leeway to go places where I might not want the band to have to go with me. Like the opener on the record, "Nobody Says I love You Anymore" -- that's such a strange song. I played it for the band, just because I try and play them everything in case something really jumps out at them, but it never would have made sense for the band to play that song, and I can't even really put my finger on why it wouldn't work. I just listened to the record for the first time in a couple of weeks, I had a long drive home from a gig, and I put the record on and listened to it, and I was really proud of it, and I was also struck by the fact that I can go through the lyrics and find these soul crushing sentiments. I don't know if other people are going to get that necessarily, and I don't think it's as dark a record as I initially thought it was.

Thematically there are some darker elements, but it doesn't come off as morose.

Yeah! See, that's the trick and to me is the fine line. I want to make a record where I can express real things and get weird, dark and complicated. But I don't want people to feel those dark things when they're listening to the record. I want them to put it on and be able to enjoy it, and if they're in a weird or a dark space and want to dig deeper into the lyrics, they might discover there's something going on there.

Have you always been attracted to touching on the darker side of things?

Yeah. Absolutely. As a younger man that sort of manifests itself as self-pitying, drunken, "why did this girl leave, what's wrong with me" type stuff. I'm never gonna write about war-torn Bosnia or some political issue necessarily, although there is an outtake on the record called "Government Man" and even "Government Man" is written about a friend of mine. But I'm just not good at that, and I'm not interested in writing political or topical songs. But I do really get fascinated by those moments between two people that are just so fraught with misery. It's those complicated moments when people are trying so hard to connect, and they can't do it. What is it about us as human beings that keep us from being able to connect?

Was the initial idea behind the new record to be more stripped down and acoustic based?

Yeah. The song "Bonfire" on the new record was sort of the place I was coming from. I wrote that, and thought "that's what I want this record to be like", and I brought in John Dufilho -- the Apples in Stereo drummer who's a friend of mine -- and he's so good, and the songs that he got excited about were "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore, and the songs that I personally didn't really have a handle on. They were kind of these weird songs that I just couldn't figure out what they were supposed to sound like, and he came in and we played them and we just sort of rode the wave and let the songs dictate what they should sound like. The next thing you know I've got these John Bonham-sounding drums on a waltz. To me that's so weird. The record opens with "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore" which has these machine gun drums over a waltz, over these really weird, dark lyrics. But it felt right, and it felt strange. I t felt like I was uncomfortable with it in a good way, like I'm actually growing. This far in, 20 years after I made my first record in high school ... I'm still growing.

There's a book that came out recently called Outliers, this [Malcolm] Gladwell book, that talks about how you have to work at something for 10,000 hours to be considered an expert. I feel that runs counter to what our culture believes which is that your first effort, your first album, is the greatest thing you will do in your career and after that you're chasing some ghost of your youth and it's sort of sad and something people should look away from. I'm not sure that's 100% true, because there's a lot of artists who have flourished later in their career, but that's a fear coming up as an artist, that if I'm any good I'll probably be dead by the age of 27. I do believe that you have to put in your time, and that I'm getting better and better, and letting those weirder songs happen, and letting the record take the turn that it did, made me feel really strongly that it's meant to be and it's a good thing. I listen to it now and I'm glad that "Bonfire" is on there, and "Haphazardly". There are moments of really quiet, ambient space but there's also this really frenetic, anxious sounding stuff.

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