“I Might Have a Late Surge and Kick All Those Guys’ Asses”: An Interview with Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller
Rhett Miller
Shout Factory

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.

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.