"I Don't Want This Sullied by These Foul-mouthed Youngsters": An Interview With Old 97's
Rhett Miller of Old 97's discusses longevity, grappling with a pandemic, and embracing silver linings. "Making a band work requires putting the group before one's self. Any relationship involves sublimation of ego."
21 August 2020
Twelfth is the upcoming album from the much-lauded Old 97's, a record that finds the veteran act in fine form. Arriving as frontman Rhett Miller celebrates half a decade of sobriety, and Twelfth is unflinching it its honesty. Here, Miller and his cohorts (Murry Hammondon bass, drummer Philip Peeples and guitarist Ken Bethea) run down a dozen songs that touch upon the connection between the past, present, and future.
Opener "The Dropouts" is carried by Replacements-esque lyrics about the kids who don't follow, who find their way in life through the glories of rock 'n' roll and who might, depending on the night scrawl "Fuck school" in an underpass their button-up fathers might have to drive by daily. Elsewhere, "Turn Off the TV" embraces the rebellion of days spent on ratty couches, enjoying Kids in the Hall marathons and brick weed. The ethereal "I Like You Better" touches on the bittersweet swing between falling in love and (perhaps) giving up self-loathing that provides an artist their rich inner life.
For all the sweetness of "Belmont Hotel", with its appreciation of long-term relationships and the rewards of moving beyond short-term frustrations and "Our Year", which, intentionally or not conjures memories of the Zombies' classic "This Could Be Our Year", there is, as has often been the case on Old 97's records, but especially since 2014's Most Messed Up, darkness at the edge of the song. "This House Got Ghosts" and "Confessional Boxing" provide requisite gravity to the affair, as does the Hammond-voiced "Happy Hour", perhaps the most quietly unsettling moment in the quartet's expansive discography.
It's never been the quartet's MO to overwhelm its listeners. Even in their weightiest moments, Old 97's can still be best described as a band that elevate the spirits and yet, album after album, listeners have lived on a pendulum between laugh and tear, appreciating the verisimilitude that a little old band from Texas can provide in its emotionally-driven material. Call it a cruel twist of fate that much of the new music seems tailor-made for the stage in a year that has seen most venues shuttered, some crumbling, some going under, with virtually every major act sitting out the season.
Speaking from his home in New York's Hudson Valley, Miller is candid about his experiences in the time of a pandemic. Though it's uncertain that the band will take to the road before a full calendar year has moved between the release of Twelfth, he remains committed to live performance. "I've been doing four shows a week on StageIt," he says. "I'm closing in on 100 shows, and I've been doing them from an office chair in the basement of my home. This is not what I signed up for." He adds, "I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I love playing, and I'm so thankful that I'm able to feed my kids by singing in my office."
The singer proved generous with his time and answers as he weaved a tale that swept across time, from a devastating tornado to a pandemic, to his childhood in Texas and how it came to represent the indefatigable spirit of his band and its latest opus.
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You started tracking this album the night of the Nashville tornado.
It was a long day of work; it went really well. We were killing it. We went back to the Airbnb that we were renting and watched breakers exploding, just the craziest sight. We were fine. I don't mean to dine out on something that was an actual tragedy for a lot of people, but it was a terrifying night.
It was also inspiring to be in that city. It's an easily maligned place. Nashville's tough. We've always had a hard time drawing a crowd in Nashville. There are so many people there doing music, and you come in and say, 'Hey, look at me with my acoustic guitar. I'm really great.' They say, 'Yeah, I've got a frickin' dozen of you every second.' It's easy to feel that Nashville can be a cruel mistress. But there we were, watching these people pull together, seeing what a sweet community it really is. Especially East Nashville, where most of the people we know live.
It was amazing to see the community, the outreach, the outpouring of love, and people coming together to clean up and rebuild. It was super inspiring.
How long was it between then and having to go into lockdown?
March 2 was our first day of recording. I flew home on the 12th, and got word that day that New York had shut down. The sessions were bookended by dual weirdness. The record was in the can, 95 percent done. We had to do a few remote things. Ken went in and did some overdubs. I recorded some piano on "I Like You Better." I played that on the old piano in my basement that's out of tune and crazy.
But most of it was done during that 10-day window, leading up to the news that our lives were on hold indefinitely, like a lot of people.
What's the process of writing for an album?
I tend to write a ton of songs, then give them to the guys. That can be hard, too, because when you get hit with 30 songs, it's hard to wade through the muck of it. I tend to send them acoustic demos. This time around, I tried to be smart about it and hit them with chunks of material in the months leading up to the sessions instead of just giving them everything at once.
I've also gotten better at using GarageBand, drum loops, and so forth. I was able to build demos of songs that gave the other guys an idea of what the song might sound like as an Old 97's song. Sometimes I'll write a song, and the demo will sound like a folk singer sitting next to a tree in a park.
It's hard sometimes to imagine that it could turn into this big, muscular rock 'n' roll event. When I first wrote the song "Timebomb", the opening track on Too Far to Care, which has become the closing number, our signature song. It rocks. Ken kind of scoffed at it at first. He said, "Oh, man, that kind of sounds like a folk song." I bring that up to him all the time. "You can't go by what the acoustic demo sounds like."
So, yeah, I write a lot of songs, then they go through them and pick out their favorites. I'm always surprised by what they pick out. Inevitably, there will be songs that I thought for sure would be cornerstone-of-the-album-type material. Nobody will even point it out as something that they're interested in.
With "I Like You Better" on this new album, I thought the band would hear that and turn its nose up. "No way, that's not an Old 97's song." And maybe this is because we've been a band for so long: They're getting more and more open-minded and they surprise me all the time. Twenty-seven years in, and these guys still surprise me all the time!
I think that's a good segue to talk about "Belmont Hotel". There are things we all go through in relationships, whether marriage, friendship, etc. It's about getting on the other side of the hard times. Obviously, there have been hard times with the band as well. How have you gotten through them?
You picked up on something in that song that I think happens quite a few times in the record. The lyrics discuss a long relationship and how difficult that can be. And how worthwhile it is to make it work. I think most people would hear that song as being about marriage, and I think I wanted it to work on that level primarily. But it definitely works as sort of a meditation on the kind of work that goes into making friendship or a partnership work over decades. It's incredibly unlikely.
It's easy, at any number of points along the timeline to just bail out because, as it says in that song, the work is hard to do.
Over the course of the Old '97's, we've had some really dark moments. When Elektra Records got rid of us after three albums and asked me to do a solo album, that coincided with my feeling that I had too many songs the band was rejecting. How could I not want to make solo records? That was a really hard transition, and it coincided with the beginning of the record industry becoming obsolete.
It was a really weird moment where our band was riding high on the wave of the old model, and all of a sudden, that model was collapsing on itself. We were trying to figure out if we were going to survive it. That was maybe the most difficult moment of the band. I say moment, and it probably lasted for a year or two. But there have been quite a few times when it would have been easier to throw in the towel.
We've never had a big hit record. We've all been able to make a pretty good living out of our band, but it's required a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent away from our families. I think all four of us have had times where we thought that maybe the right move would be to pack it in and get a proper job.
I'm so glad we haven't because we've been able to figure out how to feed our families and pay our mortgages with this incredibly unlikely vocation.
And you've done it with the same four guys.
Which is incredibly rare. So there has to be respect and understanding between you.
Making a band work requires putting the group before one's self. Any relationship involves sublimation of ego. I think that each of us in the band learned a long time ago that we had to compromise. Otherwise, it's never going to work. You can't win every fight. It's not going to happen. Other guys in the band get to win sometimes.
I wanted to talk about the song "Confessional Boxing". I read that as a song about internal struggle: Why do I keep doing this? I know people see me in this light, but this is how I really am.
That song came from a weird place. My kids are nice about my music, but they're not giant fans. They both really like hip-hop and pop. My son, especially, is into some cutting-edge hip-hop stuff. He's 16. He plays me a lot of stuff, and some of it I have a hard time connecting to. I have a hard time getting past how women get treated in some hip-hop. But some of it is so experimental and ground-breaking. It blows my mind the way that some of these artists come at self-expression. I think he played a Travis Scott song for me that was really vulnerable, open. I was really inspired by it.
I thought, "I'm going to write a song using examples from my own life." I talk about the things I feel bad about. The things that I feel ashamed of. That's not something that I've done in my music in an explicit way. Once I had done that, I had to go back and pump the brakes a little bit. The first draft was too much.
I had a line, "Driving around texting / With my kids in the car / Drove drunk too / But I didn't get far."
I just thought, "I can't sing that every night." There might be some truth in me revisiting some of the darkest moments before I quit drinking, making bad decisions and getting away with it, being incredibly lucky to get away with it. But I'm acknowledging it to you now, and it's not something I'm going to lie about, but I also don't want to climb up on stage every night and sing about it.
There's the line about "Wind up kissing on a shotgun." I think that's some kind of acknowledgment of the suicidal impulse. I let myself go to a pretty dark place. It's not something I like doing very much, but it's something I feel is important to do to stay honest in the art and to keep it as real as I can.
It's a cliché to say that creating art is a release and yet I know it's been that way in my life. Is that something that you felt once you started writing songs? Release and relief from the darkness?
Oh my god, it's the greatest therapy of all. When I was a teenager, I grappled with the heaviest, existential questions: Why is life worth living? I kept coming back to the idea that music was a way of creating meaning. When I was able to write songs and create music of my own, it felt like I had some foundational, existential meaning. It's always been the way that I've worked through problems and turmoil and anxiety.
I've had a hard time through the last few months because I've been unable to write a song. I've done some work on songs, mostly revision and some basic chord progressions. But I haven't been able to write a song, but I feel like if I could do that, it would help me process what we're all going through a lot better. I think writing songs would help me find my way through what we're all going through right now.
If music hasn't had that same function, how have you gotten through to this point? For me, my life has slowed down so much at this point. People have told me that I work too hard, and now I look around and go, "Wow, there are so many amazing things I've missed out on by being a workaholic."
It's so funny, I interviewed Dom Flemons for my Wheels Off podcast yesterday. He's so brilliant and thoughtful and interesting, and he brought up the idea that he's forcing himself right now to slow down and not to work so hard. I have so many friends and so many people in my life who have the opposite problem: It's so hard to get motivated, it's so much easier just to chill out. But like you and like Dom, it's hard for me.
People will ask me, "Why do you go so hard?" I tell them that it's like a shark: When a shark stops swimming, he dies. This is forcing us to slow down.
Sorry, your question was: How am I managing to survive and process in the midst of this if I'm not utilizing the main tool that I've always utilized? It's been very family-focused. I'm trying to give love to and trying to appreciate the love I'm getting from my kids. It's really been about finding the silver linings.
I didn't ever want my life to be sitting in front of a computer and having to sing songs into an HD camera, but this is where we're at now. I've found a lot of things about that that have made me really happy. I'm rediscovering songs from the hundreds of songs that I've released since I started doing this at 15. I'm revisiting songs that I've abandoned and am loving them.
I'm finding out how to utilize restraint. Suddenly, I can sing quietly. I don't have to sing loud. I don't have to jump around. I can fingerpick, I can find a whole different register as a performer that I've never used before. I can ride my bike and appreciate the meditation that happens when you're on a long ride.
When did it become apparent to you and the rest of the band that touring would be off the table for the year?
I remember that in May, I was going to do a solo gig, and I was going to interview Wyatt Cenac for my first live podcast. Then it got rescheduled for late July. I called Wyatt and said, "We're looking at rescheduling for late July. What do you think?" He said, "I don't think that that's going to happen, either."
The next day I started getting calls about the fall, then it just kept going. So, now, I've been told that things that were getting pushed back to the spring are getting pushed back to the fall of 2021. Then I read an interview that said 2022 was the earliest it could happen. For all I know, I'll wake up tomorrow and hear that 2023 is the earliest I'll be able to go back to work.
And it's not just about being on stage. There are relationships you form with house managers, promoters, crews, all of that. We all want to be able to go out and see our friends. There's an emotional toll to that.
When I was talking with Dom Flemons, we were both talking about being drawn into music initially because of the communal aspect. The collaborative element of this thing that we do. We're all in it together. We love each other. We support each other. We're all working together to create something, build something where there once was nothing. Now we're all in our houses by ourselves, looking at a computer screen. If we're lucky, we're able to do some version of our job into that computer and reach other people through an ethernet cable and, hopefully, get paid a little bit.
But that's the luckiest person. I'm fortunate to be in that category. But most people don't even have that. This thing that's been my life since I was 15 is now very different. I'm lucky that I have a wife and kids that I love.
I invited over a couple of New Paltz-based musicians last night. We took the cars out of the garage. I bought a PA system; we all stood 20 feet apart in my garage and played music. I'd never played with these people before, but I missed standing in front of a microphone, making this loud noise with other people. It felt great. I have to be grateful because all of this is forcing me to be positive and proactive. I have to figure out ways not to go cuckoo.
I rarely ask anyone about album covers. But when you were growing up in Texas was athletics important to you?
I think the main reason that sports exist is to give young people something they can bond with their parents about when they have nothing else in common. My dad and I had football in common, and that was about it. Roger Staubach was my friggin' hero when I was growing up in Texas. The idea that he would adorn the cover of one of my albums just blows my mind.
It came to me in a dream. I saw the album cover and the album title, and I woke up at five in the morning and did a mock-up of it in my bed. I found a picture, found a font, sent it to the band and said, "What if we did this for the cover?" They said, "Yeah, good luck with that!"
It was three months of getting permission from everyone you could imagine: The photographer, Getty Images, Sports Illustrated, Roger Staubach and his family, getting him to go to The Cowboys. If it was just me asking? Stephen Jones is not taking that email.
Somebody said, "It looks like you're making a jock record." I don't think so. I think that photograph is evocative of a moment in time in the 1970s that, to me, is crystalized as this perfect moment of youth. There's a backward-looking element to a lot of the songs on this record. I hope that doesn't come across as maudlin or overly nostalgic. But I think there's a lot of looking back on the halcyon early days of our band, when we were living in squalor, eating Ramen noodles, getting paid in pitchers of beer. Even though we had nothing, it was so fun that it was better than once you've made it, and you've got everything.
Was Roger Staubach aware of the band?
He has a bunch of kids, and at least a couple of them are fans of my band. I've been able to meet two of them over the years, especially his son, Jeff. He's become a good friend. He's invited my family and me to go to a few Cowboys' games over the years in Roger's box with Roger.
So, I've gotten to meet Roger, hang out with him, spend relaxed, quality time with him. It still doesn't make sense. He was so godlike to a kid growing up in Dallas in the '70s. He's such a funny, down-to-earth, snarky guy. There was a moment, seven years ago, when we were watching Tony Romo beat the New York Giants for the first time in the new stadium. My son was ten at the time. He was standing next to Roger Staubach; it was just the two of them. They both had their arms crossed, looking out across the gridiron. Roger leaned over to Max and said, "I'm glad Tony's finally beating The Giants. I was 11-1 against The Giants."
Holy shit! Roger Staubach is bragging to my son about his record against The Giants!
He claimed he was a fan. I don't know how much Old '97's music he listens to, but he knows that his kids like us, so I was able to get him to sign off on this. He could have looked at the brand and said, "I don't want this sullied by these foul-mouthed youngsters."
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