20 Questions: Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s

Old 97's
Blame It on Gravity
New West

One of the most exciting and popular bands to emerge out of the ’90s indie rock scene, you’ve heard their songs in TV shows such as King of the Hill, Scrubbs and Veronica Mars, and movies, too, although if you’re really lucky, you’ve heard the Old 97’s perform live. They’ve released six critically acclaimed studio albums to date. Their seventh studio album, Blame It on Gravity, was released May 13th on New West Records. Rhett Miller, lead vocalist and a rather sweet fellow, chats with PopMatters’ 20 Questions about fantasy football, his affinity for the protagonist in Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and this neat little trick he does with spoons.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

My wife Erica and I just watched a sweet little film called Rocket Science. It took place in the cut-throat world of high school debate, a world I know well from having participated for a couple of glorious years. I did well enough to earn a scholarship to a prestigious summer program at the University of San Diego, where I got mononucleosis from kissing a girl named Scarlett. Wait…What was the question?

2. The fictional character most like you?

Sherlock Holmes. Swear to god. Musician, obsessive-compulsive, crime-solving, drug addled…Wait, what was the question? Really…I’d have to say David Foster Wallace’s Hal Incandenza from Infinite Jest. I love the alternate universe in which the years are no longer numbered but named according to corporate sponsorship, e.g., “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Highway 61 Revisited? Surfer Rosa? Hunky Dory? Blood and Chocolate? What are you trying to do, make my head explode? Okay, okay. Let’s say Bizarro by The Wedding Present. It’s right up there with the others, but it’s so criminally under-rated that it hasn’t been burned out by too many plays or too much praise.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Though I used to watch Picard and The Next Generation back in the day, I’d have to say, um… Battlestar Galactica. I only say that because my friend Tricia Helfer plays a Cylon on the show – and it’s a good show. I haven’t kept up though, because children and songwriting take up all my time.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Dallas Stars Hockey; Home Movies on Adult Swim; bookstores, especially used bookstores. The thing that keeps my brain ticking most consistently is the endless supply of murder mysteries and suspense novels out there. My favorites are Elmore Leonard, Dame Agatha, John Dickson Carr, John D. McDonald and Harlan Coben. I also recently devoured the entire Ender saga by Orson Scott Card — not mystery but very engaging.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I won the Super Bowl in my fantasy football league ten years ago. Everything about that bit of information is wrong on so many levels. I should be too rock ‘n’ roll to play fantasy football. Barring that, I should have won the freaking Super Bowl at least once since then. Damn you Steven Jackson, running back for the St. Louis Rams!

7. You want to be remembered for…?

I’d love to have a catalogue of albums full of songs people love. And someday I aspire to write novels. The real thing I’d like to be remembered for, though, is being a good father and husband. Without that, the other accomplishments are meaningless.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Willie Nelson, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello and Elmore Leonard all come to mind.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

“Waterloo Sunset” by Ray Davies, or Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

“Waterloo Sunset” is the greatest song in the Western canon as far as I’m concerned. That eerie incomprehensibility. That feeling of simultaneous dread and joy that, to me, sums up the human condition.

Infinite Jest hit me at the right time, the end of my 20s. I love Wallace’s unabashed smarty-pants-ness. I read that novel and can’t believe that one mind could contain, much less create, such a huge, beautiful story.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I can hang at least eight spoons from my face (including ears) at once. I do this to amuse small children and embarrass bigger children. I did it at my own wedding reception. I intend to do it at my funeral.

The Old 97’s – photo (partial) by ¬©Lisa Johnson

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

John Doe (of X) told me, “Make sure that your band is more than just a bar band.” I don’t mind playing in bars, but that can’t be the end of your ambition. There is a great big world out there.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My $300 mid-80s Alvarez acoustic six-string guitar. Made in Japan. It sounds better than my Martin, my Gibson, and my Guild. How can that be?

Having visited Japan, I have enormous respect for their standards of craftsmanship and service. And then there’s the Japanese rosewood…

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

I feel best wearing nothing at all. Seriously. You asked.

Onstage though, I would need some jeans and a button-down that didn’t show my nipples when I sweat through it by the second song. Not that I’m embarrassed of them. It’s just that some things must remain personal.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Other than Erica, my better half? I’d have to say Jon Brion. I never get to hang out with him enough and I know he’d appreciate a leisurely dinner.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I’d visit my 14-year-old self and impart a little wisdom: the kids that are being jerks are probably being abused or neglected at home, so try to forgive them; be careful not to sing with too much of a British accent or Texas drawl; don’t take any of this stuff too seriously, and finally, cheer up, kid, you’ve got the rest of your life to obsess about death.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Spa vacation. Maui. With Erica. And maybe the kids…Maybe.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Jameson’s Irish Whisky. I used to think sleep, but now that I have kids I know that to be false. You can live without it, but man you get cranky sometimes.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I have become a country mouse. I love our three acres in the Hudson Valley. Cities are great…to visit.

In my dream world, I’d have our house in the country, an apartment in Manhattan proper, a lake house in the hill country outside of Austin, a home perched atop the Hollywood Hills, and a spread on the beach in Maui.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

To the next president, I’d say, “Please don’t start any wars. Please end the ones that the idiots before you started.”

Oh yeah, and make sure not to deploy the Fighting 69th. My friend Jason Hartley needs to stick around here and play board games with me.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I’m writing songs and touring with the Old 97’s.

I would like to do a quiet, acoustic solo album soon as well as another Old 97’s album ASAP. The Old 97’s are in a great place, now. Plus, Salim Nourallah is a producer we’d like to work with for years to come. So let’s rock!