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Rhett Miller

| February 28, 2006

Rhett Miller
Couldn’t Leave If He Tried

“If I’m not mistaken, I cannot only do the Old 97’s in the future — y’know, doing shows and albums. Obviously we won’t do an album a year, an album every two years, even, like we did at one point. But I think we’ll be able to continue that ’til we’re in our 70s or so. And then the solo stuff, I’m going to obviously still want to do that. I can alternate between the band and the solo stuff.”

So says Rhett Miller, the strikingly handsome and youthful yet old-souled frontman for the oft-raucous, slightly country-tinged Old 97’s. The group has seven albums, including the recent live offering Alive & Wired, but with a slowed recording pace it’s understandable Miller would embrace the solo world. He debuted in 2002 with The Instigator, and now returns with The Believer (Verve Forecast), a 12-song venture into failed romance, sex, indecisive partners — and those are just the love songs.

Anyone who comes to Miller’s music expecting a drastic departure from the 97’s will most likely be surprised. Rhett Miller the solo artist isn’t so different from Old 97’s, per se. It’s more that, in this arena, there’s more room and time to get to the places he has been trying to go. The Believer even features a re-worked 97’s track, one Miller felt was the missing link between his two musical outlets.

“In a way, ‘Question,’ I felt like, was the bridge from the 97’s stuff to my solo stuff,” Miller explains. “I wrote it in the studio and it appeared on the record in a one-vocal, one-acoustic guitar format, which is how I was playing it when the producer walked by and said, ‘Hey, let’s get that on tape.’ So it never really got a treatment, it never really got any kind of an arrangement or any other instruments on it. I was the only one that played on it. So, it was a solo song, but the band gets, y’know, publishing credits still. [It’s] still an Old 97’s tune.

“But it was nice, ’cause it was exactly why I need to make solo records,” Miller continues. “I got to do all the things that they would never have let me do, y’know: lush strings, weird hand percussions. So, I love the Old 97’s machine, but it’s . . . specific. That’s why I get to do this: side projects, my solo recordings.”

Given his softer, sometimes simpler and sparser sides, Miller’s foray into the solo realm makes sense. There are traces of those elements in the 97’s, but there has always been too much of a prevailing urgency in the band’s approach to ever stop and fully explore those other options. So the decision to strike out independently couldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. Least of all not for the Old 97’s themselves.

“There have been the countless instances of being told ‘No’ by my bandmates, which is fine; that’s the nature of democracy. But I always told them, too, from the very first rehearsals we were doing in my mom’s garage when they would turn songs down — which happened a lot, y’know — I would tell them, ‘Dude, this is a good song, I worked really hard on these songs, I think this is a good song, y’know, someday I’m going to make solo records so I get to use these songs that you guys don’t understand,'” Miller recounts. “The last record was a little weird, just ’cause it was uncharted territory. But by now it seems very cool and comfortable.”

Jaime de’Medici

To learn more about Miller’s decision to go solo, pick up the March issue of Illinois Entertainer.

Category: Features, Monthly

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