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Cover Story: Old 97s

| June 1, 2014



You’ll have to forgive Rhett Miller – the Old 97s bandleader is a father now. So while he wanted to dive right in on a discussion of Most Messed Up, his group’s galloping return to its classic Wreck Your Life/Too Far to Care cowpunk roots, he had more pressing familial concerns. After a week together in his native Texas, the singer had just put his wife Erica and his son Max and daughter Soleil on a plane bound for home in New York.

And my son went straight from the airport to a baseball game, because he’s 10 years old and he’s eaten up with baseball,” he sighs, wistfully. “And he called me after the game – I’m normally right there helping coach – and said ‘I only had a couple of hits. I had one double and one walk and a bunch of foul balls that were one foot away from being home runs’. Dad was caught up, emotionally invested in junior’s failures.

And I said ‘Sooo….did you guys win?’ And he goes ‘Oh, yeah! We won 18 to 3!’” guffaws Miller, 43, still a tad dumbfounded. “I mean, he was burying the lede! Now he’s taking winning for granted!” The sport has been consuming him, too, he adds. “Because I’m also part of this rock and roll baseball E-mail chain, with Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn and Joe Pernice and Will Johnson and Craig Finn from The Hold Steady — all these baseball supernerds. These guys are constantly E-mailing about baseball. And I’m not as big of a super baseball fan as them, but I do love it. And I really watch baseball now a little differently – between that and having a son who’s obsessed with it, there’s been a lot of baseball in my life lately.”

Surely now it’s time to discuss the new 97s magnum opus, an autobiographical accounting – or reckoning, perhaps – of the band’s turbulent, sometimes alcohol-powered two decades together, which kicks off with one of the greatest opening lines ever: “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive/Propelled by some mysterious drive.” Not exactly. Talking about plane trips reminds the vagabond that he also just flew into Indianapolis for several days, to co-write with Margo and the Nuclear So and Sos’ Richard Edwards. “It’s for a project that we’re doing together that’s gonna be sort of a modern-day Louvin Brothers thing,” he elaborates. “Just a lot of harmonica, a lot of acoustic guitars, a lot of hellfire and brimstone. And no covers,” he stresses.”We’re writing original songs, and the one murder ballad so far is this really sweet song called “Oh, Lord, Please Help Me”.”

While in Naptown Miller also booked a spur-of-the-moment solo gig at Radio Radio, the ultra-hip venue owned by David ‘Tufty’ Clough, of Zero Boys/Toxic Reasons renown. The artist even humbly apologized to the club owner afterwards for exuberantly leaping atop the monitors during his performance. “And I got all the great stories from Tufty – he’s just awesome,” Miller added of the conversations he had with the legendary punk bassist. But this gets him thinking of “Wicked Things,” another track he and Edwards composed for something else entirely. “That one will be on the new solo record,” he declares, proudly.

Yes, believe it or not, Miller is so prolific a composer that he’s already begun work on a seventh album under his own name, which started with his pre-’97s Mythologies back in ’89, and continued on through ’02’s The Instigator, ’06’s The Believer, ’09’s Rhett Miller, ’11’s The Interpreter: Live at Largo,” and The Dreamer in 2012. “There’s no working title for the record yet – I’m still agonizing over it,” he says. “But I can tell you this – the first word will be ‘The.’ After that? It’s up for grabs.” The Old 97s finished mastering Messed Up on January 7th this past winter he recalls quite clearly. “And that day I flew into Portland to start working with Chris Funk from The Decemberists. So I’ve been using their side band, Black Prairie, on the solo record, Funk is producing, and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) is actually gonna come in and do some guitar, maybe some mandolin. And it’s really beautiful, kind of love-song-y, with a lot of accordion and piano and fiddle and a lot of female harmonies.” He pauses, long enough to catch his breath. “It’s gonna be the flip side of the coin to this Old 97s record, both sonically and lyrically.”

Happily, Miller runs down the list of new solo material – “Wanderlust,” “Escape Velocity,” “My Little Disaster,” and the number of which he’s proudest, “Most In the Summertime.” How did he wind up with so much material? It’s like this, he says. When he came to his band (guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist/co-vocalist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples) with potential fresh material, he had roughly 25 cuts. “And half of them were the Most Messed Up songs, which was like this concept album about life in a rock band and on the bottle, or whatever,” he says. “And then the other half were these really beautiful, sweet, pretty songs. And Ken, our guitar player, was really nervous about doing these Messed Up songs, with all the cursing and the talking about life in rock. But after a couple of weeks, he called me up and was like ‘Dude – these are the best songs you’ve written in years! If we didn’t do this record, it would be such a stupid move. So I’m okay with it – I’ll explain it to my kids somehow.”

Again, the rapier-witted frontman spins off on a zany tangent. Bethea might’ve banned salty sonnets like “Intervention,” “Nashville,” “Wasted,” “Wheels Off,” and the self-explanatory “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On,” but Miller’s son managed to sneak a few listens of the decidedly adult material. “And it’s so weird to hear him walking around the house, singing the songs,” he chuckles. “I’m like ‘Oh, God!’ But he hasn’t heard all of it.” He suddenly snaps his fingers. “That reminds me! I did a charity gig in New York City with a bunch of comics the other night, and I took the whole family. And Sarah Silverman was down in the dressing room, and she was being super-sweet to Max and asking him all these questions.

“And then five minutes later, she was onstage and telling the raunchiest jokes that I’ve ever heard. And I’m sitting there with my hand on Max and Soleil’s shoulders, watching nervously. And then she gets to this one joke where I just thought it was beyond okay for my kids…you can still salvage the situation if you can muster a ‘Ta-daaaaa!’ And I was like ‘Okay, we’re gonna go out to the candy table now, kids!’ But hopefully, it goes over their heads, ya know….”

And now, finally, the man is ready to delve deeply into the topic of Most Messed Up, which is – as Bethea correctly assessed – one of the man’s best collections of songs in years. But it has its aesthetic roots in the group’s early history, circa ’95’s Wreck Your Life and ’97’s Too Far to Care, two rollicking, twang-infused efforts that practically defined the cowpunk sound.

Read the full story by picking up the print edition at a location in Chicagoland or read the digital edition HERE

-Tom Lanham

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