Lovers Lane
ATT Internet 75

Cover Story: Old 97s

| December 1, 2018

Rhett Miller tried incredibly hard not to let it bother him. He really did. But then he made the unfortunate mistake of looking up the numbers, and the usually calm, cool, and collected Old 97s bandleader went ballistic because the numbers didn’t lie. “Last Christmas” by frickin’ George Michael — God rest his soul — is the bane of my existence,” he declares, assertively. “Then I found out how much his estate makes off of that song every year, and it’s more money by four than I’ve ever made in my life, combined. Which really frustrated me — it’s not like it’s a better song than anything I’ve ever written.” A year ago, after the 97s played a private party at the home of a Boston benefactor — nice work if you can get it — a Grinch-sinister plot began to form in the musician’s mind, as he stood with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming: He must find a way to keep “Last Christmas” from coming. Or at least siphon off some of its over-saturated airplay.

In Boston, Miller broached the subject to his bandmates — guitarist Ken Bethea, guitarist-co-vocalist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples — and they were receptive to the idea of recording a mostly-original Yuletide album; and sure enough, the rollicking Love the Holidays just hit shelves, alongside Miller’s latest introspective solo set The Messenger. Which was ironic, he laughs, “because it was a week after New Year’s, and everybody was so sick of Christmas music. But it was already in my brain because I’d gone through the whole holiday season thinking, ‘I could write a better song than that! I could write a better song than that!’ So I went to the guys in the dressing room in Boston and said, ‘Because we’re not gonna be making a studio album in 2018, what if we make a Christmas album? I think the fans would like it and — god forbid! — we might actually make a little money off of it.’ But primarily for me, I just liked the challenge of writing holiday songs, songs that will be evergreen and perennial. And, of course, writing a better one than “Last Christmas.”” Post-concert, he returned to the dressing room to start composing the disc’s first cut, “I Believe in Santa Claus,” and quickly fell into the ching-chinging sleighbell groove. “And I learned what the trick was going to be for me,” he says. “I was going to write my own regular songs; only they would be set during the holiday season.”

But Miller has always aimed high, artistically. And today, in a pre-Thanksgiving call from the Hudson Valley home he shares with his wife Erica and their two children, Max and Soleil, he’s definitely feeling the festive spirit. And his surroundings only enhance his mood. Drive five minutes in any direction from home base, and you’ll find one of the countless cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farms, and outside his living room window sat eight inches of freshly-fallen snow, which added a warm wintry glow to his afternoon.

Gifts were on his mind, too — Max had just turned 15 the day before, and dad had spent a fortune tracking down a rare pair of Kanye West sneakers, this week’s model. “I just turned 48, and I noticed three gray hairs,” he sighs. “I could be dead by now, but I feel good. I feel young, I feel healthy, and I feel vital, mentally and physically. And actually, creatively, I feel more vital than I’ve ever felt in my life.” In addition to The Messenger, his eighth effort under his own name, plus “Love the Holidays,” this Renaissance man has a personal podcast he’s fine-tuning, a novel he’s close to completing, and an Edward Gorey-grim book of children’s poetry called No More Poems! coming out this March. In fact, he adds, he’d just had a meeting in Manhattan with the publisher’s marketing team to discuss the volume’s rollout, and he was stunned by how seriously they were taking his goofy, lighthearted wordplay. “I spent two hours in a conference room, and as the team was laying out their plan, I was like, ‘Holy shit! You guys are really going for it! This is weird…’” he says. “I even scored the biggest illustrator in the business, this guy who’s a Caldecott winner. I was really lucky.”

How did Miller hit such a peak of productivity? By quitting booze a few years ago, for starters. Then he gradually developed a system that continues to work for him. “So essentially, I’m waking up every day now and going down to my office or the hotel lobby and writing 500 to 1,000 words on the first draft of my novel,” he explains. “And I’m 40,000 words into it now, which is further along than any other draft. And it’s great that none of my other jobs — being a dad, being a rock and roller, even starting to record a podcast — are really prose. So for me, to write prose is a whole other part of my brain that I don’t get to exercise most of the time. And music is so immediately gratifying, but the kids’ poems that I wrote are just a few degrees removed from what I do as a songwriter — it’s rhyme and meter and rhyming couplets. But the prose is a much bigger thing, and you have to live with these characters and keep the timeline, plus different plots and subplots straight in your head. It’s **a lot of work! A lot!”

In his nearly three decades with the 97s, Miller has proven himself a champion tunesmith, easily capable of surpassing an even Wham!-era George Michael. The band’s ’97 Elektra masterpiece Too Far to Care alone feels like a master class in the craft. And — along with its 1995 Bloodshot precursor Wreck Your Life (which first caught the attention of Elektra’s keen-eared exec Tom Desavia, who signed the Dallas outfit immediately) — defined the galloping cowpunk-meets-Duane-Eddy-with-a-touch-of-Tom-Lehrer aesthetic that Miller and crew would regularly return to for comfort on future envelope-pushing experiments. And in this colloidal system, every sonic ingredient was equally important — Bethea’s booming guitar lines, Peeples’ chugging rhythms, Hammond’s deep, heavy bass notes and conversely high singing voice, and Miller’s rich, mahogany warble, snarky, sardonic lyrics, and brash punk-schooled way with a marlin-sized hook. One track, in fact — the loping, knowing-wink-subtle “Big Brown Eyes” — was so picture-perfect, it was included on both mid-‘90s records, as is. And the man was right – this clever mentality can transfer with relative ease to traditional Christmas carols, a la Love the Holidays.

The disc kicks off with the initially incongruous title cut, but its chuck wagon coziness and mariachi horns make sense after a few bars. More Keane-painting-eyed innocence ensues, in a waltzing “I Believe in Santa Claus” — which is every bit as family-friendly as it sounds — the jingle-jangly “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas),” the southwestern-smoky ballad “Snow Angels,” and “Christmas is Coming,” which is basically sleighbell-adorned cowpunk, Old 97s’ welcome stock in trade. Miller’s original song list was supposed to end with only one traditional, “Auld Lang Syne.” But label execs kept adding old holiday B-sides, like “Blue Christmas” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” until “Holidays” was much longer and less originals-centered than its composer had anticipated. But you don’t have to dig very deep to unearth his wise life philosophies, as in “Gotta Love”’s Christmas morning reflection, “Wrapping paper, big old bows/ I hope I don’t get no clothes/ I’ll wake up at 6 a.m./ Just so I can open them.” They say you can never go home again. But Miller was willing to give it a good old college try. The performer has a few applicable seasonal theories, as well. “Doesn’t Christmas come with some level of anti-climax?” he wonders, rhetorically.

“There’s a moment on Christmas day when the Christmas morning is over, all the presents are unwrapped, you’ve scoured the house for any that might have been left behind, and you’ve realized that that was it, you’re not going to get anything else. So you catalog what you’ve got, and it’s just…just underwhelming. It’s inevitably underwhelming. And I remember as a kid really hating getting clothes — maybe we all do. But even as an adult, it’s tricky. Presents are the physical manifestation of other people’s appreciation of you, and when they don’t give you the dopamine that you feel like you deserve, then you feel unloved. And that’s just such a dangerous thing. But I feel pretty lucky. I think my kids have always enjoyed their Christmases.”

As a grown-up, Christmas morning doesn’t work the same as it did in childhood, dad sighs. Racing downstairs as soon as the 6 a.m. alarm goes off to tear open all the gifts by 6:05? That doesn’t fly with the missus, who insists on a more leisurely, sleeping-in approach. After awakening, next comes a fresh pot of coffee, while the kids squirm in their seats at the breakfast table. “That 6 a.m. thing? Erica will not do it,” he says. “She’ll make the kids wait for two hours. She’ll open a tube of cinnamon rolls, bake the cinnamon rolls, eat the cinnamon rolls, and then we’ll have the official family breakfast. And then you get to open the presents — it’s ritualized, sure, but it drags it out, so at least you can milk a couple of extra hours out of the gift-opening tradition. Because otherwise, it’d be over in five minutes. So my kids complain about it, but I think they actually like it.”

What’s the coolest Red Ryder BB Gun-level Christmas gift Miller ever received? Easy, he says. “When I was five or six years old, I couldn’t believe how cool this gift was that I got. It was a big rectangular cassette player that had a handle on one end, and it came with a cassette of CB radio songs, songs all about the Citizens’ Band. I wonder what year the single “Convoy” came out? ’75 or ’76? Because it probably would have been that year. But the combination of that cassette deck, and then realizing I could record on it? That just blew my mind; it was so awesome.”

Miller has a few surreal holiday memories, to boot. His first official Elektra solo set from 2002 was aptly dubbed The Instigator, and truth be told, he’s always been one. Just like Woody Woodpecker. It wasn’t over a river or through any woods, he clarifies. “But every year we used to go to my favorite grandmother’s house. And I remember one year we were leaving her house, and the car had a cassette deck, and I had an AC/DC cassette. So I put on the song “Highway to Hell,” and my dad said, ‘This is inappropriate! How could we listen to this on Christmas Eve?’ And I said, ‘Uh, I dunno, dad. Because it rocks?’ And my brother and sister and even my mom sort of vetoed him, so we cranked up “Highway to Hell,” driving from my grandmother’s house back to our house on Christmas Eve. And it felt like the perfect kind of inappropriate. And I feel like ever since then, my family holidays — whether it’s with my parents or now with my own kids — have been strongly characterized by a refusal to conform to the politeness that seems to be the norm on family holidays. So the conversation that we’ll have over dinner will be *the* most inappropriate, disgusting conversation, ever. Last night, for Max’s birthday, I was explaining to him how I failed to cut his umbilical cord when he first came out, so it was this half-cut, slippery umbilical cord, covered in blood, spouting blood and placenta everywhere. And I’m telling him this as we’re enjoying our nice birthday dinner. So AC/DC and “Highway to Hell” set a tone that I’ve been keeping up ever since. For 40 years.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to be kith and kin to get a taste of how this cynical fellow’s twisted mind works. It’s all there to enjoy in No More Poems!, illustrated by Dan Santat and due out March 5. And yes, the book recalls the ghoulish humor of Charles Addams and the great Edward Gorey. But his publishers, Little Brown, are seeing this freshly minted author as a darker version of Shel Silverstein, he believes. Even so, there was some verse that they felt was simply too outre for children, he proudly relates. “The poems I would write that would make my kids the happiest were the darkest. And there were a few that we ended up not including in the book, a couple at the last minute where I sort of capitulated. There’s one called “The Way That I Am” that we decided not to include because the narrator is engaged in shaming, which is such a touchstone right now, such a hot-button topic. But in the case of this narrator, he was shaming himself, listing all the things about himself that he found repulsive. He had one toe shaped like a shrimp, so he could never wear sandals, and he couldn’t wear shirts at the beach because of his jiggly love handles. In the end, he finally says — and it’s a take on the old Groucho Marx quote — ‘If I can find anyone to see past these things, I’d probably tell them to scram/ I don’t want anyone desperate enough to love me the way that I am.’ As in, I don’t want to be in any club that would have me as a member. He wound up being an asshole. So I didn’t want to go to bat for it to the point that I was willing to make a big stink about it. But I may find a way to get that little poem out at some point because I thought it was sweet.”

Not so sweet? Miller’s Messenger. Two years ago, he appeared as part of Dallas’ Okay to Say initiative and spoke for the first time in public about his attempted suicide at the tender age of 14. It was unfamiliar new territory for him. But recently, his old benefactor Desavia pulled him aside and insisted he address the incident — and all its accordant emotions — in a bare-knuckled concept album. Mille did just that, in “Broken,” “We’re in Trouble,” “The Human Condition,” and the urgent opener, “Total Disaster,” a Link-Wray-rowdy rocker which actually alludes to Sisyphus: “I pushed a boulder up over and over/ I pulled a million dirty tricks/ I put away enough Irish whiskey/ To fill the River Styx.” Recalls Miller, “My initial reaction to Tom was, ‘That’s a terrible idea — nobody would want to hear those songs, and I wouldn’t enjoy writing them.’ But I kept thinking about it, and eventually, the challenging aspect of it was too much for me to pass up. So I spent the next ten days writing from that place.”

Eventually, after an hourlong chat, only one question remains — what do you get a guy like this for Christmas? Something that will actually put a glint in his world-weary eye when he unboxes? Erica must be at her wit’s end every befuddling season. But actually, believe it or not, he’ll be pretty easy to buy for this year, Miller swears. And if he gets what he’s hoping for — fingers crossed — it will be a Red Ryder dream come true. Once he got sober, he and his bandmates — and other groups of friends — got back into playing **Dungeons and Dragons* again, he explains. “And once you’re into it, there’s lots of stuff that goes with it — mostly books, real nerd stuff. I don’t do the plastic miniatures or anything like that. But these days, I mostly just want fuzzy socks and flannel shirts. Middle-aged guy stuff — I don’t need much.”

-Tom Lanham


Tags: , ,

Category: Cover Story

About the Author ()

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Angel says:

    Actually George Michael donated the royalties for Last Christmas to a charity, as he did with most of his biggest hits…