“Being Under Control Is Overrated” and Other Lessons From Rhett Miller And The New Old 97’s Album
The Old 97’s released their debut album, Hitchhike To Rhome, twenty years ago, when they were just a little band from Dallas. That’s a long time in rock and roll years, a fact that runs through the band’s new album, Most Messed Up, which is out on April 29. From the opening “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” to the feisty “Nashville,” the album—which features eleven songs written and sung by Rhett Miller, the band’s guitarist and lead singer, and one song written and sung by bassist and occasional lead vocalist Murray Hammond—examines what it’s like to be in your forties in a rock band that never quite broke through the way that some of the other acts that came up alongside them did. Here’s what Miller had to say about making Most Messed Up during a break on a long day of rushing from venue to venue during SXSW.
The most striking about this album is how autobiographical it is. That’s very apparent on the first track, “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” which is about being in the Old 97’s. What makes you decide at this point to write something that tells different kinds of stories?
I think something about being twenty years into this band, 28 years into my career as a performing musician—I just kind of feel like I’ve hidden behind narrators for so long, and I’ve made such a point to make these songs standalone things that didn’t reference me. I didn’t want to be in the picture. But here’s the question that I always come back to for the past ten years: How many records are enough? Like, isn’t that enough? Haven’t I made enough? So, with this record, I needed a reason to make the record, and to me it was like, you know what? I’m going to tell people what it’s like to live this fucked-up, crazy life. Kids who are just starting in music, people who have been fans for years—I’m going to own this. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I think that my catalog speaks for itself, and I think it’s time that I can be the “I,” as opposed to always having to be like, “That’s a story! That’s a narrator. It’s fiction!” And on this record, there are elements of fiction, and things that I blow out of proportion. But it does very much feel like me being me, really for the first time, in these songs.
What’s it like playing those songs live for people?
I love it. It’s cathartic. It’s as if I’ve been apologizing for years, and now I’m just stepping up and saying, “Fuck y’all! You know what? I’m good at this.” I’m gonna say whatever I want, and it’s gonna be true, and I’m gonna be proud to do it, and you’ll probably like it. And so far, people have loved it. It’s weird—there’s something about these songs that’s more first-listen than anything we’ve ever done. I can play them for the first time in front of audiences that have never heard them, and typically they’d be checking their watch during a new song, but they’re like, “Yeah!” They like the lines, they get it.
You still have a few of the “narrator” songs, though—“Nashville” is one of the best songs on the album, but it’s not exactly coming from your voice.
That’s the song that kind of started this whole thing for me. I went up to Nashville and got put up with a co-writer, this guy John McElroy, just kind of this old Nashville writer. And I went in, and he had this line. He said: “I been watching you on YouTube, and I think your audience would really appreciate it if you just walked out on stage and said ‘Fuck.’” It was 10am, and we proceeded to get super wasted, and write this song in two hours. That is one song that kind of has a story of a narrator who’s not exactly me. But the chorus, ironically, is the thing that he brought to the table: “Who do I have to blow / to get into this fuckin’ show.” But I really related to it! This idea that, like—I feel like we’ve always had some success. We’ve been able to do this and keep doing it, which to me is the definition of success. But we’ve never broken through ever. I still always have to explain who I am. I was standing talking to the Avett Brothers backstage at this festival, and this girl walked up and said, “Oh my god, would you take our picture?” And I went over to go stand next to her, and she said, “No, you take our picture.” And it’s that feeling of, “What do I have to do to get into this place where the people who are ahead of me on the ladder are?” And the reason we called the song “Nashville” is, A, I was there when I wrote it, but B, that city to me has always kind of a microcosm of the problem that the Old 97’s have had reaching people in general. Like, Nashville never got us. We really only started being able to pack clubs there in the past five years. It took us forever to break into Nashville.
I’ve been able to explicate this lyric because I didn’t write it, but John McElroy had this lyrics: “Who do I have to blow / to get into this fuckin’ show,” and I was like, yeah—I get that. The show is like the city of Nashville, or the music industry, or the upper-echelon of musicians that I’ve never been able to crack into. I’ve worked really hard for so long—what do I have to do? I’m grateful for what I’ve got, but I was really letting myself go there. But that’s the theme of this record: Letting myself go there. It’s okay to stand up and say, “I’m fucking great. I’m badass.” And I love that, because it’s always been something I’ve been too embarrassed and guilt-ridden to do, to own that. And it feels really good to do.
Is getting into “the show” something you still want?
I’ve always had ambition. My ambition has always outstripped that of my bandmates. I remember really early on, we were selling tickets like X never sold tickets. Like the bands we really loved. We were playing clubs that we would go to see our favorite bands in. And our guitar player, Ken, I remember there being a lot of dissension within the band, because I wanted to expand the palette musically, and try things that were more beautiful, or more poppy, or whatever. And Ken said, “We’re as popular as I ever wanted to be. I don’t care to be more popular than this. I’m fine with this. I don’t even want to be more popular than this.” For me, I’ve always wanted more. And I think if you’ve done this for 28 years, you have to want more. Because otherwise, why do it? So yeah—I would love it if this record is the one that connected with a wider audience. You know what I would really love? And this is just me sort of daydreaming about what I would love my career to wind up looking like? I would love for my career to be like Kris Kristofferson, or Willie Nelson, or somebody that got to be old, and still make records, and say, “Hey, this guy’s got a huge catalog and a lot of songs, and he’s always kept it pretty real, and there’s a level of quality that runs throughout the thing.” I would love for that to be my ride-off-into-the-sunset position.
Have you ever pursued the idea of scoring a pop hit for someone else, or is it important to you to be the guy on the stage?
A little bit, here or there. I used to think that my songs were too specifically mine to give to somebody else. I’ve been doing more co-writing lately, but most of it has ended up on my solo records—I wrote a song with Ben Kweller for my last solo record, “Lost Without You,” that was a lot of BK pushing me. I actually did get together with a few pop people to help them write songs, but that’s sort of hard to do, because I never had pop hits. Like, Dan Wilson from Semisonic makes bank writing with other people, but he actually did have hits. His stuff is more categorically pop, radio-friendly stuff. I wrote a duet with Roseanne Cash… I like it—it’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t think I’ll ever be Dan Wilson.
I really love the craft of songwriting, because I think it is a craft. You hone your craft. There’s a lot to be said about the muse, and lightning striking, but the majority of it is putting your butt in your seat for year after year after year, and making songs that hopefully get better as they go. I know my first hundred songs sucked. And then the 101st song was pretty good. And then ten more sucked. The musicians that I admire who are coming up right now—who I’ve tried to encourage and help—the things that I’m drawn are innate talent and an ear for melody and meaningful lyrics, but almost more than that, work ethic. The people I admire most just really work hard. It’s one thing to want it, but it’s another thing to put your money where your mouth is and just want it every day.
When you watch people you know blow up, is it hard to not want to try to emulate what they’ve done?
That’s a dangerous thing, trying to make a record that’ll put you over the top. Because calculation—people can hear it. When you contrive to do the thing that’ll make you successful, that is it’s own built-in self-destruct. People can hear desperation in a way that makes it sound like desperation. On this new record, I don’t want to say that I didn’t give a shit, but I didn’t give a shit. I was able to write the songs, I like ‘em, they feel as honest to me as anything I could write. It was only after we finished the record that I said, “This record is fucking great.” I don’t know if it’s the best record we’ve ever made—I tend to think that about every record—but it’s different. In a way that I think is gonna reach people, and that I could never calculate. If I had gone in saying, “I’m gonna tell our story in this epic song, I’m gonna reach people,” I think that would have backfired.
Murray does one song on this album. Because it’s such a personal record, was the way he contributed on this album different from usual?
Actually, it was. It was his choice—normally, he’s had two songs per album for a really long time, and he had a handful of really great songs for this album. But he came to us and said, “I’m listening to this pile of songs, and it’s such a cohesive unit that I only feel like this one of my songs really fits in it, and I feel like if I take us out of what Rhett’s doing too much is going to be jarring to the listener.” It’s also why his song appears so late on the album, and why there’s only one. It was really cool of him—it would be easy to let your ego say, “No, I have to have two songs on the record!” But it’s funny—as Murray has aged, he’s gotten more calm in his skin.
That’s what happens to everybody as they get older, unless they fall apart. And this record is from that place, too, but it’s also so rowdy.
It’s about falling apart as a means to nirvana. It’s a means to, “My life is the most fucked-up it’s ever been, but it’s also the best that it’s ever been,” and that’s good. Because being under control is overrated. That’s your headline.