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Reasons to Rock: A Conversation with Rhett Miller

May 9, 2017

Reasons to Rock: A Conversation with Rhett Miller

“I only had four hours of sleep last night,” says Rhett Miller of Old 97’s. “I might be more honest than I otherwise would be.”

Truth be told, Miller’s always been honest. Since the early days of Old 97’s — a band that helped define what would come to be known as Americana, something they are arguably not credited with enough — he’s dug deep into his own history to create songs that help unlock the human experience, one story at a time. And for Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album, Old 97’s decided to use a little of their past to help reflect on their own future: They headed back to the West Texas studio, Sonic Ranch, where they made their major-label debut, Too Far to Care, to lay down a collection of tracks that flirt with mortality while still feeling vigorously alive.

“I paid my dues, I paid my debts,” sings Miller on one of the album’s seminal tracks, “Good With God.” “I made a mess, but it’s my bed.” Full of cow-punk fury, it finds God as a woman, with Brandi Carlile playing the role of a maker who doesn’t let her mortals off too easily. Whether 18 or 80, it’s never too early or too late to measure our mistrials and mistakes and see the people we’ve hurt or impacted, not just the gapes in our own conscience.

And while nostalgia can sometimes be a dirty word, Miller and the Old 97’s don’t get mired in it for Graveyard Whistling — old memories and worn-out relics serve as a reminder to keep going and not to just look back. 

You’ve been making records since back when people held up lighters at concerts, not iPhones. Do you find yourself nostalgic for the early days?

The biggest thing that has changed from that era is that we can no longer play a brand-new unreleased song unless we are completely comfortable with whatever shitty version of that song being released. That’s been a bit of a change. But I’ve never minded cameras or recording: You’re trying to put on a good show anyway, and it’s not like the fact that you’re suddenly maybe going to be recorded is going to change the level of performance. There are no shows where I just go out there and think, “Oh, nobody is recording this, so I’ll muddle my way through and just get paid.” I enjoy challenging myself to put on the best show I can every night. People holding up their phones as if this is something worthy of recording for history or posterity is fine with me.

But speaking of nostalgia, going back to the same studio where you made your major label debut, Too Far to Care, must have shook loose so many memories.

That part was crazy, going back to the tiny little down — really a stop on the highway outside of El Paso, near the Mexican border. Since then, the studio itself, in the past 20 years, has grown into a world-class studio with multiple facilities and a lot more lodging. Each of us stayed in the same bedroom where we had stayed 20 years earlier. And that experience was definitely a sweet thing, because it brought back memories of how exciting that time was, and made it feel like there was a full circle component, 11 albums into this band, feeling like we are doing the right thing. Here we are, all these years later, and we are fundamentally the same four people. With added decades and perhaps wisdom, and a lot of gratitude that maybe our younger selves were too inexperienced and green to have discovered yet.

Did you stumble on any particular moments of déjà vu?

When we talk about déjà vu — that sensation of having experienced something before — it’s good luck. It’s an indication that you are on the right track. That was the experience that we had at Sonic Ranch. And I found a note in the bedside table drawer of my bedroom that I had left there 20 years earlier. There was a note in my handwriting: My girlfriend at the time, I wrote down her phone number in New York City. It was yellowed with age and unmoved. It was crazy, since I remember standing in the same exact spot where I had stood when we recorded Too Far to Care and I remember having flashes at the things that would obsessively occupy my brain. I don’t have those kind of fears anymore. I remembered those fears and they seemed quaint to me when, at the time, they were paralyzing.

That note must have felt like a good sign, though.

It felt like a talisman and that the universe was giving me a thumbs up. It also felt like a testament to the shoddy housekeeping.

Old 97’s were at the forefront of what we now generally refer to as Americana. Do you feel like you get credit where credit is due for influencing that genre?

It was “alt-country” then, right? I remember the Bloodshot folks [Old 97’s first label] kept trying to push “insurgent country,” which seems really weird. We’ve always been fueled by this idea that we are underdogs and that we are hungry and that, in some ways, we have been underappreciated and overlooked. As we go on, it’s harder and harder to convince myself of that narrative. I do see more people who point to us as being influential. We wondered if we would ever hit a moment when young bands said they were influenced by us or drew inspiration from us, and now it happens with relative frequency and it’s always a surprise and such an honor.

Anyone in particular?

The Turnpike Troubadours. I’ve gotten to be friends with Evan Felker, and I love his writing, and I discovered him before I became friends with him. They have a song called “7&7,” and I remember thinking, “Either this guy listened to a lot of the same stuff as me and wound up in a very similar place, or maybe he listened to me,” because we are sort of honoring the same principles and finding the same beautiful moments, in terms of turns of phrase and finding little moments in the song to flip it on its head. I just thought he and I were kindred spirits. It turned out, as he explained to me the first time we ever talked, that the whole idea of the Troubadours, according to Evan, is that they wanted to be the Old 97’s with a fiddle. Which is so cool.

Do you remember having moments like that, when you met your idols early in your career?

I remember starting out, the first time I got to meet John Doe, and knowing so much of what I did was from being a fan of X, and trying not to sound like a fanboy. I just think music is a continuum, and one of the reasons I chose music as a profession over other creative endeavors is that it is centered around friendship and a community of musicians. I’ve tried to be something of a mentor to the folks that have presented themselves to me in the way I did to John Doe all those years ago. Getting to work with Waylon Jennings … he was so kind to me, and he could have been a complete asshole, and I still would have cherished the time that we spent with him. I tried to take those lessons from those people I looked up to when I was really young and pass it on.

Do you still think that musical kinship is as strong as it once was? The Internet can make everyone feel a sense of quantity over quality, in terms of interpersonal relationships.

If anything, it is more alive than ever. With the old business models — with the CEOs and the tall buildings you had to pass through — it was a detriment to the music scene. If anything, it created competition where there didn’t need to be, competition and divisiveness. Now, I would be lying if I didn’t watch the Grammys with a level of envy and bafflement, like, “Why? Why are these the people who get the golden or silver ring?” I don’t know what they are; I’ve never gotten one. But I think that we live in a world where the emphasis is less on that and maybe particularly because the prize element has been taken out of it. It’s not so much a lottery to win but music to be made.

Do you ever worry about music becoming too enamored with roots traditions and losing the ability to rock?

Bands with pedal steel can still rock. There is room for everything under the umbrella, and I think kids are always going to like to rock. I like to rock, and I am always grateful when I see a young band that gets out there and shreds. We need more reasons to come together, and live music is such a great reason to come together en masse and celebrate something. Especially when it’s exciting and fun and not everybody has to sit down and be quiet and focus on the performer so he can tell you about his misery. Miserable music and music inspired by misery has fed my children for years. But I personally have found a way to hide it in fun, inclusive sing-along-sounding rock music. And I like it when other people do that.

You definitely address some of the misery of mortality on Graveyard Whistling. Do you think about death a lot?

I think I go through waves of being really aware of mortality. Especially if you have a friend or loved one pass away. [Our last record, 2014’s] Most Messed Up was a record that functioned like a teenager might function: immortal in that teenager sense. You can do anything and get away with anything. The narrator was immune, in his own mind, to repercussions. When I looked at that pile of songs for this record, that narrator was no longer immune and painfully aware of culpability and his own mortality. Sins coming home to roost pervade.

Speaking of sins, asking Brandi Carlile for penance on “Good with God” is pretty genius. She’s a darn good lord and savior.

I grew up going to church a lot. I was in choirs. I was an acolyte. I really liked the music of church and I liked so much of the fundamental message that was conveyed. But I ended up having problems with organized religion. As far as God, I think our society uses that concept more as a tool or a weapon. So when I was writing “Good with God,” I was on tour with Nikki Lane, and Nikki is such a strong female presence to begin with, when I realized that God in this song is a woman. It’s such a fun moment, when this guy in the song realizes that: He realizes he wasn’t going to get away with things he thought he was going to get away with. And Brandi … lyrically, she demanded that he be held accountable, which is important. I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter and I’ve always told her that, throughout history, women have been treated poorly, but it’s a trend I thought was moving in the right direction. Until last year, when suddenly I really started questioning if that was true or not. I didn’t anticipate this song having this darker timeliness that it has wound up having. But I’m certainly proud of it.

But Brandi’s voice is just so huge. She just fills up a room. If you are looking for evidence or proof of God, that kind of voice is just a compelling argument for her existence.

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Reasons to Rock: A Conversation with Rhett Miller
Reasons to Rock: A Conversation with Rhett Miller