After twenty years and ten records, Old 97’s are not just still chugging around – they’re getting better. It’s not so crazy for a band at the stage in their career Old 97’s have reached to start trying new things, but that typically means grabbing a mandolin for some songs or doing a covers album of troubadours the band adores.
After twenty years and ten records, Old 97’s are not just still chugging around – they’re getting better. It’s not so crazy for a band at the stage in their career Old 97’s have reached to start trying new things, but that typically means grabbing a mandolin for some songs or doing a covers album of troubadours the band adores. For Old 97’s though, trying something new means recording a live-to-tape, raw album with subject matter that sounds almost like bar talk on a Saturday night. Most Messed Up plays out more like a bands’ first or second record, from back when they were striving to make a name for themselves, but in reality, it’s a band striving for a sound they never quite got… and absolutely nailing it.
Richmond’s seen its fair share of Old 97’s concerts, along with plenty more from the rest of the late-90s alt-country gang, but when the band rolls through The National this Tuesday night, you’ll quickly realize that Old 97’s are only capable of straight rock and roll when they’re on that stage. Whilst making dinner one evening, the amazing songwriter Rhett Miller was gracious enough to talk to us about what his career and life looks like in 2014, and where it hopefully goes from here.
Photo by Kelly David Eskew
How’s your year going in terms of the touring?
It’s great, actually. Hectic but great. I actually just had a couple of weeks off, which is the first time that’s happened in two or three months, so it’s really nice to see my kids and check back in and do that kind of stuff. We just kicked off this current leg on Sunday in Memphis and our second night is with you guys on Tuesday.
Any fond memories of Richmond?
Our management is based out of Charlottesville so we go through there a lot, and that whole area in general. I really love Charlottesville. It’s got a great vibe to it, and Richmond does too. I’ve got friends in Richmond, and Richmond tends to be a little more of a grown community. We end up playing a lot in Asheville, North Carolina around the same time as Virginia and that’s a really fun, kind of college town, but also a weird town. Richmond is a little more like where I grew up in Dallas, so a little bit more conservative. To me though, both of them are these beautiful, gorgeous cities and great places to live. Great environment, really. It’s enough of a Southern part of the world where people are friendly and outgoing, but it’s not so Deep South that you feel like you’re locked in some hillbilly movie.
You mentioned that you just got a chance to hang out at home for a few weeks. What’s going home for you feel like at this point, especially when you’re doing it in between legs of tours?
Just trying to feel as normal as possible really. It’s a weird coming and going thing that happens where I always think of it as stepping off a moving sidewalk. When you get home, you have to acclimate to being at home and likewise when you go back on the road. Out on the road, I have handlers, and when I am home, I am a handler with the kids, so it’s a very different experience. I try and keep it cool and still have fun, but I’m not going crazy like I do on the road obviously. I enjoy it though – who wouldn’t?
How do you well do you think you manage your family life and road life?
I don’t know, man. It’s all about managing your time and expectations and being patient with it all. I don’t know that I’m great at it honestly, but I keep doing it because the alternative seems unimaginable. I can’t quit, so I have to do this, so I have to figure out how to make it work.
Photo by Joseph Stanley
What’s different in touring from when you started out to now?
Well, fortunately we get to play in nicer places. Back then, it was mostly only shitholes. We’re a little more used to it, and we’re a lot less debaucherous, which helps and makes mornings easier. More often than not, instead of being hung over in the mornings, you’ll see me waking up and finding a local yoga class. It’s just a little less cuckoo, you know? We’ve all sowed most of our oats and enjoyed being young, but we’re at a point now where we can appreciate what we got, sleep in the mornings, and go to bed early in the night. But we still have a lot of fun. A lot more than we probably should.
Now, with bands that have been around for as long as you guys have, with each record, the question invariably becomes “what’s different?” With your new record though, Most Messed Up, it’s pretty clear something is different.
Well, we’ve always been a rock band on stage, which is why I disliked the alt-country tag. Live, we’ve always been really loud and rocking and high-energy. We’ve tried over the years, to varying degrees of success, to capture that in the studio. For this record though, for some reason, the subject matter just lent itself to a really raw sound. The last couple of records, we’ve been working up towards this – recording live off the floor, capturing things as they’re happening in the studio, and laying them down straight to tape. Every vocal you hear is live, all of the rhythm section stuff, the rhythm guitar, and most of the lead guitar. It’s all as if we’re playing a gig, and we’ve done so many of those now that we’re pretty good at it. It’s just second nature for us to get up and rock out. Capturing that in the studio was something that was really important to us, and I feel like we did a pretty good job about it, or the best we’ve done so far in that regard.
You said you’ve always tried to get there – was there something new you guys tried this go-round, something that finally clicked, or was it just luck?
The last two Grand Theatre records were sort of moving closer and closer to that, but not all the material and the sound we were getting on those records were really rocking. We were getting more and more rocking as we went along though. For the new one, we used the same studio and same producer for both of those, so we were honing in on that sound, that really live, turn-it-in, crank-it-up, rocking sound. It’s also tempting at this age that we should be making records that are slower or mellower, but we all sort of looked at that, talked about it, and thought it sounded like a nightmare. We want to make records that rock because that’s what we like to listen to, play, and are good at, so we made a real conscious effort to make that kind of record.
Photo by Kevin Hagen
Now, since you’ve got an idea on how to capture it as best as you can now, are there any thoughts to re-record any of your other albums, especially those ones from earlier in your career where you didn’t have the budget, the time, or whatever to make them reach their full potential?
Really, it was only the first two albums that we didn’t have big budgets for, because the third album started our association with Elektra records and ever since then, we’ve had good budgets. It’s funny you ask though, because the first album we ever made, Hitchhike To Rhome, is about to turn 20. And for the 20th anniversary, we’re doing a re-release of it, and we just had one of our friends remix all the songs on that record. It’s really cool because even though the tracks are the same and it’s all the same stuff on the tape, he made remixes that sound really awesome and took a lot of time. That’s a record that we made, recording and mixing, in two and a half days. It’s nice to get to go back and have a real great mixer take his time and mix each song. I think people are going to really like that when it comes out later this year. The second record we did for Bloodshot Records, called Wreck Your Life, was totally a punk rock record anyway, so I don’t think any of us minded that it was a quick, kind of shitty-sounding record.
Any type of unreleased stuff from those days that we’ll be seeing on this re-release?
Yeah, definitely. There are a lot of demos that actually predate the band we might include. That’s some of the stuff that I’m most excited about, stuff that I’ve actually forgotten about really that Murray [Hammond, bass player] was actually able to dig up. Some of it, I still haven’t even heard them, so I’m pretty excited for it. There are some songs that I’m really proud of, but they just never made the cut. That’s the way it’s always been – I write so many songs that there’s going to be stuff left off, so I’m excited for some of these songs to finally see the light of day. There’s one called “It’s All Right” that’s a really cool song. The funny thing is, though, that you’re talking about songs that I wrote in 1990, 1991. So it’s crazy that they’re finally coming out almost a quarter of a century later and it’s still sounds like one of my songs. They could have been on the new record, almost. It makes me proud, almost like I’ve been maintaining a consistent level of quality with my songwriting.
Photo by Michael White
After all these years, where does your inspiration come from when writing songs?
Oddly enough, I think the fact that we never had a hit helps a lot. We have been able to stay hungry a little bit because of that, and it’s been good for me as a songwriter. Overall though, I’m never content and I’m never happy. I always want more in terms of success. I don’t even necessarily mean sales or anything like that – I just want be successful at what I do. I want to feel like, as I finish a record, “Oh yeah, this record is fuckin’ great. I nailed it. We nailed it.” That never been satisfied [feeling] is my inspiration. It can be a nightmare never being satisfied, because by definition it means you’re unsatisfied, but it’s worked for me so far.
So what else out there would make you feel satisfied?
The one thing in terms of accomplishments that I’ve never gotten to do is play on SNL. I guess I don’t really see that happening anymore sadly. It could be like a fluke, late career surge that would allow us to be a guest on SNL, but that’s the one thing I never got to do that I really wanted to do. I still have a lot of goals in terms of things I’d like to do. I look at Willie Nelson’s career or Kris Kristofferson’s career and the longevity of those songwriters. I want to be one of them. I want to keep doing this until I’m physically and mentally incapable of doing it anymore. That’s a goal, but by definition, it’s one that’s way out in the distance.
Old 97’s will perform at The National (located at 708 E. Broad St) on Tuesday, July 22 (that’s tomorrow night!), along with Tommy Stinson of Replacements/Guns N’ Roses fame. Doors open at 7 PM. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and can be ordered HERE.