Old 97’s Frontman Rhett Miller On Getting Married, His Literary Ambitions, ‘Total Anarchy’ With Jon Brion

With the Old 97’s unveiling their eighth album this week – The Grande Theatre, Volume One, which will be followed up with part two next year – here’s a look back at a nine-year-old interview with frontman Rhett Miller. I spoke with him on August 26, 2002, shortly after he married model Erica Ihan; he very much had the wedding on the brain. He revealed how collaborator Robyn Hitchcock was partially responsible for the marriage, what it was like to record with him and Jon Brion, why his planned session with Ryan Adams fell through (booze was to blame), and why writers are usually more genuine than musicians.

Hello. How’s it going? How was the wedding?

I just got off this month-long tour, and everybody’s staying with us. [My in-laws] have been here since before I got here. … They’re from Ohio. They came in last week. We had a big wedding party to celebrate getting married last night, or the night before last. … [The wedding] was three months ago. We had a little party in Dallas, a little one in Ohio and a big L.A. party. Now we’re done.

It feels great. [I’m] very lucky. The last couple years I’ve been with [Erica Ihan]. It’s been very great and happy. Now I just want to come home more often and quicker, take her out with me when I go out. We don’t do much crazy stuff.

Our friend Trischa just bought this amazing house; she let us have the party there. (I’m going to be eating a croissant for a minute when we talk, hope it’s not too gross.) We just had a caterer, some food. … 75, 80, 90 people or something. And it was just great. Close friends. There was a lot of talking, nice dinner, a lot of introducing people to each other. My lawyer, Bob Clearmountain, Jon Brion [were there] … John Doe came and manned the barbecue for a while, that was pretty fun. He brought his daughters, and the caterer’s were there, so there were all these little 8- and 9-year-old girls swimming in the pool.

What’s up next?

Tomorrow I have to go to San Diego to do a promo, and then on Wednesday, I’m going to sleep as late as I possibly can. It’s my first day off with the empty house. So probably nothing. Maybe get some friends, some lunch or TV or something.

I had a day off in Seattle a week ago, and a day off in Boston a week before that. But those hardly count, ‘cause I’ve got to bust my ass and get my laundry down … schlep around all over town in cabs and weird stuff.

When did you find time to write and record the solo album?

I went and got a hotel room. That was the saving grace, getting that hotel room and being able to finish the songs in there. We went into the studio to start on the record on February 11. We probably got the hotel room on January 10, ‘cause I had to prepare almost a month before.

In that month in the hotel room finishing my songs … with the Old 97’s, it would’ve been a month in a garage, rehearsing the songs over and over and over. But Jon didn’t want them rehearsed at all; he wanted them fresh. He wanted 30 or more.

It was a good challenge; I’ve always liked a challenge. I remember when [the Old 97’s] signed to Elektra, and they brought us to New York and put us up at the Paramount Hotel … I wanted to impress them, so I wrote the song “Broadway” in the hotel room, took it to them and said, “Look, I wrote this song last night.” I always work better if I think there’s an audience that’ll be impressed by my output.

Did recording your new songs the way you did lend an immediacy to them?

Oh yeah. But it’s not necessarily better, just different. The Old 97’s garage-band work ethic is a very cool thing and makes for a very different-sounding… … not that different sounding, but it’s less experimentation and more nose-to-the-grindstone. Whereas with Jon, it’s all inspiration.

Had you met Brion previously?

We’d gotten together just for grins before. That was where “[Things That] Disappear” came out of: We both had a day off, and we went in there and recorded. I played through all the songs I had leftover from Satellite Rides, ‘cause when we went in to record Satellite Rides, I had all these songs the band didn’t like. And I played through all them, and that was the one that he goes, “Oh, I love that one.” It was totally unfinished … he kind of helped me finish it that day, and we recorded it all that day, and then it made it onto the record two years later.

He was playing keys on the [1999] Old 97’s album Fight Songs, on “Murder (Or a) Heart Attack.” He came in one day and laid down a keyboard part when we were in a studio in L.A. It was very exciting … I knew he was working with Robyn Hitchcock at the time, and I’d heard so much about Jon. I actually tape-recorded our first conversation with a hand-held tape recorder surreptitiously stuck in my pocket. I think I misplaced the tape. Once I realized that we were going to be friends, I didn’t keep it.

Is that how you hooked up with Hitchcock?

Over the last couple years, I’ve gotten to be friends with Robyn, through Largo and England a couple years ago. When my wife, Erica, and I were first meeting, we were hanging out with him, Robyn and his wife, Michelle [Noach]. A lot. They kept pushing us, like, “You’re such a cute couple.” And we were, like, “We’re not a couple.” And then eventually they wore us down.

So, how did you get him for [the Instigator track] “Point Shirley”?

I knew he was going to be in town. He had a day off.

Did you feel the need to bring in guests because it’s a solo album?

I [felt I] could get away with it, for one thing. The Old 97’s, the last couple records have reached about, “Nobody can play that’s not a bandmember. If you can’t play an instrument yourself, then the instrument doesn’t get to go on the record.” Which is fine. We’re a garage band, and it’s sort of a big machine and process we do. But it was sort of liberating to be able to say, “Hey, do you want to come in? All right!” And not have to worry about any sort of democratic situation. Just me.

What about getting an outside opinion for the record?

Jon definitely had to fill that role. But yes, going in, I was terrified, because I had 35 songs that no one except Erica had heard. And she’s very supportive – almost, in my mind, it was to a fault. All these songs nobody had heard. These guys in Old 97’s, I’ve depended on their radars for years, you know? If something’s cheesy, if something really works, if something needs a little more tweaking … and generally, they only come up with their own parts. But they’ve always been really good at editing me.

Do you compare The Instigator to Mythologies, even though you released it so long ago?

Sure. It kind of felt like a similar process. Except with [Mythologies], Murray [Hammond, current Old 97’s bassist] was producing. Mythologies was in high school, and I’d never been in the studio before. So it was very new and scary, but at the same time, we were experimenting a lot. We were bringing in a small portion of a boys choir and all these weird musicians and different drummers to play on different songs. They were the most similar two albums I’ve done. It wasn’t a group effort; it was a couple guys going, “What if we did this? Oh my God, that’d be cool!” In both cases, I was writing up until turning the album in, so …

With Murray and Mythologies, it was probably more measured, just ‘cause we had so much time. But with Jon, he’s a firm believer in anarchy. So all the way up until the bitter end, we were just trying crazy shit: recording drums in a bathroom, cutting new songs after we’d already had 20 songs. We didn’t have guitar solos on half of them. … We had these big holes on all these songs and were still recording basic tracks. It was total anarchy with Jon. We could afford to be that way, too – that was really nice.

Jon had promised me the album would be finished before I went to get married, and that didn’t happen. But once we came back, the time crunch was definitely on. ‘Cause the record label had already pushed back the release date, and if I was going to go any further, I was going to go into 2003, and I didn’t want that. So we just had to cram-cram-cram in the end.

I wrote 35 [songs] before I went into the studio, and then once I went into the studio, I wrote five more.

What are you going to do with the leftovers?

There’s a couple I know will wind up on another solo record, and then there’s a good handful that proved themselves to be Old 97’s songs. I’d like to do that next year for sure.

Next I’m hoping for another Old 97’s record.

What are the other guys up to?

It’s very sweet. Phil [Peeples], our drummer, just had his second [child], and Ken [Bethea, guitarist] has got his second on the way. And then Murray just got hitched – I think they’re buying a new house – and his wife, Grey [DeLisle], put out her album [2002’s Homewrecker]. So they all have a lot going on. Which isn’t to say that they don’t miss the band. We’re all going through withdrawal after 10 years of being together every day. It’s a little weird not to be working so closely. But it’s good; I talk to them a lot and look forward to being back in the fold.

We got back together and did a couple shows a couple weeks ago and spent two or three days together solid. And it was like no time had passed at all, onstage and offstage. We nailed the songs perfectly, and everything sounded amazing. It was just fun. I mean, we had some catching up to do, but it wasn’t like we had to feel each other out and learn how to be around each other.”

You guys played in Dallas earlier this month, right? Are more on the way?

I’m beholden to his album for a little while. But we’ll probably do a show or some shows at least around the holidays, at the end of the year. And then I’ll finish touring this record out … maybe I’ll be done as early as February, maybe it’ll go longer, depending on what happens … but next year, hopefully.

Word has it that you’re a literary enthusiast. What do you love most about books?

It’s a less commercialized field. With music these days, there’s few people making music seemingly for the sake of it. There’s more people that seem to be making music calculated to move units. Obviously, I could be seen as doing that, too – I write pop songs that are intended to be catchy. But at the same time, I try to imbue it with some sentiment, try to at least give them heart. But it seems that in literature they’re dealing with the bigger questions and the realities that aren’t easy. And with music, it’s like, who’s got the nicest midriff? Or, whose voice can sound the creepiest on the radio? There’s a dumbing-down that’s happening in our culture, obviously, and a lot of people talk about it these days. It’s depressing to talk about, but it seems like there is. I don’t know if it’s a reverse-able trend, but I hope so.”

I’ve actually been writing short stories lately, but I hope at some point – although I realize I can’t do it when I’m full-on doing music – to shift into writing fiction full-time, and maybe even novels if I can find the dedication and the hours. But at the moment, I’ve got to content myself with writing short stories.

What’s else is up next?

I’m going back [to New York] in a week, actually. Erica’s working there a couple days right around my birthday, so I’m going to go out, see some friends … we have some friends who just had a baby. It’s getting to be the really nice time of year there, again. So that’ll be good – we’ll be there for a few days. I was just there a couple weeks ago, too.”

Do you miss being there?

Well really, it was a question of logistics. We couldn’t stay in our place, so it would’ve been a matter of getting a broker and signing another year or two [on a] lease. And we were both on the brink of wanting to move to L.A. anyway, so we just took the opportunity.

Have you also spent much time in Chicago, which the Instigator song “The El” is about?

Only for a few weeks, in the summer during ’95 or ’96, when we did Wreck Your Life. We made the record up there. Phil and I have spent a lot of time in Chicago. And we were on Bloodshot Records, and for a while that was our best “market,” as they say. So we were playing there a lot.

I love Chicago. It’s not a second home and I don’t know if I could ever live there, but I think it’s a very, very cool place to live. A lot of young people, a lot of music lovers. It seems pretty genuine. Like, all the people from the small towns that would’ve moved to New York or L.A. but weren’t willing to put up with the bullshit of either, so they went to Chicago, ‘cause it was a little more honest, ostensibly.

In which other places have you spent a lot of time?

Ohio [feels like home] with Erica’s family, Texas with my family. I like New York, especially upstate nowadays. I haven’t really gotten to do much Europe. I’ve done London, but certainly didn’t feel at home there. Amsterdam, but I hate to say that, though. [I] love Amsterdam. I’m not talking about the Red Light district.

Weren’t you going to collaborate abroad with Badly Drawn Boy?

It didn’t end up working out, because the time that he was available was when I went off to get married. And then, when I came back and was pushing to get him into the studio, he was finishing his record like a crazy person. He hung around the studio a lot, but we didn’t get him to sing in the end. Which was … thinking back, it would’ve been nice, because I think Damon [Gough]’s voice is so fucking unbelievable … but I think having Robyn Hitchcock and John Doe was like having a nice balance between American and British, and if we’d had Damon, my Anglophelia might’ve revealed itself too much.

Wasn’t Ryan Adams also due to appear on the record?

[He] was going to come by the day after the Grammys. He was going to come by and sing on this song for a soundtrack I was doing. But I think he was too hung over. He called me two days later: “Was I supposed to come by?” Whatever, it’s fine. We got a lot of work done without Ryan.

Other Bad Penny interviews you might enjoy:

• Pete Yorn On Musicforthemorningafter: ‘It’s Too Clean’
• Steve Earle: ‘It’s Very Dangerous To Be Ignorant Of Islam’
• Patti Smith On Jamming With Jeff Buckley And Tom Verlaine: ‘It Was Beautiful’

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