Friday, October 12, 2012

Interview with Rhett Miller (Old 97's)

(Here's my interview with Rhett Miller of Old 97's for CMT Edge.)
Old 97’s released their groundbreaking album Too Far to Care in the summer of 1997, at a time when mainstream alternative music was morphing into heavier, glossier realms and boy bands and pop princesses were planning their imminent attack. Unfazed by those surroundings, the rambunctious foursome from Texas had already released two pioneering albums and Too Far to Care was their major label debut.
As the rowdy opening guitar riff of “Timebomb” or the honky-tonk shuffle of “Niteclub” attests, they were primed and ready for the opportunity. Too Far to Care is equal parts youthful energy and age-old heartbreak, all wrapped up in their special brand of Texas charm. It’s easy to see (and hear) why it ranks as one of the pioneering alt-country albums of the era.
And they’re certainly celebrating the anniversary in style. Not only are they crisscrossing the country playing the album in its entirety (along with a bunch of other fan favorites), they’re also reissuing Too Far to Care in a swanky 2-disc package that includes They Made a Monster, a revealing album of demos and outtakes from the Too Far to Care recording sessions.
I chatted with Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller about the studio sessions for Too Far to Care, the crowd response at their anniversary tour and what has changed backstage over the last 15 years.
CMT Edge: Although this was the band’s third album, it was your first release on a major label, having just been signed to Elektra. Can you paint a picture of what that time was like for you guys and what that transition looked like from your end?
Miller: The funny thing that a lot of people don’t realize was how different the industry was back then. At the time, to get a major label deal was the end-all, be all. You won the game. If you got a deal with a major label, you had won. Everything after that was just gravy. Which I knew at the time was inherently false.
But still, the four-month window during which we were wined and dined and flown around the country and taken to sporting events and huge rock concerts and backstage … The VIP treatment that we got during those four months definitely contributed to the confidence with which we entered the studio to go make that record. You combine that kind of collective swelled head with the naiveté of a band who doesn’t really know the stakes they’re playing for — or doesn’t really know what they are up against — and it was great. It was such a beautiful time. We got to live our dream. In a way we had made it. We all knew that this was the beginning of a career and to us that was it. To get to make this a career was winning. We had gotten to the point that we had been striving towards.
So we got to go into the studio and I had a bunch of songs. I had been writing during the whole wining-and-dining process and I sort of felt challenged to live up to the hype that was surrounding us. I had tried to write some strong songs that felt personal, but also universal, and to pick the 13 best songs from that batch, that was fun. Everything lined up for Too Far to Care.
Did it feel special or monumental at the time? Or were you too close to it to see its impact?
Yes and no. To me, they all feel special and monumental. I don’t think we had much perspective about where it was going to sit in the canon or where we were going to fall in our place in history. We just felt good about it and we just felt like we were making the record we wanted to make. We had no regrets about it. It was the first time I had ever made a record where listening back to it, I didn’t cringe at some moment or a dozen moments. We had enough time to take all that stuff out and it stands up, top to bottom, as the record that I feel we succeeded in attaining our vision the best.
The first leg of the 15th anniversary tour has already wrapped up. Was this the first time you guys have played Too Far to Care all the way through, and how was the response to it?
This was the first time we played it all the way through and people have loved it. I was worried that it was going to be weird for the band to play it every night, but it was great! There’s something about playing those songs in order that really transports me back every night to the time of the making of the record, which was one of the most fun times in my life. The audience response has been so fantastic and it’s been really cool. It’s been a lot of fun. I was worried because I’m not a nostalgic person by nature. I like to move forward, to keep trucking, focus on this record, the next record. So I was a little worried that it would feel like we were giving up some of our forward momentum to do it. But in fact, it sort of inspired me to write songs and to go back to that feeling I had of excitement. You know, that the sky’s the limit.
You’ve been kicking off the shows with just your voice and your guitar, playing material from your solo albums. What’s it like opening for yourself?
(laughs) We’ll I’ve done that before a little bit. When I’ve got a solo album out, I’ll go out and do a solo acoustic set. But I haven’t just been doing stuff off of The Dreamer [his most recent solo album]. I’ve been doing outtakes from Too Far to Care, which is kind of fun, although nobody knows them. It’s kind of fun to get to say, “This song almost made it on to Too Far to Care and I’m not sure why it didn’t.” There’s a couple that really could have. There’s a song called “Holy Cross” that really could’ve made the record and another called “Daybed” that just never made it onto the record. It’s fun to get to bust those out as well.
Being that you wrote these songs in your mid-20s, are there any lyrics that cause you to look back and chuckle a little bit? Or any that carry a different weight for you now?
There’s a lyric in “Streets of Where I’m From” where it says “I’m old, I’m well past 25.” When I wrote it, I had just turned 25 and my joke for myself was, I was just a few days past 25. Every year that goes by makes that lyric a little bit weirder. I just turned 42 and it occurred to me, I was singing it just the other day, in three years I’ll be 45! It’s just weird. So there’s a lot of stuff that became anachronistic in the 15 years since the record came out. All the references to phones, pay phones … that one line that says “telephones make strangers out of lovers,” I think about that every night when I sing that. Because it used to be you’d have to find a pay phone and hope that your girl was near her phone. Now, everybody’s got a phone in their hand and they’re strangers because all they can do is look at their phone instead of their loved one.
What’s been the biggest difference in the backstage area between the shows on the original Too Far to Care tour and the 15th anniversary one?
You know, it’s funny because there’s very little difference. All these years, from the biggest club to the littlest clubs, the dressing rooms kind of remain the same. … You know what’s different? Our rider. The dressing room is the same but at least now we’ve got all the stuff we want, from the water to the Jameson to the right kind of cereal. (laughs) So that’s the big difference I guess.
You’re pressing Too Far to Care on vinyl for the very first time. Are you a vinyl enthusiast yourself, or is this just a cool thank you to your fans that might be?
Well, both. (laughs) I have a turntable and I love vinyl. I’ve tried to make sure that my kids understand about vinyl and see the beauty of it. It’s funny to me that we live in a world where the quality of sound of recorded music is so low. People are so willing to accept an earbud versus a quadraphonic sound system. When I was a kid, it was moving the other direction. Everybody wanted bigger and more. Now, people are happy to have a tiny little speaker that you’re able to plug your iPhone into and that’s it, that’s what it sounds like. I love vinyl, and I love being able to put a record on and feel the hum of the vinyl and the warmth of the sound. So I’m glad it’s finally going to come out on vinyl.
It’s an absolute Old 97’s tradition to close the show with “Timebomb,” which opens Too Far to Care. On this tour, are you having to play it twice or putting something else as the closer?
We don’t have to play it twice, but I have elected to do it. One of the members of our band was against it because he thought it was cheesy. Like a ’70s rock kind of move, like Badfinger playing their one hit twice or something like that. But we’re playing the record start to finish and a full 90 minutes to two hours later you get the same three-minute song. I was skeptical at first but then when we get to that final song and we start “Timebomb” for the second time at the end of the night, people would go apeshit all over again and I thought, “Yeah, that’s fine, they like it!” (laughs)

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