Rhett Miller Talks Old 97's, Bob Dylan, Trains And More
The band probably doesn't remember this, but one of the first interviews Rocks Off ever conducted as a quote-unquote professional journalist was talking to the Old 97's in their tour van behind Austin's Liberty Lunch as opener Don Walser(!) yodeled in the background. That was around the time the band's second album, Wreck Your Life, was new - so long ago it predates the Austin Chronicle's online archives. (We just checked.) But Rocks Off took Wreck and its follow-up, 1997's Too Far to Care, to heart. Then we took them to rehab. Just kidding... sort of.
After that, Rocks Off was sort of up and down on the Dallas-formed band, but 2008's Blame It On Gravity rekindled our interest, and then the brand-new The Grand Theatre, Volume One poured a whole bunch of gasoline on it. Especially sharply worded standouts "The Magician," "A State of Texas" and "Champaign, Illinois."
Therefore, Rocks Off is super-excited about the 97's - perhaps the only alt-country band we can think of was around before that term found its way into regular music-writer usage, and is still around - show in a few hours at the Continental Club, which is now sold out. We're so excited we're going to skip the rest of this introduction and go straight to a few questions we asked front man Rhett Miller that didn't make this week's print article.
Rocks Off: Is there a big difference for you between writing songs on tour and writing at home?
Rhett Miller: That tour was special [the solo tour of Europe with Steve Earle where Miller wrote most of Grand Theatre], just because I haven't done that much touring through Europe, and where Steve plays they tend to be these really historical old places, and people listen very closely. His audience is kind of intense, a songwriter audience. The whole trip was inspiring, just because it was places I hadn't been to very often.
It's so easy to write when you're first starting out because everything is new, and there's a song everywhere you look. The older you get, you get sort of immune to the wonders of the world. I can go on tour in America now, and I've been to all these towns. I've seen all these dressing rooms and little Main Streets.
RO: Was making the new record a series of character sketches a byproduct of being on tour?
RM: It might have been a byproduct of being in all these historic old dressing rooms. You imagine all the people who have been there before. [But] I think that's probably an accurate description of most records I'm a part of. I like people, I like people-watching. I like inventing stories for them, although I hope I'm frequently inventing darker stories than they're actually living.
RO: How did running through all these songs at Sons of Hermann [in Dallas] affect when you went in to record them in Austin?
RM: Well, that's a comfortable place for us. That's a place where we've played a lot, and we've worked up records there before. We worked up Fight Songs and a little bit on Drag It Up there. We've spent a lot of time in that environment doing pre-production.
The good thing was we worked hard, but we didn't do too much. It's such a fine line - you can play the songs to the point where you think you know them and don't have to think about them while you're playing, and that usually kills some of the focus, and the intensity of the performance dissipates a little bit. But we played them just enough to solve the major questions.
RO: What are a few of your favorite train songs?
RM: Well, "The Wreck of the Old 97," I've gotta say that one. But that is a good song. It's so dark. "They found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, scalded to death by the steam" - I mean, good God. And "Train In Vain" by The Clash, does that count even if they're British?
I don't know, man. I think I like ours the best. I've got a new one that's going to be on The Grand Theatre, Volume Two called "I'm a Train Wreck." It's a lot of fun.
RO: Is that album already ready to go?
RM: No, the day after we play in Houston, we go to do a couple of days' pre-production in Dallas, and go back down to Austin to the same studio where we cut Volume One. It's 80 percent finished.
RO: For "Champaign, Illinois," how did you get so fascinated with "Desolation Row" that you wound up rewriting the lyrics?
RM: That was a few years ago, and I sat on it for fear of legal repercussions or whatever. But that record, Highway 61 Revisited, is one that I was really obsessed with for a long time. When I was on tour with Steve Earle I got in trouble because I said I listened to it so much that I started skipping past "Like a Rolling Stone," track 1, because it's so long and I know it. It's like, "OK, OK, OK, I've listened to this enough times."
But I never could skip "Desolation Row," even though it's ten verses long. It's got some of my favorite lines in it, like when he describes the street emptying out and he says, "everyone was making love or else expecting rain." And then after nine verses of these crazy characters and scenes, he brings it all back. He says, "that letter that you wrote me..." and suddenly you're in a song about a boy and a girl, about a relationship.
Those are my favorite kind of songs - songs where there's just two human beings trying to figure out what is happening.
RO: Have you and the band given any thought to what the 97's might do for your 20th anniversary in a couple of years?
RM: That is a good question. I had not even really thought much about that. No, but I have been thinking a lot about putting together some sort of an annual event, like a 97's "Train Wreck" festival or something. But that's not a bad idea. Maybe get that rolling in time to have the second or third year of it be the 20th anniversary show.
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