The Old 97's Rhett Miller: "Then the Stage Gets a Lot Bigger"

The Old 97's, recently
The Old 97's, recently
Photo by Allison Smith

Music Feature: Streets of Where I'm From

This is an exciting time to be an Old 97's fan. Out of nowhere, almost, the Dallas quartet is now one of the longest-tenured and most successful Texas bands of its generation. All four original members are intact, they never "took a break," and they've never really made a bad record from 1994 debut Hitchhike to Rhome through last year's The Grand Theatre Vol. 2.

How did that happen? It's not that hard to figure out. From the very beginning, they covered great songs like Bill Monroe's "My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin'" and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried." They always seemed like regular guys -- not too geeky, but not headed on the first bus to rehab either. Few front men of that era could make female fans swoon like Rhett Miller did, but the 97's rocked hard enough that plenty of men jumped on the bandwagon too.

They hit on a relatively unique sound pretty early on, a supercharged combination of jangly R.E.M.-style alt-rock and the frenetic cowpunk of '80s groups like X and Rank & File. But as dutiful fans of classic country music, principal songwriters Miller and Murry Hammond mastered the art of storytelling, and they told some great ones -- "W-I-F-E," "Doreen," "Dressing Room Walls," "Big Brown Eyes."

Those songs were all from 1995's Wreck Your Life, the Bloodshot album that made the 97's the toast of SXSW '96. Par for the course in the mid-'90s, major labels were soon beating a path to the band's Dallas doorstep. They chose Elektra -- the label of X and the Doors -- and soon made Too Far to Care, the record that Miller told us in this week's print edition he still considers "top of the heap."

In fact, the 97's are so fond of Too Far that they're doing a 15th-anniversary tour to mark the occasion, playing the entire album front to back as the first set, then other fan favorites like "Big Brown Eyes" and "Oppenheimer" after a short break. It starts tomorrow night at House of Blues.

Rocks Off: What were the circumstances of making Too Far? What was the atmosphere like in the studio?

Rhett Miller: Well, it was cool. For a minute, it was gonna be -- we had spoken with a few different producers, but Don Was had signed on to make the record and it was gonna be a full-on Don Was production. And as cool and down-to-Earth as Don is, he still was kind of a big shot, and it was a little bit daunting.

And then when he had to pull out to do the Rolling Stones record [Bridges to Babylon] at the last minute, we had been thinking about this guy Wally Gegel, just because we kind of liked his indie vibe and we liked him, a cool Boston guy our age, basically. So when Don pulled out it wound up being Wally, and it became this sort of this really relaxed session.

We were riding the high of everything, courted by all the major labels for the happy year leading up to it. So it was just this real relaxed, super-confident vibe. We were real ignorant of all the real pressures of the marketplace. It was more about we had made it, and we were getting to make the record that we were meant to make.

RO: How long did it actually take to make?

RM: I think we spent like two and a half weeks in El Paso, and then another two and a half weeks in New York. So a month and a half.

The Old 97's Rhett Miller: "Then the Stage Gets a Lot Bigger"

RO: How quickly did this all come?

RM: We finished Wreck Your Life, and then I guess we toured through the spring and summer, and then we spent the summer sort of getting wined and dined. I was writing after Wreck Your Life, during the -- because it's funny, a lot of the songs came out of that moment of after SXSW, we had the 15 labels flying us back and forth coast to coast and coming to Dallas, and all the money they were blowing trying to impress us. A lot of the songs I feel like are informed by that.

Certainly "Broadway," that was from a New York hotel room. I had an hour before we had to meet with Elektra, and I wanted to that impressed them, that I could just write a song in the hour leading up to our dinner. So there's that, like a lot of those songs are aware of this weird thing that's happening, this transition from being a floundering sort of nobody to having expectations.

And there's also that a lot of the songs, I get the feeling of this precipice, that there's something about to happen. For me, there's the typical theme of abandonment and drunken (indistinct, then a chuckle).


The Old 97's in 1997
The Old 97's in 1997

RO: From the songs, it does sound like there was tremendous upheval going on in the band's personal lives. Do you think what you were going through magnified that?

RM: Yeah. You spend so long feeling like you're toiling in obscurity, and then the stage gets a lot bigger. You can hear it in a song like "Streets of Where I'm From," which if you take that as somewhat autobiographical (which in retrospect I guess all my songs probably are), but that sure is.

It's like you're suddenly aware that this town that had been my world was just gonna be one place in a much bigger world.

RO: When you were being courted by all these labels, did the band ever find itself in the middle of a typical music-biz cliché?

RM: Yeah. It was during the making of Too Far that we had to figure out the publishing, which is one of the things that splits bands up. We looked at it a lot of different ways, because I bring in the bulk of the lyrics and melody, and then the band does all the music, and then Murry has his song or two per record.

We thought about trying to go song by song through the publishing, and battling over every song over who contributed what, and in the end we decided that we wanted to give a pretty equal distribution of songwriting credit to every member of the band, because everybody had devoted their lives to it, and at least in the case of Phillip and Ken, they had quit pretty good jobs in order to devote themselves to the band.

It had been explained to us by a few different people, including friends of ours in the band X, from people who had been through it all, that this moment in the band where you're arguing over publishing is secretly very crucial.

The Old 97's Rhett Miller: "Then the Stage Gets a Lot Bigger"

People don't realize that years later, whatever success you've had is gonna be divvied up along the lines of publishing, and if the lead singer is getting 100 percent of the money and the rest of the guys are just getting money from ticket sales, there's gonna be a lot of discontent.

I remember the band meeting. I had moved into a house, because we had signed our deal and I finally had enough money to get a rental house that I didn't have to share with anybody. Everybody came over to my house and sat around and had this discussion, like "Well, you know, years from now if I was making all the money and they weren't, they wouldn't want to be in a band."

I said, "Let's just split it up. I mean, it's not 25 percent each, but it's pretty close." It's a formula that we've used to this day, and I think it's helped keep our band together. It certainly reflects the dedication of each member, if not the actual writing of the actual songs. That's one way that bands have always splintered, is over publishing.

I remember that so distinctly, and that we avoided that pitfall early on by just making it a formula.

More with Miller tomorrow.

With Those Darlins, 8 p.m. Thursday at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline.

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