The Old 97's Rhett Miller: "We'll Play Our Hit Twice"
Rhett Miller at House of Blues, 2010
Photo by Jason Wolter
When Nirvana upended the music business in the early '90s, the major record labels saw dollar signs in every dive bar and honky-tonk in the lower 48. That extended all the way to Texas, where a twangy Dallas rock band called the Old 97's had just released the album Wreck Your Life on Chicago "insurgent country" indie Bloodshot Records.
After becoming the toast of the 1996 SXSW festival, the 97's found themselves with more suitors than they knew what to do with, about a dozen all told. They chose Elektra, and set about recording Too Far to Care, the album that became a fan favorite and one of the touchstones of the blossoming alt-country genre.
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This fall, Omnivore Recordings will reissue Too Far in a deluxe edition with the bonus disc They Made a Monster: The Too Far to Care Demos (also sold separately). The band decided to celebrate with a 15th anniversary tour, playing Too Far all the way through. That tour starts this evening at House of Blues.
Rocks Off: How was the band's relationship with Elektra different from what you had with Bloodshot?
Rhett Miller: Well, Bloodshot was brief. I mean, we've stayed in contact with those guys over the years, and stayed friends with most of those guys, but the record we made with them and the couple of seven-inches we did, they happened really quick.
The band's most recent album, last year's The Grand Theater, Vol. 2
We never even signed a deal with them, we just kind of made a record, and suddenly that record got attention from everybody else. Then we were out of there. I don't know, I'm sure there was some resentment on the part of some of the Chicago hardcore fans and some people on the label, but they understood when you get called up, you get called up.
But we had a great relationship with them. Ironically, when I think about the influence Elektra as a company tried to exert on our band and our band's sound, it was a lot less I think than Bloodshot did in that little period. I remember I played "Big Brown Eyes" for Nan, who runs Bloodshot and has been a great friend, and Nan goes, "Oh my God, that's so poppy." She didn't like the song.
I was like, "Well, this is who we want to be, so we can't really just totally tailor our sound to what you imagine your record label should sound like." And then Elektra, everybody thought they were forcing us to be something we weren't, but we were lucky. We had a great A&R guy, a great product manager, and the woman who ran the radio department, even though we didn't bring her like a ton of hit songs to work with, was so great to us.
There was a lot of people at that company, but we had a few well-placed champions. That's why we got to make three big-budget records and I got to do a solo record for them. We spent eight good years with them.
RO: How did the 97's weather the collapse of the music business?
RM: We experimented for a few records on Elektra, and got to be a little bit of a bigger band and a more commercially successful band, and got to a point to where instead of just being on showcases with bands that were alt-country, we were doing bills and tours and festivals with everybody, bands that were a lot more traditionally acceptable in the commercial sphere.
So we got to widen our fan base using the old system, but as it was collapsing, I think we all realized that it was collapsing for a reason, that it was sort of a flawed business model. I think it's a better world for music that way it is now, even though it's much harder to make a living.
I think the people making music are the people who are really meant to make music, and it's no longer like a lottery that somebody's going to go out and win because they just want to be rich or they want to be famous. That's not really as much of an option anymore.
I think the music is gonna be better for it. It makes it a little more frustrating to try to make a living from it, but I was lucky to have a bunch of years under the old model, and millions of dollars spent marketing our brand or whatever. I think it shouldn't be a bunch of old white men in a boardroom deciding who's going to be the next popular musician.
I say that, and the head of Elektra Records was an African-American woman. It wasn't literally a bunch of old white men, but I always that it was that: Chomping on a cigar, "All right, well... Phil Collins! He's gonna be famous for us this year!"
RO: Where do you rate Too Far with other records of the time, like maybe Strangers Almanac?
RM: You know, it's funny. I've always been a kind of blinders-on guy, and especially with stuff that I get compared to, so except for one song, because we had toured with them [Whiskeytown], there was one song that I was sort of obsessed with just because it was so great, "16 Days," and then Slobberbone had a song similar to that.
I didn't really know, like I was aware obviously of that record, I was aware of Son Volt's record Trace that came out maybe around that time, and then a couple of years before that Wilco put out A.M., and I remember "Passenger Side." I got obsessed with that song.
But those records, I didn't listen to them much, because I didn't want to get accused too much of ripping them off, or it was like coming home from work and doing work. I didn't necessarily want to be too influenced or aware, so I steered clear of a lot of the stuff.
Photo by Paul Moore
RO: Which songs from Too Far have never left the 97's set list?
RM: Well, "Time Bomb" is our closer, and on this tour it's gonna be funny because we're gonna open the set with "Time Bomb" and then assuming we get an encore at the end of every night we'll close the set with "Time Bomb." We'll be one of those bands that plays their hit twice (laughs).
But on any given night, we're gonna play seven out of the 12 songs on the record: "Big Brown Eyes"... There's a few songs that we don't play. "House That Used to Be," although on the last tour we whipped that song out in a lot of places.
"Broadway" is a song we don't play very much, although only because the high note comes from an earlier era of my voice, whenever I was able to hit that high C or whatever it is. But pretty much the majority of that record gets put on the set list almost every night. Its beloved stature is represented night after night on the set list.
RO: Playing it so much, have you actually listened to the album much in, say, ten years?
RM: My in-laws really love my music, which is nice. I'll hear it at their house when I'm over there doing stuff. But I was thinking about that. I need to put on Too Far to Care and listen to it a bunch a couple of weeks before the tour starts, because I really wanna make sure a) I remember all the words, but b) just kind of have a feel for the flow of the songs.
To recreate an album is not something I've eve been a part of, so I wanna make sure that I've got the feel of the actual album one song into the next. It's different than a set list, although I use some of the rules from making sets in sequencing records. But I need to study a little. In fact, I was just thinking I need to write an email to the guys asking them to please study a little (laughs).
With Those Darlins, 8 p.m. tonight at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline.
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