Does a band know when it's made a great record? Not necessarily, explains Old 97's front man Rhett Miller, or at least not right away. In the case of the Dallas band's 1997 album Too Far to Care, a high-water mark of both '90s Texas rock and the then-sizzling "insurgent country" movement, realizing what the quartet accomplished took a minute to sink in.
"It was sort of after the fact that it occurred to us that we'd nailed it," says Miller from Woodstock, New York, where he's lived for ten years and where the 97's recorded Too Far to Care with Boston producer Wally Gagel (Folk Implosion, Juliana Hatfield).
And they did nail it. Fast-paced, witty and poignant, the album (the band's third) reflects the tornado of the months following the release of 1995 LP Wreck Your Life (Bloodshot), itself an album often credited as an alt-country cornerstone alongside Wilco's A.M. and Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac. After knocking their 1996 SXSW showcase out of the park, the 97's found themselves being courted by more than a dozen major labels before opting with Elektra. (Only in the '90s.)
With Those Darlins, 8 p.m. Thursday, August23, at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, 888-402-5837 or www.hob.com/houston.
Even 15 years later, all 13 songs still feel charged with static electricity. An old friend of the band's, who used to work with Dallas New Wave band Deathray Davies, eventually rose to a position of power at reissue label Omnivore Recordings and acquired the rights to Too Far to Care. In October, Omnivore will reissue Too Far to Care as a deluxe 2-CD/2-LP package with a collection of B-sides and assorted promo material entitled They Made a Monster: The Too Far to Care Demos (also available as a standalone LP). The band begins a month-long tour playing Too Far to Care front-to-back first, then other assorted favorites, Thursday night at House of Blues.
Recounting a succession of fly-by-night affairs ("Barrier Reef," "Melt Show") and bright-lights-big-city experiences ("Broadway, "Niteclub," "Curtain Call"), Too Far to Care tracks the 97's progress from wide-eyed naifs to cocksure veterans but overall still nice guys. "Streets of Where I'm From" likewise addresses the idea of bigger stakes, and the occasional acoustic-driven pop ballad ("Salome," "Big Brown Eyes") offers introspective counterpoint.
Exene Cervenka of L.A. cowpunks X, one of the Old 97's heroes, helps Miller close Too Far to Care with "Four Leaf Clover," a shining example of the doomed-romantic persona he more or less perfected on this record. The whole album can be boiled down to a line from "Just Like California," when Miller sings "half the way there just wouldn't be fair, so I'm going all the way tonight."
"A lot of the songs, I get the feeling of this precipice, that there's something about to happen," he says today.
Houston Press: Can you believe it's been 15 years since Too Far to Care came out?
Rhett Miller: I guess in a way it seems like a million years ago, but then the fact that we've been in a band for 20 years blows my mind. The fact that Too Far to Care was that long ago...but then I look at the pictures, and we look like such kids.
HP: Did you guys feel like you were at the top of your game back then?
RM: Yeah, but...I always feel like if we're having a great show, it's because perhaps I'm unconscious of the fact that I'm having a great show. I only sort of realize it after the fact.
We weren't dwelling every day on how great we were. We weren't even really thinking about it; we were just kind of doing it. As we were making it, it started to hit us, like, "Oh yeah, this worked."
HP: You guys certainly made a great record, but what was the cost?
RM: Like emotionally?
RM: Funny, I've never thought about it like that. I don't know that there is much of a downside for us for Too Far. It was our first step on a long road.
I think if anything, we had an opportunity to reinvent our band and become something a lot more commercial, and we didn't take it. It's like going from one high school to a new high school in a new town and you become a new person.
I'm sure Elektra Records would have loved if we had showed up with a Third Eye Blind record, but we didn't. We didn't want to do it. I don't think we even really considered it as an option. It would just have felt stupid. And false.
I'm proud that we made the record that maybe was less commercially successful but better in the long run for us. Twenty years later, we're still a band.
HP: How hard did you guys promote Too Far?
RM: We worked our asses off. We weren't on a tour bus until Fight Songs, so Too Far was all — we took some of the money we got from our record deal and bought a good van, with air conditioning, thank God. And we were on the road forever. We were doing months at a time.
None of us had wives or kids at that point, so it was possible to go out without even thinking twice about it. We were on the road for a year pretty much nonstop. It was a blast, man. God, we had so much fun.
That was probably the most fun, because once you get in a bus, everything's fancier and easier, but there's something about it not being easy. There's something about it being us against the world, and riding around like a little army trying to conquer each town you roll into.
HP: Did y'all burn yourselves out at all?
RM: Oh yeah. Sure we did. But I was 26, and even though the candle is burning at both ends, it's a lot stronger and longer, and we could go and go and go and go. We had a lot of fun.
I would say it's amazing we survived, but I think we've always been pretty smart in regards to knowing our limits and not getting into anything too self-destructive. But we had a shitload of fun.
HP: Not terribly long after Too Far came out, the bottom kind of dropped out of the music business.
RM: That was really a few records later. That wasn't until '02, about ten years ago, that I really started realizing that this industry I had devoted my adult life to was collapsing. "Aw shit, I should have gone into hedge funds."
HP: How would you rate Too Far within the 97's catalog?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
RM: I guess because it's the record that most people heard first, and because it's the record where we really got to make a real record — we spent I think four days making Hitchhike to Rhome, ten days making Wreck Your Life and then we got to make a real record.
Really, it's our first real record to me. And just where we were, at the zenith of our youthful excitement and creativity, there hadn't been any sort of jadedness or cynicism creep into our outlook or our art. So I would put Too Far to Care at the top of the heap.
See more with Miller on our Rocks Off music blog at blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks.