"I remember when Beyoncé Knowles announced she was going to make a solo record, but Destiny's Child was still gonna be a band," Rhett Miller says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he's lived off and on for the past few years. "I laughed when I heard about it, because I was like, 'Oh, come on, Beyoncé just wants all the money for herself.' And then all of a sudden it was me in that position, and I was like, 'Oh, shit.' "
Last year's announcement that the Old 97's singer-guitarist was making a solo album kicked off a contagion of cocked eyebrows and rumors that the band was splitting up, that Miller had jilted the group. Fans of the group -- a passionate, if dorky, bunch -- wagged their heads at the inevitable unraveling, at the unfairness of it all, after all those nights spent singing along to "Salome" till their throats went raw. Their anxiety is understandable, and even Miller admits that if he had it to do all over again, a few strongly worded press statements might have worked nicely.
But to clarify: The Old 97's have not broken up. Repeat: The Old 97's have not broken up.
"There's no reason for the Old 97's not to be a band," Miller said, a couple of weeks before his album, The Instigator, hit stores. "We're gonna be the Old 97's till we're old and withered and shaped like pears and question marks. We're just too good of friends and too good of a band, and knock wood, but I can't imagine what would change that. I'm hoping that I get to keep making solo records whenever I want and the band gets to keep making records and we get to keep doing it till we're sick of it."
So, this is not a scandal or a smack in the face to the band members. Simply, as he says on track two of The Instigator, "This Is What I Do."
The Instigator -- Miller's second solo album, following 1989's Mythologies, back when he was a four-eyed folkie in Deep Ellum -- is a tight, 12-song treatise about love. What it's like to be in love or what it's like to yearn for it, to run from it, to run straight into the thorny sucker. "Nobody knows her own heart," he sings on "The El," one of the album's best songs. "You might have been introduced, but you drifted apart."
It lacks the hard-bitten howl of Too Far to Care, the band's 1997 broke-down, boozing classic, and it's more humble in its presentation than the band's latest, the sweeping Satellite Rides. It feels instantly familiar (catchy, twangy sing-alongs, perfect two-minute ballads), but it has its surprises, too. Some of that can be attributed to Jon Brion, the producer-musician-pop guru who collaborated with Miller on the album. Brion is the force responsible for such artistic triumphs and unlikely success stories as Aimee Mann, Macy Gray and Rufus Wainwright.
"I don't think there's anybody working right now who's better than Jon," Miller says. "The guy is just crazy. He can do anything. He promised me, and I trusted him, that everything on the album would be something I was proud of and would sound the way I wanted it to sound."
Brion also introduced Miller to Largo, the intimate and welcoming Los Angeles nightclub that has hosted artists like Elliot Smith and, more recently, former Austinite David Garza (who played on The Instigator) as they hashed out new material. He settled in nicely, playing sold-out sets to an audience that quickly learned all his lyrics. Old 97's fans may cringe to think of their guitar-banging, hip-shaking, drunk-poet Romeo nesting in the land of silicone and Scientology. Miller did, too, once upon a time.
"I used to have those sort of biases," he admits. "It is what it is. If you come out here as a 17-year-old and you're looking for fame and fortune without any real idea of how to get it and you wind up doing a bunch of coke with a bunch of actors in Silver Lake and then the next thing you know you're doing porn -- it could be really creepy and depressing. But I moved out here as a grown man. I already had a career going. It's good for me to be here. I feel comfortable in the scene, but I stay home most of the time. I might as well be in Dallas, or Austin, but the weather out here is so beautiful. And my wife likes to garden."
He's talking about Erica, a model and documentary filmmaker for whom Miller once wrote a song to the tune of "America the Beautiful," whose chorus went like this: "Oh, Erica, oh, Erica, God spend some time with me." They got married this year, and some songs fairly hum with the joy of it. "I cannot believe that you're my lover," Miller sings on "Hover," which is all well and good, of course, except it confronts Miller with that nasty old problem: What do you do when a life of smashed-up love affairs -- with all the pain that breaks the man's spirit and fuels the artist's imagination -- turns into a life of domestic bliss, with you on the back porch while your wife plants tulips?
For one thing, you make stuff up (he majored in creative writing during his brief stint at Sarah Lawrence, after all), and then you get the hell out of the house. Miller holed up for a month in a West Hollywood hotel to finish the 30 songs that would be considered for The Instigator. He needed the space and the time, since life, though bristling with true love, had not been without its sucker punch. There was one day in September 2001, for example.
Miller was living in New York with Erica, writing a song called "Lovebird" outside his place near the World Trade Center, when something happened. A noise, a clamor, and then before anyone knew what was happening, they were fleeing their home.
Two days later, he talked about it in an interview with Rolling Stone (which appeared in the September 11 overview issue), how he and Erica were essentially rendered homeless, how they had to fish everything out of their apartment.
"I started crying in the middle of the interview," he says, "because I hadn't talked about it, and it was so emotional for everybody. And then I'm mad at myself and I'm going, 'I can't believe what a fucking cheeseball I am that I'm crying on the phone with Rolling Stone.' " Don't listen to him, though; the piece is honest and moving, one of the best contributions to the issue.
"I didn't feel like I wanted to make a record about September 11, but there are places where I can hear echoes of that day," Miller continues. Like in the song "A World Inside the World," the plaintive little ballad at the album's center, inspired by Don DeLillo's Underworld and asking such questions as "If love is all we're made of, then what am I afraid of?" Even more explicit is the third verse of "Your Nervous Heart": "I know somebody must have gave you hell / Maybe you went running, as the sky just sort of fell." The songs aren't tragic, just wounded, just wondering. Like practically everything Miller writes, they're smart and wry and lonely and, finally, hopeful.
Oh, but those rumors. Like the report that ran in the Dallas Observer stating that none of the Old 97's could play on the new album, which gave at least this reader the sad image of Ken, Murry and Phil at home alone on prom night while Rhett beer-bonged Zimas with the head cheerleader.
"That would be confusing," Miller explains. "One is one, and one is the other. The whole point was that the band wanted to take a year off, and I said, 'Will you guys give me your blessing to make a solo record?' And they said sure. So they're at home with their babies and wives, and I went on to make a solo record." It's not like he doesn't miss them (he does, terribly) or call them from the road to bitch about the hotel room and all those yucky industry smile-and-nods he's forced to attend.
Or what about the report (same story) that Elektra had dropped the band and simply signed Miller, who must sell 75,000 copies in order to stay with the label? Man, it's complicated. Miller could explicate the whole Byzantine business -- involving options and mergers and debt accrued by the 97's over time -- but the bottom line is this: "I wanted to make a solo record; the record label wanted to futz with the accounting. Everything's fine. Nobody signed away their souls."
So Miller hasn't gone L.A., but he knows that with every slight change of course, with every risk taken, he'll have to weather a little criticism, a few curt dismissals from the kids in the club wearing thrift-store clothes.
"I just do what I do," Miller says. "I write songs. I make records that never sell or make enough money."