Rhett Miller of Old 97’s

After the release of his latest Old 97’s record, 'Twelfth', Rhett Miller talked with QRO. ...
Rhett Miller of Old 97's : Q&A

Rhett Miller of Old 97's : Q&A

After the release of his latest Old 97’s record, Twelfth (QRO review), Rhett Miller talked with QRO.  In the conversation, Miller discussed the new album, finishing it just before everything shut down, his four-nights-a-week StageIt shows, playing “Turn Off the TV” on CBS, quarantining with kids (but not his band), his mixed legacy with Dallas football, Steve Wozniak, and more…

 

 

QRO: How are you holding up, with everything that is going on?

Rhett Miller: I’m pretty good.  You know, I feel like I’m making the best of it.

QRO: Where are you quarantining?

RM: We live in the Hudson Valley, just north of Manhattan, outside of a little college town called New Paltz.

QRO: How is it where you are?

RM: Really beautiful, very peaceful.  I mean, I feel like, if you have to be trapped & quarantining somewhere, this is the place to be.  We feel very lucky.

I’ve got a couple of teenagers.  They’re home all day, every day, doing online schooling.

But we’ve got three acres.  I just went to down to the end of our driveway and hung up ‘BIDEN/HARRIS’ sign up at the end of our driveway, so I’m sure that the guy down the street with the ‘TRUMP’ flag is gonna, you know, shoot it with his shotgun on the way by or something.  Cause we’re kinda in the country, and stuff like that happens.

QRO: And how are your bandmates doing?

RM: Man, I don’t know…  I miss them, I worry about them.

We got on a Zoom call the other day, and it’s hard to be very positive.  I know for me, I try to stay positive throughout all of this, see silver linings, and try to find the good side, but man, I don’t know.  We sit there and look at each other & go, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”  This sucks, you know? [laughs]

Try to think of ways to promote our new album that we think is really great & just came out.  It’s pretty frustrating.

I don’t mean to complain.  I have friends who’ve passed away.  I have family members…  There are just so much bigger stuff than not getting to play some new songs off my new record.  That’s it.  That’s the situation I’m dealing with.  So, that’s what I’ve got to complain about.

 

In a lot of ways, [making Twelfth] was the last carefree time for us, as a band.

 

QRO: How was making Twelfth?

RM: It was really sweet.

It was our second record to do with Vance Powell.  We went to his studio this time, in Nashville, Tennessee.  It was the first time we’ve really recorded in Nashville since we made a single, two songs, with Waylon Jennings twenty-plus years ago.

So, to get to be back in Nashville, where now we have a ton of friends.  To get to work with Vance for the second time, which is always sort of a big deal.  Your first time together, you’re sort of learning how the other works, and then the second time in, you just hit the ground running.

That’s how it felt – it felt so great, to be able to jump right into it with him, to start making the record.  We worked really quickly, the vibe in the band was really good.

We did not know, as the recording session was going down, we started getting news about what was going to happen with the pandemic, but it took a while.  It was right at the end of the session that it was really hitting us, that we were maybe not going to be able to see each other, that we were gonna have to cancel shows…

I flew home on March 12th, and on March 13th, New York State shut down completely.

In a lot of ways, it was the last carefree time for us, as a band.  So, in a way, it was really this sweet, beautiful, golden moment, before everything got a little bit dark.

QRO: The masterings and stuff, did you have to do that online, not in-person?

RM: Yeah.  I mean, at this point, mixes almost always happen – well, a lot of people, I guess, go for the mix, but it’s pretty rare for us.  Because we have one guy in L.A., two guys in Dallas, me in New York.  Usually, our mixing is happening remotely, regardless.

And the mastering certainly is.  I’ve gone to mastering sessions before, and I just don’t even know what to say.  I’m like, ‘Yeah, I mean, it sounds better – I don’t know why.  I don’t know how even to quantify it.  But you magic mastering people know what you’re doing, I guess…’

Even some of the overdubs did have to happen remotely.  Vance called me up and asked me to record a piano part on my old, out-of-tune piano that’s on the song “I Like You Better”.  He asked me to record some vocals, I think for the song “Confessional Boxing”, that were very ‘screaming’ kind of vocal-ly stuff that was happening.

And I know our guitar player Ken [Bethea] had to go into a studio in Dallas, and record some of the last stuff he had to do.

It was weird.  It was very weird.  What isn’t weird anymore?

Old 97's : TwelfthQRO: What about the album art – who is that on the cover?

RM: Roger Staubach.  When I was a kid, was my absolute hero.  I just love him so much.

I’ve gotten to know him a little bit over the years, because some of his kids are Old 97’s fans.  He’s such a really sweet, cool guy.

And I was obsessed with him as a kid, so the idea that we figured out how to get him onto our album cover, that’s been kind of a dream come true.

I was worried a little bit that people would think that this was an album about sports, or that, I don’t know, that was some kind of ‘frat rock’.  There are certain connotations, especially the NFL, has a lot of baggage.

But I thought that that photograph, taken by the famous Neil Leifer, that photograph is so evocative of such a bygone era that I thought it captured something about the record.  There’s a lot of looking back on the album, you know?  A simpler, yet more complicated, more drunken, younger days kind of thing.

QRO: Is it true that your grandfather owned the Dallas Texans, that went bankrupt?

RM: Yeah.  In 1952, my grandfather brought the team to Dallas.  He bought the New York Yanks.

My grandfather had been born into some money, from a textile fortune of my great-grandfather.  And he used that money to buy an NFL franchise, but sort of over-estimated the Dallas, Texas hunger for professional football.  Dallas really loved college football…

There’s a great ESPN article that came out a couple of years ago about it.  It was a really in-depth story of it.

But my grandfather ended up losing the family fortune, losing the team.  It lasted less than a season, before he had to hand them back over to the NFL.

And three years later, the NFL started signing TV contracts.  So, nobody ever went broke again in the NFL, after my grandfather…

QRO: Roger Staubach was with the Dallas Cowboys…

RM: My grandfather’s Dallas Texans were 1952.  They officially became the Baltimore Colts.

And then, a few years later, there was another Dallas Texans, that then became the Kansas City Chiefs.

And then finally, there was the Dallas Cowboys in 1960.

So, I was a couple generations removed from what became the Jerry Jones Cowboys.

 

I was obsessed with [Roger Staubach] as a kid, so the idea that we figured out how to get him onto our album cover, that’s been kind of a dream come true.

 

QRO: For Twelfth, did you run out of time to come up with a title?…

RM: [laughs] I know, it’s funny – the New Yorker review finally came out, and they were so mad about that title…

For me, it came to me in a dream, the title & the album cover.  I don’t know – I woke up at five AM, and I had it very clearly in my mind, that the record was called “Twelfth”, and then had a picture of Roger Staubach on the cover.  And then I just figured out how to make that happen.

I’ve always been a bit of a numerologist.  A bit of a nerd-slash-superstitious guy, when it comes to numbers.  I just thought it was clever; I thought it was sweet.

I love the fact that it had the word “elf” in the middle of the word “twelfth.”  It’s just such a weird word.

How many consonants?  Seven consonants and one vowel?  I mean, it’s just a really juicy word.

I don’t know if I’m the world’s best ‘album titler’, but here we are.  I prefer to work somewhere in the slightly longer form of expression…

QRO: When in songwriting do you know if it’s for Old 97’s or for your own solo work?

RM: So, my deal I made with my band in 2001, when I got permission from them to do solo records, my deal was always that I would give them first crack at any songs I wrote.

So, when I write songs, typically I’m just writing ‘a song.’  I don’t really think about if it’s for the band, if it’s for a solo record, or maybe it’s even for some other artist to sing, I don’t know.  I’m just kind of am writing songs, because if I don’t write it at that moment, maybe I will go crazy or whatever.

So, yeah, I usually give them first crack.  There are some songs that pop up when I’m in the throes of recording a solo album, that happen too fast for the band to really get access to.  But those songs, I’m usually writing those songs because I’m in the middle of making a solo record, and I’m just inspired to write a song that’s a part of that piece, a part of the larger whole.

The band is the one that ‘brung me to the dance,’ as it were.  So, I like to make sure that those guys stay happy as much as I can.

 

 

QRO: Are you bummed that you can’t tour off of the record?

RM: Jesus, you don’t even know…

It’s insane!  I’ve never had more than three weeks off of touring in my life, really since I dropped out of my first semester of college.  I’ve been a road dog, a performer, constantly.  So, yeah, this is very weird.

I’m doing four shows a week in my office for StageIt online concerts.

That’s one of the great ironies for me, during all of this.  People like me, rock-n-rollers who tour, we never call a gig a “concert.”  That’s like for symphonies, concerts.  They’re just gigs, or shows, or whatever…

But now, that I’m sitting in an office chair in a ten foot-by-twelve foot room, all by myself, with a dog who doesn’t even wake up when I’m screaming, suddenly now, this is a “concert.”  I’m calling these, “concerts.”  ‘Oh yeah, do online “concerts” for four nights a week…’

It’s almost like I’m overcompensating for the humble nature of these shows.

QRO: I interviewed Grant-Lee Phillips (QRO interview), and he does stuff through StageIt.

RM: He does.  I saw that, which is pretty great.

It’s funny: Grant, Robyn Hitchcock, and I all do StageIt, and we’re all graduates of the Largo Los Angeles club, this tiny little comedy/music club that the three of us used to be regulars at.

There’s a lot of looking back on the album, you know? A simpler, yet more complicated, more drunken, younger days kind of thing.

QRO: Have you thought about drive-in shows?

RM: Yeah, we’ve talked about it.  We might wind up doing it.  I know people that have done it.

It’s just, it’s a lot.  It’s a giant production.  And to have it to be enjoyable for the audience, at all, the production cost is pretty astronomical in terms of the video feeds, so you can make it so people in the back can see, the audio, to compensate for the giant venue.  And then, because of the limited tickets that you can safely sell, there’s not much money it.

And then I’ve got the problem that two of my guys are in a state that’s on the New York State quarantine list.  So, if I go to Texas, I have to quarantine on return.  If they come here, they have quarantine.  Murry’s [Hammond, bassist] in L.A…

They’re all even a little older than me, and I just turned fifty.  So, they’re in their fifties.  So, they’re all starting to feel like, ‘Oh man, I’m kind of in the dangerous demographic here.  Hell…’

Boy, I start thinking about artists that might never perform in public again.  Like, that’s a weird thing to me.

Somebody the other day – I hope this is not the case at all – but a friend was like, ‘How’s Willie Nelson is doing?’  I’m like, ‘He’s really old…’

Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me: God, I wonder if Willie Nelson will get to perform live again?  Here’s a guy who was just made to be on…  It’s a lot.

Obviously, I hope so.  He’s my hero.

 

Old 97’s playing “The Dropouts” on CBS This Morning:

QRO: You did do those remote performances on CBS This Morning

RM: Yes.

QRO: Did CBS set up all that video & audio on those?

RM: No, they hired a director, who’s a really cool guy.  They just had him work sort of with us on creating our own content.

So, we all went into the recording studio, and recorded ourselves individually.  And then we all filmed ourselves, you know, lip-synching, playing along – I don’t want to ruin the ‘magic’ of it…

Actually, that’s not true.  Our drummer [Philip Peeples] both recorded & filmed at the same time.  So, he was actually playing the part that you hear.  The rest of us were all standing outside, in some picturesque locale.

We all kind of created it, and then the director in Los Angeles got the footage from each of us, and put it together.

I thought it turned out really good.  It looked better than your typical sort of Zoom.

The band is the one that ‘brung me to the dance,’ as it were. So, I like to make sure that those guys stay happy as much as I can.

QRO: Was that your car in the background, or some set piece?

RM: My dad bought that car in 1974.  He brought my little sister home from the hospital in that car in 1975 when she was born, and it’s been in my family since then.

It’s a 1966.  It’s on its second engine.  And it’s pretty beat up, but it’s a good little car.

My brother gave it to me, a few years back, and I’ve been slowly trying to get it together.  Man, it drives beautifully.

It doesn’t have seatbelts.  So, that’s my next job, is to put seatbelts in it.

QRO: I noticed in the stream of those performances, that they would blur out the license plate.

RM: You know, it funny, because that license plate hasn’t been active in years.  I’ve submitted for new registration, but everything’s so backed up, I haven’t gotten it yet.

Somebody could look at that license plate, and it wouldn’t ‘lead them’ anywhere.

I didn’t think it was a problem, but I think they were just covering their bases.

QRO: And they let you do “Turn Off the TV”…

RM: I know. [laughs]

Yeah, it’s true.  I do feel like that’s a good bit of advice.

It’s gotten a lot of radio play, but clearly the radio people have no bones about telling people to turn off the TV.

Old 97’s playing “Turn Off the TV” on CBS This Morning:

 

Old 97’s video for “Turn Off the TV”:

QRO: Speaking of that song, how was making the video for “Turn Off the TV”?

RM: It was pretty cool.

I asked a bunch of my friends, you know, notable comedian/actor/musician friends, to just send me – it was early days in the pandemic – to send me whatever self-filmed kind of stuff they feel.  ‘Just film yourself.  If you can sing along to the song, that’s great.  If you can dance, or whatever you think is cool or funny, that’d be great.’

And so, a bunch of people were just too sort of – everybody was freaking out.  Quite a few people, I just didn’t get anything from.  A handful of people sent me some really sweet stuff; you can actually see them at the end of the video.  Most of them, I think the director, Liam Lynch, squeezed in.

But Puddles Pity Party created this perfect start-to-finish, perfectly lip-synched, air guitared, a complete, stand-alone music video, and sent it to us.

And the director, Liam, who’s done a bunch of comedy movies, and knows the comedy people, Liam’s like, ‘We have to use this.  This is too good not to use.’

And so, that took over.  And that kind of became the main footage.

I filmed myself up in my own treehouse, in my tree line out there.  My bandmates did a little bit of filming of themselves.  But most of it’s Liam, the director Liam, putting together Puddles Pity Party on those cool televisions he had.

I’ve never had more than three weeks off of touring in my life, really since I dropped out of my first semester of college.

QRO: Was some of that footage of earlier in the band’s career?

RM: Yes.  He went around and found some really old footage of us, from the early days.  It’s pretty cool.

I mean, to me, it seems like, you know, yesterday we were on Bloodshot Records.  It seems like no time has elapsed since we signed to Elektra, got our first tour bus, and all that stuff – it just doesn’t seem like that long ago.

But when see a timeline laid out, when you see old footage like that…  Oh my gosh!  It made me feel nostalgic.

QRO: I love the idea of so much of the current footage being shot on iPhones – but in the video, playing on old tube TVs…

RM: Yeah, exactly…

I think that was him, again, trying to sort of battle against the ‘Zoom takeover,’ where everything looks like Zoom now.  I think that was his idea, to just make it look cool.

QRO: Do you miss doing ‘full-fledged’ videos with your bandmates, or are you happy to not have to?

RM: Oh man, I miss all of it.  I miss just seeing my bandmates.

But yeah, I liked doing videos.

We really have not gotten to make as many videos as our catalog seems like it would warrant, you know?

During the Elektra days, we always argued that we needed more videos.  I don’t know…

But yeah, I like making music videos.  But it was fun.  I was glad we were able to do it.

I’m actually tempted, since we’re not able to make videos, I’ve been tempted to try and figure out some of those songs were involved, and maybe make my own videos, in my office?  I don’t know…

 

 

QRO: During this lockdown, have you been writing/making any new music?

RM: You know, it took me a long, long time to figure out how to get to a place where I could write songs.  It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to.  But I’ve started writing songs again.

Bottom line is, I was so terrified of losing the only job I’ve ever known, and of not being able to feed my family.  And so, I really threw myself into learning how to do online shows.  Just the technology involved in creating a high-def stream, for me – I’m sure for some teenage gamer, who’s got a Twitch stream, it’s not that big a deal & they’re able to just roll with it, but for me, it’s really tricky.

So, I’ve focused on that, but now I’m feeling kind of feeling like that’s settled into a groove, I do my four shows a week, I feel pretty good about it.  It’s pretty positive, the audience, the income, and so maybe I can start to do more properly creative stuff, songwriting, maybe make an album, something like that.

QRO: When you were setting up your livestream, did you ask your teenage kids for help?…

RM: [laughs] They are not as savvy with regards to laptops & stuff.  Neither of them are super gamers – will use Xbox a little bit.

But they did give me a lot of grief about my office.  A few years ago, I painted my office red, and they were like, ‘Oh, my God, Dad!  Why’d you paint your office red?!?  It looks like hell!  This is so stupid!’

And then I hung all my guitars up around the walls, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, Dad!  This is so stupid!  You just look like you’re just trying to flex on everybody!’

And then I started doing the livestream, and everybody’s like, ‘You’ve got the best-looking livestream on the internet!’

And I’m like, ‘See kids?  All of this was leading up to the pandemic, and here I am, doing my job from an office chair…’

Clearly the radio people have no bones about telling people to turn off the TV.

QRO: How have those StageIt shows been?  How do you keep it fresh, if you’re doing four shows a week?

RM: That’s probably the trickiest part of it, you know?

I do themes on Mondays & Fridays.  Well, I was doing Mondays & Fridays – I actually just started ‘Season Two’, which was my son’s idea.  I took one week off, after I’d done a hundred shows, took a break, took a week off, came back, and now I’m on Season Two.

I’ve changed up the background, I’ve changed up the schedule a little – because I realized I had two shows that were directly competing with NFL Football, which is popular…

So, I’ve moved my Monday show to Tuesday, which is ‘Time Travel Tuesday,’ and in that, I’ll do an album in full, or I will do a set list from a specific show, like a notable show from my history, something like that.

And then on Fridays, now they’re called ‘Friday Freakouts.’  I was doing ‘Friday Friends’, where I have like Nick Offerman, or Tig Notaro, or Rainn Wilson, or Molly Ringwald – they would give me a set list of my songs that they wanted me to play, and then I would do their set list.

But that’s its own – trying to track people down every week, ‘Hey, of my songs, what are your eight favorites?  Please tell me your eight favorites of mine.’  It’s just such a weird…

But everybody was nice about it.  I’ve still got a couple of fun ‘Friday Friends’ that’ll find their way into the upcoming weeks.  I’ve got probably a two-week long setlist that I’ll do, that I was given by Steve Wozniak, of Apple Computers…

QRO: Did you ask Steve Wozniak for any help setting up, film editing?…

RM: [laughs] No.  There are some things that he wants to talk about at great length, but if the thing you want to talk about isn’t on that list, he doesn’t really care.  A very focused guy.

I do have a friend at Apple that I’ve been able to sort of secretly pick their brain about stuff.

There’s people at StageIt, the infrastructure, that help me so much.  They’ve been actually really great.

I know there’s a lot of platforms right now, but this one was around before.  I sort of wound up on this, and it’s one of those deals now where it’s like, it ain’t broke, so I don’t want to fix it.  And I really like them.  I really like the interface.

 

I was so terrified of losing the only job I’ve ever known, and of not being able to feed my family.

 

QRO: Given the cover for Twelfth & what we talked about earlier, I have to ask you what you think about the return of football?

RM: I’m amazed that they’ve been able to do it.  Like, they’re just so many people involved.  But I guess, they have the money to do such good testing.  I can’t believe it’s happening.

But I guess I’m grateful for it.  I thought I didn’t care.  I was like, ‘You know, there’s more important things in the world.’  But then once football started, I realized, ‘Oh, you know, the beauty of football is the diversion.’

When I was a kid, it was something that my Dad & I could watch together, and we could bond over it, when we had very little else in common.  I don’t think that’s true of my son & me, but it definitely is sort of a larger…  You know, there’s a reason football is so popular.

It’s weird, too.  It’s not really normal, but it’s so much better than nothing.

QRO: You still follow your Texas teams?

RM: I do, I do.

The Dallas Stars, I’m obsessed with.  And I have been, even when they weren’t doing well.  But now that they’re in the Stanley Cup, I’m completely eaten up by them.

[note: since the interview, Dallas Stars lost the Stanley Cup Finals to Tampa Bay Lightning]

When I was a kid, it was something that my Dad & I could watch together, and we could bond over it, when we had very little else in common.

QRO: During this time, have you picked up and/or accelerated any bad habits?  Like I went a long time without shaving…

RM: [laughs] Guys, so many friends of mine, I keep texting them, ‘I give you permission to shave!  Come on…’

I battle the urge to have more desert than I should.  But you know, other than that, I’ve been pretty lucky.

I like doing yoga at a yoga studio, and I don’t have the self-discipline to make myself do it at home as much as I should, so I haven’t kept up with my yoga.

So, maybe my worst habit is sloth…

QRO: Has your hair gotten even longer?…

RM: It did for a while, then I gave myself a haircut.

Now I’ve had two proper, masked haircuts since.  It’s pretty long, but it’s been long since I was in high school, on-and-off.

 

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