an interview w/ RHETT MILLER of Old 97’s (who are on tour) — on longevity, technology, depression, songwriting & more
Since 1993, Rhett Miller has stayed busy both as a solo artist and as the lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist for alt-country act Old 97's (who are on tour now, two shows at Brooklyn Bowl this week included). Though the Dallas, Texas-based band has never had a "hit" in the conventional sense of the term, their acclaim with critics and fans alike has been well earned and an inarguable counterpoint to the idea of what success in the music industry looks like. With last year's Most Messed Up, the group saw their highest charting record to date, a fact that Miller shrugged off when I mentioned it in our recent conversation. In contrast to the oftentimes-austere nature of his music, and especially that of his solo work, Miller's positivity and grateful perspective are born from a place of self-doubt and failure. As components of his music, those experiences bleed through not as cautionary tales but as the mirrored non-fiction of the musician's success not only as an artist but, as he candidly revealed, a human being as well.
BV: You've been creating music for over two decades now with your solo career and with the Old 97's. Obviously a lot's changed with the dynamic of how people access music and how a band's fanbase grows. What's that paradigm shift meant for you as an artist just in watching that transition over the last twenty years?
Rhett: It's so funny all the different ways the fanbase has changed over the years. When we started it was the advent of the personal computer age, and I remember we got a lot of help from those very early email lists. It kind of helped us a lot, which is funny now because it seems so antiquated, but at the time it was really cutting edge and some of our earliest hardcore fans were a part of that, and it really went a long way to building our early fanbase. Then you watch the way that the consumption of music has changed, and I think that has really helped us even though we've never had a hit. In the old days you'd have to have your record in people's houses for them to be able to find the music and go back, and now it's just in everyone's pocket. They can find any song I've ever written and any record we've ever made. In a way, the fact that these songs are decades old, it kind of doesn't even seem like that because they're on the list just like all the other songs that exist in the world, and people can just go find them. Add to that the fact that we've never had a hit, and it's kind of cool because people can go back and discover our entire catalogue, and in a way we're really not time-stamped. I had a lot of friends who had hits in the 90s, and now their band has to go play on one of those nostalgia tours. It's a thirty-minute slot, and they have to finish with the one to three radio songs they had twenty years ago, and we've never had that, and it's kind of cool. It would've been nice to make a ton of money at some point, but our whole idea was that we wanted to have a whole career at the expense of having hits. For better or worse, that's been the thing that works for us, and we get to go out now and still play pretty big shows in front of pretty big crowds. We put out new records, and they're taken pretty seriously. We're not just a band that's dependent on an album that came out two decades ago or more.
It's interesting because the last Old 97's record, Most Messed Up, was the band's highest charting record to date, yet you guys have had a significant fanbase for years now.
I don't know if it's ironic or just funny, but I'll take it. [Laughs.] I think it's great. I'm a real believer in the concept of experience creates expertise. I really believe that, and I remember when I was starting I thought the whole myth of the rock star with the expiration date on them was true. I really thought that at the age of thirty anyone who was still out there on the stage was a sad, old man who needed to hang it up because we was embarrassing himself in front of the kids. I think that that myth was propagated by the old world and the old culture, and I think that we're moving into an era where it's just about quality. It's no longer about a boardroom filled with cigar smoking old white guys who get to decide what's gonna be popular. Anybody can figure out what they like, and it means that the audience by definition is smaller, but I think that it's more invested, and it's an audience that's really invested as opposed to having to listen to this one thing that got shoved down their throat. I feel like we're sort of vindicated in our belief that creating a catalogue and emphasizing quality control would eventually mean that our band would have staying power and a long career. The fact that our most recent record was our highest charting record, yeah, I think that's sweet. I think that's great. I love looking out and seeing young kids in the crowd and then people who've been there for a fucking quarter century. It's crazy. I'm really proud of what we've accomplished. As frustrating as it is doing this, especially now that I've got a couple of kids who I really miss terribly when I'm not with them, I wouldn't trade it for the world. I could've stayed in college, and I could've gotten a job that maybe gave me health insurance and benefits and security, but I wouldn't be happy in the way that I am creating these things and giving them to the world in person. I think it's a really great fucking job, and as silly as it is and as frivolous as it has seemed to ex-girlfriends in my life, I think that there's something really kind of noble about this weird job.
Conversely, it seems like that change has also brought a kind of devaluing of the music as well where while the opportunities are much more prevalent so are the obstacles in becoming successful. It's one of those things where you have to wonder what the difference would be for a band like Old 97's if you guys were starting out now versus twenty years ago
I don't know what it would be like if we were just starting out right now. We had the benefit of existing under the old business model for a minute before it disintegrated and rightfully so. It was a weird business model, but if we hadn't had that it would've been a lot harder, and when younger artists come and talk to me now, I don't know what to tell them. I kind of believe if you're meant to do music, then you'll just do music. I think that we've cut the middle class out of music, and I think that's a little sad. I spent my twenties in squalor, just fucking abject, ramen noodle-eating, floor sleeping squalor. [Laughs.] I jumped so many rents, and I walked out on so many utility bills, and I left so many taxes unfiled - not that I would've had anything to claim, but that was kind of great in a way because I think that's what your twenties are for. It's about learning and discovering what you're meant to do, and I think hunger is as great a motivator as anything. I did get to move into the next level where I can pay a mortgage and feed my kids because they insist on eating every day. It's relentless. [Laughs.]
Regarding your solo career, I wanted to ask about the sort of autobiographical nature of your songwriting. Is it something you see as a nonfiction reflection of your own experiences, or is it more of a fictionalized narrative?
It's some combination, and it's also through this story I tell myself where it's fiction, and where nobody's gonna think that what I'm singing has to do with myself. It's a way to get myself to open up more than I would. I listen to my friends' records, and I'll be alternately worried about them. [Laughs.] I'll take everything that they're singing as if it were a diary entry that I happened upon, but that's not how songs are exactly. Everyone's different, but all I know for sure is that, for me, songs have been therapy, a working out of something. A lot of it happens really unconsciously, and the more conscious it is, the less successful it is. I think it's akin to manic depression where you'll go through periods where songs can be really hard and they feel obtuse even to you as you're writing them. Then you'll go through periods of real manic energy, which is what the last two years were where these songs just kept coming out, and they seemed so transparent to me. I was tapped into something, and I was grateful for that. In a way it's hard because it's all very close to the surface. I think I've been able to carry some of that with me as I've gone back into a phase where I'm a little less manic about it. I've been doing a lot more co-writing since then, which is really fun in a way. I've been writing with Evan [Felker] from Turnpike Troubadours, and today I just sent Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, a version of a song that he and I just co-wrote. I've got a bunch of people that I'm writing with, and I love it. It lets me approach it a little bit more as a craft and less as just this spigot being shoved into my soul, which sometimes can be exhausting. I'm using the past; I'm using the present, and I'm using this one degree-removed fictionalized version of myself when I do these things, because otherwise I don't know if I could do it. It'd be too raw.
You mentioned manic depression, and it's a topic I think has become less stigmatized in at least some ways. Is that something you've seen as well where mental illness is no longer the closeted topic it once was in the music industry?
Yeah. I feel like most of the musicians that I know deal with some version of depression. I know I always have. The diagnoses have differed over the years, but like I said, I know for sure the songwriting has been a way that I figured out how to survive it. But I'm glad that it's less stigmatized where talking about it isn't as shunned as it once was. I imagine you have experienced this with your kids, and I have to, but it's really good to talk about it like, "How are you feeling," or "What are you thinking?" It's fucking hard to be a human being, and I think the more that we acknowledge that and the less mysterious and stigmatized that that is, the better off we're gonna be as a planet. I know that's part of why I got into music and the arts is because it's an area where not only wrestling with those demons is acceptable but encouraged. It turns pain into beauty. It takes something that's really hard, and you make something out of it that goes out into the world and helps people, and I think that's fucking great.
It's a difficult thing to confront, and especially since one of the more troubling aspects of rock's history has been the tendency for both critics and audiences to romanticize the casualty of its artists.
Absolutely. You've got the list of people that are the casualties of people, and it's a long one, and the idea of a successful suicide attempt being glamourized is so sad, but I've spent a whole career, and I've got all these songs that really glamourize the struggle and the tools that we use to fight this battle with the whiskey or the self deception or whatever. I look back now, and I know the answer. I've got so much alcoholism in my family, and I've got so many friends that struggle with that, and I really don't ever want to glamourize that, and I don't want my legacy to be that I made music that drove people to the idea that the way to deal with it is by making yourself into a zombie that can't feel anything because feeling things is too hard. I don't believe that. There are times in my life where I've definitely done that, and I think we have to be aware that that's something that people do, and that's why I write songs about it. I don't know. I've wrestled with it. A long time ago I had a song called "The Other Shoe," and in the song this guy's wife is cheating on him, and he's about to kill her and kill the guy she's cheating on him with, and he's gonna bury their bodies. I like that song a lot, but it really bothered me that it hinged so strongly on violence against women and murder, and I made a decision shortly thereafter where I said you know what, I don't see this being a big part of my catalogue to begin with, but I just don't really ever wanna write a song again wherein violence against women is perpetrated, and I didn't. I have these problems with the things you sing about go out in the world, and they exist even more than they did when you first sang about them by virtue of the repetition in the song. I don't know. I think about this a lot, and I really just want the songs to make the world a better place and make people feel less alone. I don't want anybody to do the thing that I did where I fell into this hole when I was fourteen and life seemed like it had no meaning. I was able to pick out a few songs that seemed like it supported that belief, and I went down a rabbit hole, and I had a suicide attempt. I was so glad eventually that it didn't work, and I was able to find these other songs that totally proved the opposite, that there is a lot of meaning. It's like the songs themselves became the meaning. I think that maybe this is the journey that most people find themselves on. I was very insecure for a long time, and I felt like I never belonged wherever I was. I felt like whatever I created was by definition not good enough or not as good as what other people created, so I really tried in my voice to be somebody that I thought people wanted me to be. It took a really, really long time to figure out that everybody is going through that, and nobody thinks they're good enough, and that I'm not the worst person in the world. At a certain point I think you mature enough to realize that you can be yourself. You don't have to be this person that you think they want you to be. That's a great thing, and I see my own kids getting to that point more quickly than I ever did, and I really hope that's the case. It's hard to hate yourself. It's no fucking fun. [Laughs.] That old cliché is so true. If you don't love yourself, nobody else is gonna be able to.
Rhett plays his third annual "Holiday Extravaganza! An Evening of Comedy & Music with Special Guests" at NYC's City Winery on December 12. The guests are still TBA, so stay tuned. Tickets are on sale now though.
Old 97's Tour Dates
10/20 - Brooklyn, NY - Brooklyn Bowl
10/21 - Brooklyn, NY - Brooklyn Bowl
10/22 - Philadelphia, PA - Union Transfer
10/23 - Ithaca, NY - The Haunt
10/24 - Cleveland, OH - Beachland Ballroom
10/26 - St. Paul, MN - The Turf Club
10/27 - Madison, WI - The Majestic Theater
10/28 - Chicago, IL - Thalia Hall
10/29 - St. Louis, MO - The Ready Room
10/30 - Little Rock, AR - Revolution Music Room
Rhett Miller Solo Tour Dates
11/13 - Pawling, NY - Daryl's House Club
11/20 - Santa Monica, CA - McCabe's Guitar Shop
12/12 - New York, NY - City Winery