Many bands who led the initial alt-country charge have fallen by the wayside, but Old 97’s — Rhett Miller (vocals/rhythm guitar), Ken Bethea (lead guitar), Murry Hammond (bass) and Philip Peeples (drums) — are still very productive, a quarter century after forming in Dallas.
The group has released 11 studio albums. 2017’s impressive Graveyard Whistling included “Good with God,” an adult alternative radio hit duet with Brandi Carlile. Meanwhile, Miller boasts five solo efforts.
Last month, the guys added to both those discographies with Old 97’s first seasonal release, Love the Holidays (click here to pick up a copy) and Miller’s The Messenger (click here to pick up a copy).
“I love this job and I feel really grateful that I’ve gotten to do it for so long,” admitted Miller. “I love to talk about it and think about it. To write songs and figure out a way to feed your kids by going around and singing your songs is a craft. It’s hard work and really fun. It’s good to be able to bond with other people about it and figure out how to make it work better.”
The creative energy among his fellow musicians is probably stronger than it was in the early days, he explains.
“We’ve found ways to treat each other with more respect as time has gone on and to be less sensitive in our interactions. There’s a lot of love. You don’t keep a band together for 25 years without really liking the other guys and appreciating them.”
During the current Holiday Extravaganza Tour, the always exuberant, eternally boyish lead singer plays a solo acoustic set, introduces a guest magician and then does a full Old 97’s performance. Rock Cellar caught up with Miller, 48, from Philadelphia, after he and the band finished recording a session for long-running NPR music program World Café.
Rock Cellar: Where did the idea of doing a seasonal album come from? Did it take a lot of convincing to get the others on board?
Rhett Miller: It did. I knew that we weren’t going to be able to get back into the studio to make a proper studio album this year. I’ve been chomping at the bit for a few years to do it. I feel like you have to earn the right to do a Christmas record. I felt like we’d put enough years in to where now we would finally be able to get away with it without it seeming like a cash grab or a shark jump. We’ve proven we’re in it for the long haul.
I already had a couple of songs I really liked that were holiday songs. I just brought ‘em to the band and said, ‘I think this is a real thing.’ They were very wary, and that’s characteristic of my band to begin with. They’ve always made me prove it to them. I have to bring in 30 songs, so they can pick their favorite 12 for the album. They don’t just do whatever I want, by any means. I had to write holiday songs, bring ‘em to the guys and really try and sell them on the idea that we could do an album of original holiday songs. Eventually, we had enough to where it felt like an admirable stack of songs and it worked out. They brought their ‘A’ game into the studio and we treated it like a proper Old 97’s album. I’m really happy with it.
Rock Cellar: When you started the process, did you look to any old favorite Christmas albums as a template?
Rhett Miller: You know, sonically, I wanted it to sound like us. The Elvis [Presley 1957] Christmas album is No. 1 in the rotation at my own house. That’s a Christmas album that sounds very much like Elvis. I really wanted it to sound like an Old 97’s album. Our producer, John Pedigo, did a really great job of emphasizing that — making sure that it didn’t sound like a generic Christmas album. More than anything, it sounded like it could be played alongside any one of our catalog albums. The songs are thematically Christmas-oriented obviously, but they sound like Old 97’s songs.
Rock Cellar: Ken plays some blazing electric guitar work on several songs. “Auld Lang Syne,” which almost has a punk rock vibe, is a standout.
Rhett Miller: We play on New Year’s Eve every other year. So, we’ve played a dozen or more at this point. It’s a weird gig; it’s my job to stay on track of the time. Now at least we all have iPhones and know exactly what time it is. It’s our job to provide everyone their first moment of the new year and that’s a lot of pressure. I like it; I embrace it, but it’s definitely that kind of thing where you don’t wanna let ‘em down. You want something really positive and energetic. So, our version of “Auld Lang Syne” from the very beginning was just straight up Ramones.
Rock Cellar: Was yodeling always going to be part of the whimsical “Hobo Christmas Song,” where Murry handles the lead vocal?
Rhett Miller: I had written that song with the idea that Murry would sing it. Then he talked me into trading yodels with him. It was the first time I’ve ever yodeled on an album. It was definitely a big experience for me.
Rock Cellar: As far as the songwriting on the holiday album, you had a few collaborators. How did you end up working with author Ben Greenman? Were you a fan of his novels, short stories or music biographies?
Rhett Miller: Oh my God, I love Ben! He and I have been friends about 12 years now. We’ve wanted to collaborate on a lot of things. We’ve talked about doing a musical together based on a short story he’d written that I really loved. We’re both really busy and it’s hard to figure that stuff out. We had written a few songs together over the years. Just for fun. Nothing that had ever come out. I knew that with a Christmas album, it was a really great opportunity to reach out to collaborators. Because these songs don’t have to be as personal. They’re for everyone. The idea of collaborating seems like a natural idea for a holiday record.
Kevin Russell from The Gourds and Shiny Ribs had a really great idea he sent my way. Ben had a couple of really great ideas. Those two songs Ben and I co-wrote [“Snow Angels,” “Gotta Love Being a Kid”] are my favorite songs on the record. Then Dan Bern had some ideas for ‘Rudolph Was Blue.’ I thought that was really funny and such a hallmark of Dan’s songwriting. All of the collaborations really brought something special to the table.
Rock Cellar: The “Rudolph” song has a unique premise.
Rhett Miller: It was a pretty weird thing to sexualize Rudolph, but we all grow up and need to mate.
Rock Cellar: Did you envision “Snow Angel” as a song of unity, especially with lyrics such as “together we’re strong” and “we’re all singing as one?”
Rhett Miller: Very much, and I’ve never written songs that felt like social commentary or anything. But that was Ben Greenman challenging me to write a song in the style of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” which was written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don’t think that I’ve ever lived through a time that felt so divisive or angry. I felt like, if I’m ever going to address it, a Christmas song seems like the most appropriate venue.
Rock Cellar: I noticed in the liner notes that you recruited some relatives to sing on the album. Which songs do they appear on?
Rhett Miller: Because we were recording in Dallas, my brother’s kids came by the studio. We got them in to sing on “I Believe in Santa Claus”; three songs [total]. I really love the end of “I Believe in Santa Claus,” where they’re singing a little kids’ choir part. I felt it was very sweet.
Rock Cellar: They must have reveled in that experience.
Rhett Miller: They did, and they got to stay up late on a school night. They’re so cute. They got to stand in a recording studio behind a microphone and thought it was pretty cool.
Rock Cellar: Turning to The Messenger, congrats on the new single “Total Disaster” garnering your first Adult Alternative radio airplay as a solo artist since “Come Around” in ’02.
Rhett Miller: Thanks. It felt really good. I was just at WXPN [88.5 FM/University of Pennsylvania]. They’re spinning the heck out of it. It’s been nice to see a song on the charts.
Rock Cellar: Does the solo album title have a special significance?
Rhett Miller: If anything, I think it speaks to the handful of songs that make up the core of this album. Tom DeSavia, our A&R guy for years at Elektra and a friend of mine, challenged me to write songs to or in the voice of my 14-year-old self. That was when I was at my lowest point. I was really depressed, I had a suicide attempt and it was just something I’d never grappled with as a songwriter very much. Certainly not explicitly. A lot of the songs deal with that. The title is a lyric from “Human Condition.” There’s a break in the middle that says, “Don’t get mad at me/I’m just the messenger.”
I see it as me time travelling to give a message to my younger self and let myself know, ‘It’s gonna be OK.’
Rock Cellar: In making The Messenger, you’ve said that you wanted to do the unexpected, namely use musicians and a producer that you hadn’t worked with before. You recorded it in Woodstock, New York, not far from where you live, in under a week. Do you think all of that gave the album more immediacy than your most recent solo efforts?
Rhett Miller: I definitely felt musically, it was really off the cuff. My favorite part of making music is inspiration and trusting your instinct. This album was all about that. Recording these songs in five days with guys I’d just met — it was the opposite of calculated. It was really instinctive and felt like the right move for these songs.
Rock Cellar: Were you familiar with producer/musician Sam Cohen’s alt-rock group Apollo Sunshine from the 2000s?
Rhett Miller: It was more the records he produced. Then I went back and listened to his band and I really loved the psychedelic vibe on those records. I think he’s an incredible instrumentalist. He’s able to translate these wild ideas he has into guitar and keyboard sounds really quickly. He reminded me of Jon Brion, who I’ve worked with before. Sam is a sonic architect and really gifted. It’s a straight line between his ideas and his fingertips.
Rock Cellar: Were you seeking a late ‘60s retro rock vibe with some of these songs?
Rhett Miller: I was willing to follow the vibe where it led us. As soon as that rhythm section started playing together — they’d never met before — and I could hear the way they interacted, it was this really strong groove. I was so happy to sit back and let them build this thing, watch it and be surprised by it. One of my favorite things about making records is getting to be the first audience for the songs and the way they’re going to sound. It’s just so cool and such a surprise. I love it.
Rock Cellar: Was the Tom Petty-ish “Permanent Damage,” where you sing, “nobody wants to hear about your stupid dream/we don’t even want to hear about half the shit that happens in reality,” inspired by people who tend to overshare on social media?
Rhett Miller: [Laughs] For sure. In Los Angeles, comedian Greg Behrendt [would perform] at Largo in the old days when I was hanging around and making all my L.A. friends. He used to do a routine about walking up to a conversation at a party and not realizing the person in the middle of telling a story was talking about their dream. You just can’t believe what they’re saying, and you want those five minutes of your life back. It’s just a stand-up routine, but I kept thinking about it.
We vomit up all this information all the time to strangers. It can be a bit much. Also, it was partially in response to the songs I’d been writing on this record. [They] were so personal and I’ve always avoided that sort of navel-gazing thing. I’ve never wanted to be someone that sounds like I’m reading out of my diary. I think I was having a moment of insecurity about the level of vulnerability I was achieving on this record. Maybe I was telling myself, ‘whoa, slow down buddy, no one wants to hear all of this.’
Rock Cellar: I’m sure the fans appreciate your more personal songs like “Close Most of the Time” and the thought-provoking “Human Condition.”
Rhett Miller: There’s a lot of autobiography on this record. My friend Robert, who’s appeared on our songs over the years, said when I played him “Close Most of the Time,” it was ‘the most factually accurate song you’ve ever written.’ Damning me with faint praise.
Rock Cellar: On the quieter, piano-based “I Used to Write in Notebooks,” were you touching upon how everyday life has changed with technology?
Rhett Miller: I was a little bit worried that song would sound like an old man complaining about the modern world. If anything, it’s funny. The modern world brings everything to your fingertips, but it also brings with it this kind of remove — everything is separated by the screen and seems fraudulent because of the delivery system. For the record, I still write in notebooks. I used to, and I still do! [laughs]
Rock Cellar: Next spring, you have a book titled “No More Poems,” listed on Amazon as “a riotous collection of irreverent poems for modern families in the tradition of Shel Silverstein,” coming out. Was that something you’d wanted to do for a while?
Rhett Miller: It’s pretty goofy. My kids were the inspiration for it. The whole idea to begin with was trying to get their attention when I would call in from the road. It’s one thing for me to ask, “How was your day at school?” But if you say, “I wrote a new poem and I need you to tell me what you think about it,” then they’re all in. They can critique me or tell me how it sucks. It was really fun; they were so great. I would not have done it if I didn’t have these kids I was trying to impress
and engage. I’m glad I did. It’s a crazy thing. The publisher seems to be behind it. I landed the greatest illustrator in the world, Caldecott medalist Dan Santat. A brilliant guy.
Rock Cellar: Lately on your Twitter feed, you’ve been teasing fans about an upcoming project announcement involving Rosanne Cash, Rob Thomas, Fred Armisen and Will Forte. When do you plan to spill the beans?
— Rhett Miller (@rhettmiller) December 2, 2018
Rhett Miller: At the top of next year. Any sharp-eyed observer of modern pop culture can probably guess loosely what it’s going to be like. I’m lucky that I get to talk to people about this job we have.
Old 97’s Tour Dates:
Dec. 12 Space Ballroom, Camden, CT
Dec. 13 Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, NJ
Dec. 14 Irving Plaza, New York, NY
Dec. 15 Mr. Smalls Theatre, Millvale, PA
Dec. 28 Mohawk, Austin, TX
Dec. 29 Statler Ballroom, Dallas, TX
Jan. 26 Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, Ponte Vedra, FL (with Shooter Jennings)
March 27 Castle Theatre, Bloomington, IN
March 28 Thalia Hall, Chicago, IL
March 29 Magic Bag, Ferndale, MI
March 30 Vogue Theatre, Indianapolis, IN
Rhett Miller Tour Dates:
Dec. 20 Space, Evanston, IL
Dec. 21 The Back Room at Colectivo Coffee, Milwaukee, WI