Interview: Rhett Miller on surviving as a musician, the importance of the song, and what’s next for Old 97’s
Back in the early ’90s when grunge, punk, and alternative rock were exploding across the mainstream, there was something a little different brewing in Texas. Country music at the time was entering the beginnings of its current mainstream pop phase with artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Trisha Yearwood reaching their artistic peak. On the other side of that realm were a few bands going back to country’s roots while putting a modern spin on it. Dallas’ Old 97’s fit the latter category as one of those bands that pioneered the alt-country style, and their frontman, Rhett Miller plays the Boston area this weekend.
Miller will be taking the stage at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville this Saturday with support from ex-Golden Palominos member Syd Straw. Before this weekend’s festivities, Vanyaland had a chat with Miller about the unique start of his career, folk music’s resurgence in popularity, his most recent solo album, 2015’s The Traveler, and the internet’s effect on the music industry.
Rob Duguay: Your music career has taken an interesting path in the sense that you started your solo career when you were 19 in 1989 with the album Mythologies. You then started the band Sleepy Heroes in 1990 with future Old 97’s bassist Murray Hammond before starting The Old 97’s in 1993. Did you originally want to just be a solo artist or were you always wanting to be in a band but it just took a little while for it all to come together?
Rhett Miller: I grew up exposed to a lot of folk music from my parents. Stuff like the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan were the models for me when I started, I really loved rock and roll and I really loved a lot of British music along with the ’80s underground like Aztec Camera that was kind of acoustic-based to begin with. I was also a huge David Bowie fan and when I started it just made sense for me to play by myself because I was writing these songs that were self-contained folk songs. It was funny too because I played in the Dallas scene opening for a lot of punk rock bands. I opened for Redd Kross and the Lords Of The New Church and when these bands would come through town they would stick me on the bill at a punk rock club or a rock and roll club and there would be teenage me playing a 12-string acoustic guitar opening for a rock and roll band or a punk rock band.
I really loved that — but I did see at the time the power and the weight a band could carry that was so much greater than a solo artist. I really love both, to this day I see the viability of both mediums. When you get up on stage with a rock band it creates this loud, larger than life communal feeling that extends into the audience. When you stand up by yourself by definition it creates this very intimate moment that also extends into the audience. I’m really lucky that I get to have the best of both worlds, I get to be in a rock band that plays in front of big crowds every once in a while and I also get to play as a solo artist where the crowd can be hundreds of people but it still becomes this intimate moment where you can tell a story and sing a song. Sometimes you can tell a story in the middle of a song and it’s cool, there’s a lot to be said for both of those.
You have different dynamics coming from different settings of music from playing solo and with a band. You just mentioned how you grew up with a lot of folk music and from your time with The Old 97’s you’re considered one of the pioneers of the ’90s alt-country movement along with bands like Wilco, Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks and a bunch of others. That style of music has experienced a bit of a resurgence with a new wave of bands playing folk and country infused rock music this decade. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Shovels and Rope and Leon Bridges are acts that come to mind. What’s your opinion on folk, country, and Americana in general making a comeback in the 2010s?
It’s been fun to see the timelessness of lyric-based, roots-based music. The idea that a song can exist just by playing an acoustic guitar with one dude singing it or one chick singing it. It can also be a large group of people playing together but the heart of it is the song. It’s not based on loops, it’s not based on something you made from a computer or a sequencer, it’s just a song. It really harks back to the earliest days of western music when songs were used in a similar way as newspapers to tell the stories of the time, the oral tradition. In my mind it’s kind of never gone away but it is interesting to see now that there’s a new fresh wave of bands coming up and being taken really seriously doing what I think of as timeless, American-song-based music.
Folk music has always been around and it’s definitely one of the most enduring styles of American music, that’s for sure. Your latest solo effort The Traveler was recorded with Black Prairie, featuring Chris Funk, Nate Query, Jenny Conlee, and John Moen from the Decemberists. What was it like working with them on the album?
With Black Prairie, the musicianship is insane. They’re so good at their instruments and they’ve played together for so long that they’re this really organic unit, they’re like a little musical army. To get to join them and to slip right into their ranks was a very cool thing. My solo career has been separated from my band career with that I’m one guy having to make all the decisions, hire the personnel and be the actual leader of everything that’s going on where as in the Old 97’s I’m a member of a democracy and part of a larger whole. When I got to work with Black Prairie it was the first time in my solo work that I felt like I was in a band, which was very cool. We had played together and we got along really well prior to collaborating so when it was time to go into the studio it fell right into place. They’re fantastic and I’m really proud of that record.
Black Prairie brought an interesting dynamic to the album as well. They’re not your typical folk band, they bring out a lot of different elements and it’s noticeable in The Traveler. These days, music has become more accessible than ever because of the internet. You can go online, stream an album, not have to pay for it and just listen to it. You can stream it as much as you want for as long as you want. As a musician who started out in the early ’90s, a time that some people consider the last hurrah of the value of recorded music, do you feel that it’s more difficult to make a living as a musician these days than 20 years ago?
I don’t think it’s ever been easy to make a living making music and that’s probably a good thing in the sense that the people who are making music should be doing it because they love to make music or they have no real other choice in their life. The bad thing about the old business model was that it offered this sense of possibility for like a lottery situation where you could put out a shitty record but it could be pushed by the right people at the right time and you could get rich doing it. The fact that has disappeared from the equation only makes music better, but it is hard and it’s always been hard to make a living making music. That’s why music has always been such a young man’s game because when you’re young the stakes are lower. You don’t have kids, you don’t have a mortgage, and the whole world’s in front of you.
For myself I was able to live off of ramen noodles and tap water in my 20s and that was it. I didn’t crack $20,000 a year until after I turned 30 and that was fine. I didn’t mind living in squalor, in fact I reveled in it and I think it made me a better artist. To be a creative person it helps to be hungry. It’s really hard to make a living making music and probably more so now than ever but it’s also easier to reach people, it’s easier to connect on a one to one basis with your fans and it’s easier to record the music that you hear in your head. The downside again to that is you get more people recording more music, I’m not positive that it’s a downside but it makes it more difficult to get people’s attention. Nothing good is easy, the best things in life are hard and that’s OK because you should have to work really hard to make something beautiful and you should have to work really hard to do something extraordinary. Otherwise, what’s the point?
If you don’t put your all into something then it’s just a waste of time. After the show on Saturday at Once, what do you have planned for the rest of the year? Do you plan on going back into the studio with the Old 97’s or do you plan on staying on the road?
The Old 97’s right now are putting on the finishing touches with sequencing and mastering on the album that will come out around the beginning of next year. The problem is that the election is coming up and the record was originally going to come out at the beginning of October but our management made the call that putting it out two weeks before the election would be kind of a bad idea because it would be like a black hole in terms of publicity.
With that happening it looks like the record won’t be coming out until the beginning of next year which is frustrating for me because the songs are so good and it’s done and I just want it to be out already. I’ve never been terribly patient so I’m using this time to objectively learn how to be patient. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a solo record and I’ve already got the songs for that. I’m going to work on writing fiction, that’s something that has been driving me and I’d really like to segue into writing more and more fiction as I get older. I’m going to keep on playing a lot of shows, the Old 97’s got a bunch more shows sprinkled throughout the calendar year and I got a lot of solo shows I’m playing to keep the lights on at home.