Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rhett Miller interview

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. Miller plays the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Wednesday, Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana on Thursday and the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Friday. Photo courtesy of

Anyone who’s witnessed a Rhett Miller performance (either solo or as longtime front man for alt-country darling Old 97’s), can attest to his charisma and boundless energy onstage. It’s not unusual for Miller to battle laryngitis – especially when he gets down to the San Diego area.

“For some reason, the Belly Up is always one of the last shows on the tour for me. A couple times, I’ve showed up there with no voice. It’s one of the only places where people have not only asked for their money back, but said, ‘his voice is not supposed to sound like that.’ Honestly, they were right,” admitted the singer/guitarist via phone from a noisy hometown eatery in the Hudson River Valley area of New York.

The recurring problem shouldn’t crop up next week though. “I’m excited the Solana Beach date is first on this run.” Miller, 39, is supporting last summer’s acclaimed third solo album. Material from both facets of his career will be represented in the live set. “The fun of it is we’re able to take Old 97’s songs, really switch ‘em up and try different things.”

Partially inspired by two deaths that impacted him (grandmother Narene, literary idol David Foster Wallace), half of the self-titled effort has a more somber adult rock scope than 2006’s power pop-leaning “The Believer.” Miller’s original plan was to make an all acoustic “campfire record,” evidenced by such stark, intimate tunes as “Bonfire,” “Lashes” and “Sometimes.”

A stylistic shift occurred after John Dufilho (Apples in Stereo) provided rhythmic input. “Once we built up from the drums, some songs became huge, loud epic things. I was surprised, but if you start making rules and aren’t allowed to break them, it winds up being bad for everybody.”

Futuristic barnburner “Happy Birthday, Don’t Die” - a rave up about an elderly woman from a distant planet - and the Buddy Holly-styled “If It’s Not Love” are standouts.

“I’m glad there are moments of real space and quiet to balance out the frenetic insanity… a whole record of [subdued], strumming stuff could be boring and forgettable. Maybe it’s better to have the whole spectrum represented.”

The countrified “Another Girlfriend” dates back more than a decade (Miller unsuccessfully lobbied for placement on several Old 97’s discs). Like “Birthday,” it is an example of the Austin native’s shrewd humor shining through.

“That’s tricky. If you try too hard to be funny in a song, usually it falls flat. ‘Another Girlfriend’ walks a fine line and I had to pare it down.” His knack for lyrical alliteration also turns up in strategic places (“I Need to Know Where I Stand,” “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore”).

“It’s nice to have elements of that in music, but I also have to be conscious that music is not literature and you can’t too brainy because really, it’s a visceral thing.”

“Over the last few years, I’ve been reading more than ever,” Miller continued. “I’ve had this long term life plan to segue into writing [in depth] at some point. I’m about 5 ½ chapters into a mystery novel - nothing fancy. I don’t know if it will even come out. That’s a dream of mine and a big passion.”

Literary pursuits have been important for this musician since a young age. Following private school graduation in 1989, he briefly attended the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College on scholarship, then left to record an independent solo album with future Old 97’s guitarist Murry Hammond. The pair formed the group in 1993. “ Murray brought a strong country element and I had fun writing barroom songs early on; I still do a little bit.”

Signed to Elektra Records, “our mantra was, ‘we want a career. We would gladly trade a hit single for a string of albums that were well received and beloved by fans.’ At the time, I remember thinking, ‘is this just lip service?’ Even then, the climate of major labels was starting to get scary and I figured we needed to make some big waves or else we wouldn’t be able to keep it going. The good thing was we did what we wanted – make a bunch of records and maintain a really strong fan base."

Seven studio albums later, Old 97’s are still going strong. Miller said a bunch of projects are planned this year, including a new band effort and solo album, plus two covers collections from each (his “Live at Largo” was recorded at the popular LA nightclub in 2008).

“You don’t stop. Like a shark, you just gotta keep swimming.”

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