Here is more from my chat with Miller, who was very forthcoming and a pleasure to speak with.
What can fans look forward to during this brief West Coast run with your solo band, the Serial Lady Killers?
We’ve got a list of 30-35 songs that that band is comfortable playing. It’s a good mix of Old 97s songs and solo songs. It’s really fun.
While on tour with the Old 97s last year, you also did an opening set of your solo material. Did that take a lot of stamina?
No, it’s kind of not that big of a deal. [For the first couple weeks], I thought it was really going to beat me down, but it was fun. The solo set doesn’t get too crazy. The Old 97s don’t play quite as long as we used to play, which was 2½ hours. Now, it’s just under two hours.
The self-titled 2009 album has been out a little over six months now. Are you satisfied with how it turned out and has been perceived overall?
I don’t know if anyone’s ever satisfied. I mean, it would’ve been nice if it had gone triple platinum. The reviews were some of the best I’d gotten in years and years. Right now is a weird time to be making art because there’s so much noise and it’s so hard to cut through. There’s so many things that are made, I think, to take money out of people’s wallets. If you’re trying to make something high quality, then someone walks in with a bunch of junk that’s just garbage. It is what it is. The landscape may be over-crowded, but I really don’t have a choice. This is the time we live in. But I was proud [of the album] and feel I’ll be able to play songs off it the rest of my life. But I’m never satisfied.
Was it easier having a longtime friend like Salim in the studio to produce as opposed to someone you don’t know at all?
Absolutely. I’ve discovered I liked working with Salim so much, it’s going to make it hard working with anyone else. He really is my friend and...gets good performances out of people and creates a good environment. And then there's the sonic stuff – he makes beautiful sounds. To be able to go in and make music you think is really great with someone you enjoy spending time with is a big thing. It’s not a gimme. I’ve made records where there was a lot of tension in the air. That’s never fun.
The musicians who played in the studio all had past production experience. Did that prompt you to solicit their opinions more than you would other studio guys?
Oh yeah. It was like getting four producers for the price of one. Also, pretty much everybody, we were all good friends. John Dufilho, Billy Harvey and even the little bit of input we got from the great Jon Brion, we’ve known each other for a long time. There wasn’t that having to figure out how to talk to each other, like ‘why don’t you try this?’ ‘I don’t know. It sounds like crap.’ It was great.
In one interview you said, ‘there was a fundamental difference in the way you approached writing and recording this CD.’ How so?
When I was writing the songs, it was kind of like that thing where you don’t want to feel dumb and put yourself out there too much. I don’t care. I’m at a point now where I’m not gonna feel dumb. I know I’m good at what I do. I know I do this certain thing and some people might not like it, but I love it and am proud of it. I’m just gonna do it and it’s not as if I’ve listened to criticism that much or let it affect me much. The times that I have have been detrimental. I really felt like there was a weight off my shoulders. I was going to make this record however I wanted and if people don’t like it, then fine.
Lyrically, some songs are darker than we’re used to hearing, but you leaven that with upbeat arrangements. Was it hard to find the right balance?
That’s a trick I’ve been pulling for a lot of years. I feel I’m getting better at doing it. To me, it’s like a necessary treatment of a song that has a heavy subject matter of something darker. I don’t want to go out there and be the guy that’s like ‘give me the blue light, dammit.’ And make everybody sit there and endure some excruciating retelling of some horrible moment in my life, presented in a way that’s appropriately depressing. I mean, the whole point of being an entertainer is entertaining. If I’m going to hit ‘em with something heavy, I’m going to sugarcoat it and make it sonically fun.
‘Haphazardly’ dates back several years, right?
Yeah and that’s one where I didn’t really try and sugarcoat it. I just let it be the sort of depressing opus that it is. I like that. I remember playing that at Largo in Hollywood a lot and people have always really liked it. For some reason, it was a song that girls always related to and said ‘that made me cry.’
When you’re in LA and have some free time, do you still check out shows at Largo?
Oh my gosh, yes. It’s one of the big things I miss. Now it’s the new Largo and it’s different, but every time I go to LA, the trip isn’t complete if I don’t go to Largo. I really love it and I see Flanagan’s vision. It’s weird; I miss the old Largo. But I have a ‘Live at Largo’ record coming. Around the time of ‘The Interpreter,’ I did a bunch of cover songs the month before the old club closed down. I recorded all the shows and I’m going to put a record out.
How has fatherhood affected your songwriting?
What I’ve learned to do is just write amid the confusion of life in the living room. I’ll just sit at the dining room table and the kids will be running around and everybody will be screaming, my wife will be on the phone. It’s almost as good as being by yourself in a quiet room because nobody’s paying any attention to you. Because writing a song, you try out a million things that sound ridiculous before you hit on something that sounds good. You have to feel unselfconscious. There’s a certain point with the family household where nobody cares what I’m doing. It’s a nice anonymity.
Did being a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work influence your writing at all? You include a quote in the liner notes from ‘Infinite Jest.’
Oh gosh. He’s written some of my favorite books in the world and I’ve always said he was my favorite author. Since he committed suicide, it seems kind of sad to say that. There’s something about his writing that to me contains so much heart. There’s so much real emotion at the core of the stuff he did. It can be so complicated and weird and dense but there’s a really big heart. I’ve lays believed you could do anything you want, but if it doesn’t resonate from a real place coming from a human being, then it’s just going to sound like a bunch of words together. So I try to take that to the music as well. There have been times when I’ve had record label executives ask me to write a song about walking on sunshine or everything seems great. I can’t just do that. It would sound so disingenuous.
Not everyone can write to order.
I actually love to write to order in a way. If I get asked to do a movie and they show me a scene, I’ll get inspired by it. But I have to bring it home. I have to watch it and figure out how I relate to it and what in my life it reminds me of. Like ‘all the No. 1 songs in the country have this progression, so we want you to do that.’ Whatever. That’s not how it works.
Despite the lack of a big hit album by the Old 97’s, are you content with how your career with them has gone?
I don’t regret anything we’ve done and I’m pretty proud of it because it’s hard to do. I know we were beneficiaries of a major label system that was for the most part still intact and had millions of dollars poured into the marketing of our band. We rode the last wave of that business model. We’re very lucky in that respect because we were able to ride it without having it crash on our heads. We never had to apologize for or live down anything. I know Third Eye Blind put out a record recently. I saw them on TV and it was hard not to feel sorry for them. I wouldn’t trade places in a million years with those guys.