The Old 97's have a little secret. The Texas foursome isn't a country band. It might not even be an alternative country band ("whatever that is," as the scene's bimonthly rag, No Depression magazine, would say). For as long as anyone can remember, through three albums released since "Hitchhike to Rhome" (1994), front man Rhett Miller would tell anyone who was willing to listen that the Old 97's are a rock band.
That was always true, but the Old 97's attracted the No Depression cabal because they flirted with standards dear to hardcore country fans like Merle Haggard's songwriting, the Louvin Brothers' harmonies and Bob Wills' Western swing propulsion. Still do. As Dallas writer Robert Wilonsky once said, the band put the "honky" in honky-tonk.
But there was always a little R.E.M, some X, a lotta Clash and all sorts of old rock 'n' roll in the Old 97's mix. "Fight Songs," the band's fourth album, is the first Old 97's record to take another significant step toward the rock. The dusty "Crash on the Barrelhead" and "Let the Idiot Speak" wouldn't sound out of place on Johnny Cash's "Live at Folsom Prison" (which is to say, they wouldn't sound out of place on the first three Old 97's records). From the giddy hand claps in "Oppenheimer" to the sweet lament of "Valentine" to the straight-ahead pop of "Murder (or a Heart Attack)," for the most part "Fight Songs" crackles without affect or twang.
Sometime in the last year, Miller -- who is a seventh-generation Texan -- moved to Los Angeles to be near his girlfriend. He also lost his thick, black eyeglasses, which zealous No Depression devotees cite as some sort of major label conspiracy. The rest of the band -- guitarist Ken Bethea, drummer Philip Peeples and bass player and singer Murry Hammond (who still wears a pair of circular Coke-bottle lenses) -- stayed in Dallas. This interview took place in the New York offices of the Old 97's' record label the morning after the band's first national television appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
Murry's keeping the faith, but Rhett, what happened to your ...
Miller: My glasses, I know. I still have them, but they're really tiny and they fit on my eyeballs.
You're not going L.A.?
Miller: Well, I am sitting back in my chair, and I probably have a cell phone somewhere on my person. No, it was purely logistical.
What does that mean?
Miller: Onstage [with my glasses] I couldn't see the audience or the set list or the guitar neck after about the second song. They'd fog up and crust over with salt. Or they invariably fell off my head and I'd kick them into the drum set.
It seems like something calculated, sort of a marketing maneuver, but it was more logistical than anything.
You guys got lumped in with all of these alt.country bands, or insurgent country, or y'alternative bands and all that. Have those terms outlived their usefulness? At one point you were happy with them ...
Hammond: We're still happy with it.
Miller: It's funny how, again with the glasses, something that's just kind of organic-slash-unbeknownst to you can seem like a maneuver. We got lumped in with those bands, with that genre. It just kind of happened. We thought that we were just this folk band; we didn't know there was such a thing as alternative country.
You were sort of a folk band.
Miller: Yeah. And at the same time there was no such thing as alternative country. Uncle Tupelo had put out records -- of which we were mostly unaware until "Anodyne" .
Hammond: When we first came out, they were just first defining the movement. I think there tends to be a perception that if your music changes you don't associate with the movement or that you're rejecting it. That's not really the case with us. And plus, it's selling the movement short by saying that it's just one thing. What people don't realize is that this alt.country movement is creating a true music community, the likes of which we haven't seen in years. I mean, these artists -- the Jeff Tweedys [of Wilco] -- are going to be playing music and putting records out with pretty much the same identity for themselves. You got a bunch of Joe Elys and Jimmie Dale Gilmores, but you got a young crop of them.
Is that who you look to, those old-school Texas songwriters?
Hammond: It's one of the things. It's not the main thing that I reference.
Miller: Yeah, but I think there's a big difference [between them and us]. I know Ken [Bethea, guitarist] is a big Joe Ely fan.
I'm not saying in terms of influence, I'm saying in terms of a supportive music community, a like-minded ...
Hammond: Yeah, that was our original goal: to be big in our state, then big in our region. We know that the bigger we are, probably the longer we can stay in the game without going crazy.
Miller: Last night we were watching TV and Eve 6 came on the David Letterman show, and I was thinking that among our peer group, our fans, this movement or whatever, there's an emphasis on career, on songs, on traditional American country songwriting and musicianship. I watch bands like Eve 6 or Elektra's Marvelous 3, and they're out there in this much more cynical world. They're trying to be alt.rock.pop for the tattoo-on-the-neck set.
Hammond: In other words, temporary.
You're well known for saying that you're a rock band. Are you still adhering to that?
Hammond: We're a country-rock band, pure and simple.
Miller: If Tom Petty came out as a new artist today, he'd be y'alternative -- even with the disco section on "American Girls." If R.E.M. came out today, they'd be called alternative country.
Let's talk about the new record. It's got sort of a new Old 97's sound and an old Old 97's sound.
Miller: Do you think that they live together?
Hammond: You see, we've been living with that difference for several albums now. There's always one foot in the old and one foot in the new. "Wreck Your Life" (1995) didn't sound like "Hitchhike to Rhome," but it came from the same songwriter.
Miller: When you get down to it, we have been influenced longer by British Invasion music than by country music.
Hammond: We grew up mad for that stuff. I was a little Beatlemaniac at 6. The great thing that works with Old 97's is to be able to combine all of these influences instead of trying to emulate one really specific aspect of rock or whatever.
Miller: Yeah, even to the extent that something I will like a lot, Ken and Murry really don't like. I listened to a lot of Belle & Sebastian this year; I loved that "If You're Feeling Sinister" record. And Murry ended up liking it, but Ken, to this day, makes fun of me for it. He doesn't know it, but there's a lot of that on our record.
That's great to hear you say that, because I've always made that connection. Stuart Murdoch is an amazing, clever songwriter and you're also a really clever songwriter.
Hammond: Rhett's better, though.
Well, there's a lot of wordplay and puns, like down to the title, "Fight Songs."
Miller: I came up with "Fight" and Murry came up with "Fight Songs." I couldn't believe that nobody's fucking called their record that.
I've read that you, Rhett, were really nervous about how people would respond to "Fight Songs" and that Murry was super confident.
Hammond: I was faking it.
Why were you nervous?
Miller: I think most musicians get scared to fucking death as soon as their record's finished.
Hammond: I'll tell you, I was so giddy after recording this record. We've been wanting to get this kind of variety and dynamic since "Too Far to Care" (1997).
Are those traditional roles for you, one nervous and one giddy?
Miller: I get pretty wrecked with self-hatred and all that, maybe more so than anyone else in the band. It's probably chemical.
Hammond: [Draws on an imaginary joint.]
External or internal chemicals?
Miller: No, no, not external chemicals. Not usually. Why, are you offering?
Hammond: Are you holding?
Miller, Hammond: [laugh]
This is my television question -- it would work well on camera: You guys have been playing music in several different bands for at least 14 years and for six years with the Old 97's. The song, "The Wreck of the Old 97," which Johnny Cash used to cover, is a song about going too fast. Have you ever felt that things were moving too fast?
Hammond: I always feel like that.
Hammond: It always feels like when that train is rocking and you're just hanging on to the track.
Miller: I'd never thought of the irony of the name with regards to our career path, which has been a really steady incline. It's good because it's always been building momentum, but it's been very gradual. These guys are all in their 30s, and I'm 29 in September, so we've sowed much of our oats, wild and otherwise. We're kind of boring now.
Is songwriting difficult for you two?
Hammond: It's terribly tough. It's easy for him [looking at Miller]. Don't listen to him.
Miller: When you're growing up it seems like songwriting is this magical, incredible thing and it's two or three verses and one chorus that you can repeat, and every fourth or fifth song a middle-eight. And as long as it's not over three and a half minutes long, as long as nothing gets too funky in there, as long as you don't sabotage your songs by getting too clever for your own good, songwriting isn't that hard. But then again, to keep on writing songs for years and years does seem hard.
Hammond: It's amazing that Rhett's kept such a high level of quality over the years. I think that's the sign of a real lifetime, important artist. I have a terrible time with it. Music comes very easy to me, words come very difficult. And if I wasn't in a band with Rhett it would probably be easier.
Miller: 'Cause I'm always telling him how much he sucks: "Too bad you suck."
Hammond: I think that my lyrics will always have to stand beside Rhett's. Rhett sets the bar and I have to jump it.
Miller: But we're such different people. You come from such a different school. Yours is a more intuitive approach to songwriting.
What do you mean?
Miller: I'll make a little story and work through it and throw in a little clever thing. I feel like there's a self-consciousness to my songs that Murry doesn't have. I mean "Valentine" is such a gut song -- it came from a place where there wasn't any editor. There was just a broken heart and a guy putting it out there.
Hammond: And massive amounts of marijuana.
What's the stupidest thing that anyone's ever said about you?
Hammond: I've read some ridiculous reviews from the corn-pone country people. You know, "These screamin' hillbillies from Texas with their raucous brand of screamin' po-dunk, pick-up truck beer-drinkin' ..."
Miller: Honky-skronkin' ...
Hammond: You think, Jeez, did they listen to the record? My Lord, did they get someone else's record? This time around it's been a lot better.