Old 97's Rhett Miller: "I don’t have to try and make everybody happy all the time"

Exclusive: He opens up about his brutal, revealing and brilliant new Old 97's album, fueled by heartache and booze

By David Daley
Published February 19, 2014 12:00AM (EST)
The Old 97's   (Eric Ryan Anderson)
The Old 97's (Eric Ryan Anderson)

Rhett Miller's songs are about joy and loneliness, about girls named Doreen and Victoria and Salome, about four-eyed girls and Don DeLillo and J.D. Salinger, about T.Rex and Elliott Smith and Loretta Lynn. He's the thoughtful literature lover who has written for McSweeney's and the Atlantic and Salon. He's the generous musician known to show up and play a fan's bachelorette party.

And he is the most messed-up motherfucker in this town. "Most Messed Up" is the title of the new Old 97's album, arriving on April 29, and first listen marks it an instant classic. It is an album steeped in pain -- pain caused to others, pain drowned in whiskey and pills. Also, bad behavior, bad decisions, betrayals, confusion, frustration, madness, some of which is also fueled by, or smoothed over by, drugs and booze. It's life on the road, it's life at home, and none of it is easy.

In the lyrics, I count 11 fucks, seven bottles of whiskey, Jameson, malt liquor. Oh, and orange ones, blue ones, green ones, white ones. One intervention. People drink all the way to the bank and then drink again. They get drunk and get it on. They swim in oceans and oceans of alcohol.

Yes, it has been an emotionally draining time for Miller -- but a liberating one as well, too. Something in the awfulness of the pain gave him the freedom to speak out and speak his mind. And this autobiographical song cycle is his most honest, revealing and often laugh-out-loud funny yet. "I’ve come to a decision where I don’t have to try and be perfect," he said over the phone last week, in an exclusive first interview about the album. "I don’t have to try and be nice. I don’t have to try and make everybody happy all the time."

That's apparent from the very first song, "Longer Than You've Been Alive," which comes right out and admits to the drinking and pills, to how the road can be "a blast and a bore," to butting heads with band mates, and to nights onstage where everyone is checking the clock. That directness sets the tone for a total excavation of the heart, all of it set against a return of the careening, train-wildly-off-the-track beat that will make fans of "Too Far to Care" and other early albums rejoice.

Rhett and I (full disclosure, we've known each other for a decade and I edited his Salon and McSweeney's work) talked about the new album last week; the interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

"Most Messed Up" is a killing machine from start to finish: Raw, focused, honest, drunken, funny, deeply revealing about the challenges and joys and temptations of a life on the road. And it's quite a change from the last Old 97's albums, which were expansive, democratic affairs – three songwriters, 11 styles.

Yeah. It is that. It’s funny, I went to the band with a pile of, like, 30 songs and about half of them were what you were just describing – every song, the song ends and you go: “You can’t sing that!” And then the other half were just these really pretty or sad songs or whatever. More conventional stuff.  At first blush, the band was freaked out. Specific members of the band, especially, were like, “I got kids! I can’t be singing that!” Which I appreciate because it’s so weird to hear my kids walking around the house singing these songs.

“I am the most messed-up motherfucker in this town,” daddy ...

Oh yeah. Well, I’ve been able to hide that one. That one they’ve only heard once or twice. But I caught my 10-year-old son, Max, walking around singing “Wasted” and it’s so weird hearing a 10-year-old singing, “Tonight I want to get wasted with you.” And so I said to him, “Max, that’s kind of inappropriate,” and his line, which is a testament to what a glib con man he’s going to grow up into, was: “Dad, if you didn’t want me to sing it — if it was so inappropriate — you shouldn’t have made it so catchy.”

Hes going to be a critic. Hes doomed to a life of poverty and writing for online magazines.


So you come in with half pretty songs and half crazy rocking honky-tonk songs about a band, life on the road, and one messed-up frontman. And somewhere you made a decision to strip the pretty ones out and focus on the ugly truth. The band gave in?

Yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t finish my thought there. So we actually kind of decided, “I guess we’ll just go with those pretty songs then.” And then about a month later, Ken called me up and goes, “Man, I just finally listened to …”

Oh! I guess I just outed the member of the band that was the most against the cursing.

Ha! I guessed it anyway.

Yeah, of course. Ken called me up and said, “Man, I just listened to these songs and these are the best songs you’ve ever written. Yeah, there’s a lot of cursing in there, but they're still honest and they’re so funny and real.” So he capitulated -- and not only did he capitulate, but he got excited about the idea. “Fuck it, let’s make a record where we drop like 47 f-bombs and talk about sex in every other song -- and whiskey!” You know, it’s not as if our catalog isn’t built on songs about sex and whiskey; we just always made it a little more subtle than that.

So why be so direct now? It’s not just the sex and whiskey. There’s pills and lots of drugs. It’s not the way most bands announce, “Hey, we’ve been together for 23 years. Here’s a new album about sex, drugs and bourbon.”

I’m typically not that interested in getting into personal life stuff because I don’t think it has much to do with the songs. But at this point in my life I’ve come to a decision where I don’t have to try and be perfect. I don’t have to try and be nice. I don’t have to try and make everybody happy all the time. And it was really liberating — that decision — and terrifying. And I think that with my music I’ve always tried so hard to make it kind of pretty, and not necessarily inoffensive, but I don’t want to push too many buttons. I’ve tried to keep it kind of clean and streamlined. This time around I just decided, who I really am is like most people. I am flawed and fucked up -- and I think I just feel like embracing it. I don’t feel like trying to be a perfect person anymore.

So the most messed-up motherfucker is you.

Oh yeah, from the title on down. I’m the most messed up. I’m the most messed-up motherfucker in this town. I’ve tried not to examine my body of work over the years, but I do think there is a theme that runs through it that I feel like the people who like our band and my songs have latched onto — this idea of just kind of being a mess, kind of being a loser. Not a loser. I guess that’s the wrong word. I think that this character that I’ve been toying with, or writing from the perspective of for all these years, is flawed. He’s kind of a mess. Things do not typically work out for the protagonist in my songs -- and it just felt right to amplify that instead of run from it.

Bands tend to get quieter at this point, to retreat a little bit into what works …

I just felt like something of a grand gesture was in order. It would make sense to go out there and do something just different. I’m the youngest guy in the band — and I’m 43 — and it would make a lot more sense for us to fold it up a little bit and go the way of the quiet singer/songwriter/alt-country troubadour/elder statesman.

But we’ve never been that. We’ve always been sort of next wave of whatever outlaw country was at the time. Everybody is singing pretty but we’re getting fucked up and singing about getting fucked up. There’s a reason that we recorded all those years ago with Waylon Jennings and there is a reason he liked our band. I see this record as a torch getting passed years later by the outlaw country guys. We’re still carrying it.

Did you feel like you had gotten off that path a little bit on some of the last records? They were bigger, more expansive, more songwriters chipping in.

Yeah, you know, democracy is fucked because you end up having to make so many people happy. I’ve been proud of the last records, but I see how there is push and pull. There’s Murry who has this idea that we are a garage band, like a Nuggets record, that’s what we need to be. And I think Ken kind of wishes we were a surf band, and Philip, I don’t know. Philip is such a peacemaker; he just wants everybody to be happy. And I vacillate between wanting to make Belle and Sebastian records and wanting to make — God, that’s such an old reference now — you know, wanting to do kind of honky-tonk stuff.

So there is a lot of pushing and pulling and it’s funny, because with this stack of songs, it sort of addressed everyone’s desire. It really rocks; it leaves a lot of room for a big surf guitar; and it’s got a lot of garage band elements. At its heart, it’s kind of a honky-tonk record, and then there are these beautiful moments that happen inevitably when you get the harmony happening or a middle break.

It wasn’t necessarily by design, but as it started to unfold, and once Ken, for instance, embraced the idea of going there … I think we all really got into this idea that we were making something that was really different and raw and honest, once Ken decided that he was going to go to his teenage son and say, “Look, grown-ups deal with a lot of heavy-duty shit; maybe Rhett’s going through a lot, maybe these songs are addressed to people who aren’t all happiness all the time.”

It has the spirit of "Let It Be"-era Replacements, and indeed, Tommy Stinson plays guitar on several songs.

The Tommy Stinson thing was really by accident. We had decided to go this direction, and we were in Dallas working up the songs and really having fun and then I got a text from Tommy that Guns n’ Roses was in Dallas and that I should come and see the show.

That's how a good story starts.

Yes. I went to the show, stayed up late with them, and got, of course, super-wasted. So much so that when I got back to my hotel room, when I was trying to take my shoes off, I thought I was going to sit on the bed. I missed the bed and broke my elbow.

And that's how a night with Guns n' Roses ends. It could have messed up your signature guitar move!

Well, it wound up not being a fracture, but I ended up in a sling for two weeks and it was super-messed up. So I called Tommy and I said we have one more day of pre-production on this record, why don’t you come and be the rhythm guitarist -- because I can’t after you got me so wasted. The way he plays guitar is different, obviously, from the way I play it or the way Ken plays it. It really is part of the ‘Mats thing, it’s this loose, kind of lively, sloppy, fun, guitar. That angle really added to some of the songs. He only played on five of the songs, but having him in the equation just added an element of wheels-off insanity, you know, true rock 'n' roll to it.

But for all the true rock 'n' roll, you make a point in "Longer Than You've Been Alive" of ruling out the serious drugs. "Mountains of weed a handful of pills / None of the hard stuff, that shit kills."

Well, I honestly believe that, and it’s been one of the things in our band that we’ve stuck to. There was a producer we were going to work with, who I won’t name, but who was going to be the producer of “Too Far to Care” and ended having to back out. And I don’t think it was because of this demand that I made, but I made a demand early on in the process where I said, “When we go into the studio, I don’t want any cocaine or any of that shit because, you know, I don’t want to be the kind of the band that ends because of drugs.” To me, there’s such an obvious difference between weed or booze and stuff like that. I remember an interview where they asked Joe Strummer: Do you smoke weed in front of your kids? And he said no, not while they’re this young, because they’re not old enough to differentiate between good drugs and bad drugs. I don’t want them to go out and do heroin or blow.  So I put that line in completely sincerely. I mean, there’s a reason we’ve been a band with all four members and we’ve all stayed alive -- because we’ve been able to exercise moderation.

You wouldnt know it from some of these songs! The line before that references oceans and oceans of alcohol?

You know, 20 years is a long time! (laughs)

How did Longer Than Youve Been Alive start? Its obviously such a big centerpiece and statement about where this album is going to go. Is that the first song that you wrote of this cycle?

No, the song that sort of started the ball rolling on the “Most Messed Up” stack of songs was really weird. It was a trip to Nashville that my publishers at the time sent me on to co-write with this guy who had a few national hits, like Reba McEntire-type songs. It’s this guy Jon McElroy. He’s an old school, Nashville songwriter. As I was following him up to his songwriting room, he said, “Man, I’ve been checking you out on YouTube and I think your audience would really appreciate it if you would just walk out there and just say, “fuck.”

And I thought, wow. It’s kind of an echo of something. When I was a kid, my mom worked for this psychologist who was a charismatic, brilliant guy and the line he had about me -- that I overheard him telling her -- that has always stuck in my head, was, “Rhett will be fine when he can walk up to me and say, ‘Fuck you, Dr. Hubbard.'” I’ve always tried to be such a nice guy. You know, that’s like the last thing I would ever say to anybody. I would never put these sentiments in these songs so forthrightly -- and to have Jon McElroy say that to me, well, the song we wrote in the next two hours was the story of this really frustrated guy who’d done bad shit, but was just trying to figure it out, just trying to do the right thing. It really opened the floodgates for me. I felt like, OK, it’s all right to go there. So this record is definitely about going there.

Once I had opened the floodgates and decided that I could write this suite of songs that was kind of self-referential, kind of a meditation of what it means to be in this life of music, in this life in general … I remember I was on an airplane headed back from a trip and then it just came out, the final lyrics of that song were the original lyrics.

It feels like it rushed out in one swoop.

It just poured out and it was so much fun to write. I didn’t have a guitar, I was just writing in rhymes, in couplets, and assuming I could find a way to set it to music. So I just wrote it, and when it was over I read through it and I was just laughing my ass off on the airplane. I was laughing because I can’t believe I wrote this -- and I can’t believe it took me this long to write this.

I published a tour diary you wrote many years ago, and I remember thinking it was one of the most honest pieces of writing I'd ever read, not only because it talked about how dull life on the road can be, how you end up doing your own laundry in some cities, but also in that sometimes your band mates can really annoy you. And of course they can. We have this sense that a band is this group of brothers, and well, like any brothers, or like anyone you work with for 20 years, sometimes you don't get along. I was reminded of that with the line "20 good years of about 25," which is very funny.

Thanks. That one goes by so fast and to me I think it’s such a funny punch line, but not a single person yet has mentioned it till you.

Nobody mentioned it in the band?

No, we don’t give a shit. But that was sort of inspired by my day with Jon McElroy. He and his wife have been married for a long time and they were smoking their cigarettes and telling me about their life together. And he goes, “We’ve been married about 20 years, but, you know, about 15 good years.” So I stole the line from him.

The guys were really cool about it. I wondered about the line, “I might butt heads with the guys in my band.” But I think they were like, “Well, duh!” They know better than anyone what I’m talking about.

I remember when I was working with Jon Brian on “The Instigator,” he laid down one of his rules -- he can’t stand it when songs and songwriters reference songs and songwriting. That’s a pet peeve of his. And I’ve always remembered that -- just because I lived in that world and that’s what I do and think about all the time, doesn’t mean I have to be talking about it in the songs or writing about it or dwelling on it. It takes people out of the experience; the songs should be more universal. It should be applicable to any job or any moment in someone’s life. But because this record what so specifically a record about being in a rock band for all these years and living this crazy life, I sort of let myself go there. I did feel like I needed to address, “Yes, I understand that I am crossing an imaginary line, but fuck it.”

There's also a handful of songs on the album where you take on critics or haters, and make a point of saying you've never worked in an office or for the man. Is that aimed at anything in particular?

I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on aggregating artists’ power and the creators of content on the Internet and beyond, and trying to figure out how to address the demonetization and devaluing of these things we create. Of which, I’m sure, you’re completely aware.

One of the functions of that is it makes it harder and harder for people who do what I do to make a living, so inevitably, I wonder: What else could I do?” And the problem/awesome thing is when I forfeited my full scholarship to Sarah Lawrence, got a gold tooth and made all these choices that would make it impossible for me to ever have a square job -- I didn’t want a safety net. I wanted the opposite. I wanted no other option but to succeed with this idea that I could make a living creating art -- and that I could spend my life getting paid to sing and dance and make up rhyming couplets.

The other night we did a gig in Dallas that was a benefit for a school in Dallas. It wound up being a lot of parents whom I had gone to school with years ago, who now had kids in this school and who were also so wealthy. Oh my God! The money that they were dropping on this silent auction, like $18,000 for their kid to be headmaster for a day.

Anyone with that much money deserves to have it taken away from them.

I’m literally thinking, well, that’s great! I gotta figure out how I’m not gonna bounce the check that I’m writing for, whatever, my mortgage. So I’m onstage and I’m laughing because these people, any one of them, could buy and sell me 10 times over -- and yet I know they’re all sitting there thinking, “I wish I had his life.” I mean, I’m not patting my own back, but I talked to enough of them that I know they think my life is so much cooler than all of theirs. And it’s probably true, but it’s so funny -- I’m jealous of their dough and they're jealous of my actual life. And you know, they should be, it’s pretty fuckin’ fun.

It's not all fun: "Wheels Off" goes to a very raw place, but "This Is the Ballad" is the one that knocks me over. "This is the ballad of long conversations / Heavy with silence and shuddering breaths / You’re self-destructing your voice is all shaken / My reservations are all I have left." That's the sound of self-destruction and collapse. How hard is it to lay that out, to make it clear you're not hiding behind a character, and then to have to take it city to city and relive it every night?

It’s not easy to do this job but there is such a fun upside to it. It would be easy to just hide behind the idea of fiction and protagonists and all that stuff, but everything that maybe anyone writes -- and certainly that I ever write -- is some version of me. But it’s tough to walk out onstage and have to sort of relive things every night and do it for the sake of the audience and for the sake of the show. If it’s something I’m reliving that I’m not necessarily proud of then I deserve it to have to relive it. Maybe that's some sort of therapy for me.

You can hear a new sampler from the album in this video:

David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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