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Rhett Miller of Old 97's Talks New Album 'American Primitive,' R.E.M. Connections, Intuitive Songwriting and 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

'My bandmates are very opinionated and very ornery and that's what makes our sound our sound. And I think that's a good thing.'

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Source: Alysse Gafkjen

Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Philip Peeples.

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For some, the soundtrack to life unfolds on dusty Texas highways, fueled by equal parts heartache and hope. That's the world the Old 97's have been painting in song for over 30 years. Led by the ever-eloquent Rhett Miller, their music transcends genres, weaving tales of love lost and found, small-town dreams, and the bittersweet beauty of chasing something bigger. Whether it's a raucous singalong or a quiet moment of reflection, the band Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples – have a way of soundtracking the messy, magnificent journey we all call life.

In a welcome return to form, the band unleash their raw energy on American Primitive, their thirteenth studio album (via ATO Records). Miller describes it as a "de-evolution," a full-hearted embrace of the band's rootsy, rock and roll spirit. This isn't an album for mellow moments; it's a collection of songs meant to be cranked up, windows down, as you chase the open road, wherever that leads.

Q caught up with Miller over Zoom in the Hudson Valley region of New York, getting ready for the album's release, the band's tour and slight detours off-road to Texas and a cosmic place called Knowhere.

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I came across this in the press release: "Little did you know Jerry Lee Lewis and Leonard Cohen had a bunch of bastard children that were raised in a dumpster behind a bar in Amarillo, and their name are the Old 97's."

Is that the Rainn Wilson quote? I love him!

Are you guys pals?

The first time Rainn and I ever hung out, he hired the Old 97's to play for him and his wife on a ship for their anniversary. It was just a private gig that we got hired for. We were all excited because we thought Rainn was cool and he and I hit it off. That was like 15 years ago and we've stayed friends. He asked a couple of years ago if I'd be willing to start a fantasy football league with him. Which is so dumb. [Laughs] But it's all these comedians and writers playing fantasy football and I won it the first year! So I'll always have that, which is pretty fun.

One other fun thing: how long did the band spend in the chairs for the makeup and prosthetics for The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special?

Every day was a solid three-plus hours in the morning, getting our heads glued on because every one of us had multiple pieces of latex. So they would have to put bald caps on us and then glue all the pieces of latex on. And they were one-shot deals! Like every day! We'd finish shooting and they would have to spend another hour removing the latex. It was insane! And they throw it away!

Source: ℗ © Concord Music Publishing LLC/Old 97s/YouTube

I Don't Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime Is Here) (From "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special"/Soundtrack Version)

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I have to ask, how did that gig come up?

James Gunn is somebody that I met a long time ago, back when he was just doing indie horror movies. He and I became friends over the years, stayed in touch. I got to watch his ascent, which has been fun because he's so talented and so driven, and such a smart, cool guy, and clearly has excellent taste in music. For instance, when I stopped by the Suicide Squad set in Peachtree, Georgia, they had built a rainforest inside of a warehouse. Every time somebody would come out of this rainforest, whether it was Idris Elba or John Cena, or one of these, you know, famous Hollywood stars, he would say, "This is Rhett Miller. He sings in the greatest rock and roll band in the world!" And I just kept looking at him going, "You really think that don't you?" And so finally, at the end of the day after watching him do this incredible, high-level, Hollywood art, I told him, "Look, if there's ever anything you want me for, I admire you so much, and I would be up for whatever you have in mind." I felt kind of stupid saying it, but I decided I just would put myself out there.

Two months later he called, and he said, "I wanna write a song. I was wondering... you'll play an alien in this show, and then you and I write a song about how your alien character doesn't understand Christmas." And so we spent the next month writing about seven versions of that song, each one a little less chaotic and offensive than the previous one. Disney kept giving us notes going, "What are you doing? You can't sing about Santa having kids’ blood on his beard!" They were pretty gross, the early versions. Someday I'll release all of those.

Then there's the interaction with Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, and you sing the word "flamethrower" and he's absolutely mortified.

It was fun writing it with James, too, because for somebody that's so accomplished in one field, to force them to work in a completely different field, it was really fun. But then sometimes I'm having to talk him through some of the basics of songwriting. I got to boss him around, is my point, which very few people in the world get to do.

qoldsalysse gafkjen
Source: Alysse Gafkjen

'American Primitive' is the band's 13th studio album.

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You've got American Primitive coming out. It sounds like there’s some heavy nostalgia going on here. But you're not necessarily being forlorn or moody.

Nostalgia is something that never interested me. Our guitar player Ken Bethea is an incredible storyteller. He can hold forth for hours on end with stories of our early career. But I feel like all of us are pretty focused on what's next. What are we doing right now? That's part of why we've been able to stay together and put records out for 30 years. But "Where The Road Goes," that song specifically, it's not even like the whole record leans into it. But that song is such a moment of looking back that it lent itself to this. My wife had just unearthed all this footage that she had shot 20-plus years ago. She'd been trying to figure out what to do with it, and that song really felt like an opportunity to acknowledge this accomplishment of having stayed together and stayed creative and relevant for 30 years.

Do listeners discover you as a new band, say, from the Guardians special, and then realize, holy heck! You've been around this long?

Yeah, it happens a lot. I find most of the younger fans that show up at our gigs are showing up because they're second-generation fans, and it's really sweet to see. My daughter’s about to graduate high school. My son's already off to college. All the Old 97's are about to be empty nesters, so it makes sense that our audience would also have adult children. They're constantly showing up with their kids. People are finding their way to us.

One of the only good things about the streaming platforms, is that it de-emphasizes the chronology. Whereas in the past with old records, I would have to find them in a dusty record bin. They were literally dusty and dog-eared and gross, and they looked like they belonged to some ancient society. Whereas now, our earliest records fit alongside our newest records. And kids can find and listen to them. Nothing is stigmatized necessarily, for when it came out or how long it's been out in the world, so it lets everything be fresh, which I think is kind of great.

Source: ℗ © BMG Rights Management/Old 97's/YouTube

Old 97's - Designs On You - Tonight Show - 7-18-01

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I watched a video you did with Murry and Ken, where you went to Amoeba Records [in Los Angeles], and you found R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction. But nowadays, there’s an opportunity for an artist to put out different versions in colored vinyl of their album at release. We're missing that dog-eared version. How do you feel about that?

Well, fortunately for me, I don't have to worry too much about the commerce of it. In fact, I had a meeting the other day with the head of our record label, John Salter, who has impeccable taste. At some point he was telling me that he really likes the Old 97’s, but he's always been really glad about our P&L. And our P&L this and our P&L that. Finally I had to say, "Dude, what is P&L?" He goes, "Oh, profits and loss!" I was, "Oh, of course you would have to think about that, because here, it's a business."

But for me, I'm excited that people love vinyl. I've got a vinyl player in my living room and I think it's great. It's fun to put a record on. But I've never worried that much about the delivery mechanism for this stuff. I can't honestly worry about social media. It’s a bridge too far for me. I don't wanna worry about what content I’m creating. Am I putting out enough? How does it reflect? I'm glad the kids seem to get excited about it. I'm glad it gives the record label an opportunity to make more "P's" than they do "L's." But I can't think about it too much. I just gotta think about verses, choruses, lyrics and bridges.

Source: ℗ © BMG Rights Management/Old 97's/YouTube

Old 97's "Longer Than You've Been Alive" | Sidewalk Sessions

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For American Primitive, you’ve said there was zero pre-production. Was that the case or was that you collaborating with your producer?

We had different plans going in. I knew we wanted to switch up the producer. Vance Powell has done our last few records. But we wanted to switch it up with a different style of producer who's more artsy-fartsy, hands-on and will talk about lyrics and arrangements, whereas Vance is more about capturing sounds. So we decided on Tucker Martine. I really liked him, but the schedules got a little complicated and we just didn't really have time for pre-production. I fretted about it for a minute, and then I realized, what sets us apart from all the other bands? We've been together 30 years, and honestly, I thought if we were to go in without pre-production, which we normally would never do, would that psychic link take over and make something that was less thought-out and more instinctive and intuitive? I thought, "Let's really use that this time." I feel like it made our record more visceral and immediate and more human.

As soon as I saw Tucker's name on this, I was like "I wonder what this is gonna sound like?" He's got a very specific bunch of people that he's worked with.

I'm friends with a lot of the folks that he's worked with. I knew that we would get along. We had some phone calls where I could tell he was in our band. Tucker's very much that in his style, he's really relaxed, and he wants the band to feel comfortable and happy.

With "Where the Road Goes," we chopped it down a lot and it's still over four minutes long. I'm in one of the internet groups that is sort of a baseball-centric, rock and roller email chain. A couple of the guys on that thread had records coming out the same day as me. Joe Pernice and Patrick Carney from Black Keys. They both have records coming out that same day as us. Their new records are both two and a half minutes. I was thinking, "Oh, man! Once again, going in the wrong direction for the market." But that's what Old 97's do!

Source: ℗ © Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea/Old97s/YouTube

Old 97’s - Where The Road Goes (Official Video)

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In almost every genre that I'm listening to nowadays there is complete stoppage of the song. This really weird trend. Are you aware of this?

So, there's a few things that are happening right now. I've got a songwriting retreat that I'm doing annually in the Catskills. I've gone to Arizona State University and taught. I've done some workshops and I really love it. But I've never been in the academic world. So I'm suddenly having to pay attention to the TikTok-ification of music. It’s real, and it has to do with the way stuff has to be bite-size. The way we have to start with a chorus where that's always been an option, but it's never been a necessity. And not something that I would ever necessarily think about. But you start with the chorus. Start big. Don't ever bore them. That's why so many pop songs, when it gets to where the second verse would normally be, that's where you introduce another vocalist: "Oh, you're about to get bored. Don't get bored! Don't get bored! Here's a brand new singer coming in!"

I think probably the hard stop, the bass drop... these are all the things that excite. And I could see why that would be a trick that people are using a lot. I typically tend to be a little bit wary of tricks. But they work for a reason.

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Source: ℗ © Burgermeister Music, Sc Mosswagon Music Co/Rhett Miller/YouTube

Rhett Miller - Go Through You (Official Video)

How important is it to be able to do solo projects and, like you said, still be friends with each other? I imagine that's a good thing?

I don't know if I’d be able to stay in this band for 30 years if I didn't have the outlet of the solo albums. I write so many songs. My bandmates are very opinionated and very ornery and that's what makes our sound, our sound. And I think that's a good thing. But it definitely leaves me with a lot of songs that I think are really great songs and I would otherwise have no outlet for them. So to make these solo records, at this point, it's pretty necessary for me. I don't think they sell as much as the band albums. Not that that even matters, but they give me an outlet and I get to be the boss for a few months of my career. Then I get kind of get lonely. And I miss the guys.

So, it definitely makes me appreciate them more as well, which is sweet, 'cause as ornery as they are, they bring a lot to the table. Every member of the band is so talented and their talent is so specific. Our guitar player Ken, the way he plays guitar with those big single-note leads, he’s kind of like Joey Santiago from the Pixies. He's very much his own musician. And everybody's like that. Murry was my mentor and still one of my favorite songwriters. In fact, his song on the new record "By The End of the Night," which features a big whistling part is a highlight from Murry's entire catalog of songs.

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Source: ℗ © Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, Philip Peeples, Rhett Miller/Old 97's/YouTube

Old 97's - By The End Of The Night (Official Audio)

The songwriting in "Falling Down." I had the album on in the background and then kaboom! This explosion comes out. That was planned, right?

I had a feeling that might be a good opener. And we did actually have to tone that song down because it was pretty reliant on a couple of giant F-bombs in the chorus, originally. Every chorus just had these, and it was fun to sing it like that. But it wound up being a little bit much. It took over the song, and I felt it did the song a disservice. But I still feel it's a pretty intense sound and statement.

Who were the first people outside of the band and Tucker to hear the whole album?

I played it for my sister. She really responded to it. I've always been inspired by the Pixies. Charles' songwriting, Joey's guitar, the sound as a band. I did go see them right before we went into the studio for this album in Boston. It was a giant 5,000 seat room. People were going crazy. And I was thinking about how they did take a long break, but they have been a band for a long time. Their musical story goes back a long way and their sound is so specific. I really wanted that.

It's easy for a band as you get older, especially if you're working in the genre of Americana, to get quieter and quieter, more and more acoustic. You're talking about your roots, and you're singing about mortality. But I feel like we would be denying something that's really fundamental about our band if we were to give into that temptation. To sit on rockers on a front porch, and, you know, get old. So, watching the Pixies up there, doing their thing, it made me realize we just need to be us.

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Source: Alysse Gafkjen

"Wait! We're legendary?"

Of all your choices when you were in Amoeba Records, you did say you went kind of bats--t over finding R.E.M. And now you've got Peter Buck playing on your album. Was that a formal invitation to have him come in?

We met Mike Mills first because he came out to a show in Athens years ago. And then R.E.M. asked us to open for them in Dallas on their final run of dates in the United States before they broke up. That was incredible. I mean, just because R.E.M. was the beginning for me. When I was 15,16. I mean, I've never stopped loving them. But in those formative years, they were at the top of the pyramid.

I've stayed in touch with Peter over the years. I've done the festival he used to do down in Todos Santos, Mexico. I texted him about Tucker Martine because they both live in Portland, Oregon, to ask him if he liked Tucker, if he liked his studio, what his thoughts were. He said, "Tucker's the best. His studio is incredible, and if you go record there you have to let me come play guitar on the record."

You’re gonna be gigging soon. Do you have a regimen of what you do in anticipation of a new album coming out and going on tour?

Yeah, I've been exercising more because I know that when we tour there's maybe one day off a week, and it could be very physically taxing day after day. I've been trying to just get in some exercise five days a week. I'm a little worried about my voice, because as I get older I notice that I lose some of my upper register. I'm trying to figure out how to keep that intact. I'm trying to really appreciate being at home and get as much done as I can while I'm home. But otherwise, I'm just getting excited. Honestly!

I’ve been laughing with the band lately because every time we get written about, they’re using the word legendary: legendary country band Old 97’s, legendary Texan rockers Old 97’s! It's like it snuck up on you. It's like your first gray hair. You're like, "Wait, we're legendary?"

What are some other good substitute adjectives? Can I use iconic?

Oh, yeah! I mean, I don't even mind legendary. I think it's great. But it doesn't come with an attending sort of pay bump!


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