Old 97′s have been cooking their tasty brew of rock ‘n’ roll for 20 years now, and the Dallas-based band is out with a new album today called “Most Messed Up” that’s getting rave reviews.
The New Yorker calls it “blistered, blasted, and brilliant: song after song about the diminishing returns of the road, the ravages of early middle age.”
In response, Old 97′s frontman Rhett Miller told Here & Now’s Robin Young, “I’m only 43. I intend to live to be 120, so I’m not even middle aged yet.”
Interview Highlights: Rhett Miller
On the first song on the album, ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive’
“‘Rock stars were once such mythical creatures, up there with presidents, playmates and preachers.’ The idea behind this song was to break all these rules that I’ve tried so hard to follow all these years. I have wanted songs to be universal and not specific about me or my life or this weird job, and it just occurred to me, this is the 20th anniversary of the first album of my band, and a lot of the people in the audience every night when I look out are literally younger than my career. And I just thought, if I’m ever going to address this as someone who’s experienced it longer than most people get to, now seems like the time, because I still get to rock and I love to rock.”
On how being in a rock band has changed
“There used to be such mystique connected to rock and roll. And I get why that is and was — or perhaps just was – cool, because I grew up loving rock and roll and reading, you know, David Bowie biographies. But the way it is now, with everybody on Instagram and Twitter and so accessible via the internet, that’s changed. And now you sort of know what your favorite band had for breakfast and you know what they’re into and what they’re really like. And in a lot of cases, you see pictures of their kids — although I’ve tried to avoid that kind of stuff. But the walls are down and I think that’s kind of a good thing. It makes it really more about the music and less about the pose. I’d rather be honest, you know, I don’t have to apologize for anything.”
On songs about drinking
“I’ve always thought about it. Some of the songs that resonate most throughout our catalog with our fans are the songs that address it, but they’re more oblique and more, in some ways, glamorizing than this collection. This is a lot more sort of realistic about — sometimes it really is fun to drink whiskey and be with your loved one, and sometimes it’s fun to get a little bit wheels-off and stuff gets weird, but at a certain point, it gets too weird, and I think that happens on this record too. I don’t have any answers — I really don’t — I just wanted to approach it in a realistic fashion and try and be honest with it and grapple with it.”
- Rhett Miller Launches New Solo Record With A Little Help From His Fans (2012)
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- Rhett Miller, front man for the Old 97′s. He tweets @rhettmiller. You can follow him on Instagram by that same handle, rhettmiller.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and now a few minutes with an old friend from the Texas Band The Old 97's with maybe some new thinking on the meaning of a life in rock 'n' roll.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THE OLD 97'S: (Singing) When I saw you for the first time, I thought I might be sick. That combination of joy and compulsion, and you were the reason for it.
YOUNG: Blistered, blaster and brilliant, that's the way the New York describes The Old 97's new CD "Most Messed Up." The reviewer Ben Greenman says the songs are about the diminishing returns of life on the road, the ravages of early middle age and the equally damaging effects of too much thinking and too much thinking. Rhett Miller is a leader of The Old 97's. He's on the line from WPLN in Nashville. I hear you laughing.
YOUNG: What do you think of that, the ravages of - diminishing returns.
RHETT MILLER: I know. What's up - that's what made me laugh, the ravages of middle age. What, I'm only 43. I intend to live to be 120. So I'm not even middle aged yet.
YOUNG: Well, let's listen go the very first song on the CD. This is "Longer Than you've been Alive," in which, you know, you kind of lift the "Wizard of Oz" curtain and tell people it isn't all it's cut out to be. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONGER THAN YOU'VE BEEN ALIVE")
97'S: We've been doing this longer than you've been live, propelled by some mysterious drive, and they still let me do it, as weird as that seems. And I do it most nights and then again in my dreams. Infinite hallways in giant hotels, dressing room looks about as good as it smells.
YOUNG: Again Rhett Miller, The Old 97's. You go on with lines like most of the shows were triumph or rock, although some nights I might have been checking the clock. You should know the truth, it's both a blast and a bore.
MILLER: Rock stars were once such mythical creatures, up there with presidents, playmates and preachers. The idea behind this song was to break all these rules that I've tried so hard to follow for all these years. I have wanted songs to be universal and not specific about me or my life or this weird job, and it just occurred to me this is the 20th anniversary of the first album of my band, and a lot of the people in the audience every night, when I look out, are literally younger than my career.
And I just thought, if I'm ever going to address this as someone who's experienced it longer than most people get to, now seems like the time because I still get to rock, and I still love to rock.
YOUNG: But it's also sometimes a bore. I mean, you let on that, you know, our jobs are just jobs, and sometimes they - well, the suck.
MILLER: Yeah, there used to be such mystique connected to rock 'n' roll. And I get why that is and was, or perhaps just was, cool because I grew up loving rock 'n'roll and reading, you know, David Bowie biographies. But the way it is now, with everybody on Instagram and Twitter and, you know, so accessible via the internet, that's changed.
And now you sort of know what your favorite band had for breakfast, and you know what they're into and what they're really like. And in a lot of cases, you see pictures of their kids, although I've tried to avoid that kind of stuff. But the walls are down, and I think that's kind of a good thing. It makes it really more about the music and less about the pose. I'd rather be honest, you know, I don't have to apologize for anything.
YOUNG: Well, and it's such a great collection of songs. Another topic that gets wrestled with, the road is mentioned a lot, but also drinking is in there. There's songs about getting wasted, there's a song about intervention, and then there's a song about getting messed up and bowing before a porcelain god. What's going on with the drinking?
MILLER: Gosh, are you asking about the narrator or me?
YOUNG: Are they the same?
MILLER: On this record maybe more so than in some cases. It's such a reality of life, the question of how bad is drinking and how much horrible stuff in our lives, you know, is it responsible for. I wanted to grapple with that question, and it's something I wonder about in my own life. I feel like I'm on the right side of the line, but maybe a lot of people that aren't on the right side of the line would say that.
So it's something that I've lost friends to. It's something that I would rather treat realistically than in a way that glamorizes it, you know.
YOUNG: Well, let's listen to just a little. How about this? We'll do a sort of montage of some of the songs. There's "Nashville." There's "Let's Get Drunk and Get it On." There's another one about a woman named Caroline(ph), I want to ask you about that. But just to hear a little bit of drinking throughout the CD.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
97'S: (Singing) This is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey and sleeping 'til 2 on a warm afternoon, telling your (unintelligible) how badly you miss me. You can't believe I'll be coming so soon.
(Singing) Let's drink whiskey and do it all night long. Let's get drunk and get it on.
(Singing) I'm better off being wasted than working my whole life through. Tonight I want to get wasted with you.
(Singing) Digging a hole, climbing the walls. Yeah, I've got to figure out how to get his attention, intervention.
YOUNG: So you see it as standard use in rock songs. You know, if you don't sing about drinking, that eliminated 90 percent of the things you can talk about. But on the other hand, you also seem to be saying, as you said, I'm thinking about it.
MILLER: Yeah, I mean, and I've always thought about it. And some of the songs that resonate most throughout our catalog with our fans are the songs that address it, but they're more oblique and more in some ways, you know, glamorizing than this collection.
This is a lot more sort of realistic about sometimes it really is fun to drink whiskey and be with your loved one, and sometimes it's fun to get a little bit wheels-off, and stuff gets weird. But at a certain point, it gets too weird, and I think that happens on this record too. And I don't have any answers, I really don't. I just wanted to approach it in a realistic fashion and try and be honest with it and grapple with it.
YOUNG: Well, and there's some grappling in another song.
YOUNG: Yes, where is that?
MILLER: I married Caroline back in May of '99.
YOUNG: You married Caroline, yeah. is that autobiographical?
MILLER: Well, it's so funny. That's the least autobiographical of all of them. I came to Nashville. My publishers at the time hooked me up with a writer name John McElroy(ph), who's been around a long time. And he's this crazy, wacky old songwriter. And I was there at 10 a.m. By noon, we had both had a lot of whiskey out of a plastic bottle, which means it's really good, and we had written this song.
And his take for me was, he said I looked you up on YouTube, and I think it would be a good idea if you just walked out onstage and said - and then he said the word that appears 40 times on our album that I can't say on your show.
YOUNG: The one that rhymes with hockey puck, but go ahead, yes.
MILLER: Exactly. But I've always worried so much about coming across as a nice guy, being a nice guy, doing the right thing. When he said that, it was as if a switch flipped. It was as if I'd given myself permission to say the truth in a way. Like you know what? I don't have to be perfect or nice.
So we wrote this song, and it's a story about a girl named Caroline, and the guy leaves her, and he realizes that he's just a bad dude, and he's making all sorts of terrible decisions, but he wants so much to do right, but he wants to do right a little bit less than he wants to get into the club, like to be famous, to make it. He's really torn, and, you know, it's sort of a morality play.
But it started me off on this jag of writing songs about what felt like the truth. You know, this is a hard job to do, it's a hard lifestyle, it's hard on a family, and I - it feels good to address those things, and it feels good to not try so hard to be a nice guy. It's that violent ambivalence with which I think I'm wrestling with in these songs.
YOUNG: Wow, and to great effect. Rhett Miller, leader of the band The Old 97's. The new record is "Most Messed Up." Rhett, thanks so much for talking to us about it.
MILLER: Robin, I love talking to you. Thanks for having me.
YOUNG: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
97'S: (Singing) Well, I married Caroline back in May of '99. It was (beep) at the time, but I figured we'd keep trying. Her brother and her dad, they were spitting mad when I packed up what I had and took off running. It was bad. It was mean. I didn't care, and it's gotten me nowhere. So I've tried to be a better man.
YOUNG: Well, he tries awfully hard to be a bad guy here, Jeremy, but he can't help it. He is a nice guy.
(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.