We Still Care: A Conversation with Rhett Miller of Old 97s

Old 97s play their best album, 1997′s “Too Far to Care,” at the 9:30 Club tonight. Miller is second from the left.

Formed in Dallas in 1993, the alt-country act Old 97s combines the heart-tugging wordplay of Townes van Zandt with the attack of The Clash. After a couple of indie releases in the mid-90s, the group were the beneficiaries of a bidding war, signing with Elektra Records. Their major-label debut, 1997′s Too Far to Care, remains their best and best-loved album. Despite retaining a substantial following — their show at the 9:30 Club tonight is sold out — the group never reached the level of stardom their big label demanded. Since 2004, they’ve been recording for the New West label.

Their current tour supports a 15th anniversary reissue of Too Far to Care, which they’re playing in its entirety in sequence, along with a selection of other songs. I spoke with singer-songwriter Rhett Miller (whose career as a solo artist runs parallel to that of his band) by phone about the quest for perfect setlist, the excesses of major label recording contracts and the perils of singing songs you wrote at 25 when you’re 42.

This interview appears today on the Washington City Paper’s Arts Desk.

Good morning. Where am I reaching you today?

I’m in New York. Last night we played Brooklyn, the night before that Manhattan, and tonight we’re in Philly.

And DC tomorrow night. That’s a tough schedule.

At the 9:30 Club. I love the 9:30 Club so much.

You’re touring in support of a 15th anniversary reissue of Too Far to Care. I have mixed feelings about the play-a-beloved-album-in-sequence concert trend, because that idea of the band or artist curating a setlist is one of the things I enjoy most about going to show. On the other hand, Too Far to Care is my favorite Old 97s album, and I know lots of fans who feel the same way. Did you have any reservations about jumping on this bandwagon?

Like you, I approach this with a great deal of trepidation. It was the idea of our booking agent, Kevin French, who is a longtime friend and fan. This is his favorite record of ours, too.

I’ve seen a couple of these tours. I got to see the Pixies play Doolittle. And I saw the Wedding Present, a band I love from Leeds, UK, do Sea Monsters. That’s one of my favorite records. They were very different in the way they approached it. I saw the Pixies at the Ryman in Nashville. They came out and played Doolittle and that was it. Then they came back and did a long encore with outtakes from Doolittle and some extra stuff. But it was very much a self-contained thing. Doolittle is such a classic album. It’s perfect, top to bottom. I thought the way they handled it was really classy and great.

With the Wedding Present, they were playing at La Poisson Rouge in New York City, a smaller venue. They did a long set of other stuff and then closed with Sea Monsters start-to-finish. But by the time they got to Sea Monsters they had used up some of the goodwill of the crowd. It was great to hear the record, but it was kind of weird. I asked [Wedding Present singer-songwriter] David Gedge about it, and he thought it was smarter to get the other stuff out of the way first and then use the album as the big closer. There’re a lot of theories about this.

I don’t like nostalgia. I’ve never been one to look back. The most important record is the new record, or the next record. But this one does come up a lot as being a fan favorite, even within the band. They guys in my band are always saying, “We really got it right with Too Far.”

And I feel like [the album] captured a certain moment. It was a combination of being naive and — we felt like were on top of the world. We’d gotten the dog and pony show for six months, with all the major labels trying to sign us. Suddenly we were flush with cash, and we got to make this record, to spend months making it. We had the experience of having made a few other records before this, so it wasn’t our first time, but it was our first time getting to do it right.

So the record is pretty special, and I can see that, so I was willing to take a crack at doing this. I like the way the Pixies did it, which is come out and do the record. That way if people are just there for that, they have the option to leave.

How is that working out?

It’s been great. My trepidation seems to have been for nothing. The record is a cohesive unit. It holds together really well. The question has been, how much extra stuff to put at the end. I’ve been toying with that night by night. It depends on whether it’s a weeknight, or what kind of market it is.

As the guy who makes the setlist every night — I agonize over the setlist. I keep notebooks with every setlist from every show. If something worked, I re-use ideas from it. I’ll spend two hours every night making the setlist. That’s one of my favorite things, because I want everybody, with all their different favorite albums, to leave happy. I want to hit all the high points of our career. I’m really proud of our catalog. But I guess if there’s one album I’d want to do top to bottom it’s this one. We’re not going to come out next year and do a Fight Songs reunion, in other words. We’re not going to start some Mobius strip of anniversary tours.

I’ve always been fascinated by the various schools of thought about composing a setlist — which bands will open with 45 minutes of new stuff, and which ones soften up the crowd with the hits first. I always hate it when I’m part of an audience that makes it clear they’re only interested in songs they’ve heard many times before, even in cases where I don’t love the latest album, or love it yet.

There’re a couple of things that are good about the fact that we never had big hits. We get to have this career that has a nice, continuous arc. We’ve got different things throughout our catalog that different people connect with. I’ve never noticed a problem of people tuning out on stuff that’s not the couple of albums we did for Elektra Records. Right when an album comes out, there’s a thing where maybe they don’t know the material so well. That goes back to the setlist. I try to throw those songs in right after a really satisfying song from the catalog that they’re going to know really well. I try to cushion the blow of the new material.

It’s funny that you’re asking about setlists. Not many people think about it, but I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent agonizing over this. I love it! It’s like a puzzle. I always think there’s a perfect setlist for that night, and I’m trying to find it.

With most bands that’ve been around long enough to develop a catalog, the default formula seems to be to play 80 percent of the new album they’re touring, plus the same 10 or 12 warhorses they always play. I really appreciate bands that shake it up more than that.

I tend to be very forgiving with bands. It’s not easy to make a setlist. It’s not easy to try to make your fans happy. When I go to see a band I tend to forgive them very quickly if they don’t play my favorite song. It’s a great thing to connect with a band that really means something to you, but it’s easy to take that a step too far, where you’re mad at them because they didn’t give you a nugget that you were hoping for.

I went to see Archers of Loaf play — this is a million years ago; probably 20 years ago — when they had just played Austin the night before. I lived in Dallas, and this was a normal thing growing up in Dallas: Bands would play Austin, and it would be the best show of that tour. Then they would come to Dallas on, like, a Monday night. It would be a half-full room. Dallas is not the most fun city to play in, unless you’re from Dallas, like we are.

So Archers of Loaf came to Dallas on a Monday night to play a half-full room, and they didn’t play “Web in Front.” I left the show pretty mad about that. But that was before I’d spent all the hours agonizing over setlists like I have now.

My tour manager, Mike, spent a lot of years with Nirvana as a drum tech for Dave Grohl. He says he could tell when a show was getting on Kurt Cobain’s nerves because Cobain would put his guitar down and walk offstage before “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And the people would just go insane thinking they weren’t going to get to hear that song.

I get both sides of it. You paid your money, you want to hear the song. But Cobain’s a human being, or was. He’s not a trained monkey. It’s his right if he doesn’t want to play his song.

I tend to be a lot more of a people-pleaser, I think.

Old 97s’ finest 46-minute hour, from 1997.

You’ve talked a lot about how Too Far to Care came from an era when you’d just signed with a major label and they expected you to become the next big thing. Did you have any inkling then that that kind of stardom was just a couple years away from vanishing entirely? I mean not just for you, but for pretty much any band that wasn’t already in arenas by the end of the 90s?

Isn’t that weird, how things changed so fast? No, I knew the likelihood of us becoming a huge, popular band was pretty slim. There was the “I like every kind of music except country” thing that we’ve encountered our whole career. But I had no idea it was just going to disappear like this.

In retrospect, I can see all the factors that played into it. If you look at the amount of money Elektra Records spent on us, it was nuts. It was a time in the industry — and you know all this — when every piece of music ever recorded was newly available on CD. So they had tons of cash, from all the hit bands of the 80s and 90s plus all the music from before that that they got to resell: Elvis, Mozart, everything. So there’s all this money, with no end in sight, and then it all changed so quickly. No, I didn’t imagine that my job would disappear.

Not that is has. I’ve been able to make a living, knock wood. But I’m not sure I would have gone into this as a full life choice if I’d known. It’s a weird thing. The other night in New York City, we had our old A & R guy and product manager there. I had dinner with him before the gig. It’s Tom DeSavia, who put together this reissue package. He’s still one of my best friends. He was telling a story about how when the 97s were in Willie Nelson’s studio, Pedernales, making [the 2001 album] Satellite Rides — this is just an illustration of how different things were — we called him up maybe the second week of our six weeks there, and we said, “Tom, you’ve got to fly here immediately to fire the caterer.” So Tom had to buy an $800 plane ticket the next day to fly to Austin and then drive out to Pedernales to sit down with the caterer and fire him, and then find a new one. We were upset because he’d made a couple of meals we didn’t like. It was ridiculous.

So it’s silly that they thought this business model was sustainable. But at the same time, they saw us as a pretty modest investment. Tom was also A&R-ing Linda Ronstadt. And the same month [the caterer dismissal] happened, Linda Ronstadt called him and said, “I’m in the studio. I’ve got Neil Young here. The only piano that we can hear using on this next song is in a restaurant in San Francisco. So I need you to fly to San Francisco, negotiate the purchase of this piano and ship it to my studio in Arizona, andI need it in the next three days.” How many tens of thousands of dollars did that cost?

It was a very different time. I’m not sure if kids today appreciate how weird it was. Honestly, it’s got to be better now. More about the music and more real. That was a fantasy land we were living in.

Well, you were there for a moment.

Oh, yeah. I reaped the benefits. Millions of dollars were spent on marketing to make the 97s as popular as we got to be.

And it is pretty unlikely. The whole point of our band was that we’d been in these rock bands trying to mimic the success of the big bands we looked up to, and getting frustrated by, just, always trying to get famous. That ended up seeming so gross to us. So we started a band that would play in coffee shops and be folky and country and have no chance of major label success. The whole point of the Old 97s was to buck that trend of trying to suck off the teat of the major labels. Ironically, that ended up being the band that people liked, and we did end up on a major label. The good thing was that we stayed that band. We got to stay the band that didn’t want the major label money. But we took it anyway.

A lot of the Too Far to Care songs have stayed in your live rotation since the record came out, but are there any you had to re-learn once you decided you’d be playing the whole thing, or that you were wary of attempting?

It’s funny you should ask that. There is one. The song “Broadway” has a note in the chorus that’s the highest note I’ve ever inserted into any song. Last night in Brooklyn, I went to the falsetto for the first couple of choruses. I’m not proud of that. [Laughs.] Then I realized I was going to be able to hit it full voice. About 85 percent of the time I can do it full voice. I try.

[David] Bowie is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve watched him do songs from his earlier years. There’ll be notes he goes to hit, and Bowie — whose voice is magical; it hasn’t decayed that much — he’ll have to fake a few notes or skip a few notes or leave out the high note. There’s one in “Young Americans,” it’s the “break down and cry” note. Sometimes he’ll get it and sometimes he won’t.

I never thought I would have to deal with that. But “Broadway” is the song. It’s the third song in the set, so it’s not like I get a lot of warm-up. At least I get it over with.

Is there a story about how Exene Cervenka, one of the two singers in X, ended up on the album singing “Four Leaf Clover” with you?

I had a crush on her from [age] 15 until 25, when we made that record. She was a hero who became a friend. The aforementioned Tom DeSavia knew her because X was on Elektra. He brought her out to a gig in California, and she was everything you’d hope she’d be: curmudgeonly, funny, kooky. Obsessed with UFOs and conspiracy theories and poetry.

Well, I’d written this duet that I thought was this kind of old school Tammy-and-George kind of duet, and I played it for her. She said, “Rhett, you know I don’t sing pretty like that.” So I had to go back to the drawing board. We figured out that “Four Leaf Clover,” which had been or our first record [1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome] — the version on that record is pretty tame. But over the ensuing two years it became this really big live song.

Remember, this was a time when if you put out a CD and it was poorly distributed, nobody knew those songs. I really wanted people to hear a few songs from our first two records, so I put them on [Too Far to Care] because it was going to be the first time we really got distribution; there wouldn’t just be 5,000 copies of this, there would be hundreds of thousands.

So I pulled “Four Leaf Clover” out and gave that to her as an option: “Maybe we can turn this into a duet.” She loved that idea because it’s basically like an X song with a big D.J. Bonebrake floor tom part and everything. Her idea was to change the line in the second verse to make it more sexy: Instead of “something to impress you,” “something to attract you.” And the way she spits it out is so perfect. It’s a combination of trying to appeal to someone in a sexual way but also just sneering at them, and their obvious lust for you.

She played a couple of shows with us this tour, and she’s still such a firebrand. Such a fun chick. It’s been great to get to be friends with her.

That’s funny. I remembered there was something peculiar about that song, and now that you point it out I realize that what my brain was trying to pull up was the fact that it’s on two Old 97s albums. But what I was thinking was that maybe it was actually an X song that guys had covered.

I’m a huge X fan. I’ve heard that from a few different people. That actor Adam Goldberg told me, “I heard that song of yours on the radio and I thought, ‘Goddamn it, more people should be trying to make songs that sound like X.’”

FURTHER READING: I interviewed Murry Hammond of Old 97s in 2008.​

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