It's not the same old song for Old 97s
It's a sunny morning in early July, much of America is sweating through a relentless heat wave and -- even though he's got an EP to promote, a double-CD to master, a new Bob Dylan book to review, suitcases to pack and a mini-tour to undergo -- Rhett Miller is heading to the pool.
But, it's not exactly what you'd think.
As the genial frontman for Old 97s, a Dallas-born band that has carried the alt-country/roots rock banner for nearly two decades, Miller is good-looking, clever and charismatic enough that you could easily picture him lounging with a bevy of bikini-clad babes at the Chateau Marmont or some other rock star haven where he could send drinks to Vinnie Chase, Turtle, Johnny Drama and other famous folk.
That would be the rock and roll fantasy ...
As is often the case, the reality is considerably less glamorous. When we caught up with Stewart Ransom (Rhett) Miller II on the phone last week, he was relaxing at home with his wife and two small children in upstate New York.
"It's hot. I'm glad we have a pool," Miller said.
After a gig last week in Dallas, the Old 97s are diving deeper into a tour that will bring them to Milwaukee for a Thursday night gig with David Wax Museum at The Pabst Theater. (Tickets cost $20 in advance; $22 at the door).
The group is promoting "Mimeograph," a covers EP that features David Bowie's "Five Years," R.E.M.'s "Driver 8," the Rolling Stones' "Rocks Off" and The Fratellis' "For the Girl."
The bigger project -- a double-CD tentatively titled "The Grand Theatre" -- will hit stores this fall. Fans at The Pabst may get to preview a song or two.
"We've got a ton of new songs burning a hole in our pockets," Miller said. "We'll be able to play a good two hours and I'm pretty sure it's going to be a fun show."
Didn't bands used to wait until a new record was finished before hitting the road? Has that gone the way of lounging near skank-filled Hollywood pools? Are bands abandoning the recording process in order to pursue more financially lucrative tours?
"It almost does seem like records are secondary these days, but not to me," Miller said. "We spent the last three months wrestling with the big decisions and the tiny arguments.
"If I was a marketing guy, I'd probably put out four five-song EPs, because that's really what people want these days. But, I still believe in the concept of the album. I like the idea of sitting down with it and experiencing it from beginning to end."
With 20 songs on the two discs that Miller is likening to The Clash classic "London Calling" in terms of sonic shapes and "point in a career," listening to "The Grand Theatre" may take a bit longer.
"Originally, I wanted it just to be one album," Miller said. "But, a funny thing happened. Whenever we got to the point where we said 'OK, this song is on the bubble. We'll try it one more time before officially throwing it out,' -- we'd run through it and something cool would happen and we'd end up looking at each other and saying 'OK, that one is in for sure.'
"It's interesting, because I'm reading this book about Dylan that is going to come out this fall and 'Blonde on Blonde' was really the first double album. It was a great album, but it had so many weird moments. When we were making this record, we listened to 'London Calling' a lot and -- for all the high points and monumental moments, they had some songs where you'd say 'Why is that on there?' I'm sure when people listen to our record, there will be songs that they love and some where they say 'Why is that on there?' But, we're really excited about it."
After a couple weeks on the road, Miller and bandmates Murry Hammond (bass), Ken Bethea (guitar) and Philip Peeples (drums) will finish the album. Miller expects to do some acoustic duo dates with Hill in the fall and the band will hit the road behind the new record in February or April.
"We want to give people a little time with this record," Miller said. "We want them to get to know the songs a little bit."
That could also be said for the band, which is known for sweaty shows with lengthy setlists.
"It's going to be hard for us to add 20 songs," Miller said. "We don't want to be learning them onstage."
That could mean extra soundcheck/rehearsal time, which hasn't been a hallmark of the band -- in part because the members live in different parts of the country.
"I think it helps that we're not in each other's faces," Miller said. "It's nice to get back together and have everyone appreciate what we do. We don't generally need a lot of rehearsals. It usually just takes two or three songs into he first show and we're fine.
"With the new songs, though, there are so many of them and some of them are more complicated that we may actually have to rehearse a little. I mean, I dream about the band a lot. Does that count as rehearsal?"
How about playing multi-night stands in different cities, which would allow for diverse setlists?
"We might have to think about that," Miller said. "That would make it a lot easier to travel."
Asked about previous trips to Wisconsin, one of which included a trek to Lambeau Field, Miller lamented missing the most recent edition of Summerfest.
"We've played Summerfest four times now and it's one of my all-time favorite gigs," he said. "The last week or so, I kept hearing from my musician friends how they were having great gigs there and I was definitely jealous.
"I'm looking forward to playing up there (Thursday night)."
hey! some of Miller's work is very good. aint no Time Bomb though...
These guys need to give up the "we don't practice" schtick and start rehearsing on a regular basis. This is the second time in a row that I've seen them pretty damned sloppy, one more time and we're breaking up. Yes, I had fun, it was a 97's show, but c'mon Murray, quit dropping lyrics and singing out of tune, Ken, keep up, Rhett, don't play your sappy, corny solo crap at a 97's show, there's a reason I don't buy your solo stuff. Phil, you we're on. On the flipside, the David Wax Museum was wonderful!
i like Molly's writing, and the Old 97's to the Jayhawks is not THAT large a stretch. they both work the "Americana" side of the tracks after all. of course, i don't know exactly what she wrote, but on the surface its not like comparing Bob Marley to AC/DC or anything.
Nice article. I agree that their last was not their best, or even close. Thankfully, Molly Snyder did not write this one, I'd a passed right over it. Last time she compared the Old 97s to The Jayhawks!??? See you tomorrow night.
Old 97s shows never fail to be awesome. Get your tickets now folks!
Show me the other 2 Talkbacks
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