Catching Up With Rhett Miller
Rhett Miller is most commonly known as the frontman for the veteran alt-country group Old 97’s, but over the past ten years he has also had a successful career as a solo artist. His first solo release Mythologies came in 1989, when he was only 19 years old, wore glasses and sported a Bowie-esque British accent. After achieving widespread success with Old 97’s in the ‘90s, Miller released his second solo album, The Instigator, in 2002. Since then, he’s recorded three additional solo albums, the last of which, The Dreamer, was released on June 5 by his own Maximum Sunshine Records.
We recently caught up with Miller to discuss his new album, The Dreamer, what it was like funding the album through an online PledgeMusic campaign and whether he’s discovered the fountain of youth.
Paste: What makes your new album “The Dreamer” as opposed to “The Believer” or “The Instigator”?
Rhett Miller: When I name this kind of stuff, it’s all after the fact, kind of trying to figure out what it all means. I’m typically following a phrase rather than making a phrase do my bidding. I looked at the stack of songs and thought the first half of the record is about looking for love and wondering if it exists and all that sort of agonizing that one does before one gets settled into a relationship. The latter third of the record deals with having found it and trying to figure out how to make it work. I’ve always been a romantic and I think that this record sort of reflects that.
Paste: The Dreamer is more of a downtrodden, twangy country album than some of your other solo work. You’re happily married now, but when you were writing the record were you thinking back to specific past relationships, or did these scenarios just materialize because that’s what you felt complimented the country vibe the best?
Miller: The sound of the record came after the songs were done. When I was writing it, I drew from different sources. The song “Out of Love” came out of having spent the day with a friend who was going through a divorce, and waking up the next morning with the song in my head. So that was about my empathizing with them, and I do that a lot. I do go back through and remember the agony of youthful fears. It’s all in there, though. I still agonize all the time about love, what does it mean and how does it work.
Paste: Throughout your career you’ve written a lot of songs that feature a single poignant or memorable line that people like to point to. For this record I think of “You weren’t like the rest, until you left” from “Lost Without You.” Do a lot of your songs start this way, by thinking of one striking line and then imagining the rest of the song around it?
Miller: Yeah, usually it’s a phrase that starts everything and I just follow it. I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older and deeper into my catalog, I tend to write songs that are a little less specific, giving detail after detail after detail, and more that use aphorisms or broader observations. But I do still love that one little phrase or one little detail that makes it go from being a regular song to being a specific moment in somebody’s life. I love that. I love little moments. One of my favorite songs on the new record is “Sleepwalking.” It has a lot of little things like that: “She had a prominent nose, she took off all her clothes.” They’re like silly little kids’ rhymes, but from a grown up’s perspective.
Miller: Benji Rogers, who runs Pledge, was just a very convincing guy. My friend Salim Nourallah, who produced records for me and the ’97’s, used the platform to fund his record. My friend Rachel Yamagata did it, who sings on [The Dreamer]. I saw it in its success, but I always kind of thought that something like that would be weird and awkward, like you were begging. Then it hit me that, really, you’re just selling pre-orders of the album and if you want you can add on some other thing like hand-written lyrics or something. There’s sort of a vote of confidence element to it that I like. It makes the fans feel involved in a way that just sitting at home waiting for a record to come out doesn’t offer.
Paste: Do you think this type of model has a chance to become even more prevalent and maybe even become the norm in the future?
Miller: I don’t know. I kind of try to follow how things are evolving, but I don’t know how it’s going to end up working. The Kickstarter and Pledge model seems to be growing more widely accepted and bigger artists seem to be doing it. I just saw that Ben Folds is doing it for his new record. There’s a lot of people doing it, but what’s going to be the business model in five or ten years? I don’t know. I’m not good at that kind of stuff [laughs].
Paste: The Dreamer is also the first album you produced yourself. Did you learn anything from that process?
Miller: Oh, shit yeah. I learned a ton. There’s so much that goes into producing and I think that so many great producers, guys like John Bryant, George Drakoulias, guys that have really made it in as a producer. …this day and age it’s just a less vaunted position. Producers don’t get as much work as they used to because it’s so easy to make records. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but for me making this record was easy because I knew what I wanted. I wanted simple songs and simple instrumentation, some pedal steel, some female vocals.
I think the trick for me producing was hiring really great people. Hiring a really great recorder, a really great engineer, having a great band, and not agonizing over it. Just kind of doing it and letting the songs happen as they happen. Not thinking about what the songs are supposed to sound like. This is what they sound like. These are my friends that I’m playing with. We’re having a blast. We’re working quickly and capturing everything off the floor of the studio, which is kind of unheard of now. Most of the record is right there on the floor live. Some background vocals are overdubbed and that kind of stuff. But almost all of my vocals were live off the floor. The rhythm section, the guitar was live off the floor. It was cool. It was an old-school way to work and it imbues the record with a certain warmth or organic feeling.
Paste: Is anything in the works with the Old 97’s? I know you guys have put out a lot of albums over the past few years, but is anything currently on the horizon?
Miller: I’ve been writing for the next ’97’s thing. I’ve been writing and looking at ideas. We’ve started brainstorming about it. Our earliest ideas of the record so far are that we want to kind of continue in the vein of the Grand Theatre records that had a pretty stripped-back garage rock sound. That’s what we’re having the most fun doing right now.
Paste: Alright, one last thing: I don’t know if this gets brought up a lot, but what’s the secret, man? Are you on some kind of anti-aging cream or something? I showed one of my friends who didn’t know who you were your picture and asked her how old she thought you were. She said 25.
Miller: That’s hilarious. Tell her thank you. I don’t know, I feel old. Every once in a while I’ve got a hip flexor in my left hip. When I climb up on the guitar amp and jump off, I feel like I must be a million years old. But I love what I do, I really love my job. Most of the musicians I know look younger than their years and I know they tend to act younger and feel younger. Maybe there’s something related to being a musician or being a creative type of person.