Catching Up With… Rhett Miller

Music Features Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller’s new self-titled solo album is his third since 2002, which would be enough to keep most average musicians busy. And yet, as the frontman of the Old 97’s, Miller has also recorded two studio albums with the band, as well as the double live release, Alive and Wired. While Rhett Miller is perhaps the songwriter’s most personal and intimate album to date, he’s also just finished making a record in the opposite direction, as the Old 97’s ready the release of a covers EP. Last month, Paste caught up with Miller during a long drive to Boson. We discussed the Old 97’s renewed passion for recording, David Foster Wallace, and the possibility of reviving his feud with Ryan Adams via Twitter.

Paste: The Old 97’s were just in the studio recording a covers EP. What made y’all finally decide to do one of those?

Rhett Miller: Management told us we had to. [laughs] We’d wanted to do it for a long time, and it was so much fun. Basically, the fact that we found Salim Nourallah, our producer… I know I speak for the rest of the guys when I say we all just want to work now. We’ve finally found the perfect working environment, and we want to keep doing it. We had so much fun recording these covers. We did it very quickly, real slapdash and fun. We didn’t rewrite the songs by any means; they’re all pretty faithful to the original versions. We just play ‘em. It’s just the Old 97’s playing these songs. It was fun, man. The thing that makes me laugh is that, you know, I hear that we’re supposedly a “quintessential Americana band” or whatever, and we just recorded a five-song EP where four of the songs are by British artists.

Paste: Were you focused on covering your influences?
Miller: No. Ken [Bethea], Murry [Hammond] and I, we just each picked out a few songs. Ken brought in a song that the rest of the guys in the band were all really familiar with but I didn’t know very well. Have you heard of The Fratellis? They put out a record a couple of years ago called Costello Music, and there’s a song on there called “For The Girl”, and it’s great, man. While I was learning it, I was like, I wish I had written this song. Holy shit! So, I’m very excited about that.

Paste: It seems like a lot of your influences are authors, as well as musicians. You’ve said that the first track on your new solo record, “Nobody Says I love You Anymore,” is about David Foster Wallace.
Miller: I don’t know that’s totally about him, but I realized at a certain point when I was recording it that I could not figure out what the fuck the song was about, which happens more often than you’d think. Half the time I have to play it for my mom, and then my mom tells me what she thinks it’s about, and she’s right. But in this case, I felt bad, like people were going to think it was about my wife or my marriage or whatever. And I realized, you know, “Oh, my God. I think it might be about DFW.” I started going through the lyrics, and there’s the one, “Same time tomorrow I know where you’ll be / same place as always / right here beside me,” and while I was thinking about it, I looked and over and on my bedside table was my copy of Infinite Jest, which is always right there, and I went through all the lyrics and thought, “If this song’s not specifically about him, then it definitely has things about it that are,” because [DFW’s suicide] was tough. I think all of his fans suffered a blow when that happened. Someone who’s basically the smartest person you know, and they’re saying it’s not worth it. Nobody really sees the big picture like he did. Nobody could contain as much, not only information, but the assimilation thereof, in his head as well as he did, and for him to look at it all and say, “It’s not worth it”… That was fucking horrible and crushing, and I disagree with him, and I wish he didn’t come to that conclusion, and, I don’t know.

Paste: The title track to The Believer was about Elliott Smith, too.
Miller: You know what? I think every record that I’ve ever made has a suicide reference on it. In “The Believer,” I definitely sat down the day he killed himself and wrote the song kind of for him. And then the DFW song. But this runs through all the records, you know, little lines here and there. Some of them are more obvious. Like, in “Lonely Holiday,” the lyric is, “I’ve talked so much about suicide / parts of me have already died.” It’s been a major theme in my life, just because I’ve grappled with the urge so much as a young man. I gave in one big time and it almost worked. It’s hard to be a human being, and it’s tempting to think that the alternative would be better. But I don’t.

Paste: You write songs about people like David Foster Wallace, and you make references to authors like Kafka in “Our Love,” and Don DeLillo in “World Inside The World.” Do you have literary ambitions as well as musical ones?
Miller: I do. I’ve got a short story that’s out in a new book right now. I’m putting that on the back burner because I figured out that I have tendency to be unfocused. I’m scatterbrained. I’ll say, “Well, I’ve got this going now, let’s do something else,” and I really have to focus on the music for right now. In a couple of years, two to five years, I would like to really take a year off and do what Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers is doing right now and go just write a fucking novel. Just sit down and do it. Stop talking about writing. The tough thing is is that people pay me to do music, so that’s nice. I have two kids, and they insist on eating every fucking day. And I’ve written so many songs that it comes very naturally to me, whereas when I sit down to write, the demons in my head that say, “You’re not good enough,” and all those things that everyone I know who writes or creates has to shout down, they get really loud when I try to write fiction. And it’s tough. I do have literary aspirations. I’m just going to put them off for a little while.

Paste: On a lot of the early and mid-period Old 97’s songs, you have an alter-ego, the nightclub singer character who pops up again and again. A lot of people’s songs are story-based, but your stories have defined settings and roles for the protagonist, and the female side-characters all have names. Was that a way to indulge your literary ambitions through songwriting?
Miller: Yeah. Yeah, that’s funny, that’s very perceptive. When the Old 97’s really started touring around Wreck Your Life and Too Far To Care, I felt there was a bit of disconnect where I was on stage getting a lot of adulation, affirmation, and offers of whatever, which was hard to reconcile that with my self- image. I was always kind of a bookish kid and a little bit of a weirdo. I guess everybody sees themselves differently than they’re perceived by the world, and I was trying to crawl into the skin of guy on the stage, to try to humanize him in an effort to reconcile that character with the person that I really am. Now I kind of see it for what it is, but at the time, I was really trying to, I don’t know if I was trying to become that person, or if I was trying to make him crawl back inside of the radio, or whatever. It’s really weird, realizing that you have the power to stand up on stage and get an audience to sing along with this fucking little ditty. Cool. It’s a good job. I highly recommend it.

Paste: As you’ve gotten more comfortable in that role, the nightclub singer isn’t on the records anymore. Is that a thing you’ve grown past?
Miller: Yeah, I’ve changed him into not taking me over.

Paste: Where do the girls’ names come from? There are a lot of them. Who are they?
Miller: [They come from] all different places. That is a time honored tradition that I’m proud to be a part of. I love women, and the idea of women, and I love songs about girls, and I would write a million songs about girls before I would write one song about nuclear disarmament. Although, I believe whole-heartedly in the latter. That’s part of the purpose of music. You’re basically just singing “I love you,” or “Why don’t you love me,” or both. So to write a song with a girl’s name seems like the obvious, fun thing to do. In the case of the new record, “Caroline” is inspired by a friend of mine. She’s a beautiful woman, and happily married, and it was really a chance to honor her with a song. I really wanted to try and capture how strong and beautiful she is. Without having to cheat on my wife.

Paste: How did she respond?
Miller: She fucking loves it. She’s super excited about it. Her husband, who’s an Austrian mathematician, he was a little wary at first. He kept saying [adopts an Eastern European accent], “Why are you writing this song about my wife?” And then I played it for her parents and they were worried about, you know, “Is there anything to the story in the song? Anything we should know about?” It’s a song, people; it’s fiction. Come on!

Paste: Does that mean you didn’t really have a boat called The Halcyon, either?
Miller: No, I’ve never owned a boat. I just imagined a boat. I like the idea of having motifs: little characters that reappear, or places that reappear in songs. It’s one cool thing for me about having a deep catalog where I can go back to songs from the first record and make some tiny reference to it just for me. Kind of an inside joke. If someone wants to pick up on it, string it together, all the better. But I really love, like, Nabokov and writers that play little games in their writing, almost just for themselves. Certainly in the case of Nabokov, scholars will dissect it, and figure out, and write papers about it, which I don’t expect in my work, but it makes me happy. Rock and roll can be an anti-intellectual pursuit if you let it, and it’s easy to turn into a zombie, but I’ve tried to do what I can to keep my brain clicking and keep things interesting.

Paste: You’re all over Twitter. Do things like that help keep you interested? Is there any chance of a Twitter feud with Ryan Adams?
Miller: Oh, no. You know what’s funny? There was a lot made over the years about the supposed feud between me and him, and I haven’t talked to him much in years, and I stopped worrying about it and thinking about it. There’s really nothing to it except the sort of fuel – it’s like The Most Photographed [Barn] in America in the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. There’s this [barn] that’s the most photographed [barn] in America. Why is it the most photographed [barn] in America? Because it’s the most photographed [barn]; it turns into this thing that kind of feeds itself. So I checked out a bunch of years ago, and stopped worrying about it. But then I heard a song when I was driving to Ithaca, New York, the other day, this song came on the radio, on the NPR station, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I just couldn’t believe it, it was so beautiful. And they announced it as being off of Ryan’s new Cardinology record and I thought, “Oh, man.” It’s so funny that there was a bad taste in my mouth for a bunch of years about this feud and I kind of just sat on his music. This guy’s got a lot of talent. He’s done pretty great work. I never tried to add any fuel to that fire. I’m glad that it’s in the past.

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