Rhett Miller - Apart but not alone
For a guy who has been making music for more than a decade, this seems like an odd time for Rhett Miller to be putting together his first backing band. Miller is best known as the frontman of the Old 97's, a Dallas quartet that launched in 1993 and has released five albums, attracting a fervid following and earning Miller a reputation as an adroit songwriter. On September 24, Miller releases his first solo album for Elektra Records, The Instigator. The Old 97's fell together as a group of friends and associates, by happy accident rather than design. But solo artists need backing bands, and that's why Miller is, on this particular mid-July day, in the process of building his first band from scratch. "I have never had to be the hiring-firing boss guy. Now I have 20 musicians who are all nice guys," Miller says from Los Angeles, as he pauses a Tivo-recorded hockey game featuring his beloved Dallas Stars. "I've got to audition them and schedule them. Musicians are obviously not easy to schedule and pin down. I have to fly them around to audition. It is just weird." Miller is looking for a lead guitarist, bassist and drummer to support him on at least six months worth of touring he'll undertake to promote The Instigator. Although the album is already being referred to as his solo debut, that's not really true. While still in high school, Miller made his true debut in 1989 with an album called Mythologies. "I was a folksinger to begin with," Miller chuckles at the memory of that effort, which was made with future Old 97's bassist Murry Hammond. "I have got a British accent on the record, because I was listening to David Bowie, Aztec Camera and T. Rex at the time. It is not far removed, in theory, from The Instigator. It is just songs fleshed out and given the best treatment I could come up with for them. It is what you would expect; I made it in high school. There is an element of preciousness now that makes me cringe and guarantees I will never allow another run of it." Mythologies was limited to a local pressing of 1,000 CDs; obviously expectations for The Instigator are considerably higher. "I think it kind of surprised all of us, the extent to which Elektra has gotten excited about it," Miller says. "I kind of figured it would be a thing on the side. I guess it makes sense, given what is the climate of the industry, when songwriter types are being given a chance again." Miller is guilty of excessive humility here. Whether The Instigator benefits from the record industry's rediscovery of singer-songwriters is a tangential matter; whatever pre-release enthusiasm the record has generated is well deserved. Produced by Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright) and featuring guest turns from Robyn Hitchcock, Badly Drawn Boy and X's John Doe, The Instigator is a hard-pop gem constructed on the rudiments of Miller's acoustic guitar, adorned with superbly arranged instrumentation and appointed with lush harmonies. While some Old 97's partisans may miss the rootsy flavor, many of these songs rank among the finest of Miller's career. The opening trio of "Our Love", "This Is What I Do" and "Come Around" must have given Elektra fits figuring out which should be the single (the hyper strumming and soaring chorus of "This Is What I Do" won the day initially, but "Come Around" now appears to be the label's intended radio song). Miller nods to Don DeLillo's mammoth novel Underworld (on the song "World Inside The World") alongside an affectionate quote in "Come Around" from another literary lion, David Lee Roth (the "she knows what love is for" line is borrowed from Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'"). It's the combination of literate refinement and pop abandon that gives The Instigator its unique character. The Instigator is, at least superficially, the product of Miller's new home base in Los Angeles. That's where he hooked up with producer Brion and the adventurous music scene built around Largo, an intimate, offbeat music and comedy showcase which is home base to Brion and his extended musical family. The album's more melancholy moments seem to address Miller's former home in Manhattan, a city he hasn't slept in since September 11. He did not experience the horrors of that day from a remote cable-news perspective. Miller saw it up-close. He saw people die. And he survived. The roots of Miller's solo ambitions can be traced back to his very earliest days with the Old 97's. "In 1993, when we were rehearsing in my mom's garage, we were figuring out what the band could handle," Miller explains. "I brought in this song that was a straight 16th-notes, punk-rock sort of thing. It was called 'Kiss Lunch Box'. The band basically said, no way. This song does not work. Ever since then, when I come up with a song that I thought wasn't an Old 97's song, I file it in the 'Kiss Lunch Box' file." The easy thing for Miller to do would have been to upend his Kiss lunch box and cherry-pick those Old 97's rejects for The Instigator. But the process was more complicated than that. Much of the record was written in the weeks and months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, when Miller and his then-girlfriend, model Erica Iahn, were among the thousands displaced from their homes in lower Manhattan. "A lot of the songs, I started before [September 11], and I couldn't finish them for months because of the uproar in our lives," he says. "And there is definitely some L.A. songs in there when I hear it; I hear a lot of those weeks and months just after the Trade Center thing. But I don't feel it is specifically a New York record or a disaster record." One song that didn't make the cut for The Instigator is called "Love Bird". Miller spent last September 10 seated in the plaza at the base of the twin towers, enjoying the beautiful weather and writing the song. "To me, it felt like it had to be on the record, it was so important personally. It was a love song with creepy overtones." He returned to the apartment he shared with Iahn three blocks south of the towers and continued chipping away at the song until 3 a.m. Early the next morning, phone calls from friends alerted Miller and Iahn to the drama unfolding just north of their own building. "We watched it from the roof. We saw people jumping. We were trapped in the lobby for 15 minutes while bloody people poured in from the street," he says. Their home was so close to Ground Zero, they feared a sideways collapse would crush their own building. Some of their fellow tenants chose to seek shelter in the basement of their building, and were trapped underground for nine hours without electricity, food or water. Miller and Iahn chose to run, just as the second tower collapsed. "It was a cloud of smoke and burning pieces of metal in our hair. It was fucked up," he says. The couple escaped with their lives, but without extra clothes, wallets or cell phones. It would be weeks before they could return to their home. They caught a ride to Ohio, where they stayed with Iahn's family for two weeks. During that time, he wrote a song titled "She Loves The Sunset", but had to compose it in his mind, as he obviously didn't bother to grab a guitar when they escaped. Several weeks later, they returned to their apartment, cleared out their belongings and decamped to California. In May, Iahn and Miller married. Despite the intimate connection of "Love Bird" and "She Loves The Sunset" to those life-changing events, Miller says neither track seemed to fit the tone of the record he began compiling songs for The Instigator. It should be said that the WTC anecdote was offered up by Miller in the context of explaining those two songs, and not as a self-aggrandizing survivor's tale. But it's hard to steer clear of so monumental an experience. "It makes me uncomfortable, because I see people trying to profiteer off of it," he says. "I see the way people react to what Erica and I went through. It creeps me out, honestly, because we watched people die. We saw them that day on the ground as we were running, all around us. And," Miller exhales a weary breath, "we're fine. Our stuff was even fine. And we get to go away and keep on living. "It changed the way we look at life and each other and what we are willing to put up with from our work. We are very, very lucky. Don't get me wrong, we have nightmares, and there is stuff that is probably beyond what everybody else is going through, because everybody is scared, and it messed up everybody's world view," he says. "I just keep going back to that: We are fine, and we saw people who weren't. This is my first interview [for The Instigator]. I kind of made a deal with myself that I wasn't going to talk too much about it, because it sounds like, feels like, profiteering. The thing is, it is impossible for me not to reference it, because it was such a big part of the time leading up to the making of this record." References to September 11 are not overt on The Instigator, but they're in there. "Your Nervous Heart" hints at the kind of fear that may not be banished by the comforts of romance: I know somebody must have gave you hell Maybe you went running as the sky just sort of fell Let me scoop you up and love you as you are You're terrified and it's tearing me apart Can I kiss your furrowed brow and calm your nervous heart? "Terrible Vision" seems to dance around some unspecified trauma ("It felt like it was real/There was no God that I could believe in"). The upbeat "Hover" ("The city is dark, but we're not scared/Wrapped up in each other") celebrates Miller's Manhattan neighborhood, with references to Governor's Island and the Verrazano Bridge; the latter was visible from his apartment. "World Inside The World", co-written with Brion, seconds author DeLillo's contention (in his novel Underworld) that reality is only experienced in manageable chunks -- that the true state of our world may only be unraveled with cautious consideration, and absorbing or acknowledging it all at once "would be crushing," says Miller. "It is not like a conspiracy theory thing. It is not a political statement necessarily. The way [DeLillo] uses it, and the way it struck me, is a way of personal relating. When you are having a conversation with a loved one, there are things you are saying, and things being said without saying them. Subtext is a way to describe it, but it is more sinister than that. The things we can't admit to ourselves. Mortality. Our fears." Once in California, Miller hooked up with Brion to make his solo record. "It was very anarchic," he says of the sessions with Brion. "The 97's records have always been the typical record-making schedule. You cut the basic tracks, bass and drums, and you build with guitars and vocals on top until you have completed songs. You check things off as you finish them. With Old 97's, it is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and then go into the studio and lay them down. "Jon, with him it is so much more about inspiration. We didn't do any demos. I wrote like a crazy person, but it was all in my notebook. I would come in and he would say, 'What song should we do today?' I would play a couple, and he would say 'Oooh, I like that one.' And we would just make it up as we went." Ultimately, the biggest challenge for Miller was abandoning himself to Brion's method of record-making. "I don't put a lot of stock in astrology, but I am a Virgo," he says. "Apparently we are perfectionists and controlling. I guess that does ring true, in my case. I have a hard time letting things be natural or organic or chaotic. It was very hard to just let go. But I think it was very good for me. I trusted Jon and I knew it was going to get down and it was going to be great, and I didn't have to micromanage on what's done and what is left to do. By the end of it, I was writing songs in the studio. We would cut them hours or minutes after I had written them." Many of Brion's other production jobs have leaned heavily on keyboards, but for Miller's record, the sound sticks to familiar guitar-based arrangements. "Jon promised me, he said, 'I know where your heart is musically, and I am going to give you a record you can be proud of.' I went in knowing it could be a record with strings and horns and weird keyboards. And some of the songs that didn't make the record started like that. But it wound up feeling like a rock record. We wanted to keep it simple. It didn't make sense to have a string section or horn section or a whole lot of B3s going on." The simple, classic style of the record was even reflected in its final assembly. Although they recorded twenty songs, the final version of The Instigator features twelve tracks and clocks in at around a modest, vinyl-era running time of 40 minutes. "We were talking about the records we loved, which we consider the great albums," he recalls, "and the records we came up with were ten songs, twelve at most. We have been shooting high, shooting for -- I am not going to say important, because that is a bunch of bullshit -- but something that was perfect in its way." During a break from making The Instigator, Miller was sharing a drink with Robyn Hitchcock when the eccentric songwriter uttered this observation: "Some day there is going to be a graveyard full of us banging out songs on our six strings." Hitchcock's remark resonated with Miller, who concedes he has been touched by mixed feelings about his future as a musician, whether as a solo artist or with Old 97's. "There are a million guys who sit around writing songs, and it has been done and we do it over and over again," he says. "I feel there is only so long you can be one of those guys Robyn Hitchcock described -- the graveyard full of six-string, songwriting corpses. I just don't want to do that my whole life. I don't want to desperately try to appear young as I grow old, and try to appear current as I grow old." With that in mind, Miller has begun exploring other kinds of writing. He was recently approached by the hip publishing outfit McSweeney's and asked to submit stories for a collection of fiction that will have an odd distinction; all the works must be composed in 20 minutes. "It's like an experiment in automatic writing," Miller explains. And it is clear that, as daunting as writing prose or fiction may be, his literary ambitions won't end with the offer from McSweeney's. "I have always sort of envied the people who I do interviews with. You traffic in words. You lead the life of the mind. You sit at home at night. You don't have to go from shitty nightclub to shitty nightclub giving people an excuse to get wasted," he says, before acknowledging that one of the few shared experiences between musicians and music critics is exactly that: They both spend their nights going from shitty nightclub to shitty nightclub. So if the grind of the touring musician is losing its allure just as other creative endeavors are gaining luster, what will that mean for the Old 97's? That very issue was chewed over in what Miller calls "a year-long summit meeting" with his bandmates -- bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples. "It is sort of up in the air. It is all weird, all very weird. Everything depends upon this record, how long I have to work it," he says. At least part of the weirdness can be attributed to this simple fact: Even as Elektra is energized about Miller's solo album, the Old 97's have parted company with the label. False rumors of the band's imminent demise likely haven't been helped by Elektra's website for Miller, which talks about the Old 97's in the past tense ("For nearly ten years, Rhett Miller was the charismatic frontman and main songwriter for acclaimed Dallas quartet Old 97's "). And that might help explain why Hammond says he's happy to be out of the Elektra fold. "We've done the major-label thing, and I think they've figured out that a 'radio hit' of us is pretty much going to be a crapshoot, but that we will always do well on that next notch down, the mid-level labels and whatnot," Hammond says in an interview conducted via email. "It's in the smaller labels that you have the real meaty fun anyway, because that's where you get to record in the home studios, your relationship with your label is more like family, and you stay a tiny bit 'hungry,' which does nothing but good things for a songwriter. I think the 97's could use a good dose of the hungries." So how will the Old 97's reconcile the fact that the band is poised for a return to its hardscrabble indie roots, even as their frontman is getting a major-label push? "As long as that boy don't get above his raising, we'll be good," Hammond jokes. "We love Rhett and hope he gets what he wants out of his experiment. He still writes kick-ass 97's stuff. I'm not worried about him too much -- Elektra will probably drop the ball anyway, would be my guess, and we'll see him soon enough for 97's recording." Working with his significant other Grey De Lisle on her album Homewrecker also gave Hammond a taste for getting back to indie-style basics. "Recently I've built a pretty decent home studio for myself, all analog with old ribbon and tube mikes and all, and there's some serious talk amongst our band about DIY-ing it the next time around, whether we end up on a label or not," he says. His interest in vintage equipment has also convinced Hammond to shelve a completed album by the Ranchero Brothers, his acoustic side-project with Miller. "I decided to re-record the entire thing, because I'm still looking for a certain 'sound' that I didn't get on the first attempt," Hammond says. "My home studio includes an old 1960 Ampex 4-track machine that's been restored, so I'm anxious to get Rhett in there and see how it sounds pumping through those old '50s ribbon mikes into that machine. I think that's the sound I'm looking for. We'll see -- Rhett's pretty busy right now and it will be awhile before he's free to do anything but come over, drink lemonade and trade songs." Miller, too, says he feels confident about balancing his own career with the band. "All I know is, we made a pact with each other that we would always be Old 97's, and there would never be a reason good enough for us not to do this," Miller assures. "And certainly, it is going to change from the way it has been for the last ten years, where we deadheaded all over the continent. I just don't want to do that forever, for my whole life. But we are always going to be friends, always going to make records." To that end, even in the midst of getting ready to roll out The Instigator, Miller had two hometown shows lined up for August with the Old 97's -- the group's first gigs of 2002. "One thing about this band that is very good is we communicate very well," he says. "We have had to, to be the same four guys in the band as long as we have been. They understand. They knew I was going to do this." Furthermore, he notes, not everything he's been writing for his solo album is necessarily destined for the Kiss lunch box. "There are four or five [songs dropped from The Instigator] that will be in running for the [next] Old 97's album, which is the project in my mind that I would like to do next," he says. "I had already written the majority of it before I went in to make this record. By exclusion of these songs, the list has grown. "I don't think this is unreasonable: simultaneous careers, where I make records and I make records with them," he says. "I can always be with Old 97's and I can always be myself. I don't know why that couldn't be possible. "The saving grace is, nobody can own us. Nobody takes away our right, our free will. We can make records together. I can make solo records. We can do whatever we want. As long as our hearts are in the right place, it is all going to work out." ND contributing editor Paul Cantin lives in Toronto and believes the National Hockey League's instigator fighting penalty is a good thing.