The Old 97s Rhett Miller talks up his terrific new solo album, ‘The Dreamer’
For almost 20 years now, singer-guitarist Rhett Miller has fronted Dallas’ often-rowdy alt-country pioneers the Old 97s. But along the way, he’s taken detours to explore his poppy side on solo albums such as 2002’s The Instigator and 2006’s The Believer. With his latest solo effort, The Dreamer, an album he recorded with his fabulous backing band the Serial Lady Killers, he marries the two impulses, delivering shimmering pop on “Swimmin’ in Sunshine” and offering alt-country twang with “”Lost Without You” and “Out of Love.” The album comes out on June 5, and we recently interviewed Miller for an article for Hearsay Now. Miller, who was rather friendly, even complimented us on the questions we asked as he spoke via phone about the new album and his musical influences. Here’s what he had to say:
I saw you in a recent issue of Esquire, and you look pretty good in a suit. What was that experience like?
Maybe I missed my career as a male model. It’s super easy for me since I’ve done so many photo shoots with the band over the years. And it was with [photographer] Danny Clinch. He’s great.
Tell me about what it was like to self-produce yourself for the first time?
It was fun and easy, actually. I shouldn’t say it was easy, but I kind of thought it was easy. I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to sound like. I had the songs. The band that I’ve played with for so long, the Serial Lady Killers, started playing with me on The Believer tour, and they have played with me for the past six or seven years. We’ve always dreamed about making a record together. And we finally got to do it. They were so prepared and they’re so fun and easy going. We worked quickly because we didn’t want to belabor anything and get hung up on trying to make things sound super perfect. Almost everything you hear was recorded live off the floor. It was a fun, easy-going experience. I trusted my recording engineer Kevin McMahon. I let him worry about the sound. I didn’t get too hung up on tones and trying to chase down some sound I had in my head. I don’t really think like that anyway. I tend to think more globally about the feeling. It couldn’t have been more fun to make the record. Not that I don’t appreciate the producers I’ve worked with over the years. It felt easy and natural and I was bossing people around and trusting them.
Have you produced other bands?
I did an EP for the Spring Standards and little things here and there. I can see doing more of it. I think so much of it is creating an atmosphere of fun and creativity in the studio where people can be their best selves and don’t have to fear anything. For me, it’s all about instincts and trusting your instincts and hearing the little alarm bells that go off when you get off track. The word vibe gets overused but it’s applicable here. It’s about creating a good vibe in the studio.
Were you trying to merge your rock and country sides on this album?
When I started thinking about it, I kind of imagined an almost straight up acoustic guitar and vocal record. The songs seem like they needed more of a backbone, but I still wanted the heart of the record to be the vocals and the acoustic guitar. The other stuff that gets layered in there is nothing too crazy or too rockin’. After all these years of being in the Old 97s and now making solo albums for the past ten years, I’ve found that the things that I used to worry about — making sure that the fans and my band mates in the Old 97s know the solo stuff is so separate — was almost a defensive posturing I had to take when I was making those solo records. They were so different from the band. But at this point, the Old 97s are such a garage rock band, there’s so much space left to me as a solo artist that I can go in and make an Americana sounding solo album with a bunch of pedal steel on it that’s rootsy at its heart but is different from what the Old 97s are these days.
What initially informed your Americana sensibilities?
I grew up in Texas, so it was everywhere. I was a huge Buddy Holly fan and for me, he was the earliest bridge between country and rock ’n’ roll. His stuff is so simple and classic and American. My earliest musical loves were the Beatles, which a lot of kids of my generation came to. I really loved folk music. I love the Kingston trio and the harmonies and acoustic guitars. All the rock and roll seems like an extension of that even when it veered into swing or bluegrass. At its heart, it was all folk music to me.
You’ve described the tunes as “simple American songs.” What do you mean by “simple”?
I usually let the songs dictate the direction an album will take. I do think they are simple but some of them get bigger and bigger as it went along. “Out of Love,” for example, has a real percussive element to it in the same way that the early T. Rex stuff has. There are a lot of acoustic guitars on those albums. And there are a lot of hand drums, too. That’s why getting Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel) to play those really weird drum and percussion things on the album really helped a lot. To me, the song “Swimming in Sunshine” is the core of the record. There’s the line in the song, “what do I know about love?” It was just a throwaway line, but as we built the song and started layering harmonies, it became this really big moment in the song. That’s the theme on the record. You know like when you write an essay and you have a thesis statement. That’s the thesis statement. The first half is floundering around in these relationships. And the second half is about when they succeed. And even in their success, they’re fraught with peril. It’s all right there in that little moment in “Swimming in Sunshine,” which started as just a quiet moment in a song and ended up with this huge bank of vocals.
I like that opening tune, “Lost Without You.” Is it based on personal experience?
Yeah, everything I write is based on the personal. I try to follow the lyrics. I always feel like I’m chasing something. It would be disingenuous to sit down and write about something that wasn’t flowing out of my heart at the moment. I think it would be obvious to the listener that it was calculated. I try to let the songs grow themselves as it were.
Talk about what is like to do a duet with Roseanne Cash.
Rose is incredible. Twitter helped us get together, which is very cool. Friends in common suggested we might be good co-writers. She sent me the lyrics to the first verse in an email and I was inspired by them. She is such a cool artist who has been able to have such a long career and such an interesting career. I was inspired to work quickly and do something cool and 24 hours later I sent her an iPhone demo with fully fleshed out songs and choruses. We hammered out the details and made a recording and in the course of recording it, we both looked at each and said, “This is really good.” Our voices work well together. It seemed like a natural thing. It was such an honor.
You seemed to have so much fun playing live with the Old 97s. Is it as much to play with the Serial Lady Killers?
I do. It’s weird. We don’t have the decades of experience, but we have been together for a number of years. The relationship is different. In the 97s, I’m the youngest member and I’m very much one fourth of this democracy. With the Serial Lady Killers, they call me boss, jokingly, of course, but they defer to my whim and I’m their employer but at the same time we have a blast together. We have so much fun and we’ve been all over the country. We have a lot of great memories and inside jokes and that’s what drew me into the music to begin with. It was the camaraderie and the sense of family and the sense that you’re in this with people you really love. And you’re getting to do something you love. It is literally called “playing.” It feels like you’re playing and you’re having fun and someone is paying you to do that. What a great thing.
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