Twenty years after releasing their debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, the Old 97’s are still churning out twitchy nerd-twang tunes full of cleverly tortured lyrics and snappy surf-twang guitar licks. The Dallas quartet never imagined they’d still be going strong in 2014, much less that they would build a legion of avid fans not just in their hometown but all over the nation.
On Most Messed Up, their 10th studio album, the Old 97’s take stock of their career to date with retrospective songs like “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and “Nashville.”
“We’ve been doin’ this longer than you’ve been alive, propelled by some mysterious drive,” sings frontman Rhett Miller. “And they still let me do it, as weird as that seems.”
And even though some of the Old 97’s no longer live in the Lone Star State, they remain steadfastly a Dallas band with plans to launch a local music festival next year called All the Way Weekend. Miller spoke to CMT Edge from deep in the heart of Texas about rock stars, composite characters and interventions.
On “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” you write about how it’s almost impossible to be a rock star these days. Yet you don’t seem too disappointed by that turn of events.
Miller: It’s one of the benefits of the way the music industry has changed. When I was growing up, there was such mystique attached to the people who made music, and it was almost as if that mystique was more important than the music. At a certain point, it wore so thin to me — the posturing and the posing. So many of my friends in the music world bought into the Keith Richards template, so they thought to be a brilliant rock star, they had to shoot heroin, and now they’re dead.
But now our favorite musicians are on Instagram and Pinterest and Facebook, and you know what they had for lunch and what kind of exercise regimen they’re doing. They’re human, not gods. That’s important because I think it’s bullshit to pretend that just because you can write rhymed couplets and set them to a melody, you’re somehow better than the people out in the audience.
How has that changed your definition of your job?
I realized early on that I’m a shitty actor. I’m at my best when I’m playing to my strengths, which is writing about something engaging and presenting it with as much honesty and passion as I can muster. The times that I’ve tried to pose or to calculate, something has backfired on me. Those were my failures.
But now the music industry rewards hard work and attention to craft. If you go out there and put on a bad show, the audience is going to write about it on the Internet and people are going to stop coming out. If there was a Yelp for musicians … well, I guess that’s just the rest of the Internet.
“Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” is one in a long line of Old 97’s songs about being in a band. It’s almost a sequel to “Broadway” from Too Far to Care.
I hadn’t thought of that as a specific bookend, but you’re right. Back in ’96 and ’97, when we were getting courted by the major labels, we were wined and dined. “Broadway” was about that feeling that they were fattening you up for the slaughter, but our mantra was, “We’ll make the best records we can make for you, but we don’t care about hits.” We wanted to have a career, so we cared about longevity, consistency and quality.
They would laugh and go, “Yeah, yeah. ‘Career’ … whatever.” We were thinking maybe 10 years down the line. I don’t think any of us thought we’d still be going close to a quarter-century later. Another 20 or 25 years isn’t out of the question, knock on wood.
Some songs on Most Messed Up sound like they’re about the same characters from earlier songs, as though you’re catching up with the guys from “Wish the Worst” or “Barrier Reef.”
It’s all one big story, and it started with a little record I made in high school, which is very obscure now. Thank God for that because I inexplicably sang with a British accent. It wasn’t inexplicable, I guess. All I listened to was British music, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
Even on that record, I was working on the character that has become the de facto narrator in my songs. You could say it’s me, but it’s not really me. Sometimes it’s an idealized version of me. Sometimes it’s a version of me where the negative traits are blown out of proportion.
Tell me about “Intervention,” which sounds like the dark side of the rock ‘n’ roll life you’re singing about.
The name in that song was something I really agonized over. I came close to making it my own name: “My friend Rhett’s in a bad, bad way.” That just seemed too self-referential, but that song is certainly a composite of my own fears about myself and a few different friends that I worry about. I was also just trying to make a joke.
The Old 97’s’ tour manager was obsessed with that TV show, Intervention, which I never saw. But every week there was somebody seeking intervention, and the script was pretty much the same every week: “We’re here because we care about you.” It’s such a cookie-cutter scene that I thought it would be funny.
Obviously, there are many people whose lives have been destroyed by the disease of alcoholism, and I hope they don’t take the song the wrong way. I’m not trying to make a joke of the disease. I’ve known it in my own life and in my own family. But, holy shit, life is hard, and we have to be able to laugh about some of this stuff. Some of the biggest laughs come from the darkest places.