“Speaking of X, John Doe gave me some advice that I think back on a lot…he said, ‘You don’t want to be a bar band. You’re better than that, you don’t want to spend your life just being in a bar band.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good point.’ I still play bars all the time, but there’s a difference between being just in a bar band and being an artist… You’re creating something that didn’t exist before you sat down and thought it up…it makes the world a better place.” – RHETT MILLER of OLD 97’S
Rhett Miller is a writer.
When I called Miller for this interview, the Old 97’s frontman was tackling a novel. He wasn’t reading a book. He was writing one.
Miller turned his back on a creative writing scholarship. Since making that decision to follow music, Miller created the Old 97’s. His fans continue to swoon, shake and listen to every word.
A few weeks before their “Too Far to Care” 15th Anniversary Tour hit Vinyl Music Hall, I interviewed Miller for my Music Matters column in the Pensacola News Journal.
RHETT MILLER INTERVIEW
MS: One of my best friends is a diehard Old 97s fan and she loves your solo work as well. She told me to ask you to play “Eyes for You” on this tour and especially when you play Pensacola.
RM: That’s sweet. Maybe, sure.
MS: She also wants to know when is your next solo album coming out?
RM: Good question. I’m sort of working on it right now.
MS: Cool. With all of the history; the recording, touring, the fans, what is the coolest part of this entire Old 97s ride for you?
RM: God. Between the 97s and the solo stuff, I don’t know. I really love travelling. I love getting to go to Japan and getting to go all across the United States and meet people. One of the coolest things is getting to meet the people that are sort of my heroes and idols and become friends with them. I get to make a living singing, writing songs and that’s crazy to me and it’s something my kids seem to be proud of and they think it’s cool and I think it crazy that I get to feed them by singing…just weird. It’s a good life.
MS: You mentioned your family; how do you juggle being a father, husband and artist in this crazy business?
RM: Probably like everybody else does. Nothing easy, but my job means that I have to leave for long chunks of time, but I’m also home for long chunks of time, so there’s up side and down side. My kids think it’s pretty cool that my job is kind of a glamorous job and they get to see some perks from it. We went to see a Cowboys game and sit in Roger Staubach’s box this season. All the festivals and shows that they get to go to. It’s pretty fun. It’s not always easy, especially given the current situation of the music industry, but it’s definitely fun and there’s a lot of perks.
MS: When you dropped out of college to pursue your music, is this what you imagined when you made that decision?
RM: You know, it’s funny. I guess it is. I don’t know that I ever thought I was going to be like a Bono or one of those huge just unapproachable rock stars. Bowie was one of my heroes, but I didn’t ever really imagine that I was going to live that kind of life; back of limos, drugs and a different supermodel every night or whatever. I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to live kind of a normal life, yet have a pretty successful career making music and it’s a weird thing. There’s a certain dichotomy at work in my life. When I’m not on tour, I don’t have handlers, I sort of am a handler.
MS: As far as creatively, writing especially, is there a possibility that maybe we see a memoir or maybe even a novel from you in the future?
RM: That’s so funny that you ask, that’s what I was working on when I got the email from my manager. He was like, “Can you do an interview right now?” I’m actually sitting here working on… “I’m trying to write a novel, man.” I shouldn’t even talk about it until it’s done, but I’m trying. How’s that?”
MS: I know that’s a very huge undertaking as far as novels…I know you write a lot.
RM: I’ve been doing mostly short stories and essays and stuff like that, but the novel is the ultimate goal. And I’ve always dreamt of it and I always figured I would do it once I got a little older and had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with music, which is sort of a younger person’s game. My long term plan has always been to make a career out of music and then segue into some sort of more a life of the mind kind of thing where you just stay home and use your brain.
MS: Now that you mention it-I talked to David Lowery (Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven) awhile back, is there any chance that you would be willing to lecture or teach courses as well as what you’re doing now.
RM: That’s funny. I don’t think I’d be allowed to teach for real because I dropped out of college, but I’ve done some little songs and stuff where I do stuff for high school kids mostly and it’s sweet. It’s one of my favorite things to do because I really approach it as a craft and I really love the craft of it and the sort of rule set that goes into the discipline of it. Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about. I’m not sure how I’d get into it. Maybe I’ll hit up someone for an honorary degree.
MS: I’m sure some university in Texas if not somewhere in this world would be willing to take you up on that offer. So I could see it happening.
RM: Well, I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence, so maybe they’d go for it.
MS: What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen at one of your shows?
RM: There’s just so much that’s so nuts. Craziness is sort of a common theme in this life, but right when you asked that, the thing that popped in my head was a gig at Buffalo a few years ago when a girl jumped up on stage during an encore-just this really beautiful girl-and did this crazy booty dance right next to me and the security started to throw her off, but then I think they thought, “Ah, she’s harmless.” And by the time I got to the end of the song, she had pulled her really cute friend up and then as the song ended, they just started making out on stage right next to me. I was like, “This is a pretty good job to have.” (Laughs) And it’s on Youtube too. If you look up Old 97s, Buffalo or whatever, that will pop up. It’s a pretty cool little moment.
MS: I’ll definitely check that out. As far as advice, what would Rhett Miller of today tell a younger Rhett just starting out?
RM: I tend not to be very nostalgic and I don’t get caught up in “then and now” thoughts, but it does occur to me every once in a while when something really cool happens, I’ll think, “What does 15 year old me think about this incredible moment?” you know, where I’m hanging out with X, my favorite band from when I was 15 or whatever. When I was 15 I was just so caught up in the angst of that transitional, becoming an adult. I would just tell myself, “Take a deep breath. Everything’s going to be cool. Don’t worry so much about what other people think about you because, what do they fucking know?”
MS: On that same line, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
RM: Well, speaking of X, John Doe gave me some advice that I think back on a lot, where he said, “You don’t want to be a bar band.” He said, “You’re better than that, you don’t want to spend your life just being in a bar band.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” I mean, I still play bars all the time, but there’s a difference between being just in a bar band and being an artist and I know that word is so…I don’t know…it’s just annoying, but, the word artist, but you do have to think of yourself as that. You’re creating something that didn’t exist before you sat down and thought it up and its…however incongruently it makes the world a better place and that’s a noble thing and it’s easy to just get caught up in this thought like, “Ah, I go around the country shaking my ass and selling beer for-you know-bar owners, but there’s more to it than that and there is something noble about this weird job.
MS: Well said. As far as your art, when you’re creating, are you critical about yourself or are you able to put that art, your music, out there and let it go out where it goes or do you beat yourself up about it sometimes?
RM: Yeah, I’m definitely self-critical, but I think you kind of have to be because, when I’m writing the songs, it’s not like I have a focus-group that I can sit down and play them for and get all the feedback. I’ve got my friends, and my wife, my bandmates (laughs) there is something of a focus group. You know, for the first-however long- part of that song’s life, it’s just me. So, I’ve got to be really self-critical about it because if I start walking out with a…trotting out a bunch of crappy stuff, it’s going to diminish my legacy or whatever; the catalog that I’ve worked so hard to make sure is pretty consistently good. You put out just a couple of stinkers and then everything else gets called into question. So yeah, I’m a pretty harsh self-critic, but I found a way to make it not hurt so much.
MS: What are you looking forward to in 2013?
RM: I’m hoping that I’m not spreading myself too thin, but I’ve got this list of different things I’d like to do; there’s a solo record that coming together, there’s a 97’s idea for a record that’s sort of theme record that I don’t want to jinx it by getting too into it, but there’s a 97’s record that I want to do. I’m talking to Murry about a Ranchero Brothers’ which is our sort of side project, alter ego band and then, as I said, I’m also really focusing on trying to write fiction, so I hope I’m not spreading myself too thin. I’d like to become more of a Renaissance person.
MS: I think you’ve already accomplished that, but that’s just my opinion.
RM: Thanks, Michael.
MS: This is a crazy question; a food question. Do you prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
RM: Crunchy! I don’t even understand why people would want creamy peanut butter. It’s just boring and bland. Peanuts…you want peanuts in your peanut butter.
MS: Very true. I’m a crunchy fan. This is the last question for you Rhett; is there anything else you want to add for the fans coming to your show in Pensacola, Florida?
RM: For a long time, the 97’s and I have neglected Florida and we’re really trying to make up for it. If you look at the last couple of years of our itineraries, you’ll see we’ve done a lot of Florida. The 97’s are coming through in February-three or four Florida dates-I’ll be there solo in Pensacola…or is Pensacola a 97’s show.
MS: Both. Solo and 97’s show in Pensacola.
RM: Then, I’m also playing on March 1st. I’m playing a festival in Panama City. Yeah. Panama City Beach, Florida. That’s close to Pensacola, right?
RM: Oh good, because I’m flying out of Pensacola the next morning. Yes, so that should also be a blast. I’ll get to play a full solo acoustic show at Panama City Beach March 1.
MS: Are you going to get a chance to enjoy the beach? Because the beaches here are gorgeous, I have to say.
RM: Believe me, I know. My wife’s family goes down to Florida every year and so we get to go down a lot. I’m a big fan, I don’t even mind all the old people so much.
MS: That’s true. We have a lot here. Rhett, is there anything else you wanted to say? I appreciate talking with you finally.
RM: No, but it’s going to be fun. I’ll definitely be enjoying the sunshine in Florida. Where I’m at right now, it’s 16 degrees outside.
MS: Stay warm. Well, thank you so much Rhett, It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
RM: You too and who was it that you said was a big fan? Was a girlfriend or just a friend?
MS: We’re best of friends. I’m the godfather of her kids. Shannon McGraw. She lives in Springfield, Missouri. Actually, she has a photo of you and her together at a show, I think in Missouri and that’s her profile picture on Facebook, she’s a huge fan, a great mom, a great friend, and she loves your music.
RM: That’s sweet. Well, tell her if she wants to remind me about any kind of a song request or whatever, tell her to hit me up on Twitter is usually the best. I don’t check Facebook as much, but Twitter is the best.
– Michael L. Smith