To Embrace Imperfection A Conversation with Rhett Miller of The Old 97's
Published Jun 11, 2014On one of the best songs on one of the best albums released so far this year, Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller admits that "Rock and roll's been very very good to me." Sure sounds like it. Over 20 years into their run as one of alt-country's leading lights, The Old 97's have produced one of the most coherent and irresistible records in their catalogue, and they did it by looking in the mirror. A rock album about rock music, Most Messed Up covers sex, drugs and rock'n'roll from the perspective of the insider, the wizened veteran, the lifer. It's a strange trip into a funhouse few of us can even contemplate, but it's a rewarding one, too. As fun as it is scary, as wild as it is sad, Most Messed Up is a hell of a ride. Exclaim! spoke with Miller about growing up, embracing imperfection, and the creative rebirth that led to this mid-career masterpiece.
I was trying to explain Most Messed Up to a colleague, and I wound up describing it as a kind of rock opera. Like, it's a rock'n'roll album about rock'n'roll. Did you set out with such lofty ambitions?
I didn't set out to write a rock opera, per se. But, as the songs piled up they just seemed to share a collective identity that kept me going. It kept me writing more songs, and encouraged me to meditate on this weird fucking life that not many people get to live, and not many people understand. I thought I could provide a perspective that not many other people can.
This is your best record since Too Far To Care. (If I don't count Alive and Wired which is one of the very best double-live albums I can name.) Did it feel like a creative rebirth to you?
Absolutely. I felt like a baseball player on a hitting streak! Or a hockey player on a goal scoring streak. I can't shave! I can't change this shirt!
I don't know how insulated from this you were, but in the mid-2000s, especially after your Blame it On Gravity record, many of your fans were concerned you guys had grown too mature, too complacent.
I was a little worried about that too. I don't know if it's inevitable, or if it's just about the cycle of a band or an artist or a songwriter. It's like a sine wave. You get intense then you get complacent. But, at a certain point I found the intensity again. You know, it was a weird time. It was a weird time in life. We were having kids, we were making a point to be home more than we had in the past, and by definition we were on the road less, working less. It was alright, but, I'm glad we survived that phase. I think everybody had to go through it. But, now we get to go out and do our jobs again. It feels really fucking good that we didn't get fired in the interim.
So, growing up was just a phase?
Yeah, I guess that's right. There are moments on all those records that I am really proud of. But, we had to sort of work through those albums. There are moments on those records that I can't even listen to. I hate to say that. I mean, I'm sure the guys in the band don't want me saying shit like that. It's not like they're bad. But, they're just things that we kind of had to work through. There's a song called "No Mother," the final song on Drag It Up, and it's about our friend who got killed in a car crash. And it's real, straight up "no mother should ever have to lose a son" and… it's good, but it's so fucking sad. I never wanted to make sad music. I'll put sad lyrics over a bouncy melody and make it sort of a complicated, ambivalent message where you're enjoying it but you realize that it's also kind of depressing… I'm fine with that. But when it gets all the way into sad lyrics with sad music? And fucking everyone's just feeling like slitting their wrists? That's not my comfort zone, musically. But, I think we had to go through it. I'm glad we did! Well, I'm glad we're on the other side of it, as it were.
This is a party record. Or, at least, a record about partying. At what point do you become too old to sing about sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll?
[Laughs] Oh, I'm sure there is that point, but I felt like I could still get away with it. Actually? I didn't even think too much about it. I just wrote these songs, and kind of felt like: "Fuck it. These are the songs I have to write right now. I sure hope people like them." It wasn't a calculated effort. I've discovered that the songs that I really calculate tend to be the least successful. So, I just went for it. But, yeah, it occurred to me at a certain point that, OK, this is fun to sing these songs, and it's fun to write "let's get drunk and get it on", but at a certain point someone's gonna point at me and be like: "Hey, you can't do that any more old man!" That point hasn't happened yet. Thank god.
A few times on the album you make hay out of the old divide between working for the man and working on your own terms. You sing: "I don't wanna be no square" and "Stop squeezing my shoes." Is that a big deal for you? How has that informed your decisions as a band?
It's something that I think about a lot. I went to this all-boys private school in Dallas, Texas where the majority of my classmates matriculated to Ivy League schools and most of them became hedge funders and doctors. They're all, basically, really wealthy guys that spend a lot of time on the golf course now. For the most part they're… they're fucking rich, you know? Now, when I run into those guys, this weird thing happens where – and I try to fight against this because it's unhealthy – but there's this mutual envy. I envy their security and bank accounts, and they envy the life that I get to lead. It used to fuel my envy when I'd think to myself "oh, but this life that they think I lead isn't even really that awesome". But, then, it recently occurred to me that: This life is fucking amazing. Like, I get to go around and dance and sing and make up fucking rhyming couplets and I feed my family with that? And, no, I'm not rich as shit (but the game isn't over yet – maybe some day I'll get a Lamborghini) but, I'm happy. And I don't have to get a fucking job. Those guys wake up every day and have to go do some fucking thing. Maybe it's gratifying to them, I don't know, but I know for myself I would fucking hate to be a hedge funder. Or an investment banker. Or a… whatever. I'm made to do this. I fucking love it. I find, when I now see these guys, I'm no longer envious of them, and I'm pretty proud of what I've accomplished.
Nice to hear that you're coming to appreciate your own contributions.
I've always been hungry. I think it's a byproduct of never having achieved massive success. I've always really wanted to prove something. That's never gone away. In the last couple years it's really ramped up within me. Like, fuck! I don't want to become a guy who just does open mic nights! I love doing solo acoustic shows, but I don't want to wind up only on a dinner theatre circuit for the rest of my life. I love those gigs, I really do, and I do a lot of them, but I would hate if it was just a dinner theatre circuit that gradually dwindled to a café circuit to just sitting at home talking about how I used to be in a band. I'd hate that.
Nashville feels like the centre of the universe on this record. It has everything we look for in an Old 97's song. And yet it feels different (not least because of the cursing). Did you set out to write something in which you weren't "writing down the same old words on the same old page"?
That song was weird. It was a co-write. I was set up by my publishers to go and work with this old dude in Nashville named John McElroy. He was a cool dude, but craaaaazy. He wasn't familiar with our work, but when I got there he said: "I checked you out on YouTube and what I really think your fans would appreciate is if you walked up to the microphone and sang FUCK." And I said "Wow, OK, I can actually see exactly what you're saying." And he had the first line of the chorus – "Who've I got to blow to get in this fucking show?" – and it really resonated with me, and was very cool that I didn't have to come up with it. It's not something I would… I tend to not complain. As a person, and I guess as a songwriter. I tend to really try to be pretty positive about stuff and if I complain it's usually about my own shortcomings rather than about the universe not giving me what I want. When he wrote that line it kind of made me feel like: "Yeah. Fuck yeah! I've worked my ass off in this industry, and as an artist, and, um, what do I got to fucking do? To get to the next level? And the next level? And, the fact that we were writing this song in Nashville – which is a town that's notoriously difficult for bands like us (and our band specifically) to break through… You know, it took us years and years to draw a crowd in Nashville because we were too country for the rockers and too weird for the country people…
Anyway, it was 10 a.m. and we drank a ton of cheap whiskey and smoked a joint and it just came out very quickly, that song… And "Nashville" really kickstarted this whole batch of songs [on Most Messed Up]. Once I'd sort of broken through, and written all those 'fucks' and 'blow' and 'motherfucker', I just realized aw man, this is great! It's liberating, you know, to have Tourettes in your songs!
The opening track "Longer Than You've Been Alive" gets pretty self-referential. It's a risk. Was it hard for you to open up like that after all these years of storytelling?
It was a risk, and it felt like a risk. But, I felt like, at this point, I had nothing to lose. I have built a catalogue that speaks for itself. The fans I've got (I think) are going to stick with me. They've stuck with us through the Elektra years, the New West years, all that stuff. So, I kinda just gave myself permission to say, well, fuck it. Nothing good ever happens without taking a risk. And if I do something safe I am guaranteed at best the same result I have been getting, but if I take a risk there's a chance that something really great can happen. And so far that's proving to be the case. You know, I got an email from our manager this morning saying that our first week [in sales for Most Messed Up] was by far the best first week we've ever had. We've broken into the Billboard Top 200 – I try not to pay attention to this stuff, but – we've broken the 200 about three or four times and it's always been # 188, #170 or something like that. This record came in at #30 on the Billboard Top 200 charts. Which is crazy! I mean it's exponentially better than we've ever done. So, I feel like the risk-taking proved to be the right thing to do.
How'd the band feel about it?
I brought them two batches of songs. I had this really sweet batch that I, in my mind, figured was a solo record. (And it has turned out to be that.) So, I had this pretty batch of love songs, and then I had this batch. This fucked up monster baby of a rock opera. And I really knew that it was the right thing to do, but the dynamics of our band are such that I can't convince them to do something, and the harder I try, the less likely I am to succeed. So, I brought them all the songs, I played them for them, and everybody was scared. Scared by the content of what became Most Messed Up. In particular, our guitar player Ken [Bethea] stood up and said: "I've got a 13 year old son, I am a pillar of my local community… I can't put this fucking record out and answer all the questions at PTA meetings and soccer games that I'm gonna have to deal with if we put out this record with 47 F-bombs and sex and drugs."
And I couldn't fight with him because I know that that's a no-win situation, so I just said: "Look – take these practice tapes home, just take a month off, listen to them, and think about it." And he called me a month later and he said: "I'm an idiot. These are the best songs you've written in 20 years. We have to make this record. I'll just have a talk with my son, you know? Tell him: Sometimes grown-ups go through hard shit and they have to talk about it in a real way. And, maybe Rhett's gone through some tough times, and here're these songs, and it is what it is." I'm really glad he was brave enough to overcome his fear of the local mob, you know? The torch-bearing neighbourhood watch!
Seems to me that one of the key themes here is imperfection. Like, imperfect people making iffy decisions, but steadfastly owning their lives, their mistakes. Do you embrace imperfection?
Dude, it's taken me this long, until my early 40s, to really be able to do that. And I think what it is it's all the years of being in a band and all the years of making these records, making this art, and living a fully examined life, in a way. But perhaps even more so – and I try not to talk about them too much in interviews – it's the kids. Me having kids, looking at them, trying to help them learn the ways of the world. And one of the big things I try to impart to them is that there's no such thing as "perfect". If you think you're going to try and be perfect, you're setting yourself up for disastrous failure. And I think that message is finally sinking in for me, as well.
Yeah. I'm wildly imperfect. And it took me a long time to be OK with that, because I would try and hide it. I'd try to be something I wasn't. But, part of it, too, is the way that music gets made. Even technically. The way that music gets made these days is so false. Everything is so tweaked on the computer and by autotune and overworked by the producer and the kids might think that that's right and normal. I see a backlash happening against perfection. I hope to be a part of that.
Music should be human. It should reflect all of the fucked up parts of humanity and if it doesn't, it's really doing a disservice to… to the whole purpose of art! When I was a kid I didn't understand why we were on this earth. Why I was here. I had a big suicide attempt. I didn't think I had any reason to live. And then, when I came back from it, the reason I found was music. It was these songs, and these people who made them, people examining this existence, and how fucked up it is, and the moments of beauty scattered all through the bullshit. And if we take the bullshit out and it's just 'perfect beauty', well that's more horrible and ugly than anything I can imagine.
So, yeah. I'm into imperfection.