Miller’s staying on Elektra sans 97’s felt like a betrayal to many longtime fans who wondered if the band would survive to make another record.
When The Old 97’s took their name from the Johnny Cash hit, “The Wreck of the Old 97”—itself a cover of a fearsome turn-of-the-century train wreck ballad—they knew what they were doing. A connection to an older, traditional roots sound, but filtered through the forefather of nasty, fuck-you punk, the band’s name fits them like black on Cash. Add the literate (and often literary) lyrics and smart pop melodies of singer/acoustic guitarist Rhett Miller and you’ve got what that old train-wreck-balladeer might sound like nowadays, if he were time-machined into modern day Dallas, Texas. And learned to loosen up a bit.
After their rollicking, cow punk 1994 indie debut, Hitchhike To Rhome, the band emerged as eclectic country-rockers on the follow-up, 1995’s breakthrough album Wreck Your Life, released on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records to nearly unanimous critical adoration. That national attention brought them a major-label deal with Elektra, who released their last three records—1996’s alt-country touchstone Too Far To Care, 1999’s more radio-ready pop powerhouse gem Fight Songs and the bouncy, 60’s rock ’n’ roll of 2001’s explosive Satellite Rides. After years of sparkling reviews and sold-out shows, but un-blockbuster-like sales, Elektra dropped the band in 2001, offering a solo contract to Miller, which he accepted, releasing his pure power pop solo debut The Instigator in 2002. Miller’s staying on Elektra sans 97’s felt like a betrayal to many longtime fans who wondered if the band would survive to make another record.
Now for the good news: like a phoenix from the ash (or maybe a Cash with his Rick Rubin) the Old 97’s have returned with a new album, Drag It Up (New West Records), a diverse collection of new and old (but previously unrecorded) songs, full of fresh sounds and dead-man’s-curve surprises.
We recently talked to lead guitarist Ken Bethea about the new record, and how he gets his band—including Miller, who now lives in upstate New York, bassist (and occasional singer/songwriter) Murry Hammond, now in L.A. and drummer Philip Peeples, still a Dallas bo—together to rehearse.
Is it Beth-ay or Beth-ay-a? And where are you?
Beth-ay. At home in Dallas, TX.
Are you from Dallas?
I’m not even from a town. I’m from an area outside of a town called Tyler. Tyler’s not that small, it’s like 70 thousand. But I grew up, outside of that, on a dead end road. Murry’s from a real small town, too.
So, what’s the band up to now? Rehearsing for the tour?
[laughing] No, man, it’s sad but true, but rehearsal is what [our show in] St. Louis is. We never get together to rehearse. We’ll just jump up there and… Luckily, we’ll only be playing four or five songs off the new album, because it’s not out yet, so we’ll still be playing the same old stuff. As for the more tricky songs like “Buick City Complex” or “Oppenheimer”—
“Oppenheimer”’s one of my favorites.
Yeah but see, that’s one that always has to wait. I mean, if we’re gonna play “Oppenheimer” we’ll have to rehearse it a day ahead of time. We always kinda stagger… I promise you, that night in St. Louis will be a lot of what we consider standards. The “Doreen’s,” the ones we’ve played a lot and won’t screw up.
Old 97’s songs are full of literary references, from Raymond Carver to Don DeLillo. What are you guys reading now, and how much does that affect the songwriting process?
The two that read the most are me and Rhett. What am I reading at the moment? Let me look at my pile of books. I just finished a thriller, just a pure thriller, by a guy named Harlan Coben. I have pretty recently, on the highbrow end, read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Rhett and I really like whodunits. Mysteries. Have you ever done those kind of books where you solve the mystery?
I’m not sure what you mean.
It’s more of a game than a book, really. You read Encyclopedia Brown when you were a kid?
It’s like that, but for grown-ups. I’ve done a lot of those. Most of them aren’t that good, I just like doing them. I found something by this guy, Dennis Wheatley, a month ago in a used book store, this thing came out in 1980, and it’s more like a big file than a book. It’s like Encyclopedia Brown, but you get everything, you get bloodstains, crime scene evidence, photographs… And this guy is a real writer, this isn’t the only thing he does, he wrote a bunch of books in the 60s and 70s, so the writing is great. So, I read this and it’s a great mystery. I worked my ass off on trying to figure out who did it, I actually got it right, although I would not have been able to win a court case.
How do you know if you get it right?
You open up an envelope that explains everything. I gave that book to Rhett two weeks ago, I’d just started a new one, and I got a phone message from him two days ago, saying, “Hey man, I want to ask you some questions. I’m in the middle of the mystery and…” [laughs] So right now we’re both being mystery guys. Detectives.
How does that affect the songwriting?
It doesn’t. (laughs)
You’re just having fun now.
How did the post Satellite Rides time off, the various side and solo projects affect the band and the making of the new record?
In a certain way, it took the heat off the Old 97’s being what our lives were about. Our lives were about nothing but Old 97’s from 1993 till 2001. Because when we took that break—and Phillip and I started being full-time fathers, Rhett had a solo album and then a kid, Murry got married—when we got back together last Fall and said let’s go ahead and do another record and see what happens, it was under the condition that this is what we like to do, not what we have to do. Which is kinda cool. Had we never made another record, I would have looked at those guys, I would have looked at the whole thing slightly different than I ever will. No matter what happens from now on, I utterly know that we do this because we like to do it.
It’s no longer the only thing keeping you going.
That’s all we had, yeah, you think I would have said anything different in 1995? Living in shitty little apartments here in Dallas? Nothin’, man, we didn’t have anything. Except for the 97’s. We could go out anywhere in Dallas and get free beer ’cause we were in the Old 97’s. Now that free beer doesn’t matter, you strip it all down and what do you have left? The fact that it is fun playin’ with those guys and we get along real well and… That’s it.
There’s a variety of musical styles and diversions on Drag It Up. It feels like a long lost step-sister to 1995’s Wreck Your Life. More organic, less produced, than the last few records. Conscious decision or happy accident?
It was a conscious decision to record to 8 track, that was Murry’s idea, and we said fine, let’s see what happens. It had more to do, I think, with our relationships with each other than to try to get back to some earlier sound. ’Cause, frankly, I think Wreck is our worst sounding album. That was my concern, up front, I didn’t mind making a stripped-down record, but I did not want it to sound like Wreck Your Life. I like exciting, engaging records that have curveballs and different stuff going on, and Wreck doesn’t have that. It’s very straight ahead and I didn’t want that again. At the time, we couldn’t have pulled off more than we did. I don’t want to shoot Wreck down, it was what it was, and it has good songs on it. What I think’s really cool about this new album is that, you know, “Won’t Be Home” is a cool song, but we’ve been there before. But we haven’t been into the world of [Drag It Up’s] “Valium Waltz,” “No Mother,” “In the Satellite Rides A Star,” my song “Coahuila”… Those are places we haven’t been. I like making fresh songs that still sound like the Old 97’s. Which is where Fight Songs got off a little bit, ’cause at times it did not sound like the Old 97’s. All our other records do. I like the variety on this new album a lot. A song like “Borrowed Bride,” it’s two and a half minutes long. We don’t have songs like that.
There a couple of short songs, your song “Coahuila” is under three minutes, too. Are you singing lead on that? It didn’t sound like Rhett or Murry.
Yeah. That’s the first time for me in the Old 97’s. It came from a side project I had called Scrap Hotel.
How was the songwriting and recording process for Drag It Up different than for previous records?
The biggest difference was that we had a lot of little technical difficulties. A lot of patching troubles, crackles, a vocal microphone got smashed… Mixing took a long, long time, which we’re not used to. It was more to do with the people or places we were recording with but, man. It dragged out forever. That’s why the release date was pushed back. It was supposed to be out June 20th. But it just kept dragging out.
You should have called it Drag It Out.
Why did it take so long for the gorgeous “In the Satellite Rides a Star” to get recorded? It’s been around for years.
Murry wrote that for [1999’s] Fight Songs. I was paranoid, once I heard all of the music Rhett had written for Fight Songs, which were all very light. At that time, Murry was only singing one song per album. I was expecting Murry to turn up with a country barnburner, you know, at that time, a typical Murry song. And he shows up with “Satellite,” which is not. And it was only going to make a light album lighter. And I said no. Not that I’m the boss or anything, I was just like, come on, we’ve gotta have something meatier than this. So, a few weeks of hard feelings later, Murry started singing Rhett’s song “Crash On the Barrelhead.” I don’t think Murry felt good about it yet, you know, he wanted to have a song on the album that he wrote. Then he wrote “Valentine” in the middle of the sessions, and that’s how “Valentine” got to be on the record. And “Valentine” was such a great song, it was undeniable. It had to be on the album. And “Satellite” didn’t fit on the next record, [2001’s] Satellite Rides. It was way too meditative. Just totally out of place on that album. Finally, it felt perfect for this album. “Valium Waltz” is the same thing. That’s an old song, too, from ’94 or ’95. “Coahuila” I wrote before we started the Old 97’s. Murry wrote “Smokers” before we started the band. These are a lot of old songs that haven’t felt like they fit on other albums. That’s pretty cool, ’cause they felt like they all fit together. Some of them are new, but, you know, “Won’t Be Home,” that’s an older song. Realistically, the last three albums have been a little idealistic on the front end. We sat down and said we want to make an album that sounds like this. Then we’d work out together songs that fit that mold. This album was not like that at all. We just said these are the songs we have, let’s make ’em all work.
What are the newer songs on Drag It Up?
“New Kid,” “Borrowed Bride,” “No Mother”…“Blinding Sheets of Rain” is pretty new. A lot of these aren’t super new, but’ve been written since 2001. “Moonlight” was gonna be on Satellite Rides but didn’t make it. “Victoria” was supposed to be on our first record, but didn’t show up till the next one. For a song to miss one release, I mean, that’s pretty normal. But to miss two or… I mean, “Valium Waltz” was probably written for Wreck Your Life. To miss four is kind of weird. But I’m glad we had it for this record, it’s the killer midpoint, very cool.
It’s lovely. Almost swoony.
It’s a true story about some friends of ours that used to take a lot of drugs. They’d drive to Mexico and back to get cheap pills, all in one trip. It’s about seven hours to Mexico, which makes for a 14 hour road trip for pills and booze.
There always seemed to be a real sense of urgency to Rhett’s songwriting. Many of his songs on the new record, though, like “Adelaide,” “Bloomington” and “No Mother” are much more laid back.
Have marriage and fatherhood mellowed the guy?
Not… Well, I wouldn’t say… Not necessarily… No, It has, okay? [chuckling] Fatherhood definitely has. However, I don’t really think it showed up in the music. It had more to do with, that’s kind of the vibe we wanted. We wanted to strip things down. Just let the songs be, you know, without trickery.
Studio trickery, you mean?
Yeah, Too Far To Care is the trickery-est album we have. For this album we just wanted strong guitars, playing parts, and to not get crazy with the background vocals. That’s one thing that made me happy when listening to the new album is that there’s not much background vocals on it, like there’d been on the last three [albums]. It’s kind of refreshing. I had gotten, in my mind, to think that that is what the Old 97’s sounded like: a wall of background vocals. So when I heard this album, I thought, that’s kind of cool, only having one background vocal most the time. There’s certain spots when we did something bigger, but it’s not every song.
Why New West Records?
Last fall, when we hired a new management company, we said, okay, we need a label. We didn’t even know what the demand was. I mean, we knew we could get a pretty good label, like New West or Lost Highway, one of those types of labels, a mid-level label. We knew we didn’t want a major label and we didn’t want a little bitty label, and our management said “Hey, I’m friends with Cameron, the owner of New West, and I know for a fact he’d be very happy to have you.” And we said, call him up and ask him… How much money they have. [laughs] And we have friends in Slobberbone, who are on New West, who gave them a thumbs up. They had enough money to make a record and that’s it. Now we’re on New West. We started working on the record before we had met any of ’em. It was totally unlike when we’d signed with Elektra, when we’d go to every label and give them the third degree.
This time you were just looking for someone to get the record out.
Totally. Again, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, my focus right now isn’t the Old 97’s. Not my primary focus. I got other things in my life. I didn’t want to talk to 15 labels. New West is cool, too. Really nice people. I like ’em a lot. I like them better than… I did like some of the people at Elektra, I’m not gonna kick Elektra, but, percentage-wise, out of the 300 that worked for Elektra, I liked about five. And at New West, I pretty much like everybody.
The band was actually dropped by Elektra, what happened there?
We got dropped after Satellite Rides, and they offered a solo deal to Rhett for two albums, which he took.
Were there any hard feelings within the band about Rhett’s decision?
Yeah, some. I don’t think any of them were abnormal. I don’t think anybody in that situation wouldn’t.
That seems like a situation a lot of bands wouldn’t survive.
It is. Most don’t. I think the only way you do is by getting back to why you started in the first place. We enjoy playing together. If we didn’t like it at this point, we’d be done. So, they dropped us, and then Rhett just got dropped two weeks ago. So Rhett’s a free agent now.
Is he interested in making another solo record?
Yeah, he will. He’s out looking for a label, maybe he’ll end up on New West, I don’t know. He was just cutting some demos here the other day. He’s happy. It sucked for him to be on Elektra this last round. Most of the people the 97’s worked with there were gone by then. There’s been a lot of changes there. I mean, turn on the television, go to the worst music channel, whether that be MTV or E!, I don’t know, go find something like Justin Timberlake or Good Charlotte or just some real generic music, and that’s what Elektra’s chasing. And that’s really who’s on their roster.
You’ve been to St. Louis a lot. What comes to mind, good or bad?
I love playing in St. Louis. There’s some real characters… Three I can think of right away, I don’t want to name names, because they’re all real nice. [He names them, off the record, and they’re pretty much the same three local pseudo-celebrities you’d guess] That’s three of the strangest people in the country and they all live in St. Louis.
There’s also this one girl we always talk about when St. Louis comes up, this was years ago, she was like 13 then, red hair, kinda big girl, wore a lot of, like, plaids… She would always come see our band, she had a little music newsletter, you may known her if you grew up around there. This girl’s mom would bring her to our shows, and you know, that’s fine, but she would hang around at sound check and after the shows… Kind of a weird little girl. Made me uncomfortable. I never hung out with her. The other guys had conversations with her. This one time, she was there after the show, sitting on the stage, talking to Murry, when no-one else was really around, she says, “Hey, I got a new piercing.” And he says, “Oh, really?” and she’s like, “Look,” and lifts her skirt up, no underwear on, she’s got her labia pierced. Remember, she’s like 12 or 13 then. Totally flipped him out. And we’ve joked about it forever, it’s one of those band lore jokes, and of all things, this past March, we were playing in L.A. and she was there. She’s like 19 or 20 now. I saw her and acted like I didn’t recognize her, just cruised right on by, thinking, holy shit! I get backstage, and tell the guys “She’s down there!” and they’re like, “Yeah, we already saw her! She lives!”
You guys are all over the country now.
Yeah, Murry’s in L.A., Rhett’s in upstate New York, and Philip and I are in here in Dallas.
What kind of stuff are you listening to?
I don’t know what the others are listening to now because we haven’t been hanging out much lately.
Tell you the truth, right now, up until I started talking to you, I was putting in a stereo in my living room, ’cause up till now I haven’t had one. As of today I went and bought one. So I don’t listen to much music, I play a lot of video games.
What are you playing now?
I just finished Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando. [laughs] I started playing WarCraft 3 again, that’s on my PC. And I play a lot with my boy, all the Mario stuff. We have a PS2 and a GameCube.
You’re serious about your gaming.
I play a lot. A minimum of two hours a day. When I’m not doing that, I carry a GameBoy everywhere with me. I do it all the time. And I have an older car, a 1960’s Chevrolet, with no stereo, so, I don’t listen to much music.
Keeps your ears fresh.
How do you beat back boredom while on tour?
Games and reading are probably 90% of it. The rest of it’s wandering around. If you’re lucky enough, go find a Target [laughs] or a mall, to be amongst humanity. It depends on the town. You’ve been to Columbia? There’s a great store, Slackers, I always visit.
What are the best, and worst, Old 97’s songs?
I’d say the best overall Old 97’s song is “Big Brown Eyes.” Really, my least favorite to play is “Sweet Blue Eyed Darling.” It’s just three chords: A, D and E. Over and over…
Who are the Kinks fans in the band?
We all are. They’re more into the ’60s Kinks, I’m more into the 70’s stuff.
What, the rock opera stuff? Soap Opera, Schoolboys in Disgrace, the concept albums?
No, more like Low Budget, Give the People What They Want, Celluloid Heroes, Lola vs Powerman… It’s funny, Murry’s the biggest Kinks fan in the 97’s, but he doesn’t know any of the 70’s stuff.
There’s something missing from the new album’s cover art: the apostrophe in the band name. What gives?
That’s just how the artwork turned out. [the designer] left it out unintentionally, and we liked the look of it. It’s still there in the liner notes, everywhere but the cover. It bothered me at first, that it wasn’t there, but I kind of liked it, too, because I knew people like you would ask about it. Is that a rocketship?
Cool, are you gonna go outside and fly it? [A child’s voice is discernable in the background] Well, I know it’s not really a rocketship, considering it’s a crunched up styrofoam cup.
How old are your kids?
He’s four and my little girl’s one. We’re going swimming after this.
The Old 97’s start Drag It Up’s pre-release tour in St. Louis, July 1st at Mississippi Nights. Look for the album in stores July 27.