When Old 97’s guitarist-vocalist Rhett Miller opens the group’s latest record Most Messed Up with the bold declaration “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive…,” it isn’t his ego talking. It is simply a fact.
The acclaimed Americana band is now 10 studio records and more than 21 years deep into their career and shows no signs of slowing down. Most Messed Up is an energetic romp through what some critics say is their most rambunctious offering since their 1999 record Fight Songs.
The MusicNerd Chronicles was lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Old 97’s member Rhett Miller last month:
Let’s start with discussing the opening line on the record. I was curious about how you intended it to come across.
It was definitely meant in a nostalgic way. It is a bit of a weird phenomenon to be looking out at the audience every night and seeing people that are more likely younger than some of the songs you are singing. I’ve always found it a little gross when I listen to songs that are self-referential but when I gave myself permission to go there and examine this weird life I’ve got, I felt as though it could be good. As long as you’re being honest, you can get away with a lot.
Does it feel good to be two decades into your career and have Most Messed Up be so well received?
The reception we have received from this album is probably the best we have done from a chart, review and fan perspective. The response has been so heart warming and fantastic, it makes me glad that I didn’t give up any time along the way what we have normally done. I never would have thought 20 years ago that we would only be getting better with age. I never would have thought old man Rhett Miller would be making a rock and roll record at this age. I figured that I would have already segued into writing novels or getting fat instead.
While it’s always nice to have the critical acclaim and an album be so well received right off the bat, you guys really cultivated your fan base in much the same way that Wilco has, by touring.
Both the Old 97’s and Wilco are lucky in the respect that we are two bands that have straddled the pre and post collapse of the music business. We both lived through the luxury of having a major label help us build our brand because it is a very different world these days. It’s tough for bands these days because not only are they fighting against ennui and digital malaise, there is just so much media for people to consume and they aren’t always spending the time to get to really know a band. Back in the Old 97’s major label days, there was still the lottery aspect to the business; there was a chance you just might break through. I don’t know that I would have chosen this as a profession today.
I can’t imagine how impossibly tough it is for new acts trying to break into music these days.
Right now, it is all about the live show. Bands have to be on the road all of the time. I sincerely hope these newer bands can figure out a way to keep making music. I went back and spoke at my old high school about the viability of making a life in the arts. While I was there, I met a 13 year-old student that reminded me a lot of me. He was so vibrant, alive and talented and told me he was writing songs and playing shows. Despite me thinking he should go open for a bunch of punk-rock bands, he saw working the angles at Disney and trying to get into that world as being the most viable thing for a music career. It’s funny that the career options I saw for him and the ones he saw for himself were completely different. I don’t blame him in the least; times have changed and that’s the game these days.
An abbreviated version of this interview was published in the July 3, 2014 edition of Here Magazine