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The Old 97's take a different track

By Andy Turner, June 1999

Get on him or his band for sounding less country on their new album, "Fight Songs," if you want, but it will do no good, says Old 97's lead singer Rhett Miller.

"Anyone who applies a set of rules to what we're doing - who's not in the band - can, basically, lump it," he explains.

"Fight Songs" was recorded last October at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans with producer Andrew Williams.

Thirty songs were recorded, but only 12 made it on to the album. The New Orleans setting did not translate into a New Orleans sound on "Fight Songs," but Miller says there is a sort of lethargy to some of the songs, which can possibly be attributed to the sense of what he calls "New Orleans drunkenness and sleepiness."

He attributes the overall change in sound from past albums - less full-tilt, broken-hearted country-punk, more Beatlesesque, broken-hearted twangy pop - to the natural evolution of the band, not to commercial concerns or any deliberate effort to change the sound of the band.

"We've evolved into a quieter band," he says. "I'm sure it has something to do with age. You get tired of always going 90 miles per hour."

However, as you can imagine, a band named after a train wreck still must have time to "rock out," and Old 97's do just that in concert, Miller says.

It just means, he adds, the band doesn't record as many songs that have the "train beat shuffle" as they used to.

Bassist Murry Hammond, who Miller calls the Old 97's resident train buff, came up with the band's name. Miller says he liked it because the name reminded him of Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band, The 101ers.

Asked if he prefers train songs or that country theme of murder ballads, Miller goes with the latter and admits a fetish for murder-mystery novels. In fact, Miller says he's an avid reader and cites David Foster Wallace (his new "hero"), Paul Austeur and Raymond Carver, who he "steals" from on "What We Talk About" off of "Fight Song," as favorites.

"Literature is a bigger influence than any music I listen to," he says. That admission is not surprising considering Miller was once a scholarship-student in the creative writing program at New York's Sarah Lawrence College, before dropping out to become a rock-n-roller. He hasn't totally given up his fiction-writing aspirations. "Most of my creative energy goes into this (the band)," Miller says. "Hopefully, I'll get time off from music to get into it again."

Old 97's came together in 1993 in Dallas. Miller and Hammond had been together since the mid-1980's, when they performed with the Peyote Cowboys. They met guitarist Ken Bethea at the apartment complex where the three lived, introducing themselves to him after hearing Bethea play accordion with his door open.

The band's original drummer, Miller says, wasn't very good, but they found out he had borrowed his drums from Philip Peeples, who shortly afterwards became one of the 97's. A year after forming, Old 97's released their debut, "Hitchhike to Rhome," on Big Iron, a local label. The band then released "Wreck Your Life" on Bloodshot, before signing a deal with Elektra and releasing their major label debut, "Too Far To Care," in 1997.

Those first few years were a good time to be a band in Dallas, Miller says. The band played weekly at a "little honky tonk" called Naomi's. The scene, he explains, was small enough to get frequent gigs.

"We played about three times a week and developed a following," he says. "It gave us time to get our act together. Dallas was a good scene."

Miller says he nearly moved to Austin, "the live music capital of the world," but a stint in the band Killbilly caused him to stay in Dallas. "I'm so glad I didn't move," he says. "Austin has a very overcrowded music scene."

In the past, he adds, Austin and Dallas shared a bit of a rivalry over their respective music scenes.

"Austin hates Dallas, and Dallas doesn't really hate Austin," he says. "Maybe Austin is less sensitive now."

Still, if he moves back to Texas, Miller says, he will probably make Austin his home. For now, he's living in Los Angeles with his girlfriend. In the press release for "Fight Songs," written by Miller and signed "love, Rhett," he likens Los Angeles to "frightened eyes behind sunglasses on a pretty girl."

You may think Los Angeles has made Miller more leery of the trappings of fame, but he says he would be leery no matter where he lives. "This life, as glamorous as it sounds, is rife with self-hatred," he explains. "It would be a lot easier working for a newspaper or being a marine biologist. There's not a lot of safety in this business until you get to the highest rung."

Even then, Miller says, once you reach multi-platinum status, everyone wants to sue you and get their "piece of the pie."

It remains to be seen how far "Fight Songs" will take the band, and Miller says he's not going make any predictions.

"I stopped having expectations, because you get your feelings hurt," he explains. "So long as we can make another record and not have to get real jobs, I'll be fine."

He's happy, however, after mostly positive critical reviews, including one from critic Robert Christgau in the Village Voice and a good review in Rolling Stone ("unfortunately, the one everyone reads," Miller says).

For now, however, he and the band will just keep touring. "It's pretty non-stop - forever - until I'm 80."