Cayamo Conversations: Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s
Rhett Miller brings remarkable energy and enthusiasm to his shows. You probably know that he and the Old 97’s really rock it, but unless you’ve seen him solo, you might not realize how lively an acoustic set can be. There’s that hair and those hips and the guitar strumming (he’s got this thing he does on some songs where he swings his right arm in a circle as he strums, it’s pretty cool). And then there are those eyes. I mention the eyes because my wife Malinda mentioned them. A few times. The eyes and the hips. She mentioned those, too. A few times.
I’ve been a fan of Miller for a while – he writes smart songs that often run counter to what you’d expect while at the same time coming close to the reality of the way people relate to one another. As he says in the interview below, his thing is the two and a half minute song about the dynamics and difficulties of a man and a woman. In Barrier Reef, the girl at the bar asks if he has a car and he says “Do I have a car!” and you can see the whole thing happening. And then the thing you don’t expect, that chorus:
What’s so great about the Barrier Reef?
What’s so fine about art?
What’s so good about a Good Times Van,
When you’re working on a broken,
Working on a broken,
Working on a broken man?
I had the opportunity to visit with Miller (as well as Sara Watkins and Glen Phillips) on the last full day of Cayamo 2012 in the Star Bar, up on Deck 13 of the Norwegian Pearl, overlooking the pool deck. I found Miller to be friendly and about as open as anyone I’ve interviewed. During our short conversation we covered Miller’s new record (which was recently funded through PledgeMusic.com), changes in the music business, connections between old and new music, and Miller’s take on the Cayamo experience. For those who are not familiar with Cayamo, it’s a week long music cruise, billed as A Journey Through Song. You can read more about Cayamo here.
ML: By the way, I did a No Depression pieceon your PledgeMusic project and you were nice enough to send a note about it. Thanks for that.
RM: Oh, you were the one that coined the term “Leftsetzian”? Is that you?
ML: No, actually it was one of your Twitter followers who did that, then I quoted it from your Twitter stream.
RM: Okay, cool. But I liked that piece, though. It’s a little weird though doing the PledgeMusic thing because I’ve never been good at asking for stuff. Trying to hit people up for money just is inherently weird to me. But then I started thinking about it, and all it is is pre-ordering the record. And then if you want a little bonus package, you can have that, too. Going back I might have not have done so many of the little perks, but I got caught up thinking, “Oh it will be fun, I can throw in this jacket I wore on this tv show . . .”
ML: So you made your goal in a weekend. That’s great! Where are we with the record?
RM: We haven’t officially announced a release date but probably late spring or early summer. It’s nice I’m not beholden to anybody, you know, except the listener. I don’t have a record label to worry about except now I’m the head of the record label! So I’m gonna master when I get back next week and I’m already thinking about, well geez, should I do a radio mix on the single? I used to make so much fun of the Elektra record employee who would bring that up because I was like, “Come on, this mix sounds great. Why are we gonna spend more money to do a radio mix?” and now I’m in the same boat thinking like a record exec a little bit, not much, but a little bit!
ML: Do you think the Old 97’s will look at that approach as well down the road?
RM: I don’t know. It looks like our deal with New West is up. We’re waiting to see if they’re going to make us an offer and if they don’t . . . I mean, nothing’s off the table. It’s a brave new world and the 97’s see that as well. I don’t know if they’d want to be on my record label, Maximum Sunshine? They may wanna make their own. You know, we do have our own imprint called Two Tons, which is what our very first record has been sorta re-released on over the years. Two Tons is taken from the wreck of the Old 97, which is kind of a funny little thing.
ML: What’s interesting to me is that the Old 97’s stuff is cutting edge and new in many ways but the band has such an old name. I mean, that name goes back to the very beginnings of the reason why we are even on this boat. It’s pretty cool.
RM: It’s really cool. And I love it. I feel a strong tie to the beginnings even though, when they didn’t know I was listening on the boat, I heard someone describe my stuff as being, what was it the guy was saying? “Well, he’s real different, he’s very different from everybody else. He’s more like a punk rocker.” That’s weird, since I’m playing solo acoustic on the boat. But I feel like what I do is so directly connected to the early stuff, the stuff I love. Hank Sr. was the main inspiration for me when I stopped trying so hard to be rock ‘n’ roll pop. In the early 90’s I was trying so hard to be something I wasn’t. I just settled in and asked myself, “What do I really love?” And it was Hank. It all came back to this two-and-a-half-minute song about a man and a woman and the difficulty that dynamic creates and that’s what I love.
On this new solo record, I have a duet with Rosanne Cash. We wrote the song together, we sing it together and I think our voices sound really good together. Her husband John [Leventhal] keeps saying like “God, y’all sound so good together. It sounds like you’ve been singing together for years.” And we do a photo together and we look like we’re brother and sister. It’s weird, but our facial characteristics are very similar. And it’s so cool to me that we started our band with this Johnny Cash idea and this song that we had fallen in love with, even though Vernon Dalhart wrote it, it was a Johnny Cash song to us. And so years later there I am with his oldest kid, getting to make music. It’s funny that comes up now because Sarah Lee Guthrie, who’s Arlo’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter, and her husband Johnny [Irion] and their kids are on this boat. And then you’ve got Hank’s granddaughter on the boat. You’ve got all these multi-generational music families and then they’ve got their kids with them too. Well, not Holly Williams but Sarah Lee and Johnny have their kids, as do we.
I love this idea that music gets passed along. Like in the old days with the oral traditions, the stories that get passed along. And it’s kind of the same thing with this love of music and this thing we we do. And now less than ever is it like a money grab. Less than ever is it an obvious way to go out and get rich and live the high life. But that’s good because it weeds out the people who are doing it maybe for the wrong reasons.
ML: Yes. Of course, the flip side of that is that if you own music and if something good happens, you’re there, you know, as opposed to some other fellow.
RM: Exactly. The board room that doesn’t care. Just now we are about to do, maybe, a 15th anniversary tour of Too Far To Care, our first Elektra record. We were discussing among ourselves the idea of getting the masters back. Our manager Danny Goldberg was laughing! He’s like “Warner Brothers is not giving you your masters back! Everybody wants their masters back! It’s not going to happen!” And as much as I am grateful to Elektra Records and the people we worked with there, we had a really great experience there actually, I like that that business model has finally gone away. I like that we’re going to own our masters going forward. And that the popular artists aren’t going to be decided in a board room but by the people who are listening. That’s how it should be, right?
ML: I was talking to Grayson Capps the other day. Here’s a guy who stays out of the limelight. I mean, he’s a great singer-songwriter but not incredibly well known. Then he hits a lick with four songs in a film – A Love Song for Bobby Long. He owns his music, so he can build a house down on the Mobile Bay, where he wants to live and things are good.
RM: That’s great. Yeah, it was funny hearing Edwin McCain the night we did that songwriters circle. Before he introduced his big hit single, he said “People ask me, you must get sick of this song.” And he’s like, how do you get sick of the winning lottery ticket?
RM: I loved that.
ML: Will you talk a little bit about the experience of being on the boat with your family and what it’s like?
RM: Well, to be on a boat with this many artists that I admire and then, also, this many artists that I’m friends with and have been friends with for years. Obviously the overlap is that I admire all these people. I get paid to spend the week with my family on a beautiful cruise ship, stopping at these incredibly beautiful islands and then do three or four shows. The moment that encapsulated the experience was having my kids sitting on the side of the stage watching WPA. There’s Sean and Sara Watkins, Glen Phillips and Greg Leitsz! God, and Sebastian [Steinberg] on bass! That’s such a great band, such an all-star lineup and I’ve really been friends with most of them for a decade. These are people that I really love, really care about. I was just there to watch them – I wanted my daughter Soleil who’s 5 to see Sara because Soleil’s such a musical presence and she loves to sing. Sara started so young herself and is just a magical presence on stage and so gifted obviously at the fiddle and her voice. I was sitting there with Solei in my lap and they started their last song and Sean yelled out that he wanted me to come up and join them which I had no idea he was going to do! And you know, getting to like say to Soleil, ” Hold on, daddy is going to go sing!” And then having her sit on the side of the stage and watch me get to do an impromptu appearance. I mean that’s unheard of! So immediately after that set I went down to the Sixthman offices and talked to Rodney who’s in charge of all the booking and I’m like, I’ll do anything! Just let me back on the boat! I know my manager would probably not want me to say that, but whatever. I’ll do this every year if you’ll let me come back! And that’s what they say, they say that the attrition rate is zero. They say everybody that comes on the boat begs to come back. Even Emmylou, I’ve spent some time with her. She loves to be at home. She loves taking care of her dogs, so she loves to be quiet …
ML: She’s got the whole kennel thing, doesn’t she?
RM: Yeah. I think she was scared to go on the boat and they finally talked her into going and she came, and like day 2 she said, “I’ll come back whenever you want me to come back.” You know that’s how I feel and everybody I talk to that’s how they feel. It’s just a one-of-a-kind situation.
ML: What about the interaction with the fans during the cruise? As an example, we were coming out of the theatre with you last night. Your daughter was sleepy? We were just walking behind you and passed a few words. It seems like to me most of the fans are pretty respectful of your privacy while still enjoying being in your proximity. You know there’s a balance there. What’s your experience ?
RM: Well I’m not real sure who hasn’t come up! But a lot of people have come up and I don’t mind. I’ve never minded that in general just because A, my fans seem to be real nice, and B, kind words are kind words! I’ll take them! The best thing about this job are the perks, getting to do fun stuff like this and getting to meet nice people. If I was in a band like Insane Clown Posse and our fan base was really angry young people . . . I don’t mean to pick on them since I don’t really know anything about them. But if I was doing some kind of music like that it might be different. But everybody on this boat, the 97 fans and my fans in general are nice and really intelligent, thoughtful people. I’ve never begrudged anybody the opportunity to say kind words! I love that. I’ll take it every single time. I think I’ve written that on Twitter a few times after being approached on the street. And Keb’ Mo’ was saying this too last night.
ML: He was. “You’re not bothering me!”
RM: Yeah. “You’re not bothering me! I love it!” I feel the same way. I love it. And so it’s a boat full of really cool people. So far there hasn’t been a single . . . well, actually . . . the one weird thing was somebody left a note in a sealed envelope on my door. It was a poem, this really weird poem about I know you’re with another but do you love them? Are you getting as much you need from them as a man? All this weird stuff about . . . well, you know. I open it up and my wife grabs it and she’s says “What’s that?” I’ve got othing to do with that! That’s the only weird thing and even that, you know, that’s not that scary. [Note: Malinda denies writing the poem.]
ML: I have gotten none of those, just for the record! All right, look I know you’ve gotta get ready. I will be out there watching you at 2:30 [Miller was scheduled to perform on the pool deck shortly after our interview] but I appreciate you taking a few minutes.
RM: Yeah, it was really nice talking to you. Look for my son Max. He’s the blond guy who’s been going down the water slide over and over, even though his back is rubbed raw from it! And if you ask him how many times he’s been down it, he’ll tell you the exact number! He’s at 64 right now! He’s excited.
The only time it rained on us all week was during Miller’s pool deck set. The show must go on, so he moved inside to the Atrium venue and finished the show. Near the end, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion came on to do California Stars, a song written by her grandfather and performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco (and The Old 97’s when they toured with Bragg). The kids were watching from the side of the stage during this song. It’s exactly what Miller was talking about during our interview an hour before, and it is what Cayamo is all about.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. Rhett Miller is, too @RhettMiller.