Rhett Miller – Apart but not alone
For a guy who has been making music for more than a decade, this seems like an odd time for Rhett Miller to be putting together his first backing band.
Miller is best known as the frontman of the Old 97’s, a Dallas quartet that launched in 1993 and has released five albums, attracting a fervid following and earning Miller a reputation as an adroit songwriter. On September 24, Miller releases his first solo album for Elektra Records, The Instigator.
The Old 97’s fell together as a group of friends and associates, by happy accident rather than design. But solo artists need backing bands, and that’s why Miller is, on this particular mid-July day, in the process of building his first band from scratch.
“I have never had to be the hiring-firing boss guy. Now I have 20 musicians who are all nice guys,” Miller says from Los Angeles, as he pauses a Tivo-recorded hockey game featuring his beloved Dallas Stars. “I’ve got to audition them and schedule them. Musicians are obviously not easy to schedule and pin down. I have to fly them around to audition. It is just weird.”
Miller is looking for a lead guitarist, bassist and drummer to support him on at least six months worth of touring he’ll undertake to promote The Instigator. Although the album is already being referred to as his solo debut, that’s not really true. While still in high school, Miller made his true debut in 1989 with an album called Mythologies.
“I was a folksinger to begin with,” Miller chuckles at the memory of that effort, which was made with future Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond. “I have got a British accent on the record, because I was listening to David Bowie, Aztec Camera and T. Rex at the time. It is not far removed, in theory, from The Instigator. It is just songs fleshed out and given the best treatment I could come up with for them. It is what you would expect; I made it in high school. There is an element of preciousness now that makes me cringe and guarantees I will never allow another run of it.”
Mythologies was limited to a local pressing of 1,000 CDs; obviously expectations for The Instigator are considerably higher. “I think it kind of surprised all of us, the extent to which Elektra has gotten excited about it,” Miller says. “I kind of figured it would be a thing on the side. I guess it makes sense, given what is the climate of the industry, when songwriter types are being given a chance again.”
Miller is guilty of excessive humility here. Whether The Instigator benefits from the record industry’s rediscovery of singer-songwriters is a tangential matter; whatever pre-release enthusiasm the record has generated is well deserved.
Produced by Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright) and featuring guest turns from Robyn Hitchcock, Badly Drawn Boy and X’s John Doe, The Instigator is a hard-pop gem constructed on the rudiments of Miller’s acoustic guitar, adorned with superbly arranged instrumentation and appointed with lush harmonies. While some Old 97’s partisans may miss the rootsy flavor, many of these songs rank among the finest of Miller’s career.
The opening trio of “Our Love”, “This Is What I Do” and “Come Around” must have given Elektra fits figuring out which should be the single (the hyper strumming and soaring chorus of “This Is What I Do” won the day initially, but “Come Around” now appears to be the label’s intended radio song). Miller nods to Don DeLillo’s mammoth novel Underworld (on the song “World Inside The World”) alongside an affectionate quote in “Come Around” from another literary lion, David Lee Roth (the “she knows what love is for” line is borrowed from Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin'”). It’s the combination of literate refinement and pop abandon that gives The Instigator its unique character.
The Instigator is, at least superficially, the product of Miller’s new home base in Los Angeles. That’s where he hooked up with producer Brion and the adventurous music scene built around Largo, an intimate, offbeat music and comedy showcase which is home base to Brion and his extended musical family.
The album’s more melancholy moments seem to address Miller’s former home in Manhattan, a city he hasn’t slept in since September 11. He did not experience the horrors of that day from a remote cable-news perspective. Miller saw it up-close. He saw people die. And he survived.
The roots of Miller’s solo ambitions can be traced back to his very earliest days with the Old 97’s. “In 1993, when we were rehearsing in my mom’s garage, we were figuring out what the band could handle,” Miller explains. “I brought in this song that was a straight 16th-notes, punk-rock sort of thing. It was called ‘Kiss Lunch Box’. The band basically said, no way. This song does not work. Ever since then, when I come up with a song that I thought wasn’t an Old 97’s song, I file it in the ‘Kiss Lunch Box’ file.”
The easy thing for Miller to do would have been to upend his Kiss lunch box and cherry-pick those Old 97’s rejects for The Instigator. But the process was more complicated than that. Much of the record was written in the weeks and months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, when Miller and his then-girlfriend, model Erica Iahn, were among the thousands displaced from their homes in lower Manhattan.
“A lot of the songs, I started before [September 11], and I couldn’t finish them for months because of the uproar in our lives,” he says. “And there is definitely some L.A. songs in there when I hear it; I hear a lot of those weeks and months just after the Trade Center thing. But I don’t feel it is specifically a New York record or a disaster record.”