The Old 97’s – You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself
Almost all of them arise out of nothing, these unlikely collectives we call rock ‘n’ roll bands. Rarely are they set in motion with some grand master scheme finessed over weeks of research and planning; rather, it starts with two or three folks sitting around an apartment one day talking about their favorite bands and jamming on guitars. Slowly, the casual diversion gathers steam, from jam sessions to rehearsals to a weekday show or an opening-act gig. If the band is actually good, the momentum may well begin to snowball: regular local bookings, regional weekend jaunts, self-released album, media acclaim, industry attention, indie-label CD, national tour…and, perhaps, a major-label record deal. But where do you go from there? Not only is the big-business world a vastly different environment than the ranks through which most bands rise, it’s also a plateau that puts an entirely different perspective on the developmental process.
Previously, that next rung of the ladder may have seemed easily within reach; but the step from fledgling major-label signee to fully established recording act is often a canyon-sized leap. “As generally happy as this period has been,” says Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Old 97’s, of his band’s first couple years on Elektra Records, “it’s also been a lot of being on the road and going around and around and around in a fucking van, and watching the record that you were sure was going to make you a huge success — just because so far your career had only been on an upward trajectory — be a ‘modest critical success’ instead.” The blunt reality is that “huge success,” in commercial terms at least, is mostly out of the band’s hands. Beyond making a good record and touring incessantly, matters of radio play, distribution clout, market trends and so on depend on far too many random factors for there to be any sort of calculable formula for stardom (no matter how feverishly record execs continue to search for one). As a musician, then, all you can do is seek redemption in the music of the next record. And when you look at it that way, there’s really no sense in trusting anyone’s instincts or heeding anyone’s expectations but your own. Not your fans’, not your friends’, not your label’s — the only reasonable course is to listen to those sounds in your head and commit them to tape to the best of your abilities.
The Old 97’s obviously aren’t the first band to find themselves in this situation. Indeed, they could be seen as the latest in a recent string of acts who came to be associated with the alt-country crowd who have opted to stretch beyond its boundaries (see Wilco, the Jayhawks, Robbie Fulks, Richard Buckner, Joe Henry, among others). Fight Songs, the band’s fourth album and second for Elektra, after 1997’s Too Far To Care, finds the Old 97’s broadening their horizons considerably, concerning themselves less with hard twang than with pure pop. While they haven’t abandoned their country influences completely, the majority of the disc’s 12 tracks reveal a different thread running through its band members’ record collections. Miller half-jokingly refers to “Lonely Holiday”, the album’s second track, as “a full-on Eagles song,” but in fact the gloriously catchy tune puts a much more individualized spin on the mid-’70s Southern Cal folk-pop sound. The irrepressibly hoppy “Oppenheimer” bounds along to the beat of Miller’s infectiously rhythmic verses before ringing out with the clang of tubular bells (borrowed from a high school orchestra) in the chorus.
The ukulele and autoharp accents on “Busted Afternoon” result in a resonance that can’t help but recall the mid-’60s Kinks classic “Sunny Afternoon”, but it’s such a perfectly constructed tune in its own right that their similar titles are really no more than a footnote. Indeed, Fight Songs is a remarkable record largely for the way its influences are subordinated to the band’s own songwriting, rather than overwhelming it. The leadoff tune, “Jagged”, swaggers and stumbles through a dark, minor-key melody before Miller’s voice soars in the chorus, lifting the music to another level. “What We Talk About” — presumably inspired by the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — twists the band’s typical horse-gallop beat into more of a ballroom-floor tango.
Bassist Murry Hammond’s album-closing “Valentine” is a deceptively simple acoustic ballad that underscores the value of having a secondary songwriter in a band. Not every track is a departure from the band’s previously established identity. “Let The Idiot Speak” is a hard-charging, semi-twangy number that seems tailor-made for the trademark thrash-and-bop stage antics of Miller, Hammond and guitarist Ken Bethea; the rapid-fire tempo of “Murder (Or A Heart Attack)” indicates it’s likely to be a live highlight too, though melodically it’s almost bubblegum-sweet. Keeping a firmer foot in country traditionalism — as suggested by its Louvins-spoofing title — is Hammond’s “Crash On The Barrelhead”. Further diversifying the album are “Alone So Far”, a slow, spooky mood piece that features uncharacteristically impressionistic lyrics from the usually straight-shooting Miller; “19”, a midtempo tune about youthful mistakes that exemplifies that aforementioned straightforwardness; and “Indefinitely”, an effortlessly effervescent pop number with a chorus that catches Miller at his most concisely clever: “I don’t mean no/I don’t mean maybe/I’m in definitely.” (Or is it, “I’m indefinitely”?) If the overall impression of Fight Songs is that it might be more appropriately be described as plain and simple pop than as alternative country, one must first remember that any songwriter worth a salt doesn’t approach the writing process with such predetermined categories in mind.
Asked what might have prompted the new album to head in a more pop-oriented direction than Too Far To Care and the band’s 1995 Bloodshot disc Wreck Your Life, Miller responds, “The real answer is only that those were the songs I wrote. I mean, I don’t know that it was intentional. But once I’d compiled the list of songs, I realized there weren’t that many Old 97’s standard rockers….But I think the album ended up being strong in its diversity. I’m really glad that we kept what we kept, and didn’t get scared to put on whatever.” To be certain, overcoming the fear of others’ expectations was an important step for the Old 97’s this time around. As a case in point, Miller recalls a discussion of the song “Salome”, a gorgeous but mellower track from Too Far To Care that perhaps most aptly foreshadowed the direction the band would take on Fight Songs.
“I remember, right as the last record was coming out, this executive at Elektra — who is gone now, but who always wanted us to be a very ‘rock, rock band’ — we were riding with him in the car, and he says, ‘So your next record, what’s it gonna sound like?’ And I said, ‘It’s all gonna sound like “Salome”.’ And he got freaked out: ‘No, dude, it’s gotta rock!’ We started laughing.” Hammond, in fact, says the shift that’s apparent on the new album was overdue, if anything. “On Too Far To Care, we originally wanted to have a little more variety, the kind of variety that we have on this record. I remember when we were talking philosophically about what that album could be; we’d already done the Bloodshot record, Wreck Your Life, which was trying to capture us raw, live, all that kind of stuff. And somehow all we got was the major-label version of the raw, live thing on Too Far To Care. But we were initially really wanting a little bit more — in other words, I think we wanted to piss some people off a couple years ago.” That last comment was in reference to an encounter Hammond recently had with a fan who’d heard an advance copy of the new album and expressed his disappointment with the band’s new direction.
“He was generally upset that we had abandoned him,” Hammond said. “And I was like, ‘Man, I don’t think we’ve abandoned you. I think you’re just looking at it wrong. I’m kind of hearing some rules coming out of you.'” To Hammond, the incident served as a red-flag reminder of his early-’80s days as a religious follower of “the punk rock rulebook,” as he puts it. In retrospect, he has genuine regrets that he allowed his musical perspective to be subjected to the tunnel vision of the crowd he hung out with then. “You know, punk ruined a lot of good record collections,” he said. “It ruined my record collection. Hell, I even got rid of my Beatles records. What was I thinking?” Then again, taking the Beatles out of his record collection couldn’t dismiss the qualities of their music had already been internalized within Hammond’s persona.
In fact, Miller cites one of the reasons they chose to work with producer Andrew Williams on Fight Songs was that “his aesthetic was so much what Murry and I had been dreaming about — sort of an Everly Brothers harmonies in the front, with a lot of Beatles.” Williams is a nephew of pop icon Andy Williams who spent several years playing with his brother David in a folk-pop duo called, duh, the Williams Brothers. One of the things that made him a particularly good fit for the 97’s was his firsthand experience with classic harmony singing, and he delivered in spades on that front. Fight Songs succeeds largely because of the strength of the vocal performances and arrangements, both on Miller’s leads and Hammond’s backing tracks. “I knew that the way he liked to hear music was — and I get in trouble with my girlfriend for saying this word about music — but it was pretty,” Miller says. “I knew that the band would be able to crank out the sort of rawness or grittiness that kind of defines our sound. But if it were filtered through Andrew’s sensibilities, the prettiness that I knew was inherent in our songs would come out.
Whereas before, it had always been hidden by this attempt to make a live record, or capture our live sound, or ‘super-rock’. And so we finally made a studio record.” Again, the looming specter of the punk rock rulebook had to be overcome. “It’s funny how guilty you can be made to feel by those old rules about, ‘Don’t do anything in the studio that you can’t reproduce live,'” Miller laughs. “That sort of indie ethic, you know, that we’d always adhered to. And the ironic thing about this record is that we kept more of the basic tracks than we did on all those records that we were trying to make sound like live records. We just did more layering and more texturing and more subtle things this time.” And if that means they can’t reproduce everything on the record in a live setting, well, don’t expect them to try. “If people are worried about some of the slickness on some of the tracks or whatever, well, there’s probably not gonna be any slickness in the live show, because we don’t know how to do it in the live show,” Hammond says with a chuckle. When asked if they’d consider taking a multi-instrumentalist on the road to help flesh out the live sound, Hammond says, “No, probably not. Not that there’d really be anything wrong with it, but we’re happy enough with the live show. And we like the fact that by being a four-piece live show, that it forces anything you do on the record to be slightly different in a live setting.”
Another significant factor in that equation is the stability the Old 97’s have established as a self-contained unit over the six years they’ve played together. Since drummer Philip Peeples joined a few months after the group began playing together as an acoustic trio in 1993, their lineup has remained fully intact — a rarity in this day and age. Whiskeytown is often mentioned as an extreme on the other end of that spectrum, having basically developed into a perpetually revolving lineup around leader Ryan Adams. But the vast majority of bands that have spent a few years on the alt-country front — from Wilco to the Bottle Rockets to the Jayhawks to Freakwater to the Backsliders to the Bad Livers to the Derailers to the Honeydogs — have undergone at least some sort of membership shuffle in the midst of the madness. That the Old 97’s have stayed solid is a testament largely to the compatibility of the people involved, Hammond and Miller concur. “It’s really hard to keep a band together,” Miller acknowledges, “and the fact that the four of us get along as well as we do, and to have as healthy a relationship as we do, is huge.”
Hammond puts it this way: “The main thing that makes any band stick is that you get along with each other. That is absolutely the first thing. You could play the crappiest music in the world, the most derivative music in the world, but as long as you get along, well, you’re probably gonna have a pretty good time in that band. If you get along famously enough, you’ll be in that band for 30 or 40 years, even if nobody comes to see you but your friends.” Hammond and Miller have certainly seen the other side of this particular coin enough to understand the difference, having played in a series of bands that lasted just a few months before the Old 97’s finally came together in 1993. The two first met in the mid-’80s in Dallas, introduced by mutual friends. Hammond was playing in a psychedelic noise-pop band called the Peyote Cowboys; Miller was a 16-year-old upstart with an acoustic trio called Scarlett’s Garden. “He was playing in the little bitty shed out behind his mom’s house,” Hammond recalls of their first meeting. “They were rehearsing, but they had never played a show before. And I was just like, ‘Wow, I like this guy’s songs; they’re real simple and everything.’…That’s what drew me to Rhett. He knew what was beautiful about a simple song.”
Hammond invited Scarlett’s Garden to open for the Peyote Cowboys a couple weeks later, which marked Miller’s debut public performance. He soon started playing solo shows and began to earn a local and regional following as a boy-wonder singer-songwriter. In 1989, Dallas label Carpe Diem Records released Mythologies, Miller’s solo debut and Hammond’s first effort as a producer. The record got good reviews locally, and even a rave in Billboard, though Miller seems somewhat embarrassed about it now. “I’m kind of surprised that I got as much credit as I did, because the songs were pretty starry-eyed — in fact, the word ‘starry-eyed’ probably appeared in about 20 percent of the songs,” he says with a sheepish grin. Hammond, speaking from a slightly more removed perspective, has a different outlook on the album. “I think it’s charming as hell,” he says. “I mean, Rhett was 18 years old. You can say what you want about it — it sounds kinda flowery here, or maybe Rhett has a little British inflection in his voice here or there, or that kinda thing — but when I was 18 trying to do a band, you would not have wanted to listen to what I came up with. And that’s true of most everybody.”
The two friends’ paths diverged for much of the next couple years, Hammond spending a year at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and then moving to Washington, D.C., around the same time Miller graduated from high school and began attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York City on a creative writing scholarship. In 1990, Hammond convinced Miller that they should move back to Dallas and start a band together. The resulting project, a power-pop trio called Sleepy Heroes, put out a self-released CD in October 1990, then promptly broke up. Hammond spent most of the next year traveling the country on a soul-searching journey that refocused his outlook on several matters, including music. “It was probably really on that trip more than anything else that I rediscovered roots music — rediscovered the country background, rediscovered bluegrass,” he says. It would still be a little while before that rediscovery found an outlet in the Old 97’s, however. Upon returning to Dallas, Hammond again teamed up with Miller — who in the meantime had been playing in a group called Rhett Miller’s Third Eye — and formed a new band with an equally ill-advised name, Rhett’s Exploding (after briefly flirting with another project called Buzz). Rhett’s Exploding was a hard-rocking outfit that featured “a friend of ours who was kind of this heavy metal guitar player, and he had a buddy who was a drummer, and he was kind of a heavy metal drummer,” Hammond recalls. “They were great guys, but all of a sudden you’re hearing your music louder than it had ever been before — and you really can’t tell how crappy it is, because it feels so good on the surface.” As had been the case with Sleepy Heroes, Rhett Miller’s Third Eye and Buzz, Rhett’s Exploding lasted less than a year.
However, Miller says, “In defense of that band, it was the first time I figured out that if you jump around onstage, people get into it; that it’s not necessarily bad to make an ass of yourself.” That approach to live performance would eventually become a hallmark of the Old 97’s, but when the band started in 1993, rocking out was the furthest thing from their minds. Miller and Hammond had started casually jamming with Ken Bethea, a guitarist and accordion player who had recently moved into the apartment complex where they were living. “I played him ‘St. Ignatius’ [the first track on the band’s self-released 1994 debut Hitchhike To Rhome], and he played country over it…and suddenly it sounded like it was supposed to sound,” Miller says. “Instead of Rhett’s Exploding, where there was a heavy metal guitar playing over it. Or Rhett Miller’s Third Eye, where it was the rhythm section from Fever In The Funkhouse playing a kind of groove-y backup to it. Suddenly, it was the way it was supposed to be.
“We decided to be a three-piece, and Ken would play accordion and guitar and switch off, and I would play bass when Murry was playing guitar. It was all very cool, it was really organic, and a lot more free than the Old 97’s are now, which is kind of back to the rock ‘n’ roll deal.” Things started to turn in a more rocking direction when Philip Peeples, who had previously been in a band with Bethea in Denton, Texas, began playing drums with the group. Miller and Hammond had also been putting in some road time with Killbilly, who ruled Dallas’ roots-rock roost in the early ’90s with their frenetic blending of punk and bluegrass. Perhaps the most important aspect of their tenures in Killbilly, though, had less to do with the art of music than with the business of it. “A lot of the success of the Old 97’s can be attributed to our having toured as much as we did, and having worked the Midwest as much as we did,” Miller says. “And that was all directly a result of having been in Killbilly — having learned how to tour, and how to get by on the road, and making the contacts.” Still, what drove the 97’s to hit the road in the first place was the music they’d created. “I think we realized we had something special with the sound,” Hammond says.
“We kept listening to it, and we were like, ‘Well, we’re not even sure who we’re influenced by, and we don’t hear anybody else out there doing what we’re doing.’ I don’t think we could really say the same thing with all the other bands we had done. You know, when you get in a band, it’s usually like, ‘Well, we’re kind of a combination of’ — and you’ll name three bands. But we weren’t able to do that with this band. We couldn’t hardly even explain it, except that it was making us really happy.” These days, the Old 97’s face a totally different set of challenges than they did in those early times. For one thing, Miller now lives in Los Angeles; he moved there a little over a year ago to be with a girl from Dallas who had relocated to L.A. to work in the movie industry. Though it hasn’t altered the band’s working relationship much, it has inevitably affected the day-to-day relationships between the band members. “We tour just as much as we always have, so that really hasn’t changed much,” Hammond says. “But we miss Rhett. Just recently, Ken was saying, ‘You know, I miss having him around just to go do stuff with — you know, go to a hockey game with, or whatever.'” The most significant challenge, however, has already been met admirably with Fight Songs. What remains to be seen is how it will be received. “This is the weird thing about being in a band that has had some success,” Hammond says. “I’ve never been in a band that’s been around long enough, or had enough success, to have to go through the experience of challenging people’s expectations. It’s a really weird thing to go through, and we’re in the middle of it right now.”
Challenging people’s expectations is a worthy pursuit, as long as you’re not concerned with meeting them. In the end, as Rick Nelson said so succinctly many years ago, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. “We were real pleased to do something different on this record,” Hammond says. “Not something vastly different, but there’s a lot of things that we’re capable of doing, and only some of those things had been emphasized in the past. On this record, we were just like, ‘Well, you know what, we wanna emphasize this other thing.’ “The main reason I’m really happy about this record is that there’s all kinds of doors laying all through the record, that we can walk through and explore a little bit more.” ND co-editor Peter Blackstock first wrote about Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller in the 1989 South by Southwest program book — two whole sentences.