For the past 20 years, the Old 97's have romanticized whiskey-wrecked nihilism and slow-burn heartbreak. Goofy, unhinged and a little bit dangerous, the band has swaggered between raw country rock to cowpunk, with a homegrown Dallas delivery. While plenty of alt-country outfits blew up and blew out, the Old 97's pushed along with an unrelenting tour schedule, steady studio output and a dedicated grassroots fan base. Rolling Stone caught up with frontman Rhett Miller to talk about the band's work on a new album and why he still can't believe he gets paid to play music.
The Old 97's are working on a new album. What's the new material like?
Well, I write a ton of songs and the band tells me which ones they like. I give them which ones they like and the rest I keep for my solo record. In this case, I probably went in with about 25 songs. It was funny, because there were two distinct sets of songs. One was sort of adult-themed. You know, a lot of cursing, a lot of drinking and lots of sex. There was that, and then there was a pile of prettier songs. I was really interested to see which ones they would go with. After some hand-wringing and worrying about what the soccer moms in minivans that make up some of our audience might say, we decided to go with the adult-themed portion of the new-song stack.
What songs make you worry about soccer moms in minivans?
There's one song I cowrote with a songwriter in Nashville that's called "Nashville." I don't want give too much away, but it's like a Pogues singalong. It's a little bit shocking. It was a ton of fun to write. Just a lot of cursing, just wheels-off insanity.
It sounds like the Old 97's are going for a thrashy sound.
The last two or three records had us moving to a good garage band kind of sound. That will continue, but I think at the same time there will be a movement towards that barnstorming, revved-up honky-tonk. It's going to be a very fun record, I think. We're going to do it pretty quickly and pretty much live. We realized that our sound over the years, that our live sound is barnstorming, kind of bluegrass turned on its head, punk rock stylings. For a while we started to get away from that a little bit and started to get peaceful. Then we kind of said, "What are we doing? Let's do what we're good at. Let's go out there and turn up the amps and have fun."
So you haven't mellowed after 20 years?
There's that thing that happens, especially in the Americana world, where as you age you get quieter and more contemplative. That is not happening with us. We are not going gentle into that good night.
What's your approach to recording in the studio?
We do it different ways. The last couple of albums we just whipped in without a lot of preproduction. On this record, we've done a good solid two weeks of preproduction over the last couple of months. We've worked up the way we want to play them, made choices about arrangements and, like I said, made our choices about the songs. It's a really tight A-list. It's not exactly a concept record, but the songs are much of a piece, as it were. A sample song title, one of my favorites, is going to be called "Let's Get Drunk and Get It On."
And you changed labels for this album, correct?
We're just finalizing our deal with ATO Records. Our contract with New West just ran out and it seemed like the right time to change things up a little bit. We have new management with Red Light and there's a connection to ATO there. And I just really like (ATO GM) Jon Salter. I really like their roster – they have great, hip young artists. It's kind of nice for us to be surrounded by that. It makes us feel like we're not old farts.
What other surprises do you have?
Our friend Tommy Stinson of the Replacements came into one of the preproduction sessions one night and played guitar with us. We had so much fun playing that we decided to fly him down to Austin to be part of the sessions. So at some point Tommy will join us and play some guitar and God knows what – do some singing or some yelling. I imagine there might be some drinking.
What about those other songs that won't make it onto the Old 97's album?
That's the other thing I was going to tell you. The 12 songs the band turned down is great for me because it's a great stack of really beautiful songs. I'll go in and make a solo record in January with Chris Funk of the Decemberists and use the alter ego band they have going called Black Prairie as my band. We did gigs together last year and they got up and joined me on six or seven songs at the end of each night, and I couldn't believe how quickly we gelled musically and how just incredible they are on their instruments. It occurred to me to have a band that's already a band go into the studio with me and do a record would be just a great thing. Especially these guys. We're talking about a dobro, fiddle, accordion and a really great acoustic guitar player and a standup bass. It's gonna be a lot of fun, a real organic-sounding record.
How'd you hook up with the Decemberists?
We've done some festivals together where I ended up talking to Funk and realized we got along really well. He's a big fan of the Old 97's and I really like his stuff. Then we did a little Northeast run together, just a handful of dates. And when they would get up onstage with me every night it was just so natural. We'd stay up late after the shows having fun and laughing like crazy, and thought it's way too good not to capture on tape.
A lot of critics and fans feel that it's a crime you aren't bigger. Does that bother you?
I look at all the other bands that were on Elektra with us, and the bands that didn't break through, like They Might Be Giants, are still playing and packing houses. The bands that did break through, like Third Eye Blind, are still playing, but I don't know. I wouldn't trade places with those guys. I think if we were to have a huge hit song or broken through in a bigger way at any point, it wouldn't be like this. The fact that we sort of slide through under the radar makes it so that our fans still own us 20 years later. And that's pretty cool. This record, our 10th album, will come out pretty much exactly 20 years after our first album. The song that will be the opening track on the album is "Longer Than You've Been Alive," with the opening line: "We've been doing this longer than you've been alive." That's sort of the theme we're working with right now. We can't believe we still get paid to do this, that we get to feed our family by getting up onstage and making a racket and shaking our asses.