Rhett Miller Finds His Way

Old 97's frontman sheds his "alt-country" title and gets real on "The Believer"

Two years ago, stunned by the news of singer-songwriter and friend Elliott Smith's apparent suicide, Rhett Miller sat down to write the title track for his second solo album. Due February 28th, The Believer -- like Miller's 2002 solo debut, The Instigator -- is a chronicle of the human condition, with both solemn recounts of loneliness and done-wrongs, and rollicking, country-rock odes to love. Songs like "Brand New Way" and "My Valentine" push Miller's yowl to the forefront, while "Firefly" finds him exchanging delicate croons with piano songstress Rachael Yamagata. But make no mistake, the Old-97's frontman is anything but soft.

Describe the recurring themes on The Believer.
It's about the pain of loneliness, the joy in finding a partner and the sadness in realizing that there are no real answers . . . and death. But it all comes back to the joy of it all.

And the title track was written as sort of a memoriam to Elliott Smith. What are your memories of him?
Elliott had committed suicide the day I wrote it. When I was fourteen, I had a really serious suicide attempt and when I heard about Elliott, it really brought me back to the place where suicide is a viable option. He and I were both part of a circle in L.A. centered around a nightclub called Largo. Elliott was very closed and very quiet. It wasn't like he was so aware of his enormous talent -- it was always the opposite of that. Like he was scared for having to try and produce this thing that came out of him. When he sings, it's hard to deny that he's living the songs and that everything coming out of his mouth is true. It's just so fucking gorgeous. He was just so sweet and it's so fucking sad.

Talk about your own suicide attempt. What did you ultimately learn from it?
It was such a specific moment. I had just had a fight with my mom -- just a stupid, regular fourteen-year-old fight. And I was fighting with my girlfriend. I remember walking down the stairs, looking at a brass cat -- a six-inch tall sculpture -- and for some reason, that was it. It was like, there's just this. There's just stumbling through day after day, year after year. There's never going to be a moment where anything makes sense, except for this moment where you realize that nothing makes sense. When you know what the ending is, why keep reading the book?

My family took me to the hospital and I had my stomach pumped. If I hadn't taken the entire bottle of Valium in addition to drinking the lighter fluid, I wouldn't have survived, because the Valium slowed down my system enough to where I could last until we got to the hospital. It was stupid -- just a fourteen-year-old who felt too much. But I figured out that I loved. I loved to make out with girls, drive around the country, do stupid things. It's what the Beatles talked about. That in the midst of all the meaningless, there's that. There's love.

Describe the evolution from your first solo album to this one.
When I was making The Instigator, I was at the beginning of this big life change where I was going from a full-time road dog, rock & roll crazy person to having a home and family existence. I used to laugh at the idea that I was the excuse that people used to go out and get drunk and laid. I could have been a trained monkey.

But with The Believer, it's like you go through your whole life thinking that true love is a fucking sham created by Hallmark and then one day you say, "Why don't I try it? Why don't I let go?" And one day you're here and it's a fucking great place.

I was able to take advantage of this attitude and this newfound control when I went into the studio. Instead of hiring a band, I was able to hire musicians that I had known like Jon Brion and [drummer] Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple). With The Instigator, it was more Jon Brion doing everything. Here, I felt like I needed to be the Leonard Bernstein conducting the Philharmonic.

You talk often of your love of literature. Which literary character do you most identify with?
In fourth grade it would've been Holden Caulfield [from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye]. But nowadays, I keep coming back to the protagonist from a series of mystery novels by John D. MacDonald called Travis McGee. He's just this guy who lives in a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale and solves problems for a living. I like the idea that it's this chaotic world and you try to make a little order out of it.

I relate to MacDonald because he kind of got shunted into that ghetto of mystery writers, kind of the way I feel I've gotten shunted with the Old 97's into this "alt-country rock" title. It just seems silly to me. If Tom Petty came out today he would be in No Depression magazine and nowhere else. I understand the impetus to label music because there's just so much coming out, but what about the stuff that slips between the cracks?

Let's say you could obliterate your alt-country title. What would you replace it with?
[Laughs] Kick-ass rock & roll! No, I guess I would call it lyrical rock & roll with loud guitars. It gets a little long though. How about fucking good?

Do you have a novel in you?
Oh, I dream. I think I could do it. I've started them and I've ended them. I get mad at myself for talking about writing if I'm not writing enough, because I become that asshole who just talks about it. But I do believe I have it in me.

What album do you remember as your musical epiphany?
I had my first real earth-shifting moment while listening the Beatles' Rubber Soul when I was two. The music went straight to my brain and to every other part of my body, and I felt this power. It was like, "Holy shit, I can do this. It's not magical and unobtainable . . . it's real."