The Old 97’s began recording their new album Twelfth in Nashville this spring, on the very day that tornadoes decimated sections of the city. That March night, from the floor-to-ceiling windows of their rented condo in the city’s Melrose neighborhood, the band watched transformers explode in the distance and debris blow down their street.
Almost six years earlier, Old 97’s singer and principal songwriter Rhett Miller was in the middle of his own storm — a disorienting, drawn-out battle with booze and weed that can be heard all over the album the group was cutting at the time. Its title? Most Messed Up.
“I was so in the eye of the hurricane that I couldn’t see anything,” Miller, who turns 50 in September, tells Rolling Stone. “That was the apex, the crescendo of my self-destruction, that record. When I listen back to it, it’s crazy. It’s not even debauchery; it’s a cry for help as someone is falling down a well.”
Soon after, he decided he’d had enough. Miller marks five years of sobriety this summer, an anniversary that dovetails with the release of his band’s 12th studio album. The theme of living a more clear-eyed, present existence runs through Twelfth (out August 21st on ATO Records). There are lyrics about leaving behind old ghosts, worn barstools, and whiskey that inevitably turns into tears. In the romantic rocker “I Like You Better,” Miller plainly spells out his new priorities, admitting, “I like you better than beer.”
For a band that earned a reputation for writing and recording some of the best shout-along drinking songs of the 2000s, it’s a rich irony that Miller is now temperate. But he’s more worried about losing fans because of the album’s artwork: a photo of Miller’s childhood hero, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach in his No. 12 jersey. “I know that by putting him on the cover, we’ll be alienating a lot of fans in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C…,” he says with a half-laugh. “But I feel like it transcends that. It was such a long time ago.”
Miller and his bandmates Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, and Philip Peeples announced Twelfth on Tuesday, with the premiere of the single “Turn Off the TV” and a music video that Miller says is “the antithesis of a Zoom meeting.” Directed by Liam Lynch, the clip features cameos by Jenna Fischer, Janeane Garofalo, Rick Nielsen, and Puddles Pity Party, the singing clown with whom the band is obsessed. “In the Old 97’s,” Miller says, “we think Puddles is frickin’ brilliant.”
Rolling Stone spoke to Miller about his decision to get sober; the persistent fear that he couldn’t write songs without a drink; and why the Old 97’s’ classic material is like a time machine back to those drunken days.
There’s a song on the new album called “Confessional Boxing” in which you sing, “I had a four-leaf clover, but those days are over,” an allusion to the band’s off-the-rails 1997 song “Four Leaf Clover.” Is this you taking stock of where you are now and prioritizing discipline over luck?
Yeah. The first version was so much more self-referential and confessional. The original lyrics were, “Driving around texting with my kids in the car/I drove drunk too but I didn’t get far.” It was that thing where, when people drink, you can talk yourself into, “I’m only going around the corner. I only had three beers.” I don’t think I did much of that. My version of bottomed-out is nothing compared to [that of] a lot of the people I’ve met. But when I finally realized I needed to stop and came out the other side, I looked back at the little things that seemed like nothing to me, and I thought, “I was so fucking lucky that I got away with what I did. And thank God.” So that’s where this song started and I tried to keep it really real and vulnerable.
In that same song, you sing, “I thought it was funny living life like a lush.” Clearly, your sobriety is a theme of the new album.
It is, it’s subtle. All forms of self-reference are something I’ve had to give myself permission to dabble in. It started with Most Messed Up, and I allude to the decision to go there in the song “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” on that record. I used to have such a hard and fast rule that songs had to be universal or character-driven. I don’t like it when I feel like someone is reading their diary and setting it to music. That bothers me. But at the same time, what is more universal than a person’s lived experience?
Can you share a little bit about your experience getting sober and how you went about it?
I decided in 2015 that I was done. I didn’t go full 12-step, but I did use some of that. I didn’t “work the program,” as some people say. Maybe I should have? But I found that what works for me was relying on friends that had been through the same thing. Jason Isbell was a good person to pick his brain.
“If my voice isn’t writing through a fog of weed and whiskey, then what is my voice?”
What I found was that it’s a really beautiful place to be when you feel like you don’t need [alcohol] anymore. I don’t miss it. Every once in a while I’ll look at someone having a margarita or a cold beer watching a football game, and I’ll feel like, “OK, maybe I miss that, the celebratory act of it.” But not that feeling of, “I have to drink a pint of whiskey and then a bottle of wine.” I’ve always had some low-level OCD and it flares up in times of anxiety. When things started feeling bad for me, my OCD and my drinking and weed smoking got intertwined. Those two things became greater than the sum of their parts and it got to be something I didn’t want to live with anymore. Coming out of it, I won’t say it was easier than I expected, but once I was through the hard part, it felt weightless. This is a much better way for me to go through life.
The problem was that so much of my self-image as an artist was tied up in being the whiskey-soaked, weed-smoke-out-of-my-ears songwriter. The way I found back into writing songs was by co-writing.
Who did you write with to get your chops back?
Writing with my friend Salim [Nourallah], who has produced albums with us, was always very easy. Writing songs with Butch Walker, Nicole Atkins… Caitlin Rose is a really good cowriter. These are all people I really love and I feel safe with them — safe to fail. But going back in, I thought, “What if I don’t bring anything to the table? What if I’m like Samson and the whiskey was my long hair and I cut it off and can’t write songs anymore?” So I was a little scared, and it wasn’t until [the 2018 solo album] The Messenger where I was writing songs by myself and digging in and trying to be super honest. If my voice isn’t writing through a fog of weed and whiskey, then what is my voice? On The Messenger, I started to find it with songs like “Human Condition” and “Total Disaster.” [I realized that] I can still have fun and make jokes, and I can remember the feeling of being fucked-up and I can still feel that feeling, even though I’m not wasted. But [Twelfth] was the first record where, top to bottom, I felt I was back in the driver’s seat, found my voice, and came out the other side. It feels good.
You mentioned the image you cultivated. How do you approach the drinking songs now?
The cool thing is that every song is a little time machine. As soon as the opening chords start, I go to the place where I was sitting when I wrote it. “Big Brown Eyes,” we play it almost every show, and when we start that song, I’m sitting in a kitchen chair that we found on the side of the road in Lower Greenville, Texas, and I’m looking out the second-story kitchen window of the garage apartment where I lived with Clark Vogeler, who is the guitar player in the Toadies. That window looked out on the parking lot of the Blockbuster Video and there are empty Pearl Light beer cans all around me. And it’s that last hour before I know I’m going to go pass out, either in my bed or on the floor of the bathroom, and I remember writing that song in that perfect magical window. So when I sing it now, even though I’m decades beyond where that person was, I get to go back there. And it’s without any real repercussions. It’s a safe way to relive all of those memories and there’s a lot of that in these new songs too.
The Old 97’s are meant for the live stage. During this pandemic, where is the band without the road?
It is terrifying. I don’t know what the answer is and I miss it. I always have had anxiety dreams about doing my job: showing up to the gig, and the drummer is reading the newspaper and I’m yelling at him, “They’re leaving, start the song!” Now my dreams are like I’m driving and looking for the gig and I can’t find it. We’ve always prided ourselves on being as good of a live band as anybody out there… We love to rock and now we don’t get to rock. We keep getting calls from our management and our booking agent, and they say, “Man, stuff is opening up a little bit in Oklahoma and Texas. What do you want to do?”
How do you feel about that?
Listen, I want to play more than anybody else, but I don’t want to be a canary in a coalmine. I know the clubs want to open back up, but when they say we’re going to open up at half capacity, what does that even mean? People are going to stand six feet apart? Or half of the people are going to stand all the way in the back of the room? No, everybody is going to jam up at the front. When I read about what the worst situations for the spread of the coronavirus are, it’s exactly what I do: people crowded in a small room and singing. They say singing is literally the worst thing you can do as far as spreading the coronavirus — that’s what I do!