Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller plans to enter a Los Angeles next week to begin recording his first solo album, a decision he says was influenced in part by recent family developments within the band.
“Two of the guys have brand new babies and one’s got another one on the way, and Murray [bassist Hammond] and I are both engaged to be married,” says Miller of his Dallas-based band mates. “So it made sense that the band should take a hiatus. And while that’s a weird and delicate thing, the four of us are such good friends and it’s been very open, they know what I want to do and they know it’s not life-threatening as far as the band is concerned. Everybody’s OK with it. I think we all like the idea of growing old as Old 97’s.”
Much of the material Miller is sifting through for the album — there are around fifty songs, and some date back as far as nine years — would have been out of bounds for the Old 97’s anyway. “There’s a song called ‘Haphazardly’ that’s kind of a torch song,” he says. “It’s in waltz time. It’s an outtake from the last record, but it’s not really an Old 97’s song. Then there’s some stuff that’s straight 4/4 rock. The 97’s is sort of a swingy thing by nature, and there’s some songs that don’t swing that are straightahead chug-chug-chug, rock & roll. I’ve always kind of put those in a pile and said, ‘Someday I’ll make a solo record.'”
Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple) is producing the album, and he will also play on it. “The idea is sort of just have Jon play everything I don’t play,” says Miller. “Jon is originally a drummer, and he can play anything with strings with amazing prowess. I’m sure we’ll pull people in, but right now we’re just talking about Jon and I doing a two-person session.”
A student as well as a player of pop music, Miller’s got his strategy for his charter solo flight all mapped out. “Obviously when a singer-songwriter frontman goes and makes a solo record, there’s the immediate preconception that he’s gone soft, especially if he’s recently moved to L.A.,” says Miller in a pointed jab at himself. “And then there’s also the question of why would he go and make a solo record to begin with. So what we’re talking about is sort of a two-prong focus where half the songs illustrate why I needed to make a solo record, songs like ‘Haphazardly.’ And then the other half of the songs, will be total balls-out rock & roll, just to prove the point that a) rock isn’t dead, boring and stupid and moot and b) I’m not turning into some cheeseball lounge singer because I split off with my band for a record.”
Miller hasn’t made a solo record since the Old 97’s began, but the new album won’t be his first. That distinction goes to Mythologies, cut over a decade ago and available only in a very limited edition. “I sat in my mom’s living room I signed all thousand copies of the CD when it came out,” says Miller, “which actually I’m really grateful for now because it means they can’t re-release them without my knowing. It’s something I’m proud of. There’s stuff on it that’s a lot better than most people do in high school, but I was in high school and I was on a serious David Bowie and T. Rex bender, so I’ve got a British accent — but it shows promise.”