Here's an edited transcript of our phone interview:
Tatangelo: After doing Google searches and talking to friends ... it looks like it has been about a decade since you played solo or with Old 97's in Tampa Bay. Am I missing a show?
Miller: No, and we get a lot of grief about it. And rightly so. We should’ve come back. We just hired a new booking agent and I think we’ll be coming to the southeast, and the Tampa Bay area specifically, more often.
T: Hopefully you’ll have a good time here and return quicker than in another decade.
M: Seriously. Right? Yeah, I hope so, too. Especially now that I live on the East Coast, I can at least come down and do a little run through there acoustically in between tours, y’know? I want to make more part of my repertoire.
T: Judging by the title of The Old 97’s’ latest record “The Grand Theatre Vol. 1,” it seems this might have been planned as a double-album release like “Alive and Wired,” which, maybe I’m just old school, but I love the double disc releases. What happened with “Grand Theatre”?
M: Well, that’s what I wanted, also. It was demanding to be a double album. I envisioned it as a double album once we got underway with the recording but then the realities of record label and the publishing company, and it just turned into this freaking nightmare. Not to mention the sort of music intelligentsia that I polled about the question of the double album also seemed to agree that the era of the double album is over. If anything, we’re now in the era of the more frequently released EP.
M: And that OK. It is what it is. People need a little bit fast, and that’s fine. Now I really like the idea that we’re doing volume one and volume two because it gave me a chance to write a few extra songs for volume two and do a lil' extra work on it and make sure it’s gonna be awesome. That comes out, I think, July 2. Not confirmed, but that’s the date I’ve heard them (record label New West) throwing around.
T: That’s a lot quicker than typical time period in between Old 97’s’ releases.
M: Sure, or anybody’s releases. Although, I can say now—there’s this band Polyphonic Spree from Dallas and they and they’re lead singer Tim DeLaughter are just going to release singles. They’re just going to put a single up on the Internet. I don’t know if they’re going to sell it or just give it away for free. I can see that as the inevitable conclusion of all this. People just put music up and it just exists.
T: I noticed last night on the Old 97’s’ website a whole solo acoustic show bootleg of yours has been posted and there’s going to a giveaway every Monday. So it seems you guys are kind of following that give-it-away mode, as well.
M: It kinda should be free. You want people to like your music and why not? Give it to them.
T: And then I guess the model is just making money off touring?
M: Live off touring and then maybe usage. Y’know, if you get used on a TV show or commercial or a movie or whatever. There’s probably some money to be made from selling actual records but mostly that’s at shows. They’re more like a T-shirt or something. Sorta of an after thought.
T: I went back last night and re-listened to "The Grand Theatre" and then went back and saw what other reviewers put … It’s funny, I don’t think of Old 97’s as being a veteran act, just like I don’t think of myself as being in my 30s…
T: Do you feel it’s fair for your current work to be judged against your previous releases, in that context?
M: God, I don’t know. That’s kind of funny. That’s a question I’ve thought about. In a way, there’s a compliment built into that — that I’ll take and I appreciate. But it is weird. It’s sort of a doubled-edged sword. But I can understand it. I remember as a young man thinking musicians really should quit around 40.
M: Now, I’m thinking, well, god, the experiences that one gathers as they roll into their middle age can be amazing and enormous. I feel like I’m writing better songs now than I ever had. If somebody loves “Too Far to Care” or “Fight Songs” and they say, “Oh my god, that’s the best thing they’ve done since that” then maybe they loved that and they can’t let go of it. Like, Jesus, I remember how harshly I judged Echo and the Bunnymen as they sort of went on and on. I’m a little older than you and I thought “Ocean Rain” and “Crocodiles” those were like perfect records. Echo and the Bunnymen started having hits later, actually. “ (Bring On) the Dancing Horses” or whatever that kind of stuff. And I thought, oh, god, they’ve jumped the shark or whatever. They’re done. But I’m proud in a way that we’ve been able to have the kind of career where no one has ever said, I mean that I know of, that we just sold out or jumped the shark. Maybe it helped that we never had any actual hit songs.
T: Perhaps, but, not just to flatter you, I think it’s more a testament to your band consistently putting out good music rather than lack of that big MTV or radio hit.
T: Speaking of songs on “Grand Theatre,” before I received a copy, I read about the premise of “Champaign, Illinois” (new lyrics set to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”) and, I gotta admit, I thought, ah man, I don’t know if that’s the smartest idea.
M (agreeing): Yeah, right.
T: But then I heard the song and changed my mind. It’s a great, innovative reworking that compares nicely to the Dylan original epic, which I adore. You now share a songwriting credit with his Holy Bobness. Was it tough getting permission from Camp Dylan?
M: It took a decade. It took us finding a manager that was friends with his manager (laughs) and hiring him. I sat on the song for awhile because I knew that his legal team was notoriously litigious.
M: Which is ironic given where he comes from musically. But it’s just I finally had given up for a couple years. And then for this record, Murray (Hammond) and I, the bass player, kept talking about that song: “Like, ah, it would fit so well.” So I went to our manager, Danny Goldberg and said: “Dude, you gotta know how to make this happen. Please. We hired you because you’re a big shot. So, Prove it.” And Danny went out an did it. He made it happen. The lucky thing was Bob (Dylan) doesn’t let things happen without him doing it or knowing, apparently, so, the manager really tried to put him off but finally he relented and said ‘Look, I never send this stuff to, Bob. We get hundreds of these a day. But I’ll do it if it’s important.” And it took a couple weeks. But when it finally came back it was that not only did Bob like it but he was going to let us keep half of the publishing (money) and make it a co-write (credit) and obviously it was a huge honor.
T: Wow. So, y’know, Bob Dylan sat down and listened to it himself.
T: That’s about as high an honor, in my opnion, that a songwriter can have.
M: Seriously. Actually, then I heard back. I sent him a recording from Largo, a club in L.A. where I used to play all the time in this little room. And I included the intro, the spoken word banter beforehand where I said: “This is a song I rewrote. The melody is from a Bob Dylan tune. Everybody knows he’s not that great at lyrics so I wrote new lyrics for it.” Joking. But I included that. I was a little worried but I figured if he doesn’t get it than he’s not going to get any of it. So then I heard back from the managers that Dylan likes the recording of the song but he wants to read the lyrics. So I had to frantically type the lyrics and send them. And then they cam back and said: "Dylan loves it.”
T: Also, on the album, I was listening to “Let the Whiskey Take the Reigns” and popped up my iTunes screen with all the Old 97’s songs on it and I noticed a pattern. And then I remembered the first Old 97’s song I heard, “Wish the Worst,” and realized you guys have written a lot of great drinking songs.
T: I mean, Rhett, could’ve you sat down with, say, Hemingway and held your own? Are you a drinking man?
M: Well, I do have a tolerance for Jameson Irish Whiskey.
M: Other people, like I’ll pour a glass of whiskey, and people will look at me and go, “God, are you going to drink that?” And I’m like, "Usually I drink two of these before the show." But, I don’t know, that makes me sound like I am drunk. Because I rarely end up feeling drunk — but maybe that, in and of itself, is not good (laughs). I do know this, the last eight years since I’ve had kids, I have mellowed. But yeah, I’ve got my dosages of various things that keep me going.
T: So, Jameson is on your rider?
M: Every night.
T: At least you’re drinking good whiskey ... Is there song off"Grand Theatre" you’re most proud of?
M: I really love “Whiskey Take the Reigns” because it kinda came out of nowhere. I had all these other songs and so many were really rocking and that one, I had said it one night on stage during an acoustic show in New York City. I said, “I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m just going to let the whiskey take the reigns." And afterward a friend of mine was like, “Man that would be such a great song.” Yeah right. Whatever. Fine, I’ll write the f---ing song. And it ended up being one of my favorite things. I like that you can take a challenge and make it into something meaningful on its own.