Today's music industry bears little resemblance to the one in which the Old 97's cut its teeth back in the early '90s. After spending its formative years in the Dallas music scene, the band quickly found itself being courted by several major labels looking to capitalize on the momentum of the insurgent country sub-genre. Even though the Dallas quartet made its best-known record (1997's Too Far to Care) while on Elektra Records, the band was eventually dropped after major labels failed to exploit the alt-country movement and turn it into the "next big thing." The result was a fractured scene that saw some artists (BR5-49, the Derailers) retreating further into traditionalism, while others (like Wilco) did their best to distance themselves from the country sound altogether by moving in a more experimental direction.
The members of the Old 97's did their fair share of soul-searching as well, exploring more straightforward rock and power-pop on 2001's exceptional Satellite Rides. But 2008's Blame It On Gravity is a homecoming for the band both sonically and geographically. The group came together in Dallas for three months of writing, recording and just getting to know each other again after drifting apart over the past several years. (This wasn't as easy as it sounds, though: Bassist Murry Hammond now lives Los Angeles while lead vocalist and principal songwriter Rhett Miller makes his home in New York's Hudson Valley.)
The songs on Gravity recapture the frenzied, energetic urgency of the band's best work (a feeling that was sadly missing from its last studio album, 2004's Drag It Up). Gravity's opening track, "The Fool," bursts out of the gate with plenty of signature '97's swagger and establishes the album's gritty, fervent atmosphere; it's like stopping in for a drink at an old familiar watering hole after several years away. But the album is much more diverse than the band's early output. "I Will Remain" conjures early Beatles bounce (right down to its simulated lo-fi mono production style) and Hammond's "Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue" is a bewilderingly lonesome cowboy strum.
On the occasion of its fifteen anniversary and Twangfest appearance, the RFT caught up with Miller to talk about the evolution of the band and his thoughts on its current place in the music biz.
Shae Moseley: Your bio has a quote that says you took a more perfectionist approach during the songwriting process, rather than focusing on how the songs would be received after they were recorded. How did that affect how you went about writing the songs on Blame It On Gravity?
Rhett Miller: I guess I had a little bit of an identity crisis in the last couple years. It had been a few years since the band had put out a record, and the last solo record I had was a bit of a hard slog on Universal, and I was really thinking a lot about fiction and writing some short stories. But we also changed managers at the time, and hired this guy Bill Silva — who pointed something out to me: "It seems like every time something starts to go well you switch gears and do something else." And I thought that there was really something to that — you know, I guess I've always felt like if something is going well I can move on to something else. So I really thought long and hard about whether it was the right time to switch over to writing fiction, you know, "Am I crazy?" And I realized that yes, I was.
I think Old 97's fans are glad you decided to put it off.
Yeah, I hope so. I guess to answer your question in a roundabout way, I think a lot of the songwriting on this record was informed by that temporary shift in focus to fiction. More than ever I just felt like I was really letting characters dictate where the song was going, and trying to get some in-depth character sketches and really inform the songs with some conflict.
What made you guys decide to reconvene in your hometown of Dallas to record the new album?
It's funny. The band is at such a great point in our career trajectory and friendship. We've weathered the toughest storm, which was the demise of not only our major-label deal [Elektra] but the major-label system that we had been a part of for so long. And we weathered my decision to make solo records, and we found a way to make it work where both careers can coexist. Our friendships took some hits in the past few years, but recently it's been such a return to the tight bond that made us a good band to begin with. I keep thinking of it in terms of two overlapping sine waves — like, one is the ascending arc of our talent, because we are getting better in terms of our writing and playing, and then the descending arc of our psychoses and neuroses or whatever. They're sort of meeting at this perfect point where we're finally able to play these things that we've never been able to play before. I just feel very lucky.
How long did you spend recording in Dallas? What was the atmosphere like?
We took our time. Compared to Drag It Up, where we did it basically in two weeks, this time we took about three months. There were a few big chunks in there where we would let Ken [Bethea] really take his time. He's become such a brilliant guitar player, where he's gotten so good now that he really needed to take his time in the studio and make sure that he was doing the right thing on each song and not just throwing the kitchen sink at it. So he got to do that — and again that was a product of just having a producer we were comfortable with and just taking our time. We had a lot of fun but we worked very hard as well.
Did you expect to have the amount of success you've enjoyed with the Old 97's when you started the band all those years ago?
I guess the politically correct answer would be that I never expected to be in this position, but I always expected it. I never gave myself an alternative. I had a full scholarship to a good college, and I blew it off because I thought if I gave myself a safety net I would always have the temptation to take the safety net. Of course I didn't know at the time that technology and the proliferation thereof would create an environment where it would become increasingly difficult to make money at this as a job, but you know, I can't complain. It's a lot of hustling, you know? I don't think it's that far removed from being a petty criminal or something like that.
In what way?
Just doing like all these weird little gigs and then selling T-shirts at the gig like I'm a haberdasher at this point. The whole thing is weird sometimes, because I came of age in the '80s and I was listening to records by really big rock stars who carried around with them such an air of mystique. And it wasn't until the Internet became so ubiquitous that — and I'm glad for this — all of that changed. But I think it's good for music, because now it's not like five companies shoving some horrible act down the throat of the public.
How would you rank Blame It On Gravity in the Old 97's catalog?
It's my favorite of any of the albums we've done. It's easy for bands to say that about every new album they put out — and I don't know if I've been guilty of that, but just the fact that our fans are arguing about whether or not it's our best album is a testament to the fact that we've reached this new, really great place. I think it stands up to Too Far to Care. I think that the quality of the songs in general on this record are as good as anything we've ever done.