Rhett Miller, singer and guitarist for the Old 97's, seems awfully calm for a man about to start 10 weeks of American touring for what may be his band's highest-profile shows yet. But having gone from indie labels to the band's second appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in eight years doesn't seem to faze him a bit. "Our career has been such a gradual incline that it hasn't been jarring," he says, a bit prosaically.
With their new record, Satellite Rides (which just debuted at No. 121 on the Billboard Top 200), all of that could change for the Dallas-based band. Although their last two major-label efforts, Too Far to Care and Fight Songs, both concentrated on singular aspects of the band's sound, Rides is more holistic and a better reflection of the group's full range; it covers both Songs' jangly guitar pop and Care's blustery, whiskey-soaked bar-fight atmosphere, with nods toward the characterization and intensity of their indie records Wreck Your Life and Hitchhike to Rhome. Miller says Rides walks the line between the previous extremes of their catalog, and it's a record that any fan of the band can find something to like about. Sure, there's a full glimpse of their old twangy stylings in "Weightless," but it sits right next to the power-pop melody of "Can't Get a Line," an honorable Elvis Costello homage if ever there was one.
For his part, Miller also considers the record a breakthrough in another way: "It's more optimistic than anything I've ever done. There are songs there that deal with love without skepticism." The brightest of the lot is, fittingly, the first single, "King of All the World," which features an ebullient melody that outshines even the brash confidence of its title. Miller partially credits the record's optimism to a return to the group's tried-and-true methods. "Fight Songs was a difficult record. I had just moved to Los Angeles. I felt isolated, and we rehearsed less. It wasn't what comes naturally to us." Despite its cheery pop melodies, Fight Songs is a dark record on which even the catchiest tune bore the ominous title "Murder (or a Heart Attack)," but it showed off their growth as a band despite its only being rehearsed for two weeks.
For Rides, Miller moved back to Texas and lived in close quarters with his bandmates. They re-recruited Care's producer, Wally Gagel, and co-produced the album themselves. Miller notes that fellow Angeleno Jon Brion (of Magnolia fame) was brought up as a possible choice but that the 97's knew Gagel would "trust the work we'd already done."
Part of that work included Miller's writing almost 30 possible tracks for inclusion on Rides, including a pair created in London: "King of All the World" and the gentle, almost narrative "Question." "It was about a British couple I knew," he says, "She was an actress, and he proposed to her in a park." Yet being abroad hasn't drastically changed the band's signature sound or even its focus, Miller says: "Our music is what's American [about us]; our lyrics are moments."
Yet, later, Miller talks glowingly about such influences as David Bowie and the Smiths and says that Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewildebeast is a current favorite. This is one of the most interesting paradoxes of the Old 97's: Though their name comes from a Johnny Cash classic ("The Wreck of the Old 97") and they got their start at Bloodshot Records (a name synonymous with the alt-country movement), Miller resists being shuffled in with his former labelmates; his new material contains more of a pop sensibility than the early music. He says it's nothing personal, just a matter of where he wants to take his songwriting: "In the mid-'90s, we did play with all the alt-country bands, and a lot of those people are still our friends. I understand people's need to label and categorize, but it is insultingly reductive."
A quick comparison with the just-released Early Tracks shows what a different direction the Old 97's have taken. Accessibility has failed to dilute the group's aural identity, unlike most artists, whose appeal broadens over time. In fact, as time goes on, the Old 97's sound more comfortable and confident than ever. On Rides' standout track, "Designs on You," the pop/country dichotomy seems both irrelevant and unanswerable, but there's no denying that it springs from the group's earlier "Barrier Reef."
Miller hasn't listened to Early Tracks in its entirety yet but says he feels a less-than-burning desire to revisit that period: "When I've heard [those songs], it's very freaky; it seems like a million years ago." He says that the iconoclastic cowpunk of "W-I-F-E" now seems like a novelty song and that even the band's live sound has blossomed in unexpected ways. Asked which record best reflects the band's vital live show, he says, "When we put out Too Far to Care, that was it, but now it's Satellite Rides, because there's more subtlety in our live show."
But the Old 97's still sound wired compared with the Ranchero Brothers, a side project undertaken by Miller and 97's bassist Murry Hammond. The soft-spoken and nearly psychedelic acoustic duo (their Web site calls their work "space-age campfire music") has been performing acoustic shows near the band members' homes in Texas and California. Originally envisioned as a way to demo Old 97's songs in a no-pressure atmosphere, the Ranchero Brothers has evolved into a quasi-independent act with its own following and repertoire; Miller "gives" the Brothers any songs that don't fit the Old 97's (and any leftovers that don't make the Ranchero Brothers, he promises, will make it onto a solo record one day). With promotion in high gear for Rides right now, the Brothers are on hiatus, but Miller hopes for their debut to make it onto shelves by the end of the year. The record even features a "product placement" in the strangest of places: The very title Satellite Rides comes from the Rancheros' song "In the Satellite Rides a Star." And, lest anyone get the impression that this is a Miller solo album in disguise, he seems most excited that longtime bandmate Hammond will get a major showcase for his songwriting (he wrote "Up the Devil's Pay" and "Can't Get a Line" on Rides) and vocal talents.
For now, though, the Satellite Rides tour is the order of the day. Miller says that the band is also in negotiations for an opening slot on a high-profile summer tour, despite their refusal from day one to fit into anyone's preconceptions. "Our thought was that if we made a band that didn't sound like anyone else, we wouldn't have to worry about being signed to a major label," he says, clearly noting the irony. But even if things haven't turned out the way they always foresaw them, the Old 97's are happy with where they are. Miller believes rock & roll is almost its own reward: "We've met Exene Cervenka, Charles Thompson [a.k.a. Frank Black], Robyn Hitchcock ... that's one of the best things about where we are now, getting to meet these people and be considered a peer."