Old 97's recently released Most Messed Up, their 11th and possibly their best studio effort. It features the band's trademark mix of country roots and a rocking attitude, with an assist from Tommy Stinson from the Replacements and Guns N' Roses. When we had frontman Rhett Miller on the phone to discuss the album, we also asked him to share some of his favorite musical memories with us. Read on; you're bound to learn something new about Miller and his checkered past. Old 97's are on tour in the U.S. right now, so catch them while you can.
What is the first album you bought with your own money, and where did you buy it from?
I bought ZZ Top's Degüello at a grocery store on Mockingbird in Dallas, Texas. I was probably 7. They had this song "Cheap Sunglasses" that some kids were singing I thought sounded really cool, so I bought Degüello and I went home and played it and it was awesome. To this day that record holds up for me. I got to meet [ZZ Top guitarist] Billy Gibbons over the years. A couple of years ago he taught me how to play dice, which is a terrible idea to play dice with Billy Gibbons, but it was pretty fun.
What was the first concert you attended, and where?
The first concert I went to with my parents was going to see the Kingston Trio at a little dinner theater in Dallas, I think it was called Mama's or something. And it was great. That was a huge experience for me. I remember thinking, "Whoa, these are just standing are just standing there with acoustic guitars and singing. This is not rocket science. I could do this." I was probably 6 when that happened. The first concert that I went to on my own was the Cars at Reunion Arena. I remember thinking it was pretty cool, but I was a little put off by all the production, all the bells and whistles and neon, especially the opening act Wang Chung. The drummer played electronic drums that were on a stick. The whole thing just seemed so schmaltzy to me. I appreciated that Cars, but I wish they would have stood there and played their guitars instead of riding around in neon pods.
You kind of answered this talking about the Kingston Trio, but what was the artist/song/video/album/concert that made you go, "Wow, making music is what I want to do too"?
I had a moment where I went to see David Bowie on Serious Moonlight tour. Bowie had already become my favorite musician and artist. Something about him always spoke to me. He was so much an outsider and he played up the alien aspect of his persona. In my early teens, I really related to that. I thought I could be an alien, the way everybody else seemed so different. I went and saw him and there were a moment when he came off the stage after the set, before the encore, and someone handed him a towel, someone handed him a lit cigarette and someone handed him a tumbler filled with brown liquid. I was seated toward the side of the stage. I was about 15 rows up from where he was and I could see him taking this deep breath, mopping his forehead, smoking his cigarette, and really finding this moment of peace while 15,000 people chanted his name. There was something about the dichotomy of the peace he found at the moment and the frenzy that the audience was creating really spoke to me about what this job entails and how beautiful it was. What you have to give to the audience in order to make the show successful and what they give back to you and how that becomes fuel to give back to them. I just really love the transaction that is the rock show. The act of creation. I recently heard Rain Wilson, the actor, talk about creation as prayer, acting and music, and when you make something it's no different than prayer. I know I'm not curing cancer and I know this isn't some noble thing necessarily that I'm doing, but I really do believe that there is inherent value and beauty in the creation of art and music. And I really feel like when I make it we are giving something to the world that fuels the good things in the world.
What song by another artist makes you go, "Man, I really wish I'd written or recorded that"?
Yeah, [I feel that way] all the time. I guess the song that is number one on the songs that I wish I'd written is Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down." For some reason, that song has always stood out to me as being a perfect song to me, so I wish I'd written that one.
If you could duet with any recording artist, living or dead, who would your dream duet partner be?
I love singing with women and I've been lucky enough to sing with some really amazing women. I'll go weird here and say Francoise Hardy, the French chanteuse, who had some hits in the '60s. She's still alive and still gorgeous.
What has been your unfortunate onstage mishap?
We played a New Year's Eve gig in Chicago that was televised and when the camera was on me, I fell down pretty hard on my back. And then I was trying to get up without using my hands so I could continue to play guitar, and the floundering while trying to get up with incredibly embarrassing. And the best thing was that [Old 97's guitarist] Ken [Bethea] was standing right next to me, not offering any help, just laughing. That was pretty bad. It wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been caught on film, but something being captured for eternity makes it worse.
What's the weirdest thing a fan has ever done for you or said to you?
I've gotten some pretty creepy mail and emails, but I'll stay positive with my response... Sometimes I'll bring people up to sing "Fireflies" with me in my solo acoustic shows and in San Francisco recently, a young woman came up and sang it with me. I'd never met her, and she did a great job, and when it was over some dad pushed his way to the front of the stage with this 7-year-old girl and said, "She can sing that song, too." And I said, "Well, we just finished singing it." And he was really adamant. I felt pressured and she was such a cute little kid, so I brought her up and sang "Fireflies" again with this 7-year-old girl. She completely nailed it, but I'm breaking the rule of repeating a song during a set singing it back-to-back with a 7-year-old girl. It was really sweet. She totally nailed it, but it make me kind of realize that I had to back off of bringing up strangers from the audience because it can really derail a show. The potential for disaster is pretty great.
That's pretty funny and weird.
Yeah, singing a love song with a 7-year-old.
Do you have a special pre-show ritual?
I usually spend one-to-two hours making a setlist. I'm allowed to have a beer two hours before the gig. One hour before the gig, I'm allowed to drink a whiskey. I've learned these rules from trial and error over the last quarter-century. Any more than that and I'm risking the quality of the performance. Usually, I just jump up and down a few seconds and walk out onstage. I try not to get too precious about my pre-show ritual, because frequently I'm not afforded the luxury of doing yoga or vocal warm-ups or anything like that. A lot of times I just have run into a club and jump up onstage and get it going.
What's the most unusual thing on your tour rider?
Our tour manager Mike Dalke is a very funny guy. Every once in a while he'll throw something on the tour rider just to make the promoter laugh. For a long time, on the long list of stuff we had it would say one case of bottled water, one bottle of Jameson, six-pack of Stella, one Gary Coleman... So "one Gary Coleman" was on our rider for a while. We never got it. I don't know if they thought we were joke or what, but we never got our Gary Coleman.
What is your on-the-road must-have?
I guess I'm a Jameson Whiskey drinker, but I hate to say I must have it, because that sounds so unhealthy. I drink a ton of water on the road, so the unglamorous response is the truest one. My must-have is water. I try to do yoga in a lot of places when I can, but that's a luxury. The Jameson is something I like to have, but I don't have to have it. The only real must-have is water.
What's the one genre of music you'd never try to do yourself, and why not?
I don't think I would be well-suited for electronic dance music. I'm not very good at running electronic devices. Lyrics are de-emphasized in that genre. I think I would be a real massive failure in EDM. I know there's a lot of money in that s---, but it's not for me.
Do you do karaoke? If so, what's your go-to karaoke song?
I haven't done a lot of karaoke and it drives me crazy, because the couple times I tried to do karaoke, they've had the wrong lyrics. Like "Pump It Up" by Elvis Costello is a favorite song of mine, and invariably the lyrics they have on the karaoke are wrong. The song that I go to if I'm just in a random place surrounded by strangers, is I'll do "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" by Carole King just because that's funny.
What's the most surprising song/artist on your iPod?
What I listen to unapologetically is the first two Mötley Crüe records. It's sort of hard to beat those songs and the energy. They're just so punk-rock.
What's the most recent album you've purchased?
I got the new Margot & the Nuclear So and So's record called Slingshot to Heaven. There's nepotism involved because I'm friends with Richard [Edwards], their singer, but it's such an amazing, all-time great record. I'm really proud he pulled it off. It's kickass.
Most recent concert you attended?
When we did our record release party in Dallas, I handpicked the for support slot, which was Austin's Black Joe Lewis because I wanted to see them, and I never get out to go out to gigs, so if I hired them to come play, then I could see them. They're such a great band. I was a little worried because they're such a great live show and we'd have to follow them. I needn't had been, because it our crowd and they were really excited to see us. I was really happy that we got to turn 2,000-plus people in Dallas to Black Joe Lewis, because they're a great band.
Who do you prefer, the Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Beatles, because that's been my answer since I was 6 years old. These if I was going to put on Beatles or Stones, I might gravitate towards the Stones because I didn't overplay them when I was growing up, whereas the Beatles songs are all just in my head to the point where I don't really need to listen to them anymore. They're just there in complete form already in my brain. I really love the early Stones stuff, especially when they were pretty garage-y, but the Beatles... John Lennon songs were my jam when I was a kid. That was what I sang along to before I sang along to anything else. One of my earliest memories, I think I was 3 years old and I was laying in the bathtub singing "Nowhere Man" and my mom walked in and I asked if that song was about my dad, not realizing that song existed on a much larger scale than a record in my house.
Why did you think it was about your dad?
Oh, I don't know. That's a question for a therapist, probably.
Was he not around?
He was. He worked a lot. He was a kind dad. My kids might say the same thing about me. Judge not lest I be judged.
Elvis or Buddy Holly?
Costello or Presley? I'll take Buddy Holly over both of them. My family used to go to this restaurant called Roscoe's Easy Way, although we called it Roscoe's Greasy Way. I'd eat chicken-fried steak as a kid. They had the little jukebox at every table, so you could pick out whatever song you wanted to listen to at your own table. I used to play Buddy Holly extensively when we would go there. Some of the earliest songs I learned were Buddy Holly songs. The fact that he was a Texan... I love Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello, but Buddy Holly was more seminal during my early years.