Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Two imaginary girls {igLiz and igChar} and one imaginary writer {Stella} sat with Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Old 97’s, before their latest show at the Showbox (October 19, 2004), discussing everything from doughnuts to interviewing Tom Wolfe.

{TIG begin the interview by passing out a box of Top Pot doughnuts and rum balls.}

Rhett: This is the place I went this morning and had the apple fritter!

TIG: So does that mean you guys are staying near Top Pot or did you just hear about it last time?

Rhett: We’re staying at the Ramada. This morning I started to go to some little breakfast place across the street and then looked over and saw that huge window on the front and thought “that looks good”… plus they spell it right, with a ‘gh’-doughnut-and it’s got “pot” in the name!

TIG: I’m so glad that you’ve already had Top Pot doughnuts!

Rhett: Yeah, today!

TIG: And they also have wi-fi!

Rhett: I came back to the bus telling everybody, “It’s the greatest place in the world-wireless internet and doughnuts! And the coffee was great!”

TIG: Okay, let’s talk first about the new record, Drag It Up. When you went into the studio to record this album, did you fall into old habits, good and bad?

Rhett: We really challenged ourselves with regards to the process you know… We didn’t over-rehearse beforehand, or we didn’t rehearse much at all like we had for Satellite Rides, which wound up being a very—not a slick record—but a very studio-produced. We spent a lot of time polishing that record. This record is pretty much live, first-take sounding versions of the songs.

TIG: On this record, you used a vintage eight-track recording style. Was that something that you all decided as a band to do?

Rhett: That was Murry {Hammond, bassist}. Because I’d made my solo record, I was less worried about putting my stamp on it. Murry found the producer {Mark Neill} and came up with the whole theory behind the recording. I brought in the idea of “doing it in a first-take”, which I got from Jon Brion {who Rhett worked with on The Instigator}. Jon made an eloquent point that you can get lost and your mind will wander if you know a song too well. And he’s right. It’s like when I’m on stage a lot of times, I’ll be singing a song and I’ll start thinking about groceries, or wondering what is my wife doing right now… just random things…

TIG: Or thinking about Top Pot doughnuts…

Rhett: Exactly. So it’s the same thing in the studio. If you’ve played a song a million times and you’re cutting it and you’re thinking, “all right, we got it, it’s rocking, this is great“. I wonder “what the album cover will look like?” or whatever-and next thing you know, you’re not in the moment with the song. And yeah, it’s true, I really believe in that. Especially in this era of Pro Tools and digital recording, where you can really can make a song perfect. We just recorded one song with Steve Albini, and he was going on and on about how you can have an imperfect song and even to record it perfectly, it’ll still suck. But if you have a perfect song, no matter how you record it it’s probably going to be awesome—which is a good point.

TIG: You said some of the songs on this record had been floating around for a while. Were there others that you just wrote and recorded in the studio?

Rhett: “The New Kid” was very fast, and “Borrowed Bride” was right in the mess of the recording. My solo record was more like that—because we were in the studio for like four months.

TIG: Pretty much living there.

Rhett: Yeah. But with this record we were in the studio for a total of two weeks.

TIG: So when you go on the road, what’s it like now that most of you have families?

Rhett: It’s tough. Erica, my wife, doesn’t change much while I’m gone. But my son, Max, he’s 11 months old, so it’s hard… I made him a video before I left for him to watch. It is of me singing songs to him and things like that… so it is like I am there with him.

TIG: Do you ever have families come out to shows?

Rhett: Wives come out a lot. Max will come out eventually. But right now, he’s pretty small. The big cities are fun. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Erica came out. In New York, Ken’s {Bethea, guitarist} wife, Heather, came out.

TIG: So what are you listening to these days; what is inspiring you?

Rhett: I just started correspondence today with Joe Pernice {of the Pernice Brothers} who I really love. And he’s a nice guy, I’d only met him once years ago when he was with the Scud Mountain Boys-so I’m pretty excited about that.

TIG: And I read that you just recently met author Tom Wolfe.

Rhett: Yes, I interviewed him for a National Lampoon deal. It was for part of the promotion of his new book. It was good. It was like an hour-long interview. But I showed up, and he was dressed so well in a suit-type outtif and I showed up in a t-shirt and jeans. I felt like a schlub. I mean it was for National Lampoon so I was supposed to be like the college-y guy-ironically because I’m years past my college years AND I dropped out. But it was good. He’s such a smart guy. It was so different: so much of what I do is anti-intellectual-touring, just waiting before the show in our bus—so it was great to be able to use my brain.

TIG: But don’t sell yourself short—the songs that you write clearly are based in literature and are very smart.

Rhett: No… I know, in the making of the record and the singing of the songs. But it’s just the lifestyle around the tours that’s pretty tough.

TIG: So what else are you listening to?

Rhett: I’m so surprised that I don’t have the new Badly Drawn Boy record-it’s been out for like three months, but I really like him. And the new Shins record. There are a bunch more new albums I want to pick up though.

TIG: So with the upcoming election just two weeks away from today, do you feel the need to talk about politics on stage?

Rhett: I have thought about this a lot… I’d love to affect the outcome of this election in some way. But I don’t know if yelling at people on a Saturday night when they’re coming to see a show is the right place to do it. Either I’m saying something that they agree with or I’m making them feel alienated in our show. I don’t know, it’s tough-I think about it a lot. There are a lot of things I don’t talk about on stage. In fact, I’ve found that the less I talk on stage, the better! I try to limit it to one-sentence moments. {all laugh}

TIG: Speaking of using your voice to inspire political action… The Old 97s were on the Future Soundtrack for America compilation on Barsuk Records, right?

Rhett: Yes. We were excited to be a part of that. There were alot of great artists on there and a great cause.

TIG: Totally. That is a great label and John Flansburgh, one of my favorite people, spearheaded that effort. It was GREAT to see you guys on there. The song you had on there was a rare track?

Rhett: We put “Northern Line” on there.

TIG: I really like it. Everyone should have that compilation.