Old 97's: Now actually older, and accordingly wiser
The Old 97's were early leaders in the alt-country scene during the '90s, mixing country twang and punkish attitude with literate pop songwriting. After 17 years together, the Dallas-based band is experiencing a resurgence, enough so that frontman and songwriter Rhett Miller says he "doesn't know that it ever felt better." For their latest album, last year's The Grand Theatre, Volume One, the group worked out its songs in a live setting and then captured that feel in the studio. The album not only catches the group's energy, but it also displays Miller's songwriting at its most confident. The former creative writing student has structured many of these songs around characters, loading them with distinct and occasionally creepy personalities as well as highly nuanced lyrics.
The Hook: What do you think has prompted your renewed success?
Rhett Miller: It has something to do with that feeling of confidence that I lacked as a younger man. Now I just don't care that much. I think it also has to do with the sine wave that is public perception.
The Hook: Listeners seem to confuse the personal and fictional content of your songs. How do you feel that blur?
Rhett Miller: It all comes from me, and it's all probably dealing with things with which I'm wrestling, but it's a trap to think that it's autobiographical. This is the most fictionalized record I've written. I can look at every single song and tell you the character and where I intersect with that character.
The Hook: Considering something like "Love Is What You Are," how much does this album utilize a meta-level take on rock, or on writing?
Rhett Miller: By giving myself permission to write about characters, it was probably a nice, easy way for me to really explore things that I was dealing with without having to face up to it that it was myself dealing with things. It's all these little tricks you play with yourself: “It's okay to do this because..."
The Hook: I wonder about things I write that might be couched in a different voice but still comes from somewhere in me.
Rhett Miller: It's funny you say that, because I sing a bunch of old songs every night. "Victoria" was a song I wrote before the 97's even formed. It's like, "She started on Rohypnol and ended up with me." Would I ever write that today? No way.
The Hook: "Champaign, Illinois" is a rewriting of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row." What did it mean to you that he offered to share songwriting credits?
Rhett Miller: I've always liked that song, and I've sat on it for a freaking decade for fear of legal repercussions. To have him personally sit there and listen to it, and then ask for lyrics and approve it, when he apparently turns down a a hundred requests per day, that's a huge compliment. It's definitely a career highlight.
Old 97's perform at the Jefferson Theater on April 12. $16-$18, 8pm.