Reintroducing Rhett Miller
The Old 97’s front man on the making of his superb, self-titled solo album
As introductions go, Rhett Miller shouldn’t need one. Fronting alt-country luminaries Old 97’s for more than 15 years, the singer/songwriter with the silver-screen looks has guided the band, originally from Dallas, through seven studio albums as well as a live disc and a best of. Yet Miller’s own fourth solo outing—if you count the one he released while still in high school—feels very much like an introduction, starting with the fact that it’s self-titled. “I can’t believe I had never done it,” the 39-year-old says by phone from his home in the Hudson Valley area of New York. “I figured if I was ever going to, this felt like the record that should be eponymous.”
Released last June to strong sales (No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart) and reviews alike, Rhett Miller offers a few scattered moments of country twang but otherwise focuses on offbeat guitar-pop and robust rock. “Happy Birthday Don’t Die” is a frayed oddity with sci-fi tinges to the lyrics, whereas the climactic “Haphazardly” features one of Miller’s niftiest lines to date: “Whoever named the fall sure did a bang-up job.” The album launches with “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore,” a left-field choice for opener Miller credits to producer Salim Nourallah, who also helmed the last Old 97’s record.
“He pushed me,” Miller admits. “It’s such a weird song. It’s like 3/4 time with a waltz [and] huge John Bonham drums. And lyrically, it’s a strange, dark sentiment. It’s not the safe, obvious choice, but I feel like it was right because it really makes a statement.”
Nourallah pushed him in other ways, as well. Miller initially saw the album as quiet, largely acoustic—“I think I might still do that next,” he mentions—based around the hushed tracks “Bonfire” and “Sometimes.” But Nourallah instead latched onto some of the more eccentric songs Miller had penned but didn’t know what to do with. He recruited Apples in Stereo drummer John Dufilho while Nourallah himself played bass, organ, keyboards, tambourine, sang backup and strummed a bunch of guitars. Famed producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright) even contributed bass and guitar on a few tracks. Suddenly there was a batch of dense, full-band songs utterly belying what Miller once had in mind.
“They were big, strange art-rock things,” he explains. “Probably somebody would listen to this album and say it’s very straightforward rock & roll, but to me there’s such weird sonic moments that are different from anything I’ve ever done. It was great to make this bigger, more expansive record.” He calls Nourallah a genius, gushing, “I think I’m going to keep working with him forever.”
It’s worth noting that the songs on Miller’s solo albums since starting the Old 97’s—2002’s The Instigator and 2006’s The Believer—had been passed over by the band. That might seem like a strange setup, as if Miller was filling his albums strictly with castoffs, but he says there are scores more songs that don’t make the cut for either the band or his solo work. Besides, he notes, the songs the Old 97’s turn down aren’t necessarily of lesser quality, but instead fall into a more quirky or poppy vein that doesn’t fit the band’s longtime country-rock sound.
“I wouldn’t make a record if there weren’t enough to populate it,” Miller asserts. “The 97’s are so specific. That’s why I did a solo record to begin with, because there were songs I liked that weren’t getting released. It was pretty frustrating until I got to do that.”
On his current tour that hits the Galaxy Concert Theatre Thursday, Miller will be joined by the Serial Lady Killers, his trusted backing band. Known as the Believers when touring behind The Believer, the band is now named after a lyric from the Old 97’s song “Barrier Reef,” in which Miller cites his birth name: “My name is Stuart Ransom Miller / I’m a serial lady killer.” It was Miller’s mother, a big Gone With The Wind fan, who insisted on calling him Rhett, which his father agreed to as long as it read Stuart on the birth certificate. “It makes cashing checks or getting onto airplanes occasionally problematic,” Miller says. “Otherwise, it’s no big deal.”
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Memorable name aside, he has gained attention over the years for his good looks and warm, emotive voice. But his central strength is as a songwriter who adroitly couches dark sentiments within upbeat melodies. That means he can work through semi-autobiographical material that’s often quite melancholy. He says everything in his life works its way into songs, from family and friends to books he reads (including the work of the late author David Foster Wallace, of whom Miller was an enormous fan). In the end, though, he wants to entertain people more than he wants to bare his soul.
“A lot of the music I really love is depressing,” he explains, “so that’s what I’m drawn to. But when I play in front of people, I have this really strong desire to make them happy. I can’t force people to sit there and listen to sad songs that sound sad. I just can’t do it. If I’m going to have a sad lyric, it has to be set to music that’s uplifting or fun-sounding.”
Laughing, he adds, “But typically if I write a happy song, then it’s okay if it sounds sad. It has to be one or the other.”
Rhett Miller and the Serial Lady Killers with Leslie & the Badgers and Tim Whalen at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Thurs., 8 p.m. $18.