Q&A: Old 97's Frontman Rhett Miller Talks The Grand Theatre, Accepting The Alt-Country Tag and The Trouble With Releasing Double Discs.

Categories: Interviews
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Piper Ferguson
The Old 97's are looking sharp once more.
In tomorrow's print issue of DC9, I take a long hard look at the Old 97's eighth studio release, The Grand Theatre, Volume One, which earns its release on Tuesday, October 12. And I find, as we've been saying since we first heard the disc back in August, that it's as strong a release as we've heard from the 97's since the '90s. The reasons for that are plentiful--the sense of urgency and the return of some angst in the songwriting chief amongst them, as well as the band's long-time-coming admission that, OK, maybe they are an alt-country band after all.

On Monday afternoon, I spoke with frontman Rhett Miller about the disc, the fruits of which show up somewhat in my print piece. But the bulk of that conversation, for sheer space reasons, couldn't fit into the paper. So, after the jump, I present you with that conversation, in full, uncut and unedited. In it, you'll hear Miller musing on everything from the new album and the band's place in Texas music to the 97's early days practicing in his mom's garage and differentiating between band and solo material. Check it out.

First and foremost, what happened with the double album plans?
The marketplace can no longer sustain the idea of a double album. Between the record label, the publishing company and management, a) nobody thought that anybody would want 25 songs at once any more, and b) they wouldn't put it on two discs, so it would've been kind of crammed under one CD, which maybe only bothers me in theory. And then there was also the problem that the publishing company was only willing to pay for 12 songs a record no matter how many songs are on it, so if you put 25 on it, you're basically going to be giving them an album for free. And something about that really rankled me. And I loved the idea of there being Volume One and Volume Two, so it still exists as a piece, but it keeps the momentum going over a longer window for the 97's. You can get on people's nerves saying, 'Here's 25 songs. Bow down before my brilliance.' Now it's more like, 'Here's something good and here's something else good, now that you've gotten used to the first thing.'

Was it a disappointment to find that out, though? I know you guys were super stoked on the whole idea of the double album at the start of recording this.
I was. I really was. [Producer] Salim [Nourallah] and I both had to go into it kicking and screaming. But when we had the idea of making it a two-volume set, that answered all my major problems with that. And it's kind of cool because it really gives us a chance to go in and polish off Volume Two and make sure it's really amazing.

How did things change once you realized that it was going to be two single albums as opposed to one double album? Are these literally the first dozen songs?
It changed. We let ourselves kind of front-load it a little bit. I'd say it's the songs we're most excited about, but then there's the songs we saved for Volume Two that, y'know, I can't believe we didn't put on the first record. Like, "Brown-Haired Daughter," which might be the best song out of any of the songs that we've recorded. That'll probably be the opening track of the next recording.

Are there any sonic or stylistic differences between the two volumes or was it just a matter of having to split it up somehow?
I think Volume One is going to be a little more garage rock. And Volume Two is gonna be a little more swing and a little more, well, not softer, because I know that there are a handful of songs we're going to record to supplement Volume Two the week of the first one's release. We're actually going to be going into the studio that week to finish Volume Two and the handful of songs we've got there are really rocking. I don't really have Volume Two figured out in my head yet. We've still got that X factor of the four or five new songs that we're gonna throw in there. Because we did take two songs off Volume Two to make them as bonus tracks for Amazon and iTunes.

That's a lot of shuffling you had to do, I guess.
Yeah, but you know I like the challenge.

Tell me a little bit about the process of this. How long did it take?
Not including any of the writing, which was months beforehand, we did the week of pre-production and then we did about a week and a half in Austin and then we had, like, three weeks in which [guitarist] Ken [Bethea] and [drummer] Philip [Peeples] went in to Salim's and did overdubs for percussion and guitar. And then [bassist] Murry [Hammond] and I both came in to do backups on each other's songs and re-recording different vocal stuff here and there. And that was when we were still planning the double album. And that was finishing 24, 25 songs.

How does that overall time compare to the past recording efforts?
It's very quick. And, like, with The Instigator, that took four months, where Jon Brion and I were locked in the studio in North Hollywood and everyday, who knows what we'd get done? We'd get maybe one guitar part done all day. But that's really old-school. The way things work now appeals to me a lot more. You're trusting your instincts and flying by the seat of your pants and not really thinking too much--because you can kill something by re-visiting something too many times. I mean, you think about people with their first album and they're just trying to capture something, and, Jesus Christ, you're just never gonna get it done. So I liked that. And I think that that's the thing with this record. So much of it was done live. All the drums, all the bass. Most of the guitar, most of the vocals. All of it was cut when we were doing our first takes--and we didn't do too many takes. We had done the pre-production to the point where we were ready to go in and take a shot at these songs. So a lot of them are first takes, with everything live. I mean, how fucking rare is that?

Was that a matter of confidence? Both in the songs and having the comfort level with Salim, having worked with him before?
Yeah. And also the work we'd done the previous week in Sons of Hermann where we'd really answered a lot or most of the questions. But that's it: A song presents a list of problems that need solutions, and we came up with most of the solutions at Sons. So when we got in the studio, it was mostly just making sure that the sound was right to tape and just making sure that the feeling of it was good and that nobody was pushing too hard or forgetting the good thing that they had already hit upon.


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