It's been close to two decades since Rhett Miller and company fired up the Old 97's in Dallas and helped pioneer the alt-country movement alongside Wilco and the Jayhawks. Since then, the quartet, which is known for its vigorous live sets, has gone on to release a string of solid records, including the latest effort, the extremely live Grand Theatre, Volume One (the second volume is slated for release in May). We spoke with Miller about recording Grand Theatre, Volume One, working under the gun, why the band didn't release it as a double album, and the band's wry little motto.
Westword: You've said that Blame It on Gravity was the beginning of something and Grand Theatre was that thing coming to fruition. Can you expand on that?
Rhett Miller: I was referring to Salim Nourallah, our producer for those two albums, as well as the whole experience of making a record in Texas. It feels like we have found a great formula for recording. It's a very live, instinct-driven process.
Grand Theatre, Volume One just came out in October, and the second volume is slated for a May release. Are you guys playing any songs from the second volume on this leg of the tour?
Maybe. It's tough, though; we're just working in the songs from Volume One. Not to mention the seven previous albums. I try to mix the set lists up, though, so maybe by Colorado we'll be sneaking in some unreleased stuff.
How did you guys decide on which cuts went on Volume One and which ones go on Volume Two?
We agonized and experimented. Again, it all comes back to following your instincts. I got to write a couple more tracks for Volume Two that I really love. "I'm a Trainwreck" promises to be a crowd-pleaser.
Why not release it all as a double album?
It didn't feel right. Double albums don't carry the same coolness factor they once did. It's too bad, in a way. I have some favorites. London Calling and Blonde on Blonde, for instance. These days it's almost as if the move is to release a four-song EP every month. It's an exciting time to be in music, though. Like the wild west, almost.
How was it knocking out 21 songs in about eight days? Do you guys work better under the gun than laboring over tunes?
Yes. We are, if nothing else, a live band. It works for us to set up our gear and roll tape. You've got to figure that after eighteen years, we've got it somewhat figured out, right?
Most of the songs were primarily recorded live in the studio, right? Did that help capture some of your on-stage live energy?
Yes. And the fact that so many of the vocals are the live take is a source of pride for me. And I think the record benefits from the honesty of that experience. You can hear me yelling and screaming and gasping for air.
Did simulating a concert experience at Sons of Hermann Hall before recording the album help with that?
That venue turns a hundred years old this year, and we milked it for all its magic.
You've said that you wrote a lot of the material for both volumes while touring the U.K. with Steve Earle and then came back with about thirty songs. Have you ever had a prolific spurt like that before?
Sure. I'm in the midst of one now. I remember my greatest unbroken songwriting jag: my twenties.
During your World Cafe interview, you talked about the Old 97's trick, at least lyrically, where if you have a happy song, you make it sound messed up, and if you have a sad song, you make it sound happy. That way it goes down smoother. Can you expand on that, and how did that start?
I have a problem with performers who make you work too hard to enjoy the experience of listening to their music. I work my ass off for people to have fun listening to my band. Part of that is not getting dragged down into Mopesville for too long. If I do get sad, I like to spice it up with a few snotty asides.
You guys are getting close to your twentieth anniversary. How has that journey been so far, and what does it take for that kind of longevity?
Nice. Succinctness in interviews.
You seem like the ideal fit for New West Records. How has it been working with them for the last six years or so and being in the same company as folks like Steve Earle and Kris Kristofferson?
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New West is a fantastic label. We've had a blast working with those folks, and they've believed in us and worked hard for us.
Do you have words you live by? Maybe a band credo?
It stems from a joke: Guy goes to hell, gets ushered into a room filled knee-deep in excrement. People holding cups of coffee stand all about the room. The man thinks to himself, "This isn't so bad." Then the Devil walks in and says, "Coffee break's over. Back on your heads." So that's our wry little motto: "Back on Your Heads."
Old 97's, with Langhorne Slim, 9 p.m. Thursday, January 27, Boulder Theatre, 2032 14th Street, $24.50-$28, 303-786-7030. Thursday, January 27 at Boulder Theater