The Old 97's Rhett Miller Can Still Hit the High Notes on Too Far To Care, and He Loves Throwing a Frisbee Inside the Fillmore
This Sunday, Sept. 2, at the Fillmore, Texas-bred alt-country heroes the Old 97's will perform one of their greatest and most beloved albums, 1997's Too Far to Care, in its entirety. (A second set of other songs will follow.) Many tunes from this classic major label debut have stayed in the band's setlist over the years, like album opener and show closer "Timebomb." But others, like "Broadway," are rarely heard live anymore. Ahead of the show, we spoke to eloquent singer and songwriter Rhett Miller about hitting some of those old high notes, why the band chose to do a classic album tour despite just putting out two strong albums, and his curious habit of playing Frisbee inside San Francisco's hallowed Fillmore.
The Old 97's, with Rhett Miller second from left.
It's your first time doing a tour like this, where you play a whole album. How are you feeling about that?
Well, I think I would feel weirder about it if I hadn't seen a couple of bands that I really admire do it. I got to see the Pixies do Doolittle, and I got to see the Wedding Present do Seamonsters, and it was really cool. It's an experience. Last night we did a little private thing just to try it out, and it felt great. It's different from a regular set, because with the regular set I'm so conscious of never having a patch where people are stuck with too many songs from one record. Also [making Too Far To Care] was such a sweet time, we were so young and naive and full of hope and devoid of cynicism. So I gotta say, playing it last night it was a little bit transcendent. It took me back so much to that sweet little moment all these years ago.
When you go back and play the older songs, do you tend to kind of revisit the feelings you had when you wrote them? Are there songs on this album that are hard to revisit?
Yes, you're totally right. When I sing a song in general -- especially if I feel myself drifting away from the moment on the stage, I think about where I was when I wrote the songs and what things were important to me right at that moment. [That] brings me back into it. And yeah, some of these songs were tough. There was a lot of transition happening in my life, not just with the music stuff and getting signed to Elektra, and the nationwide touring that we were doing. It was really my first time to be the lead singer in a band, going city to city every single night for weeks on end. But there was personal stuff, like my grandma was just getting put in an old folks' home. We were really close. It was that moment of passing from the child who knows nothing of the true ways of the world into the guy who has to deal with all of them.
"Broadway" sounds like someone going to New York for the first time and being totally overwhelmed by it.
It's a lot like that, even though I had been to New York before. The Old 97's flew there on Elektra's dime. We were going to sign with Elektra Records. It was kind of a big trip. So we got there, went straight from LaGuardia to the Paramount Hotel, and it was a tiny little room, it was the size of the bed plus one foot in each direction. And there was a window, and 10 feet away there was another window. And inside that window there was a class of beautiful young ballerinas and they were dancing, and it was incredible -- it was such a beautiful tableau right there. And I had always dreamed as a young man about moving to New York City, read all the literature and bought into the mythology of it, and I still believe in it. But at the time I had kind of made it, in the way that I wanted to be validated with my decision to drop out of college, and [to] know that I was going to be able to make a living at music. And there I was. I had one hour between getting dropped off by the Town Car and getting picked up for dinner with the A&R guys, and in that hour I sat down and wrote "Broadway." I think sort of [as] a way to show off to them, you know, your investment is a good one, because I can do this on command.
But the song is kind of bleak. It almost reads like a warning against New York.
Oh yeah, I was feeling a great deal of ambivalence at the time. It was all happening for real, but what does it mean? It's a little terrifying. It's a lot easier to just stay home than to go out into the big world and try to make your way. I know it sounds silly, but at the time it was -- I was so young that the experience seemed to be so awesome and big and terrifying.
Onstage you're a charming, nice-seeming guy, but in your songs you depict yourself as being a little rough -- a bit of a scoundrel, even. Which of those personalities is closer to the real Rhett?
Well, it's funny. I've been obsessed lately with the Travis McGee series of novels by the writer John D. MacDonald. And Travis McGee is such a badass -- he's big, he's sunburned, he's capable, he knows how to fire a gun, he knows how to captain a ship. He can do everything. John D. MacDonald, the photos of him that I've seen and the stuff I've read about his life and personality, was not at all that kind of guy. He was a kind of quiet Harvard graduate with a bit of a paunch, and he just sat at a computer all day -- I'm sorry, sat at a typewriter -- all day long, and typed out his stories. I think that the person that I get to create in these songs, especially back then, is rooted in who I am, maybe in the same way that Travis McGee is rooted deep down some way in John D. MacDonald. But I get to play it up. I get to camp it up. I get to exercise some demons by pretending to be much worse, than I am, to be much more filled with despair or hopelessness. I think in my day to day life I'm very hopeful. I can usually find a way to be pretty happy. Like everybody I've got dark moments.