Rhett Miller will take The Old 97’s to the Bourbon Room in Los Angeles tomorrow (June 5) as part of a two-week tour. As Miller says, this is the band’s longest tour since 2019, or pre-COVID lockdown, as well as their first LA appearance since 2018.
For a band celebrating its 30th anniversary as a band, that kind of gap, as Miller pointed out during our conversation this week, is a lifetime. But one that has given Miller a new appreciation for being on the road and time to think about what he wants to do with the band’s tour.
Miller has also been busy this time writing a solo album and his second children’s book. I told him about all of this and more.
Steve Baltin: Do you tour with Old 97’s or do you just do these one-off shows?
Rhett Miller: So I flew to Salt Lake City. The crew meets the bus in Denver with all our gear. And then the band members are all flying to Salt Lake City today. And we’ll get on the bus tonight. And we’ll be driving all night in the middle of nowhere in Nevada to play a festival called Schellraiser Festival. And then we cross over and play in Vegas. And then we go by The Boubon Room on Sunday nights, and so on through the southwest, then all the way through Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota on some shows with Steve Earle and the Turnpike Troubadours .
Baltic: So it’s a complete tour.
Miller: Oh yeah, on a tour bus, a full tour. We made a few dates. But that bit like two weeks of racing is the longest thing we’ve done since pre-COVID.
Baltin: You say pre-COVID. But cases are again through the roof. So how do you feel on the road?
Miller: Can I pretend it’s not happening? I’m terrified somehow. Because it all felt so right, so easy, and so upbeat. The idea that someone on our side could catch him and arrest him is really scary. I got it in January. And then Murray had it more recently. But we’ve all had it in the past six months, which I know doesn’t mean we’re immune. But I think the fact that we’ve all been vaxed and boosted and within a six month window of having it makes it less likely. The Old 97s have just taken part in this giant Hollywood production which I literally have no right to tell you what it is about. But I’m sure soon it will be common knowledge. But it’s a big Hollywood production, the kind where they’re constantly testing you. And so we were all constantly tested. Of course, it was a few…
Baltin: I know you can’t talk about it. But did you play it or did you play it?
Miller: Yes, our SAG cards have been summoned. Yeah.
Baltin: I was supposed to go see Jack White and the Afghan Whigs last night. Afghan Whigs just happens to be one of my five favorite bands of all time. And they had to cancel because of COVID.
Miller: I like [Greg] Dulli. I love the Afghan Whigs. We were briefly friends of the Elektra label. They are awesome. And he’s awesome. And it continued for all these years. There aren’t many people I’ve known since the early 90s when we were all making music who were still doing it and being good at it.
Baltin: As you’re on the longest pre-premiere period of COVID, do you feel like it’s something you’re excited to be back on and missed the tour?
Miller: Yeah, it’s still weird. Because I understand what you’re saying. COVID was that thing where a lot of marriages didn’t survive. Many professions have not survived. People wanted to do something else. I was able to be home due to COVID for my children’s teenage needs. My son is graduating from high school next week to go to college. My daughter is going to be a first in high school. So I was able to be there in a way that I had never been before. And it was priceless. But I also missed my work. But now that I’m back to work, the schlepping and level of discomfort I always rode with because it was part of a deal, now I feel it in a way I never felt before. . Believe me, complaining about the things I have to do for my job is insane. Because I can do really cool work. So what? So I have to go to airports and all that? Big deal. But I’m like, “God, do I really want to do like before?” And it makes me think that I’m going to shoot less/smarter, differently.
Baltin: Where do you see The Old 97 playing in 2022?
Miller: Funny, earlier you mentioned the idea of being hungry. And I think the fact that Old 97s will be 30 next year, the fact that we’ve been constantly making records and touring for those three decades, it’s been constant producing and touring, is that we’ve always hungry. And now when I’m faced with the idea of going back to work and realizing that sometimes being home is better and maybe my humanity has sometimes been undermined by my status as a rock and roll figurehead. roll. The Old 97 is a medium-sized industrial situation, there are people who depend on us for their livelihood, and I don’t want to let anyone down and I have to feed my family. But at the same time, I don’t want to go out and be stupid about it. But I still feel the hunger, like I just want to keep being part of the artistic conversation. I want to keep making albums because I’m still fascinated by the process, I still like the idea of putting something in the world and making the world, if not a more beautiful place at least a more interesting place, a richer artistic place. And so I want to keep doing it and I still want to, but yeah, it makes me realize that I want to be a lot smarter about it.
Baltin: When was the last time you played in Los Angeles?
Miller: It’s been a while, man. I have so many friends in LA it was crazy like I was texting dozens of people and then returning a guest list and getting in trouble because of it but even these people bring up what you bring up, like, “You know, COVID isn’t over yet.” [But] I’m excited about Bourbon Room as it’s booked by an old friend of ours, Adam Spriggs, who has been to a few different venues and festivals over the years. He’s a fan of our band, and that’s kind of the thing Old 97 is lucky to have people who have been fans for decades and have risen to positions of power. I trusted him, and since reaching out to friends in the LA area, inviting them to the show, a bunch of people have come back and said, “Yeah, I’ve been to that venue, and it’s is great, and they really put a lot of money into it, the sound system is awesome.” So yeah, I’m thrilled, it’s rare to get into a new thing, having done the same type of circuit across the United States for all these decades. Every time you have the opportunity to be in a new place, especially one that seems pretty cool, it’s exciting. I hope my friends show up, and I hope they’re not too scared.
Baltin: Looks like the last time you played in Los Angeles was in 2018 at Troubadour.
Miller: This is crazy. When I think of a four year window in our band, a four year window was basically all the time we were on Elektra during which we released three band albums along with a solo album. A window of four years there’s so much that happens in that time frame normally in a career, certainly at the beginning of a career, but even decades we do a lot in four years and now the fact is that’s going to be our first time back in LA in four years, it’s mind-boggling.
Baltin: What are you waiting for?
Miller: I did a solo album during the pandemic which will be released in September. And the sounds on it and the songs on it, I let myself get weird in a way I never would have if I couldn’t get off the treadmill. That was just the start, doing these very quiet, intimate performances in front of the high definition camera in my office, like being able to be quiet, being able to get weird, being able to try out these weird sounds. I went there with my friend, Sam Cohen, who is a producer and musician who just did Kevin Morby’s new record which is really great. But Sam and I wrote all those songs in the room and recorded them right away. And it was these tons of weird sounds. In addition to the more traditional stuff, there’s synth stuff and 808 drum machine stuff. It’s the kind of stuff that if I never had a hard reset I wouldn’t have allowed myself to try that stuff. Because I would have thought, “No one will come with me if I do this.” And now I just feel like, “There are no more rules. Let’s all do what we want to do. Because we’re not here forever.”
Baltin: Tell me about the children’s books you’ve written.
Miller: I always had this idea that musicians who did anything in the world of children, like children’s music or children’s literature, that signaled that their rock and roll career was over. And I haven’t completely accepted the idea of making children’s music. To me, it still feels like a bridge too far. Although after talking to Walter [Martin] from The Walkmen and seeing the kind of children’s music he’s made and how cool he’s still is, I’m like, ‘Okay, okay, maybe cool people can still do some music for kids without having to turn in their cred card.” But as far as books go, I started doing them when my kids were younger. The second book will be released in August this year. And it’s so much fun. To me, it really feels like this muscle that’s adjacent to the songwriting muscle, where I can do stupid, smart things. And I can really think of the rhyme scheme and the counter, and the kind of more just logistical writer stuff. It’s poetry, it’s songs, there are all the rules that go with the songs. But it’s so sweet. And then for me, going out and making appearances in front of an audience of all kids is such a distillation of that experience. They are so honest in their immediate feedback. And when you do the Q&A at the end, the questions they ask are so crazy, like “How much money do you make each year?” Some of them are like, “What’s the biggest number you can think of?” “As much.” And it’s really cute. It’s good. And that makes me so happy. My children are older now. And I miss it, the real little bright-eyed childhood thing. But yeah, I love it. I feel like I have too many things in my artistic brain for one discipline to be enough.