Old 97‘s frontman Rhett Miller hasn’t released a solo album of original material since 2009, but he just dropped The Dreamer earlier this month, and it was well worth the wait (and then some). Not only is the album both self-produced and self-released, it abandons the straight-ahead pop stylings that defined his four previous solo efforts, and gloriously blurs the laid-back country line that launched Miller’s Old 97‘s into the spotlight.
Drawing from the handsome crooner’s Texas roots and enlisting cohorts like the Serial Lady Killer band and Rosanne Cash, The Dreamer is Miller’s best work yet, and will most likely unite fans that once stood firmly on the side of either band or solo output.
I recently spoke with the easygoing singer, who will be at the Casbah on Friday night, about it all as he travelled through a mountainous area in Pennsylvania.
Scott McDonald: How are things?
Rhett Miller: Things are great. I’m on the first week of a month-long tour and loving it.
SM: Shows good?
RM: They are. We’ve only done a few so far, but we’re doing 30-song sets -- a solid two hours -- and we’re having a blast.
SM: I know you did some solo stuff, but this is with the band, right?
RM: The Serial Lady Killers. Yes. We are out in full force.
SM: I had a chance to listen to The Dreamer, and it’s great.
RM: Thank you very much. I’m really proud of it. The idea going in was something very natural and organic, and sounded like a group of friends playing in a room together. And that’s what it was. In order to make it sound like that, I enlisted the Serial Lady Killers, who I’ve worked with for years, and we moved pretty quickly. And, really, that’s because I think the best music is made very quickly and organically. Almost everything you hear on the record was taken live off the floor -- bass, drums, guitar -- and about 90 percent of the vocals, which is unheard of in these times of studio trickery. But that’s what I wanted: just a group of people playing music together.
SM: How was the experience with self-producing?
RM: You know, I loved it. But I could always be persuaded to work with the right producer in the future. However, if it’s a record like this, where I really feel strongly that I have a handle on how I think it should sound, then I love self-producing. All it entailed was hiring some people who I trusted, being hands-off, and letting them do their thing. If something popped up, of course I’d say something, but it was really rare when that happened. And it did make me far more engaged in the process. When I do have a producer, there’s a lot of time where I can just check out and let someone else steer the ship, but I couldn’t do that this time. A couple of times I thought, "Aw, I’m gonna take a break now," but when I walked away, it just didn’t feel right. It forced me to really focus on every moment of the session.
SM: Did you have the game plan going in?
RM: When the songs started piling up, and I kind of got an idea for the thing as a whole, I wanted to make sure it had a backbone. Specifically, I wanted the Serial Lady Killers to help give it a fuller sound than just me alone. I wanted it to be organic, but I wanted the album to have depth and sonic volume to it. That’s nice.
SM: To me, it’s the closest thing to a marriage between the Old 97’s and your solo stuff that you’ve ever done.
RM: It is true that after so many albums with the band, when I started making solo records, that I really wanted to differentiate the two. I wanted to draw a strong line of demarcation between the sound of Old 97’s and the sound of the solo records so people would not be confused. And I did that for awhile. But now, I feel like the band is so cool about the solo stuff, and the fans have really seemed to embrace the fact that I can do both, I don’t feel like I have to be so strict about it. I like that fact that I could make a rootsy, kind of Americana record and not have it step on anyone’s toes.
SM: Well, you’ve certainly been able to juggle the two pretty successfully.
RM: I think I’m also benefitting from a general change in the culture of how we do all of this as well. People don’t mind as much anymore. There’s so much information coming at us every day, when they find something they like, they want more of it. It’s like when you’re reading a series of books, you get pissed when there’s no more books. I think there was a time when you could put out too much stuff, but now, it’s like you could put out a record a month and it wouldn’t be enough. And I think there’s room for all of it.
SM: It also has to be great to be able to draw from so many sources when you play live.
RM: Oh my God. It’s so much fun. We draw from it all, and the shows are so much fun to play. It’s great.
SM: So what’s next?
RM: We’ve got dates in June and July, and then I’ll go out in August with the 97’s and will do an acoustic set to start those shows as well, and we’ll be doing that through November.
SM: Well, thanks for taking the time, and we’ll see you on Friday night.