After nearly a decade conducting the runaway locomotive that is the Old 97's, frontman Rhett Miller has temporarily jumped the track. And as he indulges pop fantasies on his recent solo release, The Instigator, alt-country fans on the 97's train loudly grumble.
“There's probably people who are pissed off-but whatever, they can start their own bands and have their own life,” Miller snappily retorts to his naysayers. “I've got my life to deal with and it's hard enough making myself happy-and my wife and my loved ones happy.... I can't worry about a bunch of alt-country shitheads.
“One thing I have heard after shows is people say, ‘You know, I came here not knowing what to expect. I'm a big Old 97's fan and I was ready to hate this new band, but you guys are awesome and I love it.”
If Miller's account of audience response is true, it mirrors the response of critics. The Instigator has attracted a legion of new converts. The first single, “Come Around,” has already enjoyed a fuller radio life than the two songs released from the Old 97's' last effort, Satellite Rides, combined.
Miller's pop leanings are no secret, nor is it surprising he indulges them openly while on his own. While the Old 97's are countrified, pop always bubbled under the surface and even served as a cornerstone for the band, says guitarist Ken Bethea.
“We knew we wanted to play some country music together, because it's fun and neat and kind of different,” Bethea says. “We also knew that Rhett's songwriting strength is more Beatles-y or Elvis Costello-y, so we thought that's a good area to go.”
From inception, Miller says, The Instigator was a collaborative effort with producer Jon Brion, who has worked with the likes of Elliot Smith, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. Brion often joins Miller onstage during his regular gigs at Largo in Los Angeles and plays the role of instrumental multi-tasker on The Instigator.
“He's unbelievable,” Miller says of Brion. “He hates when I say it, but he's a genius. I was glad I was friends with him for a couple of years before we went into the studio together, because it would've been very intimidating to work with him otherwise.”
The past year or so has been hectic for Miller. After leading a bi-coastal existence between L.A. and New York for several years, he decided to settle on the East Coast with his fiancée Erica (the couple have since wed). They moved into an apartment just a few hundred yards from the World Trade Center at the beginning of September. His first hand account of the events of Sept. 11 was published in Rolling Stone.
It seems having a print byline lit a fire in the songwriter, who has since written a short story scheduled to be published in Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a literary journal edited by author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius).
Miller temporarily majored in creative writing in college, and his songs are known for their literary devices. “My dream is to be able to write fiction at some point,” he says. “I would love to write a novel, but for the time being I'm just keeping it honed writing short stories.”
(Note to Old 97's fans: No, there is no manuscript laying around called “New Orleans Ain't a City, It's a Scar.” “It's just a lyric,” Miller says.)
Literary allusions not only pepper the lyrics throughout The Instigator, but in some cases serve as a basis for whole songs.
“‘Point Shirley' is taken from the title of a Sylvia Plath poem, and in the chorus of that song there is a Shakespeare allusion-‘To be or not to be'-sort of a suicide reference,” Miller says. “Don Delillo's Underworld is basically the whole premise of the song ‘World Inside the World.'
“Richard Wagner and Franz Kafka both posthumously had letters published to their married mistresses,” Miller says of the inspiration for “Our Love.”
“I read both of them, and Wagner was-I don't know, you can make up your own mind-but he seemed like a total asshole. But Kafka, who I love, seemed like a tortured soul. It was kind of sweet though, and it's very humanizing to read other peoples' letters and see just how weird and sad they were.”
Weird, and sad. Tortured soul. Sweet. All of these sides of Miller come out in his songs. He has played the roles of the heartbroken loser, the adulterer, the stalker, the freewheelin' swinger and a “serial lady killer,” among many others.
“Oh, I dunno,” Miller says, laughing, when asked if the protagonists of his songs are a projection of his own reality. “I lived through a phase of being a very imperfect person during my 20s. I mean, everyone has to get a lot of shit out of their systems.”“I just have always felt like fiction has to be interesting. There has to be some conflict to draw you in, and love is generally the most interesting conflict-especially love gone wrong, love subverted.”