“I should drink more beer.”
Rusty Miller, the country-grammar Svengali behind indie rockers Jackpot, is in a mellow-yet-feisty mood. And fits his music: steeped in rural mannerisms, soaked in lackadaisical melodies, and stirred with whiskey.
Since playing guitar leads for NorCal icons Cake on songs like “Put Your Arms Around Me” and “Never There,” Miller has become somewhat defensive of such affiliations. Which is understandable, since his own band has ample talent and critical attention to carry the conversation.
So, as he calls from his hometown of Placerville, Calif., he prefers to drink and smoke, and avoid the name-dropping. Cake-wise, that is. Alcohol and classic rock legends, however, are not off limits.
“I'm enjoying a Southern Comfort lemonade beverage right now, but I'd really enjoy an ice cold beer. We bought these so we could drink and watch the Zeppelin movie, Song Remains The Same, in the van while we drove. It was such an old, dubbed copy that, for some reason, the audio didn't work. It just wasn't the same-duh.
“So we gave up and started drinking the SoCo.”
Since grammar school, Miller and bass player Sheldon Cooney have built a rep for trailer-tractor stylings and good ol' mountain funktitudes-eventually inviting Mike Curry to join as drummer and, most recently, Lee Bob Watson as adjunct keyboardist/guitarist.
Their second album, 2000's Weightless, garnered damn fine critical nods. But it's their follow up, Shiny Things (on Encinitas-based Surfdog Records)-a more experimental and collaborative effort, including an appearance by Chuck Prophet-that has finally endeared them to the mainstream rock press.
Britain's MOJO is on board. So's Q and NME. The New York Times posted a glowing review. And all this for a record that Miller says was, as a process, far less organic than their teeny-tiny debut for the Future Farmer label.
“[For Shiny Things, we had] a lot better studio and a lot better mics and, uh... just a lot better tools. So, actually we were less comfortable than on Weightless. So we just ended up experimenting a lot more. There was a lot more weird stuff.”
Miller may call it weird stuff, but most critics call it a refreshing meld of country and classic rock influences. Rusty begs their pardon: He never promised them a country rose garden.
“Tell me one song on the album that is country. OK, maybe ‘Sometimes,' which was written by my girlfriend, Sarah Nelson. I guess that one's sorta country.”
He pauses for effect. (Or is it a drag on his SoCo?)
“That's Willie's grandma, actually,” he adds. “ So, you know, I got that going for me.”
C'mon, get serious, I joke with Miller. This is no time for games.
“We were definitely going through a different phase,” Miller retorts in a pseudo-English accent, before turning half-serious on me. “We did a co-production credit, but he [Shiny Things producer David Darling] was really responsible for a lot of that layering. I'm not too comfortable taking a lot of time with things; I want to work very fast.
“So even though there's a lot of crazy sounds on there, it was still very whimsical stuff, very in-the-moment. If we had made that album two years ago, when we wrote the songs, it would have had a very indie rock, spacey keyboards sound. But everything that comes out now sounds like that, so I'm glad we made it when we did and that, because of the lawsuit, it didn't come out as fast.”
Sensing an opportunity, I query Miller on his band's rumored un-amicable split and lawsuit with Future Farmer.
“They were-are-friends,” he diplomatically replies, affecting a legalistic tone. “Surfdog are our new friends...” He then deftly deflects the question with a non-sequitur:
“Um, there's a bar around the corner.”
Inevitably, I try to steer the conversation to a topic I know Miller is probably sick of: his Cake connections.
“Do we have to talk about that?” he responds, again, surprisingly tactful.
Of course not.
“Good. Can I say really quick that I've slept with Pamela Anderson and I'm really suicidal?”