Rhett Miller Talks Old 97's, Bob Dylan, Trains And More

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Piper Ferguson
The band probably doesn't remember this, but one of the first interviews Rocks Off ever conducted as a quote-unquote professional journalist was talking to the Old 97's in their tour van behind Austin's Liberty Lunch as opener Don Walser(!) yodeled in the background. That was around the time the band's second album, Wreck Your Life, was new - so long ago it predates the Austin Chronicle's online archives. (We just checked.) But Rocks Off took Wreck and its follow-up, 1997's Too Far to Care, to heart. Then we took them to rehab. Just kidding... sort of.

After that, Rocks Off was sort of up and down on the Dallas-formed band, but 2008's Blame It On Gravity rekindled our interest, and then the brand-new The Grand Theatre, Volume One poured a whole bunch of gasoline on it. Especially sharply worded standouts "The Magician," "A State of Texas" and "Champaign, Illinois."

Therefore, Rocks Off is super-excited about the 97's - perhaps the only alt-country band we can think of was around before that term found its way into regular music-writer usage, and is still around - show in a few hours at the Continental Club, which is now sold out. We're so excited we're going to skip the rest of this introduction and go straight to a few questions we asked front man Rhett Miller that didn't make this week's print article.

Rocks Off: Is there a big difference for you between writing songs on tour and writing at home?

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Rhett Miller: That tour was special [the solo tour of Europe with Steve Earle where Miller wrote most of Grand Theatre], just because I haven't done that much touring through Europe, and where Steve plays they tend to be these really historical old places, and people listen very closely. His audience is kind of intense, a songwriter audience. The whole trip was inspiring, just because it was places I hadn't been to very often.

It's so easy to write when you're first starting out because everything is new, and there's a song everywhere you look. The older you get, you get sort of immune to the wonders of the world. I can go on tour in America now, and I've been to all these towns. I've seen all these dressing rooms and little Main Streets.

RO: Was making the new record a series of character sketches a byproduct of being on tour?

RM: It might have been a byproduct of being in all these historic old dressing rooms. You imagine all the people who have been there before. [But] I think that's probably an accurate description of most records I'm a part of. I like people, I like people-watching. I like inventing stories for them, although I hope I'm frequently inventing darker stories than they're actually living.

RO: How did running through all these songs at Sons of Hermann [in Dallas] affect when you went in to record them in Austin?

RM: Well, that's a comfortable place for us. That's a place where we've played a lot, and we've worked up records there before. We worked up Fight Songs and a little bit on Drag It Up there. We've spent a lot of time in that environment doing pre-production.

The good thing was we worked hard, but we didn't do too much. It's such a fine line - you can play the songs to the point where you think you know them and don't have to think about them while you're playing, and that usually kills some of the focus, and the intensity of the performance dissipates a little bit. But we played them just enough to solve the major questions.

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