OK, let’s dispense with the hyperbole. If you’re familiar with the Texas-bred country/folk/rock band Old 97s, you probably know Rhett Miller as the principal singer/guitarist, and have some appreciation for the quality of his writing and their ability to deliver anything from a mournful stroll to a balls-out blast. Otherwise, you’re relying on someone you’ve never met to convince you of Miller’s talent and aesthetic value — with what? Words, phrases and overabundant praise? Why should you listen to me?
Miller’s pondered the same thing. “Why would anyone care what I would have to say,” he asks from his LA home while throwing in laundry and preparing for a guest spot on TNT’s “Dinner & A Movie.” “I’m going back out on tour, but really, what is it? I go from nightclub to nightclub and jump around, giving people an excuse to get drunk. What does it fucking mean?”
Such philosophical queries come naturally to Miller. On his new solo album, The Instigator, Miller justifies his admittedly “self-centered life and flaky existence,” with a plea of nolo contendere, singing, “I could hide it in the attic, I could bury it in static, I could only put it out in Japan,” on “This is What I Do.” Created with multi-instrumental musician extraordinaire Jon Brion, the album broke ranks with Miller’s typically studied and pored-over process.
“When Jon sits down to play it’s like first take. There’s no thinking something through and second-guessing yourself, which I do a lot,” explains Miller. “Songwriters tend to second-guess themselves, and have a lot of self-hatred. John doesn’t really get into that very much, which is good.”
If this makes Miller sound a bit overcerebral, it’s not something he would deny. The new album drops enough literary references to satiate any English major (the functionally unemployable), referencing the epistolary pining of Franz Kafka and Richard Wagner on the album-opening rave-up “Our Love,” and expressing Don DeLillo’s deconstructionist point of view on “World Inside the World.”
“I struggle with it sometimes. I try not to be too glib, facetious or flip,” Miller says. “It’s about emotional honesty and if I think something is there just to be clever, I’ll take it out.”
A thirtysomething who grew up on the ’80s underground, Miller ponders the significance of the Donnas on “Saturday Night Live,” and the previous year’s furor over the Vines, Strokes and White Stripes. True to his nature, Miller’s not overly optimistic.
“I had hoped that some of the stuff that happened with the whole Sept. 11 thing would make people re-evaluate what they were rewarding, in terms of what they were letting represent their time, but it hasn’t. The reason is because what we reward is still dictated by the big corporations, and they’re a bunch of big fat white assholes who run everything. Ironically, my record label is run by a black woman. And she’s very nice, for the record,” Miller says with a audible smirk.
“It’d be great if people listened to words again and if melody and inventiveness were prized, but American culture keeps stooping to these new lows that force you to re-evaluate the things you currently villianize. Like ‘shit, that wasn’t so bad, I’ll take that over this new brand of evil any day,’” he adds with characteristic understatement.
Miller recently married model Erica Iahn, and admits to worrying about his newfound bliss. “Maybe it’s not better for the output. It’s definitely easier to write when you’re alone because there’s nothing to distract you, and you’re driven by your own angst and unhappiness,” he says.
But it’s also given him the stability to invest himself in a more ambitious undertaking: a novel. Miller, who submitted a couple stories to McSweeney’s last year, believes “there’s something ambitious about embarking on a bigger project than a three-minute pop song. That you can whip it off and it’s done. Whatever. One more piece of my soul I’m going to give to the world and it’s going to ignore. But a novel is such a big thing — it’s like you’re affirming life by even contemplating making one.”
When Miller appears at St. Andrew’s Hall on Tuesday, it will be without the hired hands that accompanied him on his previous three-month tour. But while not his preference, he’s quite comfortable appearing solo acoustic.
“I’ve done it a lot, even since high school,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of stand-up comic friends these days and I take a cue from them. I try not to talk too much, but when I do I try to make it interesting.
“And if any audience will appreciate a guy with a guitar opening up, I think it will be Neil Finn’s audience,” Miller adds, with a minor chord of doubt. Yet, could it be any other way? So if you see him, be gentle and be nice. He still doesn’t know he’s made it.Chris Parker is a freelance music writer. E-mail him at [email protected]