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Friday, February 25, 2011

Old 97's still learning new tricks


There’s an inherent danger as a writer when you’re talking to (and writing about) a band that’s been around for nearly two decades. Simply put, you’ve got to fight the urge to eulogize. But if Old 97’s stopped playing music tomorrow, there’d be plenty to eulogize: 18 years. 14 records. Countless tours. And a career that began in an industry that's on its way to the history books. Rhett Miller loves his band’s past — but dammit, it’s not like they’re slowing down. So what keeps the creative drive going? A new recording focus (and new product, The Grand Theatre, Volume One, released in October) helps. Witnessing a regeneration of fandom across multiple generations doesn’t hurt. Oh, and whiskey is always an option. Yep, a touch of whiskey. As a storyteller, Rhett Miller’s always been as good as the words he writes — and it’s a safe bet to keep taking his word on just about everything these days.

With the new record, the main focus shifted towards trying to capture the band’s live energy, right?
Rhett Miller: One result of our having so many songs was that we felt compelled to work quickly. So, a lot of what is on the record was recorded live in the studio. Almost all the vocals were live, one-take recordings, which is rare in music these days.

Did that specificity of focus make you enjoy the actual recording process more?
RM: Yes. Agonizing and second-guessing can suck the soul out of recordings. To work quickly makes you trust your instincts more. Which, this deep into our careers, should be pretty finely tuned.

With so much under your belt now, are you able to look at this record in the greater scheme of your discography? Or do you just focus on each project as it’s at hand?
RM: I don't have that much perspective about our catalog, but I feel like we are clicking in a way that we haven't for years.

Before shows, we can usually find you doing...what?
RM: I drink Jameson. I try to stretch a little, but that's about it. We are pretty low-key.

Do you have a bit of a “credo” or live philosophy every night on stage?
RM: Whatever I have going on in my life or in my head, I try to remember that the audience made a special effort to be at the show and that they deserve me to give them something special. We have one speed. I tell myself that I should calm down on stage, that people will still have fun even if I don't go to such an extreme, and then I climb onstage and forget all that nonsense. What can I say? I like to rock.

You guys have been able to effectively cross generations at this point. That’s gotta be a cool thing to see at live shows, or to hear from new fans who are buying your music.
RM: I love that our audience keeps regenerating. There is always such a sweet influx of kids in the crowd to go along with the fans who have stuck with us over the years.

Most people who have been writing songs for a while will undoubtedly say that they get better with age. But what’s a writing quality that you had in your twenties that maybe you’ve lost and wish you hadn’t, or have to work harder now to channel? In what ways were you better as a younger, greener writer?
RM: I do believe I have gotten better as a songwriter. But there is one thing that's tougher: that big fat chorus used to come so easily. Nowadays, I can write verses all day long, but those moments of transcendent choruses just spilling out of my drunken brain are fewer and farther between.

What’s a song that, every time you hear it, you wish you’d written?
RM: “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Kris Kristofferson

One thing that’s changed with the release of Grand Theatre is the environment into which you’re releasing it. Take stock of the industry around you now as compared with a few records ago. What’s exciting about it? What’s becoming depressing about it?
RM: I love where we are now. It's like the wild west. It'll be great when they figure out how to pay the songwriters a little better, but the fact that the industry is no longer controlled by fat cats in a boardroom is amazing. I'm excited to witness it.

Old 97's with Those Darlins. $20. 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 25. The Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Rd. 404-843-2825.

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