Rock of the Old 97’s
Texas’ favorite sons get their twang back
I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of my favorite bands are made up of people I’d probably hang out with (or at least imagine I would). Not always the case, of course—I mean one hour with Gene Simmons and I’d end up slicing off my own ears and hating mankind.
Sitting at the other end of the bar from the KISS bassist is Rhett Miller, a guy who personifies the music of his band the Old 97’s—smart, charming, to the point. He’s sort of a man’s man, and he plays rock ’n’ roll for all occasions. If you can’t find anything to like about the Old 97’s, simply place your index and middle fingers on your favorite pulse point and make sure you’re still among the living.
Not that their music is flimsy or watered down. Over the past 18 years the Texas four-piece—that’s Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples—have seamlessly mashed the pop smarts of the British Invasion with the recklessness of punk rock and the down-home twang of outlaw country. Imagine if the Buzzcocks were from Dallas instead of Bolton, England. And while a few of their records are coated in a glossy pop sheen, when they’re live, the 97’s have always been a rowdier, sweatier version of themselves, offering a place where punks, hipsters, parents and bookworms all get along.
“We’re not honky skronk,” says Miller, alluding to one of the early labels slapped on the band. “We’re not goofy like that. We’re from Texas, so of course there’s going to be a country influence.”
These days the Old 97’s don’t have much to prove. They’ve made it through those awkward growing pains and have since learned how to balance rock ’n’ roll with being adults. And they’ve gotten better with age.
“We have been a band for so long, maybe it’s just that we’ve weathered so many storms with the solo records and the demise of the record industry,” he says. “The band has become really fun—egos have become really attuned to where feelings don’t get hurt.”
Last year the Old 97’s released The Grand Theatre Volume One, a record that shows a band comfortable in its own skin. The hooks are still there, but there’s an energy that’s been missing for nearly a decade. It’s a prolific time, as the 97’s are in the middle of a Western-states tour in advance of the release of The Grand Theatre Volume Two on July 5. It might be one of their best yet—it’s definitely their most diverse as songs like the Pogues-ish “White Port” gallop easily alongside the train shuffle of “Ivy” and the sweet and strummy “How Lovely All It Was.”
Miller has pointed out on more than one occasion that he prefers music that’s visceral and fun to tunes that are sad-bastard and self-aggrandizing. And although he’s made a career of sketching unhappy character studies of lovelorn losers and borderline psychotics (perhaps it should come as no surprise that the first song he ever penned was an ode to Charles Manson), it’s always washed down with a little piss and vinegar. The Old 97’s may have grown up, but they haven’t grown stale.
“There’s a song on [Volume Two] called ‘The Actor’ that’s more punk rock than anything we’ve ever done,” Miller says. “I guess there are moments of insanity not found on Volume One.”
The new records could be viewed as the opening of the Old 97’s second act. As the band closes in on the 20-year mark they’re playing to larger audiences than they ever have. And the members still get along, which means the Old 97’s cultish fan base will likely never be faced with making the awkward decision to spend money on overpriced reunion tickets.
“There are bands that play a lot of gigs where they need separate dressing rooms, and the only connection is nothing more than a forced smile across the stage,” Miller says. “I love this job. I love this band. It’s called playing for a reason.”