Six Questions for ... Rhett Miller

rhett miller

Rhett Miller makes music. He's been doing it, and doing it well, for 20 years. The 39-year-old is best known for his work with alt-country vets the Old 97's (or maybe as a Chili's pitchman -- more on that later) but the three solo albums he's released this decade show him dialing down the twang and coming up with some finely-crafted pop gems. Miller's self-titled album released over the summer is at times breezy, bouncy but always filled with hooks. The day before he hit the road with his backing band, the Serial Lady Killers, we talked about how he juggles his band and solo career and, in the wake of Kanye, some of his most memorable unscripted moments on stage. Miller performs at the Black Cat tonight.

Are you psyched to get back on the road behind your solo stuff?
Totally excited. I thought it was going to be an acousticy kind of album and it's not. It's got some moments of quiet but it's just a lot of rock-and-roll. It's been great touring it so far but it's been me, solo acoustic, opening for the Old 97's. It's fun to play the songs but that's not what they sound like on the record. So finally getting to hear the songs played with a full band the last couple days has been blowing my mind.

Do you write songs specifically for an Old 97's album, for a solo album or do you just have a big batch and you pick and choose?
It's a little of both. I'm always writing and I like to give the Old 97's first dibs on the songs. Just because they're my band and it's nice that they let me make solo records and don't make a big deal about it. But then as the record approaches I'll see a need and I'll write a song to fill it or I'll just get inspired by what we're doing and have a song that pops up and I don't even run it by the band. Like "Happy Birthday Don't Die," on the new record -- that's not an Old 97's song. I'd be amazed if they wanted to record that song. I wrote it the day I was going to Texas to make the record and it was the rocker that I wanted to be the far end of the spectrum on the album.

(Read more after the jump.)

It's interesting that the band still gets first dibs. Is there any tension about you doing solo albums?
In the beginning it was tough, when I did "The Instigator." It really coincided with the demise of the recorded music industry, Elektra Records folding, everything changed around 2001 and 2002. It was a very seismic shift. It was a little weird to have to figure out how to do it. But now we've been doing it long enough, you have to navigate all that stuff -- egos, schedules, logistics -- but we've done it well. I think Old 97's may stay together until we're old. Until we're literally old.

Does everyone having their side projects help make things easier when it comes time to get back with the band?
Well it definitely helps for me just because I get told no so much that if I only had the Old 97's as an outlet then there's a lot of just pushing and pulling and fighting about whether or not we're going to do this song or that song. But having a solo outlet is great I don't have to worry about it so much. I think that they never wanted to be much bigger or active than bands like X or the Pixies, although Pixies in their new incarnation are much bigger. I saw them on a couple of tours before they broke up and it was a couple thousand people that they'd pull in a big market, and that's about we do in a big market. So the Old 97's got to the level that the guys kinda wanted to be at. I don't mind working my (butt) off but I wouldn't mind playing in front of a Super Bowl halftime crowd or whatever. So it's nice that I can do both. Not that I play anything close to Super Bowl halftime show.

You've been doing this long enough that you must have some experience with heckling. Any favorite heckle? One that really stands out?
People still yell stuff all the time. And I try to maintain that fourth wall a little bit, pretend I can't hear them. But the Old 97's did a Chili's commercial where I re-wrote the Chili's babyback ribs jingle. I just thought it was a big goof. I thought, this is hilarious. I mean, they paid us. But in a way it was just more about, Yeah, I'll do that, that's hilarious. So I rearranged the jingle, I wrote all new verses for it. I approached it as a work-for-hire thing. We sang it, they aired it on TV for a little while. I guess right after that happened I had people yelilng for the Chili's jingle.

One night in Madison I did it. I just whipped it out. I did it all by myself, an acoustic solo version. Somebody put it on YouTube. Now, for some reason, that is the most viewed YouTube clip of me or us. And it's me singing the babyback ribs song. And so people call up for interviews and they'll say, So, I notice you play the babyback ribs song. And I'm like, Yeah, you found the most viewed YouTube clip. I only sang it a couple of times. So sometimes people ask for the Chili's jingle. A couple times I felt like they were yelling it to try to get my goat because I sold out and they were calling me out or something. And I think to myself, in what way is all of it not a sell out? It's not like I'm only playing songs in my room for my wife. I record them and put them on an album which has a price tag on it. It's all selling out.

What about uninvited guests crashing the stage?
Dude, the best thing that ever happened was in Buffalo, New York. It was a gig that we thought was going to be a total nightmare but Buffalo turns out to be a pretty cool market. We played an outdoor festival and thousands of people showed up. It was great. And at the end of the show we were doing "Time Bomb" -- and again, there's a clip of it on YouTube -- and this girl climbs up during the end of the song and starts doing a total booty dance. This really cute young girl, and she's doing this dance. Very suggestive, right next to me, bending over. It was the most insane thing I've ever seen. And I'm standing there going, Well, I'm kind of glad security's not kicking her off. This has got to be making for a good spectacle. Then right when the song ended she pulled her friend up, this really beautiful girl, and they made out. They just stood there and made out for a minute. Then finally security led them off stage. I have to say, I did show my four-year-old son the clip of it and said, This is what Dad does for a living.

By David Malitz |  September 17, 2009; 9:06 AM ET Interviews
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