He's a Believer

After years in the alt-country outback, Rhett Miller makes good on his pop promise

"I hope you crash your momma's car,"Rhett Miller sang back in 1994. "I hope you pass out in some bar/I hope you catch some kinda flu/Let's say I wish the worst for you."

The lyrics to "Wish the Worst" — a highlight from Hitchhike to Rhome, the debut album by Miller's band, the Old 97's — don't get much cheerier. "I guess I'm a loser," he tells his ex-lover, "but I like being miserable, swimming in sin."

A dozen years later Miller is miles away, literally and figuratively, from his woebegone musical alter-ego. When we speak by phone, he's relaxing at his home in Gardner, New York, in the Hudson Valley. A former resident of both New York and Los Angeles, he fled city life after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Now he's happily ensconced on three acres of countryside with his wife of three years, Erica; his son Max, three; and his daughter, Soleil, nine months. Max babbles and laughs in the background, as Miller talks wistfully about foal season.

Rhett Miller prefers British glam rock and sharp blazers to "angry modern rock full of pointy guitars and eyeliner. "
Rhett Miller prefers British glam rock and sharp blazers to "angry modern rock full of pointy guitars and eyeliner. "

"There are a lot of horse farms out here," he says. "The babies come in cycles, and I love it because then there are these huge fields dotted with little horses everywhere."

He still returns to Manhattan a few times a year for business. His new solo album, The Believer, was released on Verve's Forecast imprint early last year. And he hasn't dissolved the Old 97's, either.

Formed in Dallas in 1993 by Miller and bassist Murray Hammond, the group was a forerunner of the so-called "alt-country" movement that peaked in the mid-Nineties. Like Uncle Tupelo (and later Wilco), the 97's dragged a punk-influenced rock sensibility through the boozy, outlaw country bars and bleached landscapes of the Southwest. They had that indie, thick-framed-glasses earnestness, but played twangy songs with titles like "If My Heart Was a Car." They were one of the most popular bands of the genre, and have released seven albums to date. But while peers such as Wilco eventually moved on to the greener pastures of power-pop, the Old 97's kept their honky-tonk heart. And after a while, Miller needed to broaden his horizons.

It would be easy to explain his career path using the old rocker-mellows-and-becomes-family-man paradigm, but Miller insists it's more about his musical tastes, which have always been eclectic.

"In a way, [the term alt-country] is insultingly reductive," he says, "but I understand the need for that heightened language to discuss the music that comes out. I mean, we are from Texas, and Ken [Bethea, lead guitarist] does play a twangy Telecaster. I guess if I had to live in one of those ghettos, I would choose that, rather than angry modern rock full of pointy guitars and eyeliner."

The rest of the band, though, was quite happy to remain in that so-called ghetto. "I remember this early Old 97's rehearsal," Miller says, "where I came with what was a pretty straight rock song, I guess what one would call punk. It was called öKiss Lunchbox,' and it was about a girl who had one. This episode just sticks in my head because it was such a categorical öNo' from the band. And I was like, öWell, just because it doesn't sound like honky scronk doesn't mean we can't play it!' It was always an underlying battle with me trying to push the band towards a broader pop sound. So I told them, öLook, you guys, I'm gonna make solo records one day, and you're not gonna be able to tell me anything about it.'"

The band was recording its fifth album, 2001's Satellite Rides, at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin, Texas, when Miller announced the day had finally come. The next year he released The Instigator, his first solo album as a member of the 97's. (Miller released Mythologies in 1989, before the band formed).

"It was a weird time for the band," he recalls, "especially because everyone was getting older and having kids. It was a moment when most bands might have broken up. But they understood that while I am happy in the Old 97's, there's more to me. The idea of them having to change to fit me was more anathema to them than letting me do my solo stuff."

While Miller dedicated most of his time last year to The Believer, he calls 2007 "an Old 97's year." The band plans to record in the late spring or early summer, with a tentative release date in early 2008.

That is not to say that Miller has lost any of his enthusiasm for The Believer; he will focus on its material during the tour that brings him to Miami on Friday. The album is his most layered creation to date, full of instrumental ornamentation and a slightly head-in-the-clouds feeling—clear inheritances from T. Rex and David Bowie, two of the major influences Miller claims for the album. The songs are wiped clean of virtually all country traces; this is guitar pop of the smartest, catchiest sort.

"They [Bowie and T. Rex] were always my favorites. I'm an Anglophile in general," he says. "I just cannot figure out why those records are so good to me. [Marc Bolan, lead singer of T. Rex] actually sounds like he was a big pain in the ass. It's funny, because his lyrics were more repetitive, not the kind I like. There's a lot of droning nonsense, but I still love it."

At the heart of glam rock, though, is the punchy "rock" part, and Miller initially envisioned an album of more straight-ahead, punk-influenced material. But as he wrote, the sounds in his head morphed. Tunes like "Come Around" have the bittersweet lyrical content of his older material, but with a softer, undeniable pop sheen. The melodies are simple, but deceptively so, like the best songs by Bowie or Bolan. The prettiest of the lot, by Miller's reckoning, is "Brand New Way," a track he says with ample assurance, "wouldn't be on a punk record."

Even Miller's image has become more refined. He's shed the blocky glasses that were his trademark in the early days of the Old 97's. The publicity photos for The Believer show him lounging in a dandy's velvet blazers. He's grown his hair into a shiny mane. Like his glam idols, he's startlingly pretty.

But for all the sweet sounds of The Believer,the title track was actually borne out of something quite ugly: the 2003 suicide of Elliott Smith. It's a fact that is prominent in the album's publicity material, and thus it's the elephant in the room every time Miller discusses the album. The song itself starts out with typical Smith hushed tones and a tinge of piano, then plunges into a soaring guitar chorus more typical of the rest of the album.

"Honestly I wasn't terribly close to him," Miller says. "I knew him during the L.A. period leading up to his death. But to say that not many people had the kind of quality he had is an understatement [Being around him] was very moving and I was always inspired by him."

At the same time, Miller says, some of Smith's inspiration was cautionary, a bracing lesson "not to give in to my darker side."

Miller is quick to point out the album is not all about Smith. Nor is the song itself. Miller saw certain parallels between his own life and Smith's. He's candid about his demons; he mentions an early teenage suicide attempt. Still, he insists that Smith's suicide was for him an impetus to write rather than an excuse to brood. The song came to him "at a time when I was trying to find a reason to put myself out in the world again."

For someone so candid and self-aware, Miller sounds stumped when asked why. He pauses, even chuckles quietly.

"Wow, it's rare to be asked a new question in an album cycle," he begins after a moment. "Compulsion? Narcissism? Contractual obligation? But I believe in music, personally and globally. It's always helped me, and I feel that I have something to offer. It's this thing I just cannot seem to stop making."

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