Rhett Miller: The Seeker

Between the tee-ball games, backyard barbecues and Silly String wars, Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller can’t staunch the yearning. By Hobart Rowland

“Out Of Love” (download):

Rhett Miller misses his glasses.

“I’m always reaching up to the bridge of my nose with my index finger as if there’s something to be pushed,” he laughs. “Getting rid of them was more of a logistical thing—they kept flying off my face onstage.”

It was during a mercifully brief Buddy Holly eyewear phase in 1997 that Miller equated country music to Pennsylvania’s great mystery meat. “I’m sure that, during my youth, I uttered the phrase, ‘I dislike everything country,’” he remembers. “It’s like the artistic version of scrapple up north.”

At the time, Miller and the rest of the Old 97’s were caught up in a well-orchestrated media blitz surrounding the release of Too Far To Care. It was the band’s first album for Elektra, and it remains the catchiest and most compelling distillation of its cow-punk-meets-Brit-Invasion template. All of 26 and still living in his home city of Dallas, Miller was basking in the glow of 10 years of hard work honing his songwriting chops, that plaintive vocal style and his boyish, eager-to-please front-guy persona. But he was also beginning to chafe at the strictures of the group’s alt-country designation.

“I was making everybody so happy being this country bumpkin,” says Miller now. “There were so many rules to alt-country. I didn’t get into music to follow anybody’s rules.”

Miller can’t recollect how much mileage he got out of the scrapple quote, but he’s sure he must have said it again at some point. “I usually repeat myself all the time and figure people will think I’m consistent—that it might reinforce the idea that I’m telling the truth,” he says with a shrug.

It’s a balmy day in New Paltz, a crunchy college town near the house he shares in New York’s Hudson Valley with his model-turned-homemaker wife, Erica, and their two kids. Outside beckons, and the conversation shifts from a busy downtown café to a gazebo at a local park near the hilly SUNY New Paltz campus.

A few hours from now, Miller will be 45 miles up the road, performing for a small crowd at Club Helsinki in the arty, musician-friendly riverside hamlet of Hudson. There, he’ll be working up a prodigious sweat as he performs a fast-paced solo acoustic set weighted with a surprising number of Old 97’s tunes, intermittently spinning his right forearm at maximum velocity around the face of his acoustic guitar like a pinwheel in a stiff wind.

“That’s a trade secret,” says Miller, when asked to explain the almost comical move. “It’s a lot less difficult than it seems.”

Nothing is difficult about this day. As families play croquet in the distance and a kid works over a violin for his parents at a nearby picnic table, Miller addresses an array of topics with an easy candor. First on the list: The Dreamer, his fifth solo album and the first he’s produced on his own after a series of run-ins with big-name producers. “I really wanted it to be stripped-down, but it wound up being bigger than I’d imagined,” says Miller, non-prescription sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose. (He had LASIK surgery four years ago.) “For the template, I went back to Neil Young’s Harvest: real simple and organic.”

Country—of the rootsy variety—is a key component of The Dreamer, a humble mix of homey duets and intimate declarations of flawed love and begrudging self-acceptance. The album is the second release on Miller’s Maximum Sunshine imprint, following 2011 live covers album The Interpreter: Live At Largo.

“The first half of the record is the failed relationships and the flailing through love that almost works,” says Miller. “The second half is about love that works, even though it’s still not perfect. You have to keep working at it all the time, but you also have to appreciate how fuckin’ sweet and beautiful it is. People don’t get that.”

The Dreamer was recorded close to home at Woodstock’s recently resuscitated Dreamland Recording Studios. Its church setting was also the site of mixing and overdubs for Too Far To Care. “Most of the record is us playing live together almost at the point of just discovering the song,” says Tommy Borscheid, who plays on nearly all of The Dreamer and was the first member recruited for Miller’s backup band, the Serial Lady Killers.

Once the guitarist for underappreciated Minneapolis outfit the Honeydogs, Borscheid now handles A&R and acquisitions for the Orchard, Maximum Sunshine’s distributor. “We’ve all been friends for years, even before we met Rhett,” says Borscheid of his chemistry with fellow Lady Killers Greg Beshers (bass) and Angela Webster (drums). “We came to the studio essentially unrehearsed. Rhett had given us acoustic versions of the songs, and each of us learned them with our own ideas of what the songs would sound like. Rhett knew exactly what he wanted, but he was really relaxed at the helm.”

The Dreamer’s cozy, nurturing vibe is partly dictated by a looming female presence. There are duets with Rachael Yamagata and Rosanne Cash, and Heather Robb of the Spring Standards sings on five of the album’s 13 tracks.

One of The Dreamer’s more memorable songs, “As Close As I Came To Being Right,” was co-written by Cash, who provides vocals on it, as well. “I had a couple verses I sent to Rhett,” says Cash of the lilting ballad, which is nudged along nicely by Rich Hinman’s nuanced pedal-steel picking. “He wrote some more, then we did a demo. That day, we had someone take a photo of us, and we looked uncannily like brother and sister. We felt a connection right away.”

On all counts, The Dreamer marks a return to basics for Miller after three studio albums that toned down the twang, ratcheted up the pop smarts and layered on the studio frills. Meanwhile, the Old 97’s have become increasingly more revisionist.

“We’re this garage band,” says Miller, with some disbelief. “It’s been more and more that way, which is sort of where we started.”

“Rhett needs to be more famous.” Over dinner before her husband’s show in Hudson, Erica Iahn Miller may well be stating the obvious. The guy next to her, however, would prefer not to go there. “I haven’t always wanted to be famous—especially in this climate, where the Snookis of the world have really taken it to a new level,” he says. “But I’ve always wanted to make music and have people respect it and even listen to it.”

For as long as he can remember, Miller has had a strategy for being heard. “I guess I’ve always had this overarching idea of my career,” he says. “I had notebooks filled with lists of my ambitions and the ways I could make them come to reality. I was conscious of building my own mythology.”

So conscious, in fact, that he named his little-heard first solo album Mythologies. Fortunately, the one thing that didn’t pan out for Miller was that record’s awkward vocal style. “I was such a Bowie devotee that I sang everything in a British accent,” Miller says of his 1989 debut, which is set for reissue as a digital download. “I was ambivalent about making it available, but I think I’ve made peace with it.”

Mythologies was produced by Old 97’s cofounder Murry Hammond, who’s six years Miller’s senior and served as a mentor, bandmate and sometime caretaker during a turbulent period. Miller’s parents were going through a difficult divorce at the time, and their bookish son was basically left to his own devices. “I was pretty self-sufficient,” he says. “I’d gotten my first apartment the summer after my junior year in high school.”

Though they lived in Dallas’ elite Highland Park district, the Millers were essentially middle class. “We had money all the way up until my grandfather, Giles Miller, went out on a limb to buy the (NFL’s) Dallas Texans, the state’s first pro team,” says Miller.

The Texans failed miserably, and its owner “basically went bankrupt,” says Miller. But with an attorney for a father and a mother who worked for a noted psychiatrist, he and his younger brother and sister lived comfortably. The family was able to fund Miller’s stay at the exclusive St. Mark’s School of Texas with money from an Air Force pension left behind by a grandfather.

With his private-school pedigree, Miller landed a full scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, dropping out after just a semester—much to his parents’ dismay. “They said, ‘Look, we don’t have much money, but whatever we do have, you’re cut off from,’” says Miller. “And I don’t blame them.”

Hammond, meanwhile, was happy to have his friend back. Today, he has fond recollections of the Mythologies period and the other collaborations that predated the Old 97’s. “He was a real little brother to me, but a peer at the same time,” says Hammond, who now lives in Pasadena, Calif. “As for the British accent, I was such a Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett/Robyn Hitchcock head at the time—and ‘head’ is the operative word—that there was no way I was going to even notice it.”

Miller wouldn’t make another solo album until 2002—the Old 97’s had work to do. Following their somewhat derivative 1994 debut, Hitchhike To Rhome, Miller, Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples ratcheted up the execution and charisma on Wreck Your Life, the 1995 album that, after much wining and dining, ultimately punched their circus ticket to the majors.

Life’s breathless, pounding follow-up, Too Far To Care, remains one of the best albums associated with the alt-country movement (however loosely). It also provided fans an official introduction to Miller’s birth name. “My name’s Stewart Ransom Miller, and I’m a serial lady-killer,” he sings on the album’s second track, “Barrier Reef.”

What comes next is even better: “She said, ‘I’m already dead.’”

Miller is still quite proud of that line. “It’s definitely the one that people sing along to the loudest,” he says. “In retrospect, it could easily be my dad, who’s also Stewart Ransom Miller. He left the family when I was 17, and it had been a long time coming. Suddenly, in his 40s, he was going to bars and picking up women.”

But Miller won’t fully commit to that theory. “Real life can be boring, but you can juice it up in fiction,” he says. “If I ever write a mystery novel, the protagonist is going to be so cool. He won’t have all the hang-ups I have—like that constant feeling of walking into a fancy hotel and feeling like I don’t belong there.”

By the time the road-weary Old 97’s reconvened to record their next release, Miller was living in Beverly Hills with a girlfriend and several others. “(The property) had a little house that hung over the cliff in the back, where apparently Jim Morrison had written a lot of songs—so it had some rock ‘n’ roll history,” he says. “There was a lot going on out there. It was good for me.”

Miller’s songwriting voice continued to gel with the encouragement of talented L.A. friends like Jon Brion, whose ongoing “unpopular pop” residency at the Largo nightclub was gaining national notoriety. “There was such a work ethic with that group,” says Miller. “At Largo, every time you went up, you had to play at least one brand-new song. Those acoustic gigs helped me figure out how not to be a character. It was just me.”

Elsewhere, Miller’s relationship with his girlfriend was unraveling, and tensions within the band also surfaced. “I was asserting myself more than I ever had,” he admits. “I was asking them to try things they weren’t totally comfortable with.”

Angsty, dire and littered with hooks, 1999’s Fight Songs directly reflects that friction, title and all. But it wasn’t until the sessions for 2001’s Satellite Rides that Miller began to seriously consider another outlet for his tunes. “Fight Songs and Satellite Rides were the records where I really found the voice that I’m using to this day as a writer and a singer,” he says.

Miller’s The Instigator came along in 2002. Produced by Brion, it furthered the pop overtures of Fight Songs—and then some. “It was all about me stepping out of the cozy confines of the democracy that is the Old 97’s,” says Miller of his first and last release for Elektra.

Looking back, Hammond acknowledges that Miller asserting his independence had an impact on the band. “At first, it was an anxious time for the three of us,” he says. “We felt like we’d suffered a loss of momentum. But Rhett needed to get The Instigator done to figure out the rhythm of what it was to be both a solo artist and an artist who’s part of a band. Nowadays, we just put it on the calendar and keep everything going forward.”

As the Old 97’s forged on in calculated fits and spurts, Miller found himself on the Verve Forecast label, which gave him plenty to work with, in the form of a fat budget and A-list producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, Jayhawks). Miller took full advantage of this infusion of resources on 2006’s The Believer, a lush, showy singer/songwriter statement. “I love the idea of an album as an event,” says Miller. “We spent months making that record.”

The LP features Miller’s first run-in with Rachael Yamagata (“Fireflies”), plus a more fleshed-out version of “Question,” a fan favorite that first appeared on Satellite Rides. “We recorded it live, and that’s what’s on Satellite Rides,’” says Miller of “Question,” which, more than any tune, inspired him to step out on his own.

Miller landed on reissue-happy indie label Shout! Factory for his self-titled 2009 release. Quirky and varied, with a mild baroque undercurrent, Rhett Miller made the most of its contributions from an ever-widening circle of musician pals, including Brion, Austin guitarist Billy Harvey and the Apples In Stereo’s John Dufilho on drums.

“I felt like I was making this intimate thing, without all the props,” Miller says. “I had a great band, but it wasn’t hired guns—it was my friends.”

The hedges along the path that lead to the front door of Rhett Miller’s modest split-level home bear the remnants of an Easter Day Silly String battle between his eight-year-old son, Max, and six-year-old daughter, Soleil. The family just spent a week entertaining relatives with backyard barbecues and the like, and dad has escaped the carnage at home to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather.

Back at the gazebo in New Paltz, Miller relates how a Texas kid found his way to the base of the Catskills. “It was a financial decision, really,” he says, noting that he can afford so much more here than in L.A. or New York City. “I know I’m in the top 10 percent of musicians earning money—who can support a family of four in a decent house with no other job. But it’s still month to month,” Miller says. “There are some people who think I’m a rich guy, and I wish that would be true one day. But I’m also glad my kids aren’t growing up in fabulous wealth, because I’ve seen how many kids that messes up.”

Miller readily admits that women have dictated his every geographical move. And true to form, this latest one had something to do with his wife, whose brother is a real estate agent in the area. “I didn’t care where I lived,” he says of pre-kids self. “I wanted to move around.”

Miller’s trans-Atlantic courtship of Erica Iahn certainly had its moments. The two met in New York through Iahn’s roommate, who Miller had briefly dated. Soon after, they met up in London. “We spent this week together doing all this amazing stuff, but it was totally platonic,” says Miller.

At the time, Iahn was weathering a divorce and staying at the London home of a boyfriend’s parents. It turns out her ex-husband had good taste in music, and he’d taken her to see the Old 97’s at New York’s Irving Plaza. “She had a Fight Songs T-shirt, which was crazy,” muses Miller.

While in London, Miller’s friendship intensified with Robyn Hitchcock, and things started to get weird in the best sense. “Robyn called one day and said, ‘I’m having an emergency party,’” says Miller, resurrecting his British accent. “I said, ‘Oh, what’s the emergency?’ And he said, ‘The emergency is there must be a party.’”

The get-together was in Hitchcock’s London backyard, and food was scarce. “He had this old stone wall covered in vines with all these nooks and crannies, and he’d reach in and pull out this hunk of cheese and say, ‘This cheese has never seen the indoors.’ Then he’d set it down and we’d eat and drink red wine.”

During the course of the party, Hitchcock asked Miller to explain “this whole alt-country thing.” “So, I played him ‘Victoria’ (from Wreck Your Life), and he liked it,” recalls Miller.

Hitchcock and his wife, Michèle, also liked what they saw going on between Miller and Iahn, and on the taxi ride home, the two initiated a bicoastal relationship. Miller spent a year in Manhattan with Iahn, but after a frighteningly close call during the September 11 attacks, they headed for L.A., marrying soon after Miller finished The Instigator.

Ten years later, Miller is coaching tee-ball some 2,800 miles away. The morning after his gig in Hudson, he’ll be attending a parade in town and posing for team pictures with his son. Then he’ll hop in the car and make the four-hour drive to Ithaca, N.Y., for another show, before heading right back home the next day.

“I like being able to go out in sweatpants,” Miller says of his fairly anonymous life in a place where he’s just another guy with a lawn to mow and a pool to skim. “Although it is nice that, once I’m friends with someone, I can show them what I really do.”