NoiseTrade One-on-One

NoiseTrade One-on-One: Interview with Rhett Miller (Old 97’s)

When we first heard that Old 97’s were releasing a Christmas album this year, we immediately knew Santa had finally gotten all of our letters. To help celebrate the festivities, we hopped on the phone with Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller to discuss the various inspirations behind making a full length holiday album (family, politics, the Ramones!), writing their own originals, conjuring the Christmas spirit to record in the Texas heat, and much more!

NoiseTrade: The band has recorded a couple Christmas singles over the years, but this is your first full-length holiday album. What made this year the time to finally take the full album plunge?

Rhett Miller: This past January the band had reconvened for our first gig of the year after surviving the holidays and we were in the dressing room doing that thing at the beginning of each new year where we brainstorm about what we want the year to look like for us. It didn’t look like we were going to be able to get in and cut a proper studio album, but I didn’t want to have a year where we didn’t do anything like that. I had been thinking about doing a Christmas record for a while because a long time ago we had a lot of fun recording “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” for a little holiday compilation but that was more than 20 years ago. Since then we recorded another song called “Here It Is Christmastime” and then I recorded a duet called “Christmas Is Coming” with a great young singer named Sydney Wayser a few years back as well.

Those songs put me in the mindset that I could write Christmas songs that might stand up alongside the proper canon. I pitched it to the guys that we should do a Christmas record and then it became the eternal intraband debate about whether the world wants original Christmas songs or covers of Christmas songs. They were wary of the idea that fans would want to hear original Christmas and thought they might prefer familiar holiday songs interpreted by the Old 97’s. That didn’t interest me as much because I’m a songwriter and I like creating them and then letting the band interpret them. We went back and forth for a while and I think what it really took was bringing the band a stack of songs and letting them live with them and imagine them as Old 97’s songs. That was the coolest thing, hearing these Christmas songs really become Old 97’s songs. You can put this record on, which isn’t really a proper Old 97’s album, and it sounds like a real Old 97’s record.

NT: I really love the boldness of that decision, actually writing new original holiday songs. What did you pull from for your own seasonal inspiration and were there any specific things you were determined to stay away from?

Miller: I try not to really calculate too much. I try to be driven by my instincts and what I feel like at the moment. When I got into writing these songs, what I found worked best for me was approaching them as songs, trying not to think about Christmas as a theme as much as Christmas as a setting. What I ended up with were songs that dealt with the kind of stuff I always write about – like relationships and the inherent complications therein, just taking place in December.

Although, that said, there are a couple songs that really step outside of that in either direction. The song “Gotta Love Being A Kid (Merry Christmas)” is all Christmas through and through and was just a really fun song to write. I was trying to go for a Ramones “We’re a Happy Family” feeling but set in the Christmas lane. On the other end of the spectrum was “Snow Angels,” where I was trying to tap into the same kind of vein as the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” which was written as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was trying to write a song that was more social commentary than anything I had ever done. That was very much outside of the mold of anything I’ve ever been comfortable writing. The level of challenge got ratcheted up in both of those songs beyond just the normal goal of trying to write a Christmas song. Also, both were co-written with my friend, Ben Greenman.

NT: That’s crazy you mention those two songs because I’ve actually got specific questions about both of them. I’ll go with the easier one first. You mentioned the Ramones for “You Gotta Love Being A Kid (Merry Christmas),” but is that intro guitar a little nod to the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen”?

Miller: Yeah, it’s “God Save the Queen” by way of Eddie Cochran. When we were recording it, we knew we wanted an intro and I think it was Ken who suggested the surf-y, slide up thing. We were referencing Eddie Cochran but when we heard it back we were like “Holy shit, that is straight up ‘God Save the Queen!’” I think it’s even in the same key. But I think “God Save the Queen” was ripping off Eddie Cochran. That’s my favorite thing, little easter eggs and paying homage to all of the recorded music that we’re drawing off of all the time. To pretend we’re doing this in a vacuum is a joke. We all owe every debt of gratitude to those who came before us and Eddie Cochran and the Sex Pistols are both on the top of that list.

NT: Speaking of those influences, is “Wintertime in the City” influenced by The Velvet Underground at all? For some reason I got a real heavy Lou Reed/VU vibe from that song, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.

Miller: That’s so funny that you say that. I love The Velvet Underground and I’ve always drawn a lot of inspiration from them. When I was writing that one, I was thinking very much in terms of jazz chords and the urban city Christmas songs that I really love. But when we recorded it, our producer John Pedigo – who was such a great foil for our band and was so thoughtful in how he approached our songs in the studio – pushed us to plumb the side of our band that has always been kind of Velvet Underground inspired: that lazy, laconic, druggy, like we’re not super good at our instruments but we’re pushing ourselves to play complicated chords kind of thing. If anything, it became kind of after the fact a Velvet Underground kind of song.

NT: Getting back to “Snow Angels,” I read an interview you did recently where you talked a little bit about the inspiration behind the song. Can you talk about the connection to “Do You Hear What I Hear” and the magic trick of weaving political themes and social commentary into a Christmas song?

Miller: My friend and co-writer of “Snow Angels” Ben Greenman is such a smart guy. He’s much more of a musical historian than I’ll ever be. I tend to jump around and if something grabs me I’ll dig into but even the things I love the best I don’t know them or understand like a true musicologist might. Whereas Ben seems to have the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll at his fingertips. We went back and forth about a lot of different Christmas song ideas and one of them was about him having just read about “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and the story behind it. He asked if I knew when it was written and I guessed like around the 1800s or something like that and he told me that it was written in the 1960s in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. So we started brainstorming about what would a modern day version of that might be, considering we live in a time that seems just as fraught and certainly in a really divided world. Everything is so binary and it seems like if you disagree with someone then it means you must hate them.

Ben came to me with the idea for the first verse – “Snow falls like a peace treaty” – and then he had this image of a world with all these different colored flags that gets blanketed by the snow, eliminating all of the differences. I really loved that image and it made me go back to an image I had from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions where he has a painter that just paints these white lines on a canvas that he calls portraits of people because when he looks at them all he sees is a beam of light. I got this idea that the snow is eliminating all of the differences and these people that are fighting, if you get them out in the snow then they’re just reduced to their essence, their beam of light. This kind of song that I never would’ve written before, it’s almost like Ben gave me permission or an excuse to write it. I’m really glad he did because I really like that song.

NT: Sticking with the songwriting line of questions, which song was the easiest to knock out and which one seemed the hardest to wrangle across the finish line?

Miller: “Christmas Is Coming” might as well be off of Hitchhike to Rhome or Wreck Your Life. It’s such an old school Old 97’s song. When we got in the studio to cut that, it wasn’t exactly sleepwalking, but it was everybody getting to be their best early Old 97’s selves. That one was a lot fun and we got to approach it without overthinking anything. I think “Snow Angels,” since it was lyrically such a departure for me, we allowed it to be sonically different from anything we’ve ever done before. I love what Ken did on that one, he really stepped out and played a kind of beautiful psychedelic, atmospheric guitar that he doesn’t get to do very often. The band really turned it into this thing that is so fitting for how different that song is for us.

NT: Since you were recording a Christmas album in April and May in Texas, did you all do anything special aesthetically in the studio to make the recording sessions feel festive?

Miller: We did string up some Christmas lights in the studio and I think Ken brought in a few different tchotchkes to gussy up the studio. Ken’s birthday is Christmas Eve, so he loves Christmas and Christmas music. He’s the most holiday-fevered out of all of us. But that studio holds a lot of memories for us. It’s the room where Murry produced my high school solo album that I made. It’s the same room where Murry and I made a record for our band Sleepy Heroes, which was a precursor to Old 97’s. It’s the room where Willie Nelson recorded his Red Headed Stranger album. There’s a lot of personal history in that room and a lot of Texas history in that room. So there was already a lot of vibe in there for us, in addition to the holiday vibe.

NT: Finally, with your creativity knowing no bounds, I’d be remiss to not close out by asking you about your new solo album The Messenger and your first book coming out next March, No More Poems. What can you tell us about each one of those projects and what your fans can expect from them?

Miller: The Messenger just came out last month and it was a lot of fun to make for me. It’s different form Old 97’s records and I really try to make sure that my solo records differentiate themselves in that way. It’s also fun to explore different sonic and lyrical spaces on those solo songs. Though the majority of the songs that end up on my solo records are songs that the band didn’t really take an interest in. In the case of “Total Disaster” from The Messenger, the band is cool enough to play it with me on this tour and it’s so fun to hear them play it, but I did have to remind them that I tried to make this a song for our last album Graveyard Whistling and they weren’t into it. I love getting to make solo records but every time I get into that zone I start missing my bandmates.

As far as No More Poems, I never thought I’d be writing kids poem but it seems like kind of a logical next step for me. I like writing rhymed couplets, I love playing with meter and rhythm and telling funny stories that trick the listener. I think for kids especially, learning about unreliable narrators is a great thing because it teaches them that not all writing can be taken at face value. It empowers them when they realize that they know something that the person narrating the piece doesn’t know. It’s been really fun, and I don’t think I would’ve done it if I didn’t have kids of my own who are right in the wheelhouse of who these poems are intended for. I was lucky enough to find a great home for the book at Little Brown and they seem like they’re going to push it like it’s a real book by a real author, so that’s very cool.

Old 97’s Holiday Extravaganza Tour
11/28 – Seattle, WA – The Neptune w/Rhett Miller solo
11/29 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom w/Rhett Miller solo
11/30 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore w/Rhett Miller solo
12/1 – Los Angeles, CA – The Troubadour w/Rhett Miller solo
12/2 – Solana Beach, CA – The Belly Up w/Rhett Miller solo
12/6 – Richmond, VA – The National w/Rhett Miller solo
12/7 – Philadelphia, PA – TLA w/Rhett Miller solo
12/8 – Baltimore, MD – Rams Head Live! w/Rhett Miller solo
12/9 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair w/Rhett Miller solo
12/13 – Asbury Park, NJ – The Wonder Bar w/Rhett Miller solo
12/14 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza w/Rhett Miller solo
12/15 – Pittsburgh, PA – Mr Smalls w/Rhett Miller solo
12/29 – Dallas, TX – Statler Ballroom w/Rhett Miller solo