ENGLAND IS A LONG WAY from Texas, where Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller is busy mixing new songs for the band's forthcoming record at Texas Treefort Studios in the hills just outside Austin. Yet for almost two decades the Old 97's have had a pretty decent go of it making those disparate worlds play nice. In fact, in that span you'd be hard pressed to find a band that has married the chug and twang of outlaw country as seamlessly with tried-and-true British Invasion hooks.
The Dallas-born four-piece (these days members are scattered between Texas, New York, and Los Angeles) continues to make music just out of earshot of Top 40 radio and fickle bloggers, instead settling for the unconditional love of cultish followers. A couple months back, the 97's assembled at Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas to lay down the 20 songs that will likely all find their way onto the band's eighth LP, The Grand Theatre, which, according to Miller, is turning out to be the band's most ambitious.
"London Calling is the record we're sort of referring to the most," he explains, "sonically, and sort of just in terms of a moment in a career."
That career began in the early '90s when record labels were all but betting the farm on alt-country becoming the next grunge. The tag never quite stuck, but it did give the world bands like Uncle Tupelo (and later Wilco and Son Volt). Then there were Old 97's, whose songs were always a little more snotty and beer soaked than those of their brethren, led by a vocalist that sounded more like Robert Smith than, say, Gram Parsons.
Although the grit and twang of earlier records like Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care eventually gave way to the more polished pop of Fight Songs and Satellite Rides, Miller has always kept his bookish wordplay sharp and himself and his subjects perpetually heartbroken (and usually well medicated).
"I guess there's an element of autobiography in the debauchery that happens in the songs," Miller explains. "That person in my 20s is the same person to me... I feel like it was only yesterday. If I feel like going to a weird, dark, drunken place it's very easy to go there."
Miller wrote most of the material for The Grand Theatre (tentatively due out in October) while on tour last year in England supporting his latest solo album. The record traverses some familiar Old 97's terrain in "The Magician" and the title track, while the most intriguing song, however, could be "Champaign, Illinois," on which Miller incorporates his own lyrics over the melody of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" (Dylan himself gave the okay, much to the giddy surprise of Miller).
This summer the Old 97's will hit the road behind a covers EP titled Mimeograph that includes some not so surprising selections including R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" and David Bowie's "Five Years." Their live shows continue to be revved-up affairs that relentlessly cull the band's entire catalog (on multiple occasions they have played 100 different songs during a four-night stand)—finding a sweaty, punk rock middle ground between their poppiest songs and their raucous alt-country years.
Despite their onstage dedication, the band rarely rehearses. Who needs to at this point? Miller says he eats, breathes, and sleeps Old 97's, even when he's thousands of miles away. "Every night I dream about the band," he explains, "I check into a hotel, or do a gig—that's rehearsal."