THE CULTUREMAP INTERVIEW
Dallas native Rhett Miller is juggling a lot these days. In addition to touring in support of the the 15th anniversary re-release of the Old 97’s album Too Far to Care, releasing his own album called The Dreamer, raising kids, doing podcasts, and writing fiction and essays, he has helped put together the sixth annual Cystic Fibrosis Concert Series. The November 17 concert at the Granada also features performances by the The Gourds and The O’s.
Miller has been active in the Dallas music scene for more than two decades, both as a solo artist and with the band the Old 97’s. The Old 97’s were part of the alternative country boom in the late ’90s, a movement that helped launch them to national prominence alongside acts like Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, and Ryan Adam’s Whiskeytown.
We recently chatted with Miller, who now lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York, about his recent releases, what he’s been reading and watching, and the Cystic Fibrosis Concert Series, which raises money for research to combat the disease.
“If I’m going to sit down and watch a dumb movie, the least I can get out of it is a live tweet,” Miller says. “I don’t want to just write ‘I’m having coffee now.’”
Culture Map: Can you talk a little bit about the Cystic Fibrosis benefit and your involvement with it? What can people expect?
Rhett Miller: I put it together six years ago with my brother and the people who put together the CF series. Every year I come down and headline it, and we help raise awareness. It’s gonna be lot of fun. The Gourds are a fun live band. I’ve got a little all-star band from Dallas featuring Salim Nourallah, Joe Reyes from Buttercup and Jason Gardner from Polyphonic Spree on drums. We might get Gordon Keith to do a song.
If you’re a wealthy fan, there are lots of great extras you can donate to. I got involved because it’s almost all kids that have it. It’s heartbreaking, but there’s a lot of hope. The life expectancy is getting longer, so that’s great.
CM: Are you excited to play with the O’s?
RM: The O’s have been great; they’ve played it almost every year that we’ve had it going. They played on the Ticket live all day on Tuesday [November 6]. The Ticket and Gordon Keith have been great supporters. I’m a huge fan of the Ticket. I listen to it all the time on my iPhone in New York.
CM: Do you write your own tweets? Recently you live tweeted a Beethoven sequel including some tweets about Dallas native Steven Tobolowsky’s role in the film. Are you a big film fan?
RM: I started on Twitter a couple of years ago. I don’t make a big deal of it that I’m watching a movie with my kids, because that’s not a very rock star thing to do. But if I’m going to sit down and watch a dumb movie, the least I can get out of it is a live tweet. I don’t want to just write “I’m having coffee now.”
CM: You are often described as highly literate. Aside from a St. Mark’s education, what have you been reading lately that proves it?
RM: A lot of the stuff I read is pretty lowbrow. Right now I’m reading a book by Justin Cronin, who wrote The Passage. It’s a sequel called The Twelve. It’s about dystopian apocalyptic universe. It’s sci-fi, not super fancy literature, but it is remarkably well-written.
I like when you get into a book, and there’s 1,400 pages and another book after that, so you know you’re going to get hours out of it.
“A lot of the stuff I read is pretty lowbrow,” Miller says. “Right now I’m reading a book by Justin Cronin. It’s sci-fi, not super fancy literature, but it is remarkably well-written.”
CM: How do you write songs? Does it start with a lyric or with a melody — or both?
RM: They propel each other. I get a line, and that suggest a melody, and that snowballs.
CM: Tell me about the naming conventions for your albums? You’ve had the Interpreter, the Instigator, the Believer and, most recently, the Dreamer.
RM: I did break that trend on a self-titled solo record. I wish I could go back in time and name it The Rhett Miller. I sort of write songs and hope people hear them. But I like the idea of continuity. I like to have motifs in my songs and my albums. There are symbols that pop up, like the ship named Halcyon.
CM: What was the first venue you played in Dallas?
RM: Oh my god. It was called the Exposition Cafe. Might have been called 300 Cafe. It changed names a few times. It was right down by the Mitchell Building in the Fair Park area.
Murry Hammond, the bass player in the Old 97’s, was playing with a band called the Peyote Cowboys. They let me do a set in between theirs and another band’s. That was '86. (pauses) Is that right?
CM: What inspires you these days in songwriting? A lot of your songs are still about heartbreak, but you’ve been married for a while now.
RM: I don’t know. I read a lot; I use the people around me for inspiration. Even in the midst of a lot of happiness, I’ve managed to find some heartbreak.
CM: What’s next for Rhett Miller?
RM: That’s a good question. We are figuring that out right now. I’m not exactly sure. There will be another solo record. I’ve got some songs. I’m trying to do some fiction writing.
See Rhett Miller, the Gourds, the O’s and perhaps some other Dallas stars and help support a great cause November 17 at the Granada. Tickets start at $25.