Though mega-mainstream success eludes this alt-country band, it has survived 15 years, solo projects, and the demise of most of its contemporaries.Ask the Old 97’s Murry Hammond how his band has lasted for 15 years, enduring a roller-coaster ride of career ups and downs, and he’ll give you a simple answer: “We’ve never thought the band was more important than our friendships.” Over the course of a half-dozen studio albums, the formerly Dallas-based group -- which includes bassist/vocalist Hammond, front man Rhett Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples -- has earned a reputation of creating an engaging and unique alchemy of country and pop music. Just as importantly, the four have discovered the formula for staying together, while most of their ’90s contemporaries have split apart. Consider just this decade. After releasing 2001’s Satellite Rides, the band’s last album for Elektra records, the group endured a long period of uncertainty as Miller went off to pursue a solo career. Three years passed before the band returned to the studio to record 2004’s Drag It Up for New West Records. Since then, Miller has released another solo record -- one that has earned him praise and profiles in both Esquire and Vanity Fair. Hammond, too, has just put out a solo debut. Given these outside projects and the ego boosts they bring -- not to mention the fact that some of the bandmates now live on opposite coasts -- you might think the Old 97’s would be old news.
They’re not. Instead, the band is back in top form with its latest album, Blame It on Gravity. Produced by friend and longtime Texas associate Salim Nourallah, the record is a pitch-perfect collection of tracks featuring Miller’s lovelorn lyrics and Hammond’s heartbreaking harmonies, not to mention Bethea’s spiky riffs and Peeples’s dogged train beat. No doubt this will come as good news to the Old 97’s more recent fans, many of whom discovered the group through its scene-stealing turn in the 2006 movie The Break-Up, starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston.
Speaking from their respective current homes in upstate New York and Southern California, Miller and Hammond talked about the group’s major-label years, the challenges of keeping a veteran band vibrant, and why their brand of musical misery still sounds so good.
The interesting thing is that almost all your alt-country peers from the mid-’90s -- Whiskeytown, Wilco, Son Volt -- have broken up or have totally different lineups. But the four of you are still together and still making music all these years later. How?
MILLER: For us, it is a point of pride that we’ve survived. All we ever really cared about was having a career. That was the right goal, the right thing to strive for. For example, I wouldn’t trade places with our labelmates at the time, Third Eye Blind. They were massively successful. But what happens is you have that one hit, but after that, because of your ubiquity or because of the compromises you make musically or in regard to your image, you’re a joke. Or if you’re not a joke, you’re on a list of the K-tel “hits of the ’90s.” And at best, maybe the lead singer or songwriter in a band like that can become a producer or an A&R guy or go into publishing. But we get to still do this -- we still get to play and have fun. We’ve flown enough under the radar that we’re not a joke and we’re not worn out. We didn’t fly Icarus so close to the sun that we had to fall.
HAMMOND: Part of that comes from having a really great audience too. The one thing that’s consistent with our audience is that they’re all real music fans. I mean, you don’t really even find a band like us to begin with unless your record collection is probably a little bit bigger than your neighbor’s.
Your new album feels like a classic Old 97’s record. Was there a trick to getting the group’s chemistry back?
MILLER: A lot of making a record is a response to what you’ve already done. Our last album, Drag It Up, was a rough record because so much of it was about the band coming back together and finding a way to work together after my having ventured off into solo land. And I let the reins go on that record a little bit. The problem with that is the dynamic of any band, and specifically of our band and what makes our band good, is that tension. All of us have our likes and dislikes and radars and preferences and unique talents. And if you sit back too much, you lose a big chunk of what drives the band.
HAMMOND: Definitely, the last record was medicinal. The idea was to really strip everything back and just be more concerned with immersing ourselves in the most basic elements of being a band again. The thing about us is that we’re an absolute textbook case of a band that’s defined by our limitations. There’s so much that we can’t do, which defines so much of what we can do. And we specialize in that. We get it, and we make that work for us.
There was a point when it seemed your band was poised for mainstream success. It didn’t quite get to that level, though. How do you view that experience now?
MILLER: When we signed to Elektra, that business model was so entrenched that to sign to a major label was it. That was what you worked toward, because after that, the major labels did all the work. Of course, we quickly found out that wasn’t the case. But at the time, we thought the world was our oyster and there was every chance that we’d turn into a legitimate band that people would play on the radio. And we did turn into a legitimate band. But the idea of us getting played on the radio does seem a little like, “What stations were going to play us?” I remember radio-station program directors telling us, “Our direct competition is 97 on the dial, so we can’t possibly play a band called the Old 97’s.”
Today, you’re all in your 30s and happily married with families. But you’re still writing and singing drunken, lovelorn songs. Does that ever feel strange?
MILLER: Well, the misery never goes away. It finds different forms, but it’s still there. I find myself writing about similar things from back then. I can’t really abandon that voice. It preceded my time drinking, and it still exists now that I’m not staying out until four in the morning every single night. It is just kind of part of who I am. It’s a melancholy, outsider thing. When I think about it, all the art I like is very similar. The Smiths and even early Elvis Costello, which was bitter and angry and drunken and weird -- that’s just always been my favorite stuff.
HAMMOND: We think people should be happy and there is peace to be had and home is better than the road, all that, but there are always things that will be stuck in my craw. And Rhett’s got that too. The day we start singing about how happy we are, it’s not going to be a record you’ll want to listen to. It sure won’t be the 97’s.
Two New CDs We’re Pretty Sure Will Rock and/or Roll
SONGS FROM THE SPARKLE LOUNGE
In stores may 6
Songs from the You Will Not Find Lilo Hanging Out There: The Sparkle Lounge sounds like the name of a West Hollywood hot spot, sure. But in actuality, it was the band’s own name for an area they would set up backstage at concerts to work on new material. Gunter Glieben Glauten Globen, Y’all: So what does a hard-rock British band do on its first album of new material in five years? Why, it goes country, of course. Def Leppard teams with Tim McGraw on one of the album’s tracks.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
In stores may 13
Marissa Cooper Is Dead: These soft rockers out of Washington State helped bring The O.C.’s Seth Cohen and Summer Roberts together. In turn, The O.C. got Death Cab widespread notice and no doubt boosted sales of the band’s last studio album, the Grammy-nominated Plans. But that was 2005. The only O.C. on TV these days is a reality show about 40-something suburbanites. And we assume their favorite singer is Neil Sedaka. So you’re on your own, Death Cab.