December 1, 2010

"Old 97's" New Sound

Posted: 04:35 PM ET

That sound you hear creeping up the Billboard charts- the combination of The Clash’s white riotous punk with Steve Earle’s swaggering Texas stomp- is coming to a town near you.

The Old 97's – favorite sons of Dallas, TX- make music for the cowboy boot-wearing, purple-haired, coffee house patronizing, flannel-donning, soccer parent in all of us. In other words, they are the everyman’s band. And not just because they are regular, nice guys.

Their music is laden with hooks; it’s indelibly catchy, and it’s some serious rock & roll. It’s the kind of music that would sound just as good in a desolate bar as it would on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (the latter proven just a couple of weeks ago). Their latest album The Grande Theatre, Volume One was released earlier this fall (Volume Two will be out next Spring) to critical acclaim and the band’s highest chart position to date—after 18 years as a band. Partly responsible for such accolades is a song called “Champaign, Illinois” – the rousing rave-up at the center of the new album. Old 97's singer/songwriter Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond sat down with LKL and we began by asking them about the curious lyric in the aforementioned hit song.

LKL: So is it better to end up in Heaven or Champaign, Illinois?

Rhett Miller: I actually did this whole thing on twitter yesterday because we played it on Leno last night and I’ve gotten some grief about “Champaign, Illinois” from residents of the city and the story behind it is this: It was a late night drive, I was the only one awake, I had the melody to a Dylan song “Desolation Row” stuck in my head, so I rewrote lyrics for it to keep myself awake. When I was writing it I had Champaign, Illinois pictured in my head as this quintessential college town. To me- as someone who only went to college for one semester and dropped out because I thought of it more as just killing time, but I didn’t have time to kill because I wanted to go play music and be in a rock band- Champaign isn’t so much meant to be hell but more purgatory. It’s where you go when you are just waiting around for something to happen.

Murry Hammond: It’s an anthem for townies all across the nation.

Miller: We love townies and we actually love Champaign, Illinois. When people get upset about it, I’m just like “Gosh there is no hate in that song!”

Hammond: It’s a winky emoticon. To me that song is about touring. It’s about touring and no town is better or worse than anything else, but at one point towns become just days on a calendar in a way. That’s kinda how that song goes.

LKL: Rhett, the genesis for this album was in Europe, correct?

Miller: I spent a month in Scandinavia opening up for the great Steve Earle, and between being inspired by him because he is just a wealth of information and he is also just a classic Texan song writer… and also being inspired by the locals. We had never really gotten to go to Europe. We have pretty much been an American band our entire career for better or worse– I know for worse because I definitely wish we would have gone to Europe earlier…

Hammond: Why did the song writing door kick open over there?

Miller: It was something about being in these old theaters that have been holding productions for hundreds of years and just the history of it. I don’t remember what album it is, but [Elvis] Costello talked about his first tours to the US as being the most fertile, creative song writing times of his whole career. You see something that you’ve always heard about but never really seen first hand and it’s really inspiring.

LKL: So how did writing those songs on the road eventually develop into this album?

Miller: Well I was sending back demos from the road, but acoustic demos really never do a song justice. We have to all be together and play it with drums and everything, which is what we did. We went to an old theater in Houston and went through all the pre-production just as a band and [there is] something about that and that feeling of being on a stage that really form the song. To be able to hear it and envision playing it for an audience and you kind of imagine what it sounds like to them- it helps you make the decisions that you have to make to record the song because you’re already putting it in context of playing it live and The Old 97's are nothing if not a live band.

LKL: Why is that live feel so important with the Old 97's?

Miller: Because that’s where we flourish. If there is ever a complaint about our record, it’s because they don’t catch the energy of our live shows. My response to that is a record is different. There is a reason that you are in the studio. The Beatles records didn’t sound like they were on the stage playing, and there is no rule that says you have to sound like you do live, but I love the way we sound live and I know our fans love the energy of our live performances and on this record I felt that it was important to try and tap into that energy and it worked.

The Old 97's U.S. Tour begins December 2nd in Oxford, Mississippi.

Filed under: Music • Old 97's

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Jefe   December 1st, 2010 6:18 pm ET

The best-kept secret in rock-n-roll.

Matt Leach   December 1st, 2010 8:47 pm ET

I've been to 15 shows and will be there New Year's Eve at the House of Blues... I can't wait to hear Doreen, Dance Class, W-I-F-E, Champaign Illinois, Night Club, Barrier Reef and Time Bomb... See ya there!!!

Ramona760   December 2nd, 2010 12:49 am ET

This is one of the best live bands out there. Catch a concert and you're hooked.

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