BACK TO THE WELL: Old 97s

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For their latest album, the long-running band decided that recording in a familiar-yet-fresh surrounding was more than just a game plan—it could unlock musical magic anew. Frontman Rhett Miller explains.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

It’s been 20 years since the Old 97’s recorded their breakthrough record, Too Far To Care. Their third album and first for a major label, that 1997 record spawned “Time Bomb,” “Barrier Reef” and a slew of other songs that have gone on to become set staples for the band.

It was recorded at the unassuming Village Productions studio in a little Texas border town not that far from El Paso, tucked amongst 2,000 acres of pecan trees. Not exactly the glam you’d expect from a band newly-flush with record label money.

In the two decades since, the band has toured the globe countless times, put out seven more releases and managed to help pioneer the alt country movement in the process. So, it seems an odd move that the Old 97’s would choose to return to that small studio to record their latest, Graveyard Whistling (ATO Records), rather than opt for some state-of-the-art alternative elsewhere.

One track into the new record, though, and you can see the logic behind the plan as the band emerged with one of their most consistently-satisfying records since, possibly, Too Far To Care.

Frontman Rhett Miller spoke with BLURT recently about the choice to return to Tornillo, Texas to record, what had changed and the note he found in the nightstand there.

BLURT: What made you decide to go back to Tornillo, Texas to record this record?
MILLER: In the two decades since we recorded Too Far To Care at Village Productions outside El Paso, the studio changed its name to Sonic Ranch, tripled in size, and became a bona fide world-class studio. We’ve wanted to return there for years, but it took a nudge from Vance Powell, Graveyard Whistling’s producer, to bring us back into those dusty pecan farms along the Mexican border.

As soon as we pulled up to the Hacienda we knew it was the perfect time for us to return to this magical place that had haunted our dreams for two decades.

Obviously, a lot has changed with the band since you were last there. How much had the studio changed during the time?
Despite the studio having grown in size and stature, many things remained the same. The room where we cut Too Far all those years ago was virtually unchanged, as were the hacienda bedrooms. We each stayed in the room we’d occupied during the Too Far sessions. I can’t understate how the surreal the sensation was of having blinked and seen two decades disappear.

Can you talk about the note you found in the nightstand?
My craziest time-machine moment was when I opened the bedside table drawer and found two handwritten notes I’d left there twenty years earlier. Suffice to say I had to sit down and collect myself.

You mentioned that you recorded Too Far To Care there. By going back to that studio, did you guys want to capture a similar vibe to what was on that album?
Too Far, our third album as a band and first for a major label, has always been something of a touchstone record for us. Fans and band alike point to those songs and performances as the distillation of what is good about the 97’s.

So, the idea of returning to that room and seeing if there was any residual magic appealed to us. Turns out the place was full of magic.

I can’t help but notice the back-to-back songs “Jesus Loves You” and “Good With God.” As a native Texan, I know it’s hard to escape religion there. Can you talk about the meaning behind these two songs?
I grew up in Texas going to church constantly – singing in choirs, serving as an altar boy and acolyte, sometimes just nodding off in the pew. I loved the music. The rest of it got a little complicated. As the songs on this record revealed themselves, I sensed a theme of culpability, of sins coming home to roost.

“Jesus Loves You” is a bawdy sentiment, but definitely wrestles with questions of the spiritual versus the prurient. “Good With God” is more about hubris in the face of karma, which seems like a dangerous proposition to me.

This record is a follow up to Most Messed Up which was your highest charting record. Did it add any more pressure when you started working on the follow up?
Yes. It was a strange sensation for me to have our eleventh album come with such heightened expectations. It definitely made me conscious of making it a different album, a progression rather than more of the same.

You’ve got the new record coming up and a tour. What’s next for you?
I’m working on writing songs, poems, long-form fiction and instructional prose on the craft of songwriting. Like a shark, I must swim or die.

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The band will be hosting the “County Fair 2017” in Dallas next month:

DATE: Saturday April 8th

Location: Main St Garden Park in Downtown Dallas

Lineup:

Old 97s
Lucinda Williams
Mavis Staples
The Jayhawks
Jonathan Tyler
Lydia Loveless
The Vandoliers
Texas Gentlemen
The Gordon Keith Band

Amenities:

45 foot Ferris Wheel
Midway Games
Food Trucks
Kids 10 Under Free
Dog Friendly

 

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