Ride On

With the release of their latest, the Old 97's put something good into the world

The best thing about listening to Satellite Rides is that the disc captures the loose, frenetic feel of the band's live sets. It's 1 a.m., and Miller's entire head and torso are saturated with sweat, rendering his customary head-banging a virtual front-row shower. Hammond and Bethea have loosened up, while drummer Philip Peeples has gotten tighter and faster and faster, until the whole thing teeters on collapse. But before that happens, the boys run offstage just long enough to catch their breath, down a drink, and rest their fingers in time for an encore.

"I guess we've been doing it long enough to where I can feel that kind of thing coming on," Miller says, referring to the potential for disaster that a week with no sleep produces. "In the old days, it would have become a punk rock show of the Old 97's, just crazy. Now I feel like, 'You know, I can do this.' I can just take it over and make this a good rock 'n' roll show and not let it spin wildly out of control and become a train wreck."

Satellite Rides is the sound of a band finally getting comfortable with its responsibility to a major label (producing radio-friendly songs) while still being true to its musical impulses (twang, fire, depression). It's a balancing act, for sure. It all is.

The Old 97's: From left, Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller and Ken Bethea.
The Old 97's: From left, Philip Peeples, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller and Ken Bethea.

Peeples and Bethea have, in the last few years, married and had children, while Miller relocated from Dallas to Los Angeles four years ago and is now bicoastal, keeping an additional apartment in New York. Miller sounds mature. In fact, he sounds like an aware, 30-year-old front man with a major-label deal in tow and reality in check.

"You can't go back, literally and figuratively," Miller says of his formative years. "Like being young and wanting to get drunk every morning when I woke, or whatever -- just wanting to be crazy all the time -- wanting to have that kind of life that a 19- [or] 26-year-old struggling musician has. I couldn't go back to those days, and I could never be the person that enjoyed living the way I was living back then. I think back on a lot of the stuff that happened in [the early years], and those were really good days, but they seem so sepia-toned now, you know, so far away. At this point, home is a very fluid idea."

Miller seems particularly reflective considering his onstage persona, where he's known for his spastic, even reckless performances. The man on the other end of the line is sober and realistic, but still coy and animated. He apologizes for his incomplete sentences and bad jokes and worries that his quotes will sound egotistical or politically incorrect. Still, he's confident about the decisions his band has made since signing with Elektra, defending its move from the independent Bloodshot Records. It's been more than four years since that transition, but there's residual "free-floating animosity" from certain corners still holding a grudge against the band for any resulting success.

"It was during the promotion of Too Far to Care that we had a collective realization within our band that the concept of moral integrity cannot really be applied to a career in music," Miller says. "We just knew that we needed widespread distribution to achieve the kind of success that would allow us to keep doing what we wanted to do. It's a stupid trap to get caught in to think that if you sell too many records, it's bad, but if you sell just enough . . . if you let them market you, then it's bad because the music should sell itself. But how would anybody ever hear it? It's sort of a pointless argument that's only ever really championed in earnest by people who, um . . . who have been cast over by their dreams!" Miller spits out, after brief hesitation, laughing, then moaning at what he fears is going to read "really, really badly."

"Yeah, it's a weird life, but what are the choices?" Miller says, in summary. "Nobody reads poetry anymore; I can't do that and make a living. I don't know that I'm a good enough novelist and I do know that I can write songs, so this is what I'm stuck with. Some nights it really feels cathartic, like I'm doing something good, like I'm putting something good into the world. And some nights it just feels like I'm an attention hog, like I'm a court jester. Ken talks about that a lot, too. He's like, 'It's true. We go around and we're the entertainment.' And while that's cool, there's also something inherently ignoble about it, frivolous, you know? It exists for that moment while you're standing in the bar in order to give you an excuse to drink beer, and then it's gone. Someday I'll be lying on a deathbed going, 'Did all those moments add up to something good?' I hope so."

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