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Recycling rock

Heather Gross

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I wanted to make the greatest album of all time,” Rhett Miller says of his new solo album, The Believer.

He’s partially kidding. Miller, the modest lead singer of alt-country band The Old 97’s, hardly acts like he’s married to supermodel Erica Iahn and hobnobs with L.A.’s biggest music producers. His Texas upbringing has influenced his genial, easygoing demeanor and his songwriting.

“You’re influenced by what you hear as a kid,” he says. “I still think Hank Williams is probably the greatest songwriter who ever lived. That’s what I try and do. That two-and-a-half minute pop song that can touch a nerve. You’re trying to entertain and contribute to the good of humanity at the moment-to-moment level.”

The Believer is less overtly influenced by country music than the musical output of The Old 97’s. The songs on the solo album have a hint of twang, but most are Top-40-friendly love songs.

Miller took the opportunity to create his first solo album in 2001 while the other band members took time off with their families. The album, The Instigator, was created in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Miller was especially affected because he lost his New York residence during the tragedy. He refers to Sept. 11 several times during songs on the album, but the cheerful pop sound keeps the songs from becoming emotionally heavy.

Four years later, Miller went into the studio to record The Believer with entirely different experiences. “My life has pretty much completely changed since The Instigator was made, which is kind of weird,” he says. “But it’s all been good.”

Miller married Iahn a week after completing production of The Instigator, and Iahn found out she was pregnant while Miller was finishing touring with Tori Amos to promote the album. Their son Max is now 2-and-a-half years old, and the couple is expecting a daughter in about two weeks.

Miller says becoming a father has made touring much more difficult and has also influenced his songwriting.

The problems of being a father in the music business are “primarily logistical, although being a happy guy makes it a little harder for me to dig down and find the fuel that I used to use – all that angry, sort of drunken rage that made the first couple of records I wrote,” he says. “But it’s still down there. I’ve got a lot of drunken and at least sad, if not angry, songs on the album. But it would be silly if a 30-something, happily-married father of two was writing about how he’s drunk and broke.”

While working with The Old 97’s, he said he would often bring in a song he’d written for them, and they would reject it.

“I would say, ‘Well you guys know, I’m going to save it for the solo record,’ and they’d be like, ‘That’s fine, man. Whatever you want to do.'” On The Believer, several of the more interesting songs were originally Old 97’s rejects. The band did not want to record “Fireflies,” a duet featuring guest artist Rachel Yamagata. “I tried to get them to do ‘Fireflies,’ but I think the prospect of bathing and acting nice for a woman in the studio was too much for them,” Miller says.

Miller worked with renowned musicians to create The Believer. “The people on the record were L.A. people I had known for years,” Miller says. “They’re all producers that play with ‘big acts.'” George Drakoulias produced the album and Jon Brion, the producer of The Instigator who’s famous for his work with artists such as Fiona Apple, played keyboards.

“Having Jon Brion in the studio, this weird magical thing happens,” Miller says of his friend. “He can get more stuff done in five minutes than most can get done in three weeks.”

Working with Brion had other perks. “He was working on the Kanye West record at the same time, so I’d go in and visit him in the studio for Kanye and take notes about how to be a huge rock star,” Miller says jokingly.

He has recently had brushes with big celebrities outside of the studio as well. Before The Old 97’s went on hiatus, the band became part of the cast of The Breakup, the Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughn romantic comedy due in theaters June 2. Miller says the movie features several minutes of footage of an Old 97’s concert, with Jennifer Anniston in the front row crying. “It was a way for us to be out playing live in front of people without actually having to go anywhere,” he says.

Miller has many ideas for what he’d like to do after he finishes promoting The Believer. “I keep thinking about making an acoustic (solo) record, more stripped down,” he says. “Maybe it’s just a reaction to right now promoting this record, having worked with so many people. I didn’t even play guitar on Believer, so I kind of want to make a record that’s just me.” He also says The Old 97’s will be keeping themselves busy next year, touring and recording an album. But he won’t get too carried away with the future. “I’m thinking a few records ahead, but I’ve got to live in the moment,” he says.

Medill and Music junior Heather Gross is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at h-gross@northwestern.edu.

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