Solo projects tend to put strain on a band, as Rhett Miller can attest.
“During the whole course of the project, there were definitely moments with every member of the band when it was tough,” says the frontman for the Old 97’s. The Texas roots-rock quartet took a significant hiatus for Miller to release an extracurricular album in 2002, tour behind it and experience the birth of his first child.
“The good thing was, there was never a time when all four of us were really bummed out about it,” he says. “But it’s inevitable: Do you root for it to succeed, or do you root for it to fail, as far as the other guys are concerned? But they were all really cool about it. The fact that we survived it speaks volumes for how mature everybody is and how close we all are.”
Now the Old 97’s are back with their first studio release in three years, their sixth overall. The 13-song Drag It Up still has plenty of the band’s usual butt-kickin’ Western guitar rock, but at its heart is a run of subtler material that just might reflect maturity, which is not surprising for a band that’s been together 11 years.
Released on the independent New West Records, the record also has a directness and immediacy that holds up well against the band’s three previous albums on major label Elektra Records, which after two corporate shuffles no longer carries the band or Miller on its roster.
The sound reflects the tastes of bassist Murry Hammond, who honed his expertise with retro recording techniques while working with his wife, singer-songwriter Grey DeLisle. The songs were recorded on vintage eight-track equipment, with most of the performances laid down in single takes, many of them first takes.
Rehearsing a song too much can be counterproductive, Miller said, chatting by cell from a New York airport while waiting for a plane to the tour’s first gig in Chicago.
“There’s something that happens, once you play a song enough, where you can think about a grocery list or what’s on TV later that night, while you’re singing it or playing it,” he said. “You’re doing a disservice to the song while you’re doing that. And it’s inevitable on stage if you’re singing the songs you’ve sung a billion times before — your mind will wander. But if you’re recording it for posterity and eternity, you don’t want to be thinking about other things.”