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Rhett Miller On Creating Amidst Pandemic As Old 97’s Gear Up For Fall Tour

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at September 22, 2021

In August of 2020, Texas alt country pioneers Old 97’s released their aptly titled twelfth studio album Twelfth, one of their best, with legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, #12, gracing the cover.

While the single “Turn Off the TV” performed well at radio last summer, the group was never able to properly promote the album and expose fans to the new music, with live concerts off the table for nearly a year and a half amidst pandemic.

Fast forward thirteen months and Old 97’s are finally able to hit the road in support of the “new” record, launching a fall tour Friday, September 24 in Lewisville, Texas, one which runs into November with stops in Pennsylvania and Chicago.

“So in August of 2020, the Old 97’s put out a record. It’s been out for 11 months… but it’s really good!” joked singer, songwriter and guitarist Rhett Miller on stage in July at City Winery in Chicago, setting up Twelfth’s “I Like You Better” during just his second solo show back after the layoff. “I think this is the first time I’ve played this for people.”

Without in person concerts, for Miller, navigating pandemic meant drilling down on what he does best – telling stories – and finding silver linings where possible.

As always, Miller’s storytelling is front and center on Twelfth but he took things a step further during pandemic, releasing new episodes of his podcast “Wheels Off” while taking full advantage of online streaming events. Utilizing online platform StageIt, Miller crafted over 250 unique online performances from his home, creating a dedicated community centered around his stories and songs that proved economically viable despite the lack of traditional live concerts (the next is scheduled for October 1).

“It’s so much different doing this in real life… It’s just way better. There’s no chat window! Whatever you guys are thinking, you have to just sit there thinking it,” he joked on stage at City Winery, noting the difference between the online experience and actually being in a venue for a live concert.

On stage, Miller said the July concert in Chicago marked the sixth anniversary of the last time he took a drink and he wore the orange shirt he was wearing that day six years ago as a reminder.

I spoke with Rhett Miller about revisiting Twelfth, returning to the road, the importance of using livestreams to maintain his bond with fans during the layoff, finding silver linings despite pandemic and much more. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.

Your band released an album during the pandemic. A lot of artists thought it best to wait. Obviously, there’s no handbook on how to handle any of this. With about one year hindsight, what was the experience of releasing an album during the pandemic like for you? 

RHETT MILLER: I don’t know if I would’ve been able to handle waiting. And I know that was sort of our thinking behind going ahead and releasing the album. 

I don’t want to complain about my artistic experience when so much real world suffering came as a result of the pandemic. But, in terms of our album release, it was tricky. Most people don’t know we put a record out. We’ve only gotten to play a handful of the songs a handful of times in front of real people. 

MORE FROM FORBESRhett Miller On New Old 97’s Album ‘Twelfth,’ Taking A Rare Look Back And The Key To Keeping His Band Together For 27 Years

For me, artistically, and in terms of my career, the biggest bummer about the timing is that I feel like that was one of the best records we’ve made. It felt like such a solid Old 97’s album top to bottom. It had some moments of really sort of transcendent band interaction musically. And I felt like the production was so good. And the songs were really good.

So the fact that it’s sort of come and gone without ever really being properly celebrated by the band or our fans or anything – that’s frustrating. But whatever. I’m alive. My loved ones are alive. So I’m trying to keep as much perspective as I can about my little tiny problems.

Is the hope kind of to relaunch the album now that you can finally tour behind it a bit?

RM: Well, one of the issues that we ran into in touring during the summer is that every single artist in the world is touring. And the avails were limited to begin with because so many clubs shut down and nobody sort of knew what was happening. So we have a handful of shows this year – but that’s it. We’re going to be coming back and playing Chicago – a few shows in the midwest I think. But we’re not doing much until 2022. So then you’re talking about almost two years between the album coming out and us doing the tour behind it. So it just is what it is.

I think that a lot of fans did discover the album. And it’s funny that the radio single, “Turn Off the TV,” did better on the radio charts than maybe any other single we’ve ever released – which is insane. “Good with God” might have been up there too. But it was on the charts at AAA [radio] for months. Which was great. But I’m not sure what that translates into. 

You made a pivot during the pandemic to online streaming shows. How, over the course of almost a year and a half, did you manage to curate unique experiences that would manage to keep people coming back? 

RM: [I’ve done more than 250] streaming shows since the pandemic started.

It’s so weird obviously. The job that I have done since I was basically 15 years old, requires a lot of storytelling – like internal storytelling. I have to tell myself a story every time I walk on stage. 

The transaction is such a weird one. I’m gonna be up on stage singing about my deepest, darkest feelings and problems or whatever. And these people all paid good money to get babysitters and tickets and drinks and dinner. And they’re all here and they’re all waiting to hear me sing. 

That seemed weird in the before times. That was always weird. I always had to sort of negotiate this fine line of like… I think it’s easier if you’re just straight up narcissist. Because then you’re like, “Well, of course these people are here to see me – I’m a f—ing genius so of course they are!” But I’ve never believed that. So you do have to sort of explain to yourself, “They’re happy to be here and they’re grateful. And if I can sing these songs that they want to hear and do my best to give them an experience that they’ll feel good about, we will all be happy. And I won’t have to feel weird about getting paid to be here.” So that’s always been weird.

Then, you make the job suddenly become me sitting in my office in front of a high def camera all by myself – maybe with a dog falling asleep on the couch behind me. And then I have to remind myself that there are hundreds of people on the other side of an ethernet cable and they’re all tuned in and they’re all feeling lonely. And they’re all there because they like some songs that I wrote and they’re excited to hear me sing them. But I feel stupid and frustrated. And maybe I just finished eating dinner and my kids are upstairs yelling – whatever it is. Oh my god!

I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this. The other thing is, in the before times, when you would have a gig in your hometown, or maybe somewhere where you grew up or your nuclear family lives – that’s something that we in the Old 97’s call “worlds colliding” – it’s a reference to the old Seinfeld moments. 

The problem with that is that when you’re performing or on tour, there’s an army of handlers both inside the tour bus with you and then in the venue, everywhere you roll in every day. Their job is to make sure you’re happy and to make sure you’re comfortable. When you’re at home, your job is to make sure that your wife and kids or whoever is comfortable. So when those two worlds collide, that’s a problem. 

The whole last year and a half has been one giant collision of worlds. Because I’m in my basement doing shows five minutes after having fixed dinner for the kids and having them complain about what I cook. It’s just very strange.

And the worst part is that I kind of love this version of it. Because I’ve got two teenagers, right? And I didn’t realize how much of a negative impact my traveling was having on my relationship with them. When I did think about it, I would just think, “Well, this is part of the deal. They know that this is what I do and they’re proud of me. They can see me living my dream and doing the thing that I was born to do.” But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m gone at least half of the time year after year after year – until the last year and a half. And I’ve been able to connect with them and bond with them and be a father to them in a way that I couldn’t for the first decade and a half of their lives. And it’s been fantastic. 

And I feel guilty finding the kind of silver linings that I’ve found because I have so many people that I know and love who have lost people. But that’s all I can do is really focus on the silver linings and just make the most of each moment one day at a time.

Have your StageIt shows kind of become an important way to maintain that bond with the audience and keep them engaged – and do you think it’s something then that it kind of makes sense to continue if and when we fully emerge from the pandemic? 

RM: Absolutely. I’ve heard from so many people from the community – because it really did become that over the last year and a half, this community of fans that would tune in. Every night there would be some new people out of the however many were tuning in – 150 to I think at some points I was over 1,000 or close to 1,200 people tuning in. 

It’s now calmed down a lot as we’ve sort of approached normalcy in the regular world again. But it definitely helped me feed my kids – after I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to. But it gave me a real sense of purpose. It gave me a feeling of community. And I know that I’ve heard from a lot of fans and folks that tuned in that it gave them a really strong sense of community. I know that one of the things that we all battled the most was just that feeling of loneliness. I know that for me, it helped me a lot. And I heard from a lot of folks that were tuning in four times a week that it helped them.

There’s a group of people that login to the chat during every show – because part of the StageIt platform is they’ve got a little chat room that scrolls along the side. And they were hilarious. I couldn’t really read the chat while I was playing – because every time I would try, it would make me forget everything else. Imagine being on stage and every person standing in the bar or theater has a thought bubble over their head. It was terrible! (laughs)

You mentioned the fact that StageIt kind of allowed you to keep food on the table this last year. Not that economically it’s going to replace touring but did the streaming shows coupled with merch allow you financially to kind of at least make it to the other side of this whole experience? 

RM: Yes. And I’m not great at selling merch. My friend Cat Popper, the bass player who’s played with a lot of great artists and made a great record herself recently, was doing a great job of coming up with cool, funny t-shirts and sweatshirts. I ordered a bunch of those because she’s so cool and great and they were hilarious. Dave Hill the comedian has basically created an entire line of hilarious Dave Hill merch. I didn’t do any merch. And I should have. I thought about it. I have a giant closet filled with merchandise I was going to be taking out on the road in real life last year and it’s just sitting there in boxes. I can’t even wrap my mind around trying to make people buy t-shirts right now.

But, yes, the income I was able to generate from the StageIt shows – I was doing four shows a week. Just the relentlessness of that. And the fact that people kept tuning in. At the very beginning, it was beyond my wildest dreams. I was like, “Oh my god, am I going to be rich because of online concerts?” But really quickly, the novelty wore off. The people that enjoy sitting in front of a computer or TV though sort of kept coming back. Then it sort of plateaued. Now it by no means is the equivalent of if I was going out in real life and doing shows… but it’s not bad. If it never changed, I could live off of doing StageIt shows for the rest of my life. I won’t do four shows a week but I definitely think I will [keep doing them]. 

You mentioned that idea of storytelling. Just how important has your podcast become as a way of telling entirely different stories and did it act as sort of a creative outlet which helped you navigate the last year? 

RM: Oh my god. So “Wheels Off” – I started recording them at the very end of 2018 and then I did them through 2019. I did them in person. And they would come out every couple of weeks. So early 2020, I had put a few in the bank. And when the pandemic started, I thought I was probably going to have to stop. Because I couldn’t imagine doing them virtually. The whole vibe of the conversations was just so intimate. Sitting on the bedroom floor in [writer and stand-up comic] Tig Notaro’s house while her wife and kids were downstairs screaming – and we’re up there just sitting on this shag carpet with a couple of lavalier mics clipped to our collars. That’s the way that I understand having a conversation. So getting used to the idea of doing it over Zoom took me a while. But once I got the hang of it – and once everybody kind of got used to being virtual – it’s been incredible. 

These conversations that I get to have with people… It is incredibly inspiring. I’ve never made a penny off of that podcast. And I think I’m like 80 something podcasts in now. And just the amount of time it takes to coordinate – you know from interviewing people – the scheduling of it and making it all work, that back and forth, it’s a lot. But it’s something that I’m so glad I started doing. I remember my wife, who’s always very protective of me, she said, “You’re not going to make any money off of this. Are you sure that you want to devote time and energy to it?” And I just don’t even know what I would do without it these days. It’s so inspiring.

I’m 50 years old now. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to figure out, “What am I doing? Does the world really need more of whatever the thing is that I do?” But the world always needs more people to create and give beauty and art to it. Because that’s sort of the meaning of life as far as I’ve figured out.


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