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Wednesday, March 5, 2003
Not just another pretty spaz
Special to The Japan Times
Singer-songwriter Rhett Miller, who is in Tokyo for a few days plugging his album "The Instigator" is feeing encouraged. "I told my manager I wanted to come back in May with a band," he says between sips of green tea at the offices of Warner Music Japan. During a solo acoustic showcase the night before in Harajuku, he said as much to the excitable, mostly female crowd. One woman in the audience made him promise. "Well, technically I promised I would come back after Golden Week."
"The Instigator" has sold around 50,000 copies in the United States since it was released there in September. "The first single didn't do much when it came out, but right before Christmas it started moving up, so now I'm in the top 10 of the triple-A [Adult Album Alternative] charts, a hotly contested format because the rest of radio has either gone to full-on rock or oldies. These days, if you're not appealing to angry 14-year-olds, you're on triple-A."
Miller is 32. On stage, he could pass for 22, not so much because of his boyish good looks, which are fully in evidence on the album cover, but rather his earnest, artless performance style. Beating up on his acoustic guitar and whipping his longish hair into a swirl, he fits the stereotyped image of the teenager locked in his bedroom pretending to be an idolized punk. "Yeah, I'm kind of a spaz," he admits.
He's also a veteran. "The Instigator" is his first solo album (second, if you count a record he made in high school), but he's been the lead vocalist and core songwriter of the Old 97's since the quartet was formed in Dallas in 1993. Though categorized as alternative country, the Old 97's are more like an all-purpose bar band that plays original music. As a writer, Miller's strong suit was the self-effacing love song, usually told from the perspective of callow youth. His world-view is summed up best in the last line of the Old 97's song "Rollerskate Skinny": "I believe in love, but it don't believe in me."
It's a sentiment that no longer fits, since he recently got married. "I fell in love and got married and turned 30 all around the same time, which I always thought would mark the end of my career. But I think the only thing I've lost the ability to write are those angry songs -- 'there's no true love' -- that kind of thing."
"The Instigator" differs from the Old 97's in various ways, notably the poppier sound, which is provided by producer Jon Brion, known for his work with Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple.
"The band wanted to take a year off and I wanted to make a solo record, and then Jon Brion said he'd give me six months of his life. It was hard, because they're like, we don't know if we should root for your solo record to succeed or root for it to fail so that you can come back to us more quickly."
Another reason the solo stuff is distinct from the Old 97's' rock presentation is that some of the songs on "The Instigator" were originally rejected by the band. "Like 'Our Love.' It's straight 16th notes. And the band won't do that. Murry [Hammond, the band's bassist] a long time ago decreed that we could play songs that are poppy but there needed to be some element of swing."
Despite wedded bliss, "The Instigator" retains Miller's trademark loser-in-love appeal, which seems to have as much to do with his popularity among women as his cheekbones do. During the showcase rendition of the mid-tempo single, "Come Around," several young women swooned visibly at the song's money-shot chorus: "Am I gonna be lonely for the rest of my life?"
"In America they call radio listeners and play a snippet of a song for them. It's a nightmare, because a lot of decisions are based on how you test. Anyway, I 'tested through the roof' -- their words -- with women on that particular song." Miller doesn't mind selling records this way, but he's quick to point out that none of it is calculated. When the subject of Ryan Adams, whom Miller is often compared with, is brought up he quickly cites the differences.
"I've known Ryan since he was 17. He's very single-minded. If there's an opportunity to advance his career, he'll go out and drink with The Strokes and introduce himself to Sheryl Crow. I prefer staying home. I don't think his writing is disingenuous, but I think he's figured out how to push certain buttons. When I say my songs aren't calculated, it's because I don't really think about what I'm doing."
As unself-conscious as his writing is, he still manages to slip in something most roots rockers have little use for: direct literary references. "What We Talk About," from the Old 97's' 1997 album "Fight Songs," borrows its title from a Raymond Carver story collection, and in "World Inside the World," Miller name-checks Don Delillo.
"I grew up in Texas, and I was an effeminate kid -- unpopular, whatever that means. If you're not aware of it, it doesn't matter, but I was sensitive to the cliques and my place outside of them. And my parents were unhappy, so there was no place in the real world to hide. I just read a lot."
He also grew up "an Anglophile," enamored of Aztec Camera and falling to sleep every night listening to The Smiths' "Hatful of Hollow." His connection to both music and literature is purely emotional. "As much as I liked Pavement, I was sort of annoyed they wouldn't own up to anything, no real feelings." When he listens to Beck he hears someone who "loves his record collection. His music is a comment on something that's already a comment on something else."
The "alternative" label, regardless of how it's used, doesn't appeal to him, either. "Alternative is now a joke." Considering he doesn't have much faith in the record industry as a whole, it seems problematic that he's on a major label. He mentions that he was instrumental in introducing the Austin band Spoon to Ron Lafitte, the Old 97's' A&R man at Elektra, who signed Spoon and then dropped them unceremoniously after one album. The band was so enraged they self-released a single, "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now," that has since become indie rock's most famous screw-you to a major label.
As a result, Miller is philosophical about his prospects. "I remember thinking last year my record will come out and maybe something big will happen." Big as in Grammy big? He winces. "If I was nominated for a Grammy it would signify other things, like, I was making enough money to buy a house."
Miller is genuinely pleased to get the attention he's enjoying in Japan, even if, as he admits, most fans are just as interested in the picture on the CD as they are in the music contained therein. "When I left the venue last night there were about 40 or 50 girls waiting. Some of them weren't even at the show but they wanted to meet me. I signed a few autographs. It turned into a real mob scene. Which is great . . . which is weird."