In This Episode
Old 97’s band members and old time friends, Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond, join us for a conversation about songwriting, falling into friendship love and how a band is like an open marriage.
Ana Marie Cox, narrating: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. This week I’m talking to two people who are, as they say, “friendship goals,” a relationship they’ve maintained despite or perhaps because they’ve been in the same band for over 30 years. Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond are the Old 97’s, an alt-rock/alt-country band that survived about 20 different musical trends and is still going strong. Their latest album, 12, was released last year. As we bring our Music Month and this podcast to a close, I wanted to end with a conversation with friends exactly like these.
Ana Marie Cox: Rhett and Murray, welcome to the show.
Murray Hammond: Hi, Ana!
Rhett Miller: Wooooo! It’s really happening.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s happening. I’m super excited to have you all on. This month has been Music Month, but a little bit of, I think we’re approaching music in a way that is a little bit from the side, which is talking about music and relationships, but not necessarily the relationships that are sung about, right, but how relationships on stage between band members and backstage, you know, the business of music. We talked to someone who’s like an up and coming musician in Nashville to talk about like, how that works. And y’all are our long-term relationship experts.
Murray Hammond: So we’re the Stones? We’re the Glimmer Twins, OK?
Ana Marie Cox: You’re the Glamor Twins and you’re also, you’ve outlasted two of my marriages, so I feel like maybe I should get some advice. I am actually not entirely kidding about getting advice. So you’ve been in the band together for 20, how many 20-some?
Murray Hammond: Oh, Rhett and I’ve been in a band together, quote unquote, since the ’80s. It’s just just how it is. The ’97s were just like the longest and most recent chapter of all of it. But yeah, we really, you know, we’re in a band in 1990 together and we worked together in ’88 and ’89 and we just worked together nearly since the beginning, the beginning of Rhett doing his thing.
Ana Marie Cox: Rhett doing his thing.
Rhett Miller: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, do you have a cute meet story?
Rhett Miller: Yeah, we were both dating girls named Jennifer. So we had, we had, we had Jennifers and our Jennifers were friends with each other, and my Jennifer said to his Jennifer, Hey, I think you’d like my new boyfriend and his Jennifer said, Well, he should meet Murray, and brought me over to Murray’s house. And Murray set up a little recorder and I was 15, right? And you recorded my first demos.
Murray Hammond: Actually, it was, you were rehearsing with your Kingston Trio folk trio in the maid’s quarters of your mom’s house.
Rhett Miller: Oh. That’s right. But by—sorry—that’s a wierd—
Murray Hammond: 16 years old.
Rhett Miller: That’s a weird thing to call it, by the way.
Ana Marie Cox: It was going to say there’s so many stories like that, just in that sentence there’s a lot of stories.
Rhett Miller: It was a garage apartment behind a humble little house that my mom lived in, and we did not have a maid. But there was a little tiny gross one-room garage apartment with cockroaches. And that’s where the musicians got—
Murray Hammond: It was the teenage basement, but attached to the garage, is what it was. It was the dumb, the dumb teenager.
Rhett Miller: Maid’s quarters!
Murray Hammond: Maid’s quarters—but that what [unclear] always called it.
Rhett Miller: We did call it the quarters! Oh my God, I’d forgotten that. We called it the quarters.
Murray Hammond: The quarters. Yeah.
Rhett Miller: Wow.
Murray Hammond: Yeah.
Rhett Miller: Jesus Christ.
Murray Hammond: And you probably played quarters in it.
Rhett Miller: Oh yeah.
Murray Hammond: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: It was your den of iniquity.
Oh my God.
Ana Marie Cox: Over this past month, and because of the shit I’ve been going through, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships in terms of relationships that last, friendships that last, and how they are and aren’t like, you know, romantic relationships. Some people might think that’s a facile, you know, comparison, it’s sort of obvious that platonic relationships are more durable. But I do think there’s a falling-in-love moment for friendships, right? It may be less obvious, but do you all have a falling-in-love moment? Like a time when you’re like, Oh, this is going to be . . .
Murray Hammond: Oh, yeah!
Ana Marie Cox: This is going to be different.
Murray Hammond: Yeah, well, I think so. I mean, I can speak for myself. I fell in love with him as his spirit and as a musician nearly from that moment. It was really for me, we went down to see the Ramones together.
Ana Marie Cox: That’ll do it. I mean, that’s . . . [laughs]
Murray Hammond: It was within a few weeks of us meeting, it may have even being within a couple of weeks of us meeting, I said, Hey, we’re, you know, I can’t remember who got the tickets, maybe, you know, in those days, The Ramones might not have even sold out. It was ’86, and the Longhorn Ballroom where the Sex Pistols played had just started having shows again. And yeah, anyway, but I got him in the band and then he was just this little fresh faced little child with big red cheeks and a leather jacket. And, you know, and I simultaneously admired him and felt sorry for him because he was so fragile looking. I just thought like he must’ve got picked on a lot at school because he was cool and nobody likes cool. Nobody likes different and nobody likes rosy cheeks. And yeah, and I was just like, You know what, I really like him. And we had a great time last night—or that night. You know, remember that? We hung out with Chicken George and—
Rhett Miller: Yeah, it was incredible.
Ana Marie Cox: And so was that the same for you, Rhett? Did you have the same moment?
Rhett Miller: Well, you know, our relationship early on was very mentor, like Murray was older and he was wiser and he was the singer of a band I really loved, the Peyote Cowboys. And I’d seen them play at the theater gallery and they were great and he was so great. And it was this three piece, he played a 12-string electric guitar and so going to see the Ramones, whom I loved, but it’s one thing to like, love the Ramones and know about the Ramones, but to, like, be in the Longhorn Ballroom with this really cool, like, actually successful rock and roller that’s, you know, five years, seven years older than me or whatever. And, and it was, yeah, it was mind-blowing. I was, I felt like I had been accepted into a club that I’d always wanted to be in and Murray was my den mother slash, you know, whatever fraternity brother or whatever. Some, we were somehow family from that day on.
Murray Hammond: Rhett just had to do some serious massaging on the term successful there, so I appreciate that Rhett. No, it was true. His first two gigs were with my band and yeah, I, the first time I saw him, I said, Hey, this is great, I adore while you’re doing. Do you want to come open for us? And Rhett said, No, no, I’m not ready. And I was like, Yes, you are, we’re playing in two weeks. You’re opening for a band. Yeah, and that was, was it Red Cross or the Pandora’s?
Rhett Miller: Red Cross. You had me play in between you guys and Red Cross. Did a little mini set.
Murray Hammond: Oh, you did OK?
Rhett Miller: Yeah.
Murray Hammond: I kind of remember it was the beginning of it. Oh my god. Yeah, that was a, that was a great night, too.
Rhett Miller: like April eight, April ’87,
Murray Hammond: No. This would have been ’86. Fall of ’86 and we played, it was the second time we played with Red Cross-and oh no, was it the first time? It was . . .
Rhett Miller: The first time was [unclear].
Murray Hammond: It was, it was, I do remember that October 3rd was the day I went over to see you play. I still remember that for some reason. So it may have even been by the end of October of ‘86. 1986 crazy. 16-year old boy and he’d only been 16 for a month.
Ana Marie Cox: I have to say Rhett still could pass for 16, I think. He’s still a fresh-faced apple-cheeked young boy. So the music part of this, the musical attraction, let’s say, what was that? You said you loved what Rhett was doing, Murray. What was it? What was it that called you?
Murray Hammond: Oh, well, he he was writing. He was writing like in my mind, like, like classically simple songs. He was writing, writing classic songs. They were, you know, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle break, verse, chorus out. You know, they were, they were like, I Want to Hold Your Hand and you know, and the Yardbirds. And they were they were like ’60s songs. And in the eighties, there was just a lot of largesse with songwriting. There was a lot of more grand, you know, everything was The Alarm and U2 and in INXS and all that, and Rhett, while he was like a huge Bowie guy and all that, but at the beginning, he was very much writing inside this sort of earlier folk tradition that was pret-British invasion folk tradition with the Lamplighters and the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary and that kind of thing, Pete Seeger and all that. And he and he wrote like that [unclear]. And so, yeah. And so I was like, Oh! Civilization, you know. And I was really happy to see that. Nobody I knew was writing like that. I was trying to write like that. And so and I also saw that like, Oh, we could probably actually be in a band together.
Ana Marie Cox: What about you, Rhett?
Rhett Miller: Well, Murray was a rock star in those days, like the way he moved around on stage, he had hair down to like the middle of his shoulder blade-length hair, and it was always like knotty and crazy. And of course, he taught me, he and his roommates taught me to smoke weed. You know, they told me what to be scared of about acid. You know, if you’re on it, if you’re too high, the cure is to take another hit. That’s what they used to tell me. I’m like, pretty sure this is a bad influence, and I liked it. But yeah, there was. I just felt like, I felt like I had so much to learn about all the things. Like, obviously, there’s music, there’s the, you know, the just setting up on a stage. How do you deal with the headliner? And then there was just the how do you function in a scene where there are all the bands are different and you, you know, like me, I was a teen folkie and I was like, like, Murry said, opening for Red Cross and later I’m opening for Lords of the New Church. And like in there, I am playing little folk songs. So but if you are cool, which Murray was, and I was, and I was watching and learning and taking notes, you can fit in. So Murry’s psychedelic band was able to open for like pretty heavy punk rock bands. And you know, it’s all about, it’s not about your music sounding the same, it’s about having like this, you know, playing nice. Be cool. Be one of the, you know, the friends at the table. And it was, it was sweet. It was a great lesson in joining, joining up. And it’s that’s what music is. It’s just like collaboration, not just musically, but just day after day, you know, getting into a van and making an environment with a group of human beings and making it pleasant. And Murray taught me that.
Ana Marie Cox: So I’m really interested in sort of the musical jibing part of this, especially since it’s true you were both playing music that wasn’t quite in the same scene as, it wasn’t quite a part of the scene that you were in. And also wasn’t necessarily obviously related to each other. Right? So what was the chemistry of putting you all together? Like what, what changed for both of you musically when you brought the two great tastes that taste great together?
Rhett Miller: The ’80s in Dallas, like, you would not think that the things would all mixed, but it was just there was only like two clubs. You know, there’s Theater Gallery and Profit Bar, basically. And so it had to be End over End and Three on the Hill and Peyote Cowboys and Flaming Lips would come through and the Butthole Surfers would come through, and then you’d have a touring act from the West Coast like Red Cross come through and then you’d have-
Ana Marie Cox: All the weirdos, had to stick together, basically.
Rhett Miller: Yeah. Or you’d have like a folkie like me, or you’d have like Leroy Shakespeare in the Ship of Vibes playing reggae music, and then eventually you had Eddie and The New Bohemians when they were just The New Bohemians and they were playing like that barefoot hippie kind of music. And so like you, nowadays, I feel like nobody could imagine like, oh, wait, what are these bands all doing together? That’s crazy. But, you know, we were just doing music and we only had like a couple of clubs to do it. And there, Russell Hobbs, the guy that ran the clubs, put on a Saver your, we all called it with the Save Your Life festival, but it was, the list was so crazy because it was just the most schizophrenic band list you’ve ever seen. But nobody thought twice about it, so it wasn’t as weird maybe now as it sounds.
Murray Hammond: I also think Rhett and I were a little bit on the outs. I mean, Rhett had a funny experience that he could tell you about a lot better, but he was a real critic’s darling there for a time. And but then there was a moment where we were all kind of on the outs with the scene and I think it kind of glued Rhett and I together in some way. We believed in each other when maybe the rest of the scene didn’t believe in our brand of things so much. And this is about, I would say this is about 1990, ’91, that kind of thing. And Rhett and I were a little adrift for a while sort of creatively. We had our loyalties to each other and we believed in what each other was doing. And the rest of the scene, it was really dominated by very artsy, jam-based music. Everything was very kind of, you know, sort of funky and jazzy. New Bohemians, they came, they came out of there that scene. It didn’t produce big punk rock bands where we were. It was all very artsy and we were still hugging to that kind of ’60, ’70s, even ’50s.
Rhett Miller: Power pop.
Murray Hammond: Yeah, a lot of power pop and you know, things like the Everly Brothers, you know, and Beatles and things like that. And yeah, and that was a glue for us. And yeah, it’s really not bad to be an outsider in a scene. It really does, it really does nice things. But yeah, but relationship-wise, you know, we had a community around us, but the community that really understood what we were doing was Rhett and me.
Ana Marie Cox: Community of two.
Murray Hammond: Community of two, and probably more than that. But in for me, it was it was Rhett. You know?
Rhett Miller: Yeah, yeah, it was funny because right around that time it did start to harden. And I think part of it was the New Bo’s exploded. Like I remember Island Records did the Sounds of Deep Bellum. The Buck Pets got signed. Like there was all this, there was all this success all of the sudden. And then there was more than two clubs. Now there was like five or six clubs. There was bands every night. And then that was when we felt this really strongly in around 92, 93, when the grunge explosion happened and all of a sudden the labels really did start getting applied. And they would look at us and go, Well, what are you? And I’m like, I don’t know. I’m wearing converse with duct tape on them. I’m playing a shitty electric guitar, so I guess we’re grunge? And then we stood up on a stage long enough, you know, wearing this ill-fitting suit, and this is to say, like maybe three gigs where we were like, So do we fit into this scene? And then we were like, Oh, I remember the night, Murray and I lived together [unclear] and SNL had Nirvana on and we looked at each other and were like, That was incredible. We can’t do this anymore, because we’re not that. We’re not even close to that. Do you remember like that, Murray?
Murray Hammond: Yeah, yeah. You know, when you and I basically started this band, it was when you had gone to work or something, I was at home and I just stayed up the night before listening to the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams and living with the singer of like one of the primo quote, “grunge” bands in Dallas, which was Funland, they were called Funland and Peter, the singer was my roommate, and I just like, it just hit me. I was like, This is ridiculous, Rhett and I are just, we have wandered so far from home, you know, from where we had kind of like when we were really true believers of our own thing. And we were, I think we’re just so happy to get gigs and just kind of be able to be loud and the sort of circus fun of all that, but there was nothing deeper than that, and it was a real moment. He had played, he was feeling the blues too. And when we were down there and a little coffee shop called Chumley’s and he had played me this little song, he wrote as a little country song because he was already writing that direction anyway, and it was called St. Ignatius. And later it would open up the first Old 97 record that we recorded, but I couldn’t get the song out of my head. But more than that, I couldn’t get the spirit of it. It had absolutely went back to the days when we really believed in ourselves, you know, deeply, in the face of all that, in the face of everybody telling us that like, No, no, no, you need to kind of go bigger than this. And it was such a mustard seed. And I was like, and then so I called Rhett up or I wrote him an note or something, I said I went to Guitar Center today, I got rid of my electric bass, I bought an acoustic bass. Here’s what we’re going to do: you and I are going to break up this grunge band, quote unquote, and let’s just go back to what we used to do. Let’s just not give a flip about record deals or trying to play at the big clubs. The big clubs, meaning like the Club Clearview, these clubs that were like 300 capacity clubs. Huge! You know, and let’s go back to like how we were when we didn’t care about that stuff and let’s just play coffeehouses and let’s just go back, you know, that’s the portal forward, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: So I was going to say, like, I was going to ask you if you could point at a song where you knew that you clicked, that you were like, This is this is what we’re going to do? Is that the song? Rhett, was that the song for you?
Rhett Miller: Well, Murray produced a record I made in high school, and there was some moments on that because Murray at the time was making an album that you released on cassette only, I think, called the Watering Wheel. And his album The Watering Wheel was very much like a Syd Barrett. I don’t mean Murray, I don’t mean to-.
Murray Hammond: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, I was. Yeah, Syd Barret was a a massive earth-shaking thing. So, yes, I did this cassette.
Rhett Miller: So it was like a lot of 12-string string guitar and a lot of lik. This really beautiful, to call it psychedelic is misleading a little bit, but it was this really beautiful stuff. And then Murray came in and did, produced my solo record when I was like 17-years old and a lot of what we did was the real kind of folky we had, the the drummer from The New Bohemians come in and do like, you know, whatever hand drums, and it was very that kind of vibe. But there were some moments where Murray would play electric guitar that would get kind of like this a watering wheel sound, and we would do things where all of a sudden it felt like we were making music together, like he was producing me, but we were also like really collaborating, and it was feeling like, we felt like a band, like the beginning of a band. And so then we did, he convinced me to drop out of Sarah Lawrence, give up my full scholarship, which now that I have an 18-year old who is waiting to hear back from colleges just makes my stomach turn to even think about that. So, so, yeah. So we came back to Dallas and started our band Sleepy Heroes, which was like a power pop three-piece band. And that was so fun. But that was so, that was me and Murray staying up every night till three or four in the morning, you know, eating Reese’s and smoking pot and drinking strawberry milk and like writing these power pop songs. And that was so collaborative. In fact, right now, Murray and I, I had this idea for the next Old 97’s record, I really wanted to, and it actually goes well with the theme of your podcast right now, I really wanted to fly out to L.A. and just be with Murray and write songs like we used to. Just sit in a room and go, Hey, what about, what if we did this? And just try to sit down and write a song? Because now mostly it’s he’ll say, I’ve got this piece and he’ll send me a recording of it, or I’ll bring in a complete song. Or, you know, it’s very rarely strawberry milk in the solitude of night, as I said in Seventeen Magazine in 1989 or whatever. But that’s what I’d like to do again, because that’s, that’s an incredible feeling to just sit down with your friend and where there was nothing, suddenly there is something, beautiful.
Ana Marie Cox: But if we had to play something for people to hear what you might think of as that first spark, what can we play out to an ad right now?
Rhett Miller: So St. Ignatius, I think, would be as good as any because we had done all of these things that hinted at what we could do together and they were all interesting, certainly, and useful. But none of them was successful by which I mean, none of them really succeeded as its own piece of art maybe, and until St. Ignatius. And St. Ignatius kind of has it all because it’s Murray and I with our weird, you know, folk slash psychedelic slash Carter family song structure. It’s me singing about Plato in a country song, you know, and we’d finally found the, you know, the foils to our Everly Brothers duo in Ken and Philip. And I think yeah, of all of our songs that, the opening track on the first Old 97’s album St. Ignatius is probably best representative of the moment we sparked.
[St. Ignatius plays]
Ana Marie Cox: So let’s listen to a bit of St. Ignatius.
[different song plays]
Ana Marie Cox: So, Rhett, you thought that song would make a good bookend to, St. Ignatius. Can you talk about why?
Rhett Miller: I mean, to me, yeah, that song is such a time travel. St. Ignatius, I wrote in a large closet under the stairs that led to the apartment above mine in [unclear] Courts. ] I was living with Ivy at the time. We just started, Murray and I had just sort of come up with the idea to do whatever this thing, or as he explained, like this was the very earliest days of Old 97’s. So when I was writing The Dropouts, I was traveling in my mind back to that same apartment complex. And you know, it’s that’s, you know, everybody’s flying in a harmony rocket, that’s the kind of guitar that Den, Ken [unclear] moved in across the hall from Murray and would leave his door open, and you could see he had this cool, hollow-body like rockabilly guitar, this harmony rocket and it was a cheap guitar, but it was so cool looking. And then we heard him playing accordion and we’re like, Maybe that guy could be in our band with us. But yeah, that’s to me, that song is it’s so fun. We’re the dropouts, like we all had dropped out of school to some degree. We had all, we were all attending the school of hard knocks and we were getting this education working at restaurants or it answering services, doing these horrible jobs. And the only light at the end of the tunnel was this possibility that our bands could be more than just free drinks, you know. And I but I do think we believed that. Even in the darkest days, I thought we knew that we were, we had value beyond just being, you know, sad guys that could talk about the dreams we had once had and had now given up.
Ana Marie Cox: Murray is he romanticizing that at all?
Murray Hammond: No, as soon as he said The Dropouts, it’s like, wait the drop as like, Oh, wait a minute. Yeah, we’re the drop outs. We dropped out in our 20s and here we are. Yeah, yeah, that’s the drop out he’s talking about. Yeah, yeah. The one that lasts your entire life. And happily, we found this music world in our 20s so we could take several bites out of it, you know, 10-year bites. So yeah, he’s romanticizing it, and he should, he should romanticize it, because that’s, at the end of the day, that’s how I experience it.
Ana Marie Cox: It was really interesting talking to Kathy Valentine about her experience with the Go-Go’s because, you know, they made it big immediately, basically, right? Like, they didn’t have a super long time of being this struggling band, you know, playing for tips and whatnot. But, what you were saying reminded me what she said because she doesn’t romanticize it. It’s just, she admits, like that was the best time of her life. I mean, just objectively. Like, why would you romanticize it, right? So what’s the best time of your life right now writing songs? The fact that you wrote a song about when you got together, I mean, that’s nostalgia, but what’s the best part of being together now?
Rhett Miller: Man, I have a hard time with nostalgia, and I feel like whenever I do the thing where I, you know, comparison is the death of joy ,and I look at someone’s life and I think, why do they get to have a $150,000 guarantee? Why do they get to headline Carnegie Hall? Whatever the thing you can think when you when you begrudge someone else their success. Which what a shitty thing to do anyway. But you know, I’ve been, I feel like I’ve been pretty good about not going too far down that rabbit hole. One of the things I come back to is the idea that I have lots of friends who had a hit, maybe it was in the 90s and it’s, it calcifies you during a moment in time, and then the rest of your life, it’s funny for Kathy, you know, talking to her about the Go-Go’s, it was five years of her life and it’s been over for decades.
Ana Marie Cox: They still play.
Rhett Miller: They do have reunions.
Ana Marie Cox: Right. Once a Go-Go, always a Go-Go.
Rhett Miller: When she talks about the greatest time of her life though, it’s not like the ’88 reunion.
Ana Marie Cox: Right. Right, right.
Rhett Miller: I did see that, and it was a great tour. Red Cross opened.
Murray Hammond: Yeah. Red Cross. I was there.
Rhett Miller: Yep, we were there.
Murray Hammond: There was a war between Red Cross and the audience that night. You remember that?
Rhett Miller: Yes.
Murray Hammond: The band was at war with the audience. They nearly just got chairs thrown at them by the end.
Ana Marie Cox: I sort of want to find out more about that, but . . .
Murray Hammond: Rock and roll, mate, rock ‘n’ roll.
Ana Marie Cox: We’ll move on to the, I think you were making a good point, Rhett, about having, how having a hit calcifies you.
Rhett Miller: Yeah, yeah. But so I think this weird career that we’ve, I would say we backed into it, but I do think that sort of selling ourselves short, even when we were wined and dined by 15 record labels offering us the moon, we always said we don’t care about having a hit. We want to have a long career. We want to catalog that we’ll never be embarrassed of. So we didn’t do what a lot of bands did where you go find the flavor of the moment and you go make a song that’s like, you know, one of those the ’90s, those insipid songs that were like, [sings] and there’s like some like overproduced thing and it gets played on One Tree Hill or Dawson’s Creek and you make a million dollars, but then the rest of your life, like, remember me? I was in that band in the ’90s that had that song [sings: sway] or whatever, and it’s just an embarrassing moment that you can maybe live off of the rest of your life. The good thing is for us that we’ve never had that. So I feel like each record we make is our best record, and each step of our career is the most fun step of our career. Like we, we have all this stuff coming up next year, some of which because of non-disclosure agreements, I’m not allowed to discuss. But I promise you that when I get to announce it, you’ll go like, Oh, that’s what he was talking about. We have this amazing stuff coming up that’s so fun
Ana Marie Cox: Are you going, are you going to space? Is that it?
Murray Hammond: Kind of.
Rhett Miller: Non-disclosure.
Ana Marie Cox: So the biggest thing, the biggest and most unexpected thing that people do these days and it’s randomly going to space, I think. That’s the . . .
Rhett Miller: Yeah. So, but the good thing for us is there were dark times. Certainly when the record label imploded, and that coincided with me starting to make solo records and the band had to figure out if they, if the band could survive me making solo records and for a minute it looked touch and go. Like there were dark times but, you know, it’s like there are, every year of our band has had glorious moments and I don’t, I look back sometimes on like,’99 and I think maybe that was the peak because we sold our most records, the world was still our oyster. Like, there was still the possibility that we could go on to be one of those bands that had a giant hit. But I don’t know. I didn’t enjoy ’99 as much as I enjoyed, you know, 2014 in some ways. So . . .
Murray Hammond: Yeah. You know, we always had the most fun in this band when it just seems like things were moving forward. Whatever it was. It’s the addiction to progress that has always been so wonderful in and a band. You know, that’s why, like my favorite moment in the 97s is that period when we’ve just finished an album, but it isn’t out yet. You go to this little tunnel, it’s various lengths of time, it’s at least a few months. Sometimes it’s longer. But it’s just pure, it’s just pure possibility. You just, you swim in possibility, you’re slathered in it. And it’s just it’s just so wonderful. And, you know, in those old days, quote unquote, there was a lot of that, but that’s just because it was a lot of firsts. The first time we got to be on a record label in Chicago with Bud [unclear], first time we ever got to do a major label thing, or the first time we ever heard ourselves on the radio. First this, first that. And yeah, that’s lovely. That’s our five years of the Go-Go’s for us. But happily, we still get to do that because, like Rhett said, we didn’t get calcified early on with that odd hit that, you know, in a pop culture way pinned us to the wall where we could never unpin ourselves, that we’re permanently in a mural of what was happening at that time. And yeah, and when people talk about ’90s bands, quote unquote, I don’t have to be, I have to remind myself, Oh, are we a ’90s band? And somebody will say, Oh, I don’t know, kinda. You know, we’re not really a ’90s band, where not a 2000s band. We’re just kind of this long thing. Are the Stones a sixties band? No, because they’re not Herman’s Hermits. You know.
Ana Marie Cox: So not having a hit, that was the plan all along
Rhett Miller: Yeah. Man.
Murray Hammond: Well. We figured that that was the, if in the likely case that we don’t have one of those cuckoo hits, you know, that we would just read the plus column to ourselves. And that’s what it was. The plus column was that, yeah, we’re going to way more have like the Butthole Surfers kind of thing. You know, we’re way more going to have like this sort of more cultish, you know, sort of audience and all that. And it’ll just free us to do whatever we want forever, you know? Ad we still do it. And yeah, and happily, you know, our sound is very much a family sound. So the next record is always sits nicely next to the ones before. And then over time, we get to have this really lovely, amazing, you know, discography that I’m really proud of, you know? And yeah, and more than anything, I’m just, I’m just proud of like, OK, it has been a family sound this whole time. The band members themselves are kind of this family thing. It’s been that way the whole time: family, family, family. Everything’s sort of had this thread that’s been unbroken.
Ana Marie Cox: I see exactly what you’re talking about it in terms of the longevity of the Old 97s and them, it’s funny when you say they’re family. At first I was like, Do you mean you don’t curse in songs? But I don’t think that’s what you mean. Instead, it’s, I think what you mean, there is like an intimacy when you have a band that hasn’t had a big hit, right? Like when you’re a fan of a band that’s like the Old 97s, like every, almost every show I’ve ever been to has, everyone is super fucking psyched to be there. Right? Like, there’s no like blasé attitude towards an Old 97s, you know you’re not like trying to get the crowd worked up. It feels like to me. Maybe, maybe, of course I’ve missed some. You’re the ones who play every show.
Rhett Miller: Well, I think one thing that Murray is referring to goes hand in hand with what you’re saying, that we’re like a secret that people get to share. And a lot of times what’s happened recently in the last 10 years or so is that our fans have grown up to the point where they then have families of their own and they share it with their kids. So we’ll see parents and kids, and now those kids will have kids. And it’s kind of insane, but we do wind up having entire families come and we do, because if you stick around long enough, you lose friends and you lose collaborators, and you know, we end up getting a lot of stories of, you know, fans whose dads have passed away and we were their favorite band. Or, you know, it’s the mortality that is on display with groups of people with, you know, who feel like a family like we do with our fans, It’s just, it’s a lot. It can be a lot, you know? And I, you know, I I have a hard time not getting really emotionally affected by it. In fact, I don’t keep myself from it because I feel like it’s good to just experience this stuff. But it is, it can be really heartbreaking to hear the stories of people whose lives you’ve touched and then maybe they’ve moved on and . . .
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Murray Hammond: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: I think that. That’s really a wise point to make about the fact that when you’re together for long enough to pass through different stages of life, that some people do even pass to the final stage of life. Like that does create a kind of intimacy that no other friendship, that a friendship doesn’t have until it’s gone through that, right? Unfortunately, sometimes that happens, I mean, people die young and friendships can gain that patina of loss all too quickly. But I think I get what you’re saying. Like, to survive that.
Rhett Miller: Yeah, well, it’s funny, because when you start, it’s about free drinks, it’s about, you know, appealing to the opposite sex or whatever shallow thing. But as you go, there’s a moment, there’s these milestones for me. There was realizing that there is a nobility to this thing that we’re doing. Like, there’s, we’re making something beautiful and giving it to the world. And we sacrifice security, we sacrifice sort of time at home with our kids, we sacrifice like the kind of normal, quiet life that sometimes we really pined for. So realizing that is empowering because it makes you feel like, OK, because there’s always the question Did I waste my life? You know, there’s these forking paths and you wonder if I had gone down that path, how much happier would I be? But we’re on this path and this path has inherent value and it’s really beautiful. But then as you get older, you know, we’ve had health scares in our band. Knock wood, I feel like everybody’s pretty good now. But you know, Ken was worried about his health recently. I mean at any given moment we’ve all had, you know, brushes with mortality and eventually, one of us will die. That’s just how things are.
Ana Marie Cox: It’d be very unusual if no one did.
Rhett Miller: That would be great? But OK, so like when you think about a long marriage, right, there’s, it’s so easy to come up with reasons why you would get the hell out of this marriage, this person’s driving me crazy. Ditto for a band. But what are the, what’s the argument for staying in it? Well, a shared history. You know, a long life together where you can point to, you know, important moments and milestones and meaningful, you know, things that you’ve made together, experience together. Like that’s, that’s something you can’t start from scratch and come up with within a year. Like it takes, that’s the whole point, it takes 25, 30 years. You know, I’m coming up on 20 years of marriage right now, and it’s that same question of to stay married or not to stay married. You wake up every day with the option. Both of those things are on the table. And if you choose to stay married, you haven’t thrown away the opportunity for the shared experience. In fact, there’s a song on the newest Old 97’s album called “The Old Belmont Hotel.” And when I wrote it, I was using a hotel as a metaphor for a long love relationship. And it’s, “you know, our love is like the old Belmont Hotel, it was in ruins, now it’s doing quite well” and it goes through all these, you know, metaphorical things that were bad and now they’re good. And it gets to the bridge, which is always, almost always the bridge is like the let’s sum the song up for the listener. “So many times good buildings get torn down, razed to the ground because work is hard to do.” And that’s the band. And I remember when I was writing it, I remember thinking, well, this is a, it’s kind of using a hotel as a metaphor. But really, what I’m doing is I’m using a love relationship as a metaphor for this other love relationship that I’ve had with my three best friends for 30 years almost.
Ana Marie Cox: I was also asked about the rough stuff, actually, and Murray don’t mean to saddle you with that question, but Rhett did just talk for a long time. So what is, what is the secret to a happy marriage? I mean, I think that you’re right, just this shared history in some ways doesn’t get enough weight maybe, if I can be an oldster “in this day and age,” when everything is new all the time. I think sometimes the idea that just the simple fact of a shared history can be discounted a little bit. But there must be other ways that you get through the hard times, right? Rhett was just talking about the time that the record label imploded and he was doing a solo album. Like, Murray, from your point of view, what was the rough stuff you had to go through and then survive?
Murray Hammond: Well, the rough stuff, you know, bands that last a long time the word glue is, I would probably say, in the top two or three words that you always hear. Bands get glued together through adversity. That shared history that can be anything, it could be a lot of boredom and nothing happening, but nothing happening to the same four people. That wasn’t really us. For us, there was a great deal of just, you know, sort of shared goals, shared values, and shared adversity. You know, it’s funny how much glue you can get out of simply having the same memory of sleeping in the van during an ice storm and passing the whiskey around and trying to stay warm and turning the engine on and then going to sleep and then waking up in a fit because you’re going to, you’re going to die of carbon monoxide, so you turn it off again and then you freeze to death and then you turn it back on again. And you just, just these kind of, these kind of gluing moments, they take on a lot for people like us. And so when we share moments of, you know, we’re challenged, you know, when Rhett was going solo, it was the first time that we, you know, our unit was all of a sudden we were missing one of us. And it was sad and we didn’t know what to do with it. We were sad. And then we got mad at Rhett for being the one missing. And even though our band wasn’t ending or anything, but it scared us because we had built up a great deal of, we realized, we already knew how much we value to our friendship and our band, but we were scared that we wouldn’t have that anymore. And that’s scary. You know, that’s scary, and like Rhett says, scary in a marriage. What Rhett was simply proposing was an open relationship.
Ana Marie Cox: I was going say! I have a question which is that . . .
Murray Hammond: The open relationship I think does not get get enough, you know, celebration. I think that’s, that’s the part of marriage, where the band might be a little bit different than normal marriage. Open relationship is where, open relationship is usually really quite successful in a band. You know?
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to ask about, because yes, unfortunately, you got me thinking the same exact way with that metaphor, but I wonder if maybe it’s not an open relationship, it’s just having a life outside, right?
Murray Hammond: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Like, it’s not that you’re having a relationship with someone else, although it also could be in a different band, I think. But the point is, you’re just you remain a single person, in addition to being a part of something.
Murray Hammond: Yeah.
Rhett Miller: For me, it was . . .
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. We’re talking about you, Rhett. I’m sorry.
Murray Hammond: He’s right there.
Rhett Miller: I do think there’s useful stuff in here, you know, transferable credits as it were. Like being in a band is great. It’s a democracy, like the sum is greater than the parts, or whatever that expression is. But you know, for me, like I was, I was getting told No, a lot, you know, because I had to submit to the greater will of the band. And so a lot of times that’s what breaks the band up, right? And I could see if I kept having to just sort of eat it and not get my way over and over and over again, eventually, I’d be like, Screw you guys, I’m going to go do my thing. But I thought, there’s no reason I can’t go and get my ya-yas out making this weird record and then come back to the band, you know? So I guess how it would transfer is, I think that you could just if you have needs why hide them and resent the other person for not meeting them when you could just go to the other person and say, I need to go make this weird record with John Bryan and then I’ll come back and make records with you guys too. So I mean, I just, I spoke up for myself. I did what I encourage my kids to do all the time, I self-advocated. And they were they were great. They were super cool about it. I mean, it was, it was rough, but it wasn’t a band killer,
Murray Hammond: And it took a lot of pressure off the 97s, you know. For Rhett to do, go solo the way he did, that was what needed to happen to take, you know, you don’t want to just make a band provide every single thing when it’s not really built to do that. It’s really built to do some things quite well. And yeah, and I’m in the same boat. You know?
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to say you’ve recorded solo as well.
Murray Hammond: Yeah, I recorded solo. I record solo now, you know? Yeah. And a band can only kind of contain so much, unless you’re the Beatles putting out two albums a year, you know or something like that, you know? You know, theoretically, we could do every single thing in the Old 97’s, but there would be like four records a year. It’d be crazy and they would all be good. You know, they’d be all over the place, you know. You know, there’d be a reggae record. You know, there’d be, you know, it would just be too much. And so, yeah, it really, it really kind of did what, yeah, Rhett needed to do that. There’s no good time to do that. You just got to do it when inspiration strikes and that’s the time to do it. That’s the good time to do it. And that was when, you know, and he was probably late doing it. He probably needed to do that a year before.
Ana Marie Cox: When you go away for a little while, for the bad and then come back, what effect does that have on the music?
Rhett Miller: It’s funny for me, because since 2001, I’ve been doing that, almost, you know, perfect alternation between solo record, band record. And it’s great because, you know, I get lonely out by myself and I’m like, God, I miss those guys. And then I’ll go back in and we’ll make a record. We’ll tour of the record. And then I’m like, Oh my God, I need to get the hell away from these guys, and start the cycle all over again.
Murray Hammond: Chasing the Dragon. Yeah, yeah. It’s yeah, it’s nice that nobody really gets truly sick of each other. We just we get together, we go through a whole experience of, we get a full belly, we get a full belly. And that’s usually about the time something different happens anyway. We take time off for this, this or that and do our other projects. And yeah, it’s been, it’s been a nice rhythm. I don’t think we’ve ever hit where just like, Oh my God, there’s just been too much 97’s. Let’s do something else for a little bit. It’s always been kind of just enough, and it just sort of it naturally just kind of work so well.
Ana Marie Cox: So let’s play out to Roller Skate Skinny. And then we’ll come back from ads.
[Roller Skate Skinny plays]
[song Time bomb]
Ana Marie Cox: So we’ve been using this metaphor or making the comparison between a band relationship and a romantic relationship, and you’ve talked about what why you think the Old 97s work. If I had to ask you outright, what would be your advice to a band? Let’s not say, I am curious what you’d say to a couple, but let’s start with another band. What would you say?
Rhett Miller: I’ll go. I learned because of my personality is that I always want to micromanage everybody, I have all the answers. I can tell you how to do that, let me walk . . . I learned that I had to stop. Stop. Listen. Be quiet. Don’t try and impose my will. Don’t try and control everything. Let the other person do what they need to do. And basically what I think it comes down to is ego. I had to sort of check my ego. And I think that when you sublimate yourself to a band or a relationship or whatever, you’re never going to win every fight. You’re going to have to let the other person take up some space in the room. You’re going to have to give. And it was really hard for me, and it took years and years, and I still haven’t completely mastered it. But I think that’s, I think that’s the biggest trick is to, is to give let the other person win some. Maybe they’re right.
Ana Marie Cox: Murray, does he let you win?
Murray Hammond: Yeah, he does, he does pretty good. He does, he does pretty good. Yeah. No, I would say, you know, as much as you can, do remember that the friendship and the bond you had when you first started all this stuff, before all the, before all the what became very complicated conversations about creativity and getting to songs and career decisions and that kind of thing. And I would say really, truly value, remember that your values are pretty, pretty close to, pretty, pretty much the same. I mean, they’re very similar values, and your goals are very similar. Just don’t forget the friendship part of it, because that will carry you through everything, that will be the lantern that leads you to compromise, that ,you know, that’s the skeleton key that can get you past a lot of difficult, complicated moments with each other that, you know in another band could, you know, could become a virus, an infection that ultimately brings a band down from inside. You know? And yeah, and it’s worked for us. Maybe, I think we got lucky with we have four individuals that can take that, you know, those operating instructions and kind of successfully do it. But we also committed ourselves to doing it. We already knew that, you know, the bond and the friendship was going to be hugely important in the life of this band. So yeah, that’s my thing.
Ana Marie Cox: Rhett, do you mind talking a little bit about your sobriety?
Rhett Miller: Not at all. I’m six and a half years into sobriety, right now. It’s the, it’s the secret to happiness for me in my middle age, and I love it, and I highly recommend it to anyone that wonders if they could do it. And it’s so funny I used to feel so sorry for people that had to get sober. I’d be like, Oh my God, your life must be so boring and so sad. You never have any fun. You never laugh. You don’t get to get wasted like me and my buddies. But there is, there’s happiness on the other side, and it’s a lot clearer, it’s a lot, it’s a lot true. I feel like. And I’ve never regretted it. I’ve never looked back. It’s hard during the holidays being around the world, you know, the alcoholic world, which is a.k.a, you know, the world. It’s, you kind of don’t really realize until you’re on the other side just how fueled by booze the folks around you are. And that goes, I don’t think, just for people in bands, but I think that’s, you know, people and families, people in jobs, people in everywhere. And it can be exhausting. I was at a holiday party last night and sometimes you’re just sitting there going like, I wish you folks could see yourselves. I mean, I don’t want to judge you, but you’re making it really hard. I mean I’m joking, but I do, I really value it. The choice that I made for me had a lot to do with my kids. They were young and now they’re, you know, frickin giant. But I didn’t, I never wanted the phone to ring and my son or my daughter to be in a compromised situation and need my help and me not be able to help them. And so that was sort of what pushed me over the edge. I don’t know if my marriage would have kept working if I hadn’t gotten sober. I, I didn’t realize until I was sober how much I needed to get sober. And that’s coming from a guy that used to, I used to write myself notes late at night, you know, in a haze and say, It’s time, it’s time, now is the time. You’re going to wake up tomorrow and you’re going to think that this isn’t true, but it’s true. And I would wake up and crumple it up and throw it away until I didn’t. And, you know, I’m so glad that I got there because I’ve never looked back. It’s a beautiful world.
Ana Marie Cox: Murray, I was going to ask, yeah, there’s a . . .
Murray Hammond: I will pipe up that I have recently made a commitment to being sober as well. And needed to happen for me as well. I had a sort of a slow burn. I’ve been on and off with drinking for years and years and years. I went years without drinking and then re-adopting it again when I was going through a divorce. So drinking because I was sad and scared. And then it went away again and it came back again. And sort of COVID happened to be the calendar year that it sort of ramped up to a point with me that I just needed to get rid of it. I’m 57. This is not something to take into my 60s, mentally or physically. And yeah, and you know, Rhett’s going to be one of my sober buddies that’ll I know I can always call if I can say, Rhett, you’re right about everybody at the party last night. Oh my god!
Ana Marie Cox: It is so much better. I have to say I am thrilled to hear that. Like, I’m sorry that you felt like you had to make that choice, I guess. You know don’t push anybody to go through a bad time, but it’s a pretty cool club to belong to, honestly.
Rhett Miller: Whoooo!
Murray Hammond: Who we got? We got . . .
Ana Marie Cox: I mean, we think, we think we’re cool.
Rhett Miller: We got Stephen King.
Murray Hammond: Oh yeah, we got Gandhi. Gandhi.
Ana Marie Cox: Well.
[unclear, all speaking]
Ana Marie Cox: OK. Well, I mean, there’s lot’s of, we got Mary Karr, right. Like, I was just talking with somebody about Mary Karr. She’s kind of awesome. David Karr. Not with us, but also awesome.
Rhett Miller: Kathy Valentine.
Ana Marie Cox: Kathy Valentine. No, it’s I think it’s a good club to be a member of. It has very high initiation fee, you might say.
Rhett Miller: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s tough to get through the hazing of it. The good news is like once you’re in, you know, you don’t have to get hazed anymore if you don’t want to do. This is great, though, because I want to ask you both about the effect of sobriety on relationships and songwriting. Because I know for me, you know, I have friends who told me I didn’t realize you’re an alcoholic, right? Or I thought you drink a lot, but I didn’t, you know, whatever. But my point is they didn’t see a huge change in me, and I have friends who are like, You are a different person.
Rhett Miller: I’m the latter group, Ana. We spent some nights together. In fact, there was one night after a White House Correspondents Dinner.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh stop! Rhett, stop! You’re not supposed to tell those stories.
Rhett Miller: I’m not going to tell the stories, but I’m just saying that I’m really proud of you, and I think it’s great. I really think it’s great. And I just, I hope you know that you like you saved your life and it’s beautiful.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh God! I mean. Yeah, I know.
Rhett Miller: I’m really proud of you. You’re great.
Ana Marie Cox: Thank you. I am. Yes.
Rhett Miller: Right answer.
Ana Marie Cox: But Murray, so for you, though. I mean, what is there, early days yet, but I wonder if there’s some clarity for you about your relationships and about maybe your craft?
Murray Hammond: Well, yeah. It’s funny, when you sort of decide to go ahead and, you know, give it the heave ho, you just stop thinking about it. It just and that’s and that’s one of the things I’d forgotten about the merely immediate, like feeling of calm that kind of comes back around like, Oh yeah, I’m not thinking about this anymore. I’m just thinking about all the other stuff, you know? And I like giving all the other stuff the 100%, the thing you go to sleep thinking about, wake up thinking about and all that. I think Rhett asked me years ago and he was sort of first getting sober and everything, and he just kind of asked me about it. And I was at that time, I was at a time where I I was sober. I was in a little sober period that I thought was going to last. And I said, Well, you know, I said that everything just sort of shapes in a different way going forward. It just, you don’t you don’t think about it. It’s just not, it’s not around anymore in your your mind. It doesn’t, you know, I guess maybe in a way I was just saying like, like, yeah, you think about alcohol a lot when you’re in, you know, and sort of naturally sort of having that lifestyle and all that, and everything shapes in a different way going forward. You know, things get accomplished that couldn’t have been accomplished in the same way before, focus happens in places that weren’t available to you just because of how you sort of built everything and were living how we were living, you know? And I remember this conversation we had, and I’ve been thinking about that conversation recently. And yeah, it’s funny and it’s just sort of sitting here around me now and I’m just, you know, doing what I always do when I ,when I’m in that, like, truly sober state of mind that I’m just back to being task-oriented, which is my favorite thing to do. I love tasks. I love obsessing on my own projects and all that, and they give me the great, that, my family and friends give me the greatest joy in the world. And yeah, and it’s kind of back to that, but it’s sort of newly back to that. And so I’m just as I sit here freshly reminded of all that, and I’m back to it and I’m really happy.
Rhett Miller: I had an idea, and it’s a song Murray sings. Is that, would that be OK?
Ana Marie Cox: No. Only songs that Rhett sings.
Rhett Miller: Set you up for that.
Ana Marie Cox: I think it’s perfect if it’s a song that Murray sings because it does remind people this is a band.
Rhett Miller: So there’s a deep cut Murray song. It’s not a song that we end up playing live, but it’s one of my favorite of Murray’s songs. And I think, and I don’t want to speak for you Murray, I think it’s about a love relationship, but it feels very much about like, I’ve always kind of imagined that it could even almost be about me and you. It’s a song called” This Beautiful Thing.” And it’s so . . .
Murray Hammond: Oh, OK. I thought you were about you say, Why Don’t We Ever Say We’re Sorry?
Rhett Miller: Oh, Jesus Christ!
Murray Hammond: Which is about us. [laughs]
Rhett Miller: I was going to go for a song that was a little more like hopeful and beautiful, like, as like a coda denouement.
Murray Hammond: Right.
Ana Marie Cox: People can searching for that other one. But yeah, let’s keep it, let’s keep it on, let’s end on an up note.
Murray Hammond: So you said This Beautiful Thing?
Rhett Miller: This Beautiful Thing, I just think it’s really sweet. And you’re going to play it so the folks will hear it. But I really love when he lands on the final verse and he says: some old year we will renew the love we had here when we were just two.
Murray Hammond: Yeah, in that moment, I’ll say to my friend, wouldn’t you do it all over again? Yeah! That’s a great, you know, that’s a good one to, you know, sort of illuminate that, that kind of thing with us. Yeah. You know, I’m quite sure I had a bit of us in there while I was writing there. I was writing about Gray and I was thinking about having a baby, which we hadn’t gotten pregnant yet. And yeah, yeah, no, Rhett, you’re and my relationship are often visits in certain moments in songs. Because they’re great, it’s a great muse for certain things. It’s a great must. Yeah. I have no doubt that that was one of the little butterflies floating around my head when I was working on that.
Rhett Miller: Well, I love you, Murray.
Murray Hammond: I love you too Rhett! You did well, you did well with yourself. And I was right. I was a genius. I saw that 16-year old [unclear] going bam, boom, him, yeah, him. And he’s going to do a bunch of pretty great stuff.
Ana Marie Cox: And I can’t think of a, literally a better note to end on. Thank you both so much. This has been just a joy to talk to you. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground, so I appreciate your patience in covering all that ground and your generosity for sharing your time with me. Thank you.
Rhett Miller: It’s been lovely talking to you. You’re such a, you’re such a beam of light and in such a sweet, complicated human being. And I just think the world of you. Thanks for having us.
Murray Hammond: And I love our chats, Ana Marie. Love our chats. We don’t, they’re years apart, but always enjoy chatting with you. Yeah, and good luck with the future stuff, all the change that’s happening.
Ana Marie Cox: All right. We’ll play out now to This Beautiful Thing?
[This Beautiful Thing plays]
Ana Marie Cox: Big thanks to Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond, who are touring right now with the Old 97’s. If you think they vibed well in this conversation, wait till you see them on stage. And be sure to check out their music on your favorite streaming platforms. This show is a production of Crooked Media. Leslie Martin is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. If you’ve been listening this month, you know this is the last episode of the show. I haven’t made a big deal about it because I refuse to think of this as the end of my relationship with you, dear listener. I am taking a page from Rhett and Murray’s recipe for a long-lasting partnership and thinking of this as a chance to go do my own thing for a while. There are things I want to do that aren’t possible in the boundaries of this podcast. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be back, and I’ll know more then and it’ll be even better then. I’ll be better then, you’ll be better then. And until then, take care of yourselves.