MAGNET Classics: Old 97’s “Too Far To Care”

Old97s

The making of Old 97’s Too Far To Care
By Matt Ryan

By 1997, Old 97’s had two indie releases of affable honky-tonk to their credit, largely unnoticed by the mainstream, which at the time was in the throes of a deep infatuation with big-beat electronica and nü-metal. Still, the band was part of an alt-country scene that had been percolating underground for a few years, attracting a growing fan base and the attention of major labels looking for the next big thing. The genre’s coming-out party would be that year’s No Depression tour, garnering headlines as the press hyped a Blur vs. Oasis-style rivalry between the tour’s two principal acts, Old 97’s and Whiskeytown.

“That was as we were getting signed,” says Old 97’s singer and principal songwriter Rhett Miller. “It was a little bit weird, because we were headlining and Whiskeytown were right before us. They were getting signed at the same time, and it had gone from being where Ryan Adams was a huge fan of us and really sweet to where he was really annoyed that he wasn’t headlining. It wound up sparking a one-sided feud that was his idea that went for years and years, where he talked shit about us in the press and onstage.”

Whiskeytown, as we know now, would stick with the alt-country script for its own classic, Strangers Almanac. The Old 97’s? Well, let’s just say they had other ideas.

“I wanted somebody who didn’t give a fuck about country,” says Miller, explaining the band’s selection of Wally Gagel to produce Too Far To Care, their major label debut. “Who didn’t know from ‘alt-country’ or ‘No Depression’ or anything. I really loved the work Wally had done with Lou Barlow and the stuff he did coming out of Boston and that scene. This thick guitar stuff, but also kind of smart. I just felt like he would get the things about us that I needed him to get. I didn’t need anybody to worry about the lyrics. I got that. I didn’t anybody to make us sound more honky-skronky, or whatever kind of bullshit kind of country thing that people liked about us. It’s fine, it was already part of our sound, but that didn’t need nurturing. What needed nurturing was making it kind of coalesce and making the sound of our band live, which was kind of this big, thick, rock sound.”

“It was heavy, post-hardcore music that Wally came from, so he toughened everything up very much,” says Murry Hammond, Old 97’s bassist, occasional singer and accomplished yodeler. “For the first time ever, he really sat down and worked with our guitar player Ken (Bethea). Ken had never had anybody say, ‘These guitars are extremely important. There’s a restless spirit in this music and we’re going to find that.’ So, yeah, it was the first record where we had a producer who was really pulling out this blood-and-guts thing. He wanted to hear that kind of ‘oomph.’ Certain metal bands and punk bands capture that. You get that on an AC/DC studio record, but it’s a tricky thing to be able to get.”

They got it. Too Far To Care opens with an aptly named “Timebomb,” which hears Bethea sounding not so much like Hank Williams as a meth-fueled Dick Dale playing through Ace Frehley’s Marshall amps. When drummer Philip Peeples punctuates Bethea’s picking with a booming depth charge, the song is off like a runaway freight train. “Oh, Celeste!” howls Miller above the din, lamenting the girl who was “gonna kill me, and I don’t mean softly.” Clearly, Old 97’s weren’t going to cry softly into their beer on this record. Instead, “Niteclub” provided a more fitting statement of purpose: “I just might get drunk tonight, and burn the niteclub down.”

The alt-country scene police were not pleased. “Few songs—the keys to timeless country—survive the catharsis of punk frenzy,” sniffed Grant Alden, cofounder of No Depression magazine, in a review of Too Far To Care for Rolling Stone. It’s not that this sort of thing was unprecedented. Surely Alden had heard “Graveyard Shift,” the opening track on the 1990 Uncle Tupelo record that became his magazine’s namesake, wherein twang and punk guitar crunch were married in shotgun ceremony. Indeed, the Old 97’s didn’t invent this stuff. With Too Far To Care, however, they damn sure perfected it.

In addition to Too Far To Care’s huge sound, Miller’s considerable lyrical gifts were on full display, with witty, irreverent takes on bad booze and bad women. On “Barrier Reef,” which became one of the band’s signature songs, Miller announces to a fellow barfly, “My name is Stewart Ransom Miller/I’m a serial lady killer.” To which she memorably replies, “I’m already dead.” Later, his character “goes through the motions with her. Her on top, and me on liquor.” The words were coming fast, loose, and honest for Miller, who on the eve of meeting with the major label that would sign his band, penned a song for the occasion, foretelling the label honchos “fattening him up just like a calf before the slaughter.”

“I wrote ‘Broadway’ sitting in a hotel room waiting to get picked up by a limousine to go to a fuckin’ Elektra Records dinner with all the executives,” says Miller. “We ordered so much food at all those dinners. There were six months where we were wined and dined by mainly Capitol and Elektra and Geffen. It was all these record labels spending so much money. We would go and order everything, and then we’d order stuff to go to take home to our poor roommates or girlfriends. So, yeah, I wrote that song in the Paramount Hotel. This tiny little room. I had seen how much it cost when we checked in, and it was literally more than I spent for a whole month of rent for my little shithole garage apartment.”

While alt-country scenesters didn’t know what to make of the Old 97’s’ new sound, the record garnered fans in unlikely places. Miller shares that Vince Vaughn and Janeane Garofalo were early boosters, playing Too Far To Care in constant rotation on the movie set of Clay Pigeons. Director David Dobkin took notice and ended up using “Timebomb” in the opening sequence with Joaquin Phoenix.

“One thing people don’t know is that there was a scene in the movie where they were going to use the song ‘Big Brown Eyes,’” says Miller. “Vince Vaughn’s character murders this girl while having sex with her from behind. I saw an early cut of the movie, and it was fucking horrible. It’s like, ‘Here’s my beautiful, pretty song, and here’s this really fun, charismatic actor murdering a girl while he fucks her.’ It was a nightmare. As cool as maybe that would have been, I’m really glad they didn’t use that, because it would have altered my image of that song forever.”

Early fans know that Old 97’s borrowed from their first two albums for Too Far To Care, recording a more raucous version of Miller’s beloved “Big Brown Eyes” from Wreck Your Life, as well as “Four Leaf Clover” from their debut, Hitchhike To Rhome. For “Clover,” Miller brought in legendary X singer (and, more recently, certifiably insane conspiracy theorist) Exene Cervenka.

“I wrote this song called ‘Firefly,’ that I later put on a solo record.” says Miller. “I played it for Exene and she said, ‘Rhett, you know I don’t sing like that. That sounds pretty.’ As if pretty was the worst thing a song could be. I had the idea to turn ‘Four Leaf Clover’ into a duet, so I brought Exene that song and she liked it a lot, although she really wanted me to change the lyric in the verse that she sings from ‘I got a real live horseshoe, I hung it upside down above my door, but it doesn’t do nothing to impress you.’ She thought it would be sexier and cooler if she sang, ‘attract you.’ Exene didn’t get a writer’s credit on the song, but she did make that subtle-but-cool change in that second verse.

“It was such a cool thing, because I had been a huge X fan and was in love with her. I remember when I was 15 years old sitting in study hall poring over Beyond And Back, the book that accompanied the movie they made. And it had a bunch of her poetry in it and a bunch of big pictures of her when she was really young, with this punk-rock energy. And then there she was in the studio with me. I guess I’m a little cooler now when I meet people who I really admire, but I was just trying so hard not to dork out on her.

“We were camped out in this hallway waiting for some technical thing and she said, ‘I’ve got some poetry I’ve been working on. Do you want to hear any of it?’ I’m like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I remember her reading me poetry as we’re laying on the floor in this hallway, and I was thinking, ‘If I could go back half my life to my 15-year-old self, I would have a heart attack realizing I would be doing this 12 years later.’ I’ve stayed in touch with her, and I know some shit has gotten weird with Exene, but she’s always been kind of out there. She’s definitely not a bad person. Murry believes in aliens. Everyone’s weird. All the people I hang out with are weird. She said some unfortunate things that I bet she wishes she could take back, but she’s always been a cuckoo bird. The best of us are.”

In addition to Cervenka, Old 97’s had one other guest player on the record: Jon Rauhouse. The multi-instrumentalist played with a Bloodshot act called Grievous Angel in the mid-’90s, but is perhaps best known for recording and touring with Neko Case. “We love Jon very much,” says Hammond. “He played banjo on ‘West Texas Teardrops.’ Everything’s in the soup, you know? Everything’s in the giant soup of the guitars, but yeah, in addition to doing steel on some of those songs, he did a couple of little banjo tracks.”

By his own reckoning, Miller wrote “a ton” of songs for Too Far To Care, including “The One,” which only surfaced a decade later on Blame It On Gravity (the original version appears on 2012’s They Made A Monster: The Too Far To Care Demos). With its sarcastic take on the band “cashing in” with a major label, the song is an effective document of the times. Miller ultimately deemed the song too crass, however, and shelved it for Too Far.

“I remember a friend of mine was in another band that was briefly signed to a major label right when we were getting our deal, and I was so excited and I came home and told him about it,” he says. “He got real quiet, because he was maybe on the backside of that record deal, with that band. He said, ‘You know, sometimes it’s better to let people find out the good news you have on their own. You don’t have to tell us the good news.’ I remember really taking that to heart, like, ‘I’m excited about this, but the more I talk about it, the more it just sounds shitty,’ like I’m bragging or rubbing somebody’s nose in it. ‘The One’ was kind of the song equivalent of that, and it didn’t seem like a cool thing to put out into the world until years later when the whole major-label system had fallen by the wayside. So, now it’s just like a good joke.”

Old 97’s spent roughly a month on Too Far To Care, conducting most of the recording over two weeks at Sonic Ranch outside of El Paso, followed by overdubs and mixing (and the Exene sessions) at Dreamland near Woodstock in New York’s Hudson Valley. As the band recalls, the locations could not be more disparate.

“El Paso was the desert,” says Miller. “It was a really cool studio surrounded by pecan farms right on the border of Mexico. We would just sit down at the end of every night and look at the stars. There wasn’t too much partying. We smoked a little weed and we drank, but not to excess. I remember we talked beforehand with a couple of producers and I said, ‘I don’t want any drug-drugs in the studio. I don’t want any coke.’ Obviously, I have never wanted smack around the band. I remember a couple of the producers were like, ‘No coke?!’ I was like ‘Fuck no.’ That’s just bad decisions in a powder form.

“The crazy thing is, the second half was in January in the Hudson Valley, really close to where I live now. At the time, I couldn’t imagine anybody living up here. I mean, why the fuck would you want to live here?”

“It was sort of like The Blair Witch Project,” says Hammond. “When it snowed, it was over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go, but it was spooky, you know? The building itself had a real reputation of being haunted. There was a lot of activity of that sort that went on in the church part and in the parsonage part, and in the schoolhouse down where we lived. In fact, I found out about the ghosts because I got left by myself down at the schoolhouse one night, and I kept feeling and kind of hearing somebody walking around in the room while I was just sitting on the floor with my computer. I kept feeling somebody walking up right behind me, and of course there would be nobody there because everybody had gone into town to go Christmas shopping, and I got left there by myself. When I asked about it, they said, ‘Well, we don’t like it to get out, because it might hurt business.’ But then they started telling me all these ghost stories.

“But yeah, it was summery West Texas, and then to upstate New York,” says Hammond. “That’s how we finished it. We heard ourselves sounding very, very large. When I first heard it, I was kind of shocked. I didn’t entirely know how I felt about it sounding so big on record, because we were in this sort of little alt-country band, and we did what we did, and the guitars were smaller. I didn’t really get it until after it was really put together and I lived with it for a bit, that what we had done was very cool. I didn’t know that we had done anything important, but I knew that we had really stepped up and turned in a great record.”

With major-label backing and some buzz building behind the record, improbably, the Old 97’s played Lollapalooza in 1997, alongside such dubious contemporaries as Korn, Orbital and the Prodigy. “We like to say that we were on the Lollapalooza that kind of killed Lollapalooza for a while,” says Hammond.

“That Lollapalooza thing was crazy,” says Miller. “The lineup on the second stage was really cool, and we wound up making a lot of great friends, but it was such a juxtaposition with the main stage. I think we made some fans, but there still were a bunch of kids with their arms crossed and just shaking their heads and walking away.”

“Not all of it was very comfortable at all,” says Hammond. “We were just out of our element. You know, our element is club gigs, theaters, energy in a room. If we can fill up a theater and get everybody on this energy tick, on those nights and in those certain moments where everybody is kind of feeling it all at once, that’s really incredible. It’s really an extraordinary feeling, and you don’t have to be on a major to have that.”

While they aren’t playing huge festivals these days, Old 97’s still make viable, vibrant music, as part of a scene that has endured, both above and below the radar.

“I really think this whole movement was, and still is, a really, really cool, underground movement that’s been on this slow burn all these years,” says Hammond. “And now you’ve got bands like the Decemberists and people like that and you go, ‘Oh, they’ve actually figured out how to have hits.’ None of us ever could. Neko did what she did. We did what we did. Ryan certainly did a lot. For bands like the Decemberists and Mumford And Sons, the time was finally right. The Avett Brothers. They’ve figured out how to do it. Us old-school people, we’re all right with that. We get to be the Ramones. There’s not a darn thing wrong with that. We just get to be an old stalwart band. Not only did we not start stinking anything up, we stayed good, and occasionally we even got to be relevant.”

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