For Old 97's singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, the alt-country band's new album, Satellite Rides, is all about some very universal ups and downs.
"I see this record as having a lot to do with cycles," Miller said, "the endings and beginnings of relationships, mortality and the cycle contained therein. But that's not to say it's all bad or dark or anything. The lead track from the album, 'King of All the World,' I think that's probably the most optimistic song I've ever come up with.
"It's a falling-in-love song with some darkness at the edge of it, I imagine," Miller said. "But it was one of the very last songs written for the album, and I was glad that we got it down, because there wasn't a hopeful, excited love song on the record that really reflected that portion of the cycle."
Old 97's completed a cycle of their own with the recording of Satellite Rides, as Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples reteamed with producer Wally Gagel (Juliana Hatfield, Belly, Sebadoh), who manned the boards for Too Far to Care, the band's 1997 major-label debut for Elektra.
"The reason we wanted to work with him initially, years ago when we did Too Far to Care, is that he's a very rock and roll producer," Miller said. "Wally's all about getting the right sounds, and his forte is mic placement, creating a good vibe and a good rock and roll texture.
"We went into this knowing that we had the songs and knowing that we had done three or four months of preproduction and intense work to make the songs sound good," he added. "So, we didn't really need somebody to come in and rearrange them or add other instruments or anything like that. We just wanted to somebody that could come in and maximize our rock."
After recording their last album, 1999's Fight Songs, at the allegedly haunted Kingsway Studios in New Orleans with producer Andrew Williams, parental responsibilities brought on by newborn babies for Bethea and Peeples required the Old 97's to record a little closer to their Dallas home base.
The band eventually settled into the Willie Nelson-owned Pedernales Studios in Austin, Texas, a decision that Miller said helped keep the recording sessions loose rather than overly tight and businesslike.
"We'd always been so reluctant to be anywhere near our home or our friends when making a record, thinking that it had to be a total immersion, no-contact-with-the-outside-world type of situation," Miller explained.
"This time was a lot looser. When we weren't working, we were swimming or we would have friends down visiting, or we were having a party. It was really nice, and it was the best sessions we've ever had. It was like summer camp."
The Old 97's have already released "King of All the World" to alternative and college radio as the first single from Satellite Rides, although Miller admitted that his favorite track from the new record is "Buick City Complex," a tune he penned after playing a one-off show with Semisonic in Clio, Michigan.
"They put us up in a hotel in Flint, Michigan, the site of where [filmmaker] Michael Moore shot 'Roger & Me.' Flint was the biggest car-producing town in America at one time, but it had been whittled down over the years," Miller said.
"So the very last car-producing plant there was the Buick City Complex, and the day we were there was the day they closed it down once and for all, and all these people that were the last remaining autoworkers and the last vestige of the American auto empire were jobless.
"I started thinking about it, and I imagined a guy that had just been laid off," Miller said. "He's at a bar and there's a girl and she's just been laid off, and what are they gonna do? Of course, they're going to combat that hopelessness by sleeping together."
The Old 97's will be spilling more tears and beers next month when they head out on the road for a tour in support of Satellite Rides, and will preface the trek with a live performance Tuesday on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
Old 97's tour dates, as provided by the band's label:
- 4/4 - New York, NY @ Fez (Rhett Miller solo)
- 4/6 - New York, NY @ Fez (Rhett Miller solo)
- 4/10 - Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
- 4/11 - Milwaukee, WI @ Shank Hall
- 4/12 - Madison, WI @ Barrymore Theater
- 4/13 - Chicago, IL @ The Vic
- 4/14 - Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
- 4/16 - Pittsburgh, PA @ Rosebud
- 4/17 - Towson, MD @ Recher Theatre
- 4/18 - Athens, GA @ 40 Watt Club
- 4/19 - Nashville, TN @ 328 Performance Hall
- 4/20 - Atlanta, GA @ Roxy
- 4/21 - Louisville, KY @ Phoenix Hill Tavern
- 4/23 - Indianapolis, IN @ Birdy's
- 4/24 - St. Louis, MO @ Pageant
- 4/25 - Columbia, MO @ Blue Note
- 4/26 - Lawrence, KS @ Bottleneck
- 4/28 - Boulder, CO @ KBCO show
- 4/30 - Salt Lake City, UT @ Zephyr (tentative)
- 5/1 - Vancouver, BC @ TBA
- 5/2 - Seattle, WA @ Showbox
- 5/3 - 5/11 - TBA
- 5/12 - San Francisco, CA @ KFOG show