Q&A: Rhett Miller On Producing His New Record And Crowdsourcing's Unintended Physical Side Effects

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The past year has been non-stop for Rhett Miller. The Old 97's frontman launched his own label in 2011 with a covers record, The Interpreter—Live at Largo, and the 97's put out The Grand Theatre Vol. 2 a mere eight months after 2010's Volume One. It's only going to get busier from here—this week Miller releases The Dreamer, his first studio effort on Maximum Sunshine, and plays Maxwells and the Bowery Ballroom.

Miller's sixth solo album also marks his first time he's produced his own work, and The Dreamer was funded through a PledgeMusic campaign where fans could donate money for perks such as handwritten lyric sheets, album acknowledgments and meet-and-greets. The reality of delivering on these pledges has caught up with Miller in the last few weeks, "I've got a little carpal tunnel anyway," he says, "and I have to write out 50 sheets of lyrics."

SOTC talked to Miller about his decision to go the crowdfunding route, working with Rosanne Cash, Ben Kweller and others and what's next for the Old 97's.

What made you decide to do a PledgeMusic campaign?

That was a nerve-wracking decision, to decide whether or not to go the crowdfunding route. In the end, I think it was good. It's a little strange, but I get to own my own master from my record. And I got to raise the money my management and I are now using to hire all the people that the label needs to make a real release.

You've got to have radio people, publicity people and just all the infrastructure, the team. And I get to do that using the kind nature of the fans as opposed to the greedy nature of the man. Not that my interactions with the record labels were all that bad over the years, but it did always bother me that they owned the record I made. It didn't make sense. On some fundamental level, the old business model seemed flawed. Why does the artist have the least amount of say in his creation? It seems weird to me.

Yeah, it does seem weird.

It was high time that old system got overthrown.

I think it's kind of interesting too, especially since 10 years or so ago, [the Old 97's] seemed to be shying away a little bit from the Internet. And now you seem to have embraced it, especially with Twitter.

I do like Twitter. I like the succinct nature of it. I love that comedians are able to excel at Twitter. I've got some good comic friends, and it's just so built for that kind of a thing. I go in waves.

The last month or two, I've felt sort of incapable of contributing in the way that I have been in the last couple of years. I started trying to do Facebook too, and suddenly I felt like I was stretching myself too thin doing the Facebook and the Twitter and the PledgeMusic updates and doing the updates on my site. I was like, "Dude, I write songs. I'm creating way more content than I'm usually being asked to create."

What made you decide to start Maximum Sunshine, and are you going to have any other artists on the label?

That's funny, I never thought about that until a couple of people asked me about it recently, because I've been constantly bragging about how I'm a record label mogul now. And I don't know. I like the idea of curating a label and being able to handpick artists. I would want to make sure I could offer them a service that was worth them putting a record out with me. I'll have to see if I'm good at it first, I guess. It's a little terrifying, but I do. I do love finding new artists and listening to music, not that I'm that on top of it.

What was it like to self-produce the record? Was that especially nerve-wracking? Do you have a new appreciation for your producers?

Not that I don't have an appreciation for my producers, but it was not challenging in the least, strangely. It was so awesome and liberating and fun and easy. I just had the theory from the very beginning that I knew what I wanted the record to sound like generally, and I hired people that I really liked and that I worked with for the most part and people that I trusted. I sort of let them do their thing, and if in the rare instance that I thought I had a better idea than their idea was, I had enough of a shorthand with them that I could ask them to do what I wanted without feeling like I was being a jerk or having to walk on eggshells...

We were working a little more quickly, which was not entirely due to financial pressures, although I did like the idea of making a record and being able to say, "Hey look, I made this record for this small amount of money." It doesn't have to take $300,000, like I used to spend on a record.

But we worked kind of quickly, and it was sweet just watching everybody, especially my band the Serial Lady Killers, Greg [Beshers], Tommy [Borscheid] and Angela [Webster]. We've played together for so long, and we've always daydreamed about making a record together. And I knew that they were excited to be able to commit their talent to tape and to be able to release their talent to the world. So they came in so prepared and so on their A-game that they really just nailed it.

I was really proud of them and so grateful because I really love them all. Even though they've all had success on their own, I've always felt that like they were underappreciated by the world, which is the case for so many of my friends and so many of the people that I admire. God, in music in general if we're really going to get down to it.

There was a time when musicians were deified, and now we're in a time where musicians are easily discarded. I've got to think there's some kind of middle ground. We're not gods, but we're doing something that's kind of valuable. And the world needs this. I used to have girlfriends and they'd be like, "It's not like you're curing cancer. You're not saving the world." I used to have to stand up for this weird profession that I've chosen as I'm packing my suitcase to leave for three weeks again.

And I'd say, "I know, but I'm creating something, and it's making the world maybe a little more beautiful." Maybe it's helping some kid that's having a hard time in his life like I needed music to help me, and maybe I'm doing the same thing for somebody else. The defense of my job has been a big part of my job over the years.

You can pretty much take that and replace "music" with "teaching," and it's the same thing.

Exactly.

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