“In a way I’ve been working on this record for years,” says Rhett Miller. He’s talking about the process that led to his new solo album, The Instigator. “Don’t get me wrong, these are all brand new songs, but I’ve been imagining this album, playing different versions of it in my head for a long time. I believe in bands, in the power of a collective effort-Old 97’s are a perfect example-but there is a kind of vision, like the one I’m talking about that led to The Instigator, that can only be carried out within the framework of a solo album.”
The Instigator arrives as Miller’s first wholly personal statement. Recorded in Los Angeles and produced by friend and pop architect Jon Brion (he’s worked with Fiona Apple, Macy Gray, and Aimee Mann, to name a few), the new album balances bare bones introspection, like on the plaintive “Come Around” and “World Inside The World,” with rollicking come-on’s like “This Is What I Do” and “Four-Eyed Girl.”
Miller is quick to credit the loose, nurturing atmosphere that Jon Brion brought to North Hollywood’s NRG Studios as a crucial factor in creating the right vibe for the album. “I was so inspired by Jon’s musicality, and so excited to be in a situation where the outcome was totally on my shoulders. Thinking back, it could have been a pretty stressful environment, but we made sure that every day was fun and rewarding-it helped that the studio floor was literally three feet deep with Jon’s toys. Some days we’d wear pajamas all day, and other days were ‘suit days’, the rock and roll equivalent of casual Friday. In terms of music, Jon knew exactly where I was coming from. We’d both found salvation in the same records growing up. Our goal was to let the songs do the work, and make sure that everything that appeared on the album was absolutely necessary and tasteful.
Miller could well be talking about the song “Things That Disappear,” one of the stand-out tracks on the album, a formative tune that cemented the fertile working relationship between the two musicians. “That song was really born two years earlier, and was the reason I was convinced Jon had to produce this record,” says Rhett. “I knew Jon because he’d played some keyboards on (the Old 97’s song) “Murder (Or A Heart Attack). We became friends after that. We’d always jump up on stage with each other at (legendary Hollywood nightclub) Largo. One day back in the summer of 2000, Jon called and said he had a free day. I think his exact words were, ‘come on down, let’s fuck around in the studio.’ We put some two-inch (recording tape) up and I ran through a bunch of songs I had in the works. “Things That Disappear” was unfinished but it jumped out at him. He had an idea for the intro part, and put the screws to me to finish the verses, which I did right there, probably just to show off. Then we went in and he played drums and I played guitar and in the space of 6 or 7 hours we had a finished song, recorded and everything. It felt really natural for us to work together. I listened to the rough mix of that song for a year and half. I kept saying: ‘I gotta do this.’ The tracks we laid down that day ended up making it onto the record. You can hear everything crucial about the chemistry of this album happening on that song.”
Miller confirms that some much needed solitude also served as inspiration for The Instigator. He had been interviewed for a piece in Rolling Stone magazine’s October, 2001 issue, about the impact of the World Trade Center disaster on the music world. For Rhett and his soon-to-be wife Erica, theirs was a birds-eye view of the terror, living three blocks from where the twin towers stood, forced to evacuate their building moments before the collapse of the second tower. His subsequent move to Los Angeles, to both live and record, was christened with a three-week stay in a top-floor room in a West Hollywood hotel (named after the French word for dream) where he finished a few old songs, and wrote a few new ones as well. “It was before we went into the studio. I was holed up in that hotel room by myself. I put up a shelf of sheet music, Bob Dylan’s novel Tarantula, some poetry books and the complete songs and music of Francoise Hardy, David Bowie and Elvis Costello. The setting was romantic in a weird way. I had a fireplace and this beautiful view going out towards the ocean and Century City, which has its own twin towers. That was kind of eerie for me just having moved from New York.”
Miller recalls that the wobbly ballad “Your Nervous Heart,” was born during those sessions. “I had all these great sources of inspiration in that room, and one of them was this really old piece of sheet music for Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.” I would look at it every day, with a picture of Hank’s face and the title right there. One afternoon I started strumming and the next thing I knew I had written this song. I definitely wrote it with Hank in mind.”
An avid reader, Miller’s muses for The Instigator were also drawn from the literary world, as with the Sylvia Plath/Shakespeare inspired “Point Shirley,” (the recording of which features a guest appearance by one of Miller’s idols, Robyn Hitchcock), and the aforementioned “World Inside The World,” in which cutting-edge author Don DeLillo is name-dropped. “I had just read his novel Underworld last year and I think its one of the greatest books of our time. It’s not a conspiracy theorist’s book, it’s not some egghead’s work either. It’s just a beautiful story of a guy going through life. He keeps catching glimpses of this underworld where things happen but nobody really sees them. It’s a long book, and as I was getting toward the end it started freaking me out more and more. In all his novels that I’ve read Delillo has this way of picking up on current events before they’re current, he sees things that haven’t risen into the public consciousness yet.”
The undeniably rocking album-opener, “Our Love,” also contains references not traditionally found in modern American pop music. “I got really into reading collected love letters, specifically the ones from Richard Wagner to his mistress and from Franz Kafka to his translator. Both of the women were married and both of the men were doomed. Wagner comes off in his letters like kind of an asshole, go figure, but Kafka’s letters were so sweet it broke my heart to read them. I could totally identify with this guy. It was like his love was threatening to cause his heart to burst in his chest like a lemming’s.”
Perhaps The Instigator offers subterranean clues into Miller’s psyche. “It’s funny but I think my recent marriage may be more of a transforming event than anything else. My friends kid me about it. My Uncle Ed wrote to congratulate me, and asked if this means that all the good songs are done now. I guess I can see his point. I had always figured that my songwriting voice was better suited for the more distraught kind of writing. I’m happy now, yes, does that mean everything I write has to be joyful?” Miller ponders this for a moment. “Somehow I find a way to be angst-ridden,” he laughs.
Miller brings up the bittersweet, soul-searching “Come Around.” “I wrote that in the middle of my engagement, the day I checked into that West Hollywood hotel. I couldn’t have been happier, but I must have tapped into another version of myself. The person that is scared to death of dying lonely.”