Golden Oldies

We talk with the Old 97's, turn up the freedom rock and marvel at Wilco's PR machine

After recording and touring behind Satellite Rides in 2001, the four members of the Old 97's took a break. They took a break from recording to work on side projects, to marry their sweethearts, to have children. They took a break from the road and returned home -- for guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, home's still Dallas, Texas, but lead singer Rhett Miller now resides in upstate New York and bassist Murry Hammond lives in LA.

The break is over. The Old 97's have recorded a new album, Drag It Up, a stripped-down, sparkling LP set for a late-July release date. The band is going on the road again, and the first place it's stopping is Mississippi Nights (Thursday, July 1). How'd St. Louis get so lucky? Rather than speculate, we called up Ken Bethea, who got us up to speed on the band, the tour and what it's like to sing in front of Bun E. Carlos.

The Riverfront Times: Why start the tour in St. Louis?

Small "d" democrats: (l to r) Philip Peeples, Rhett 
Miller, Murry Hammond and Ken Bethea
Small "d" democrats: (l to r) Philip Peeples, Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond and Ken Bethea

Ken Bethea: We often start tours or end them in St. Louis. When we got started, the first city outside of Dallas that took to our music was Chicago. The second was St. Louis, and we used to go there and play Cicero's. The very first time we played [at Cicero's], we were opening for somebody else, just a typical gig. There were like thirty people in the place, and we sold twenty CDs. It was crazy; we normally sold maybe two CDs. We were very excited: "Wow, man! We went to St. Louis and we sold twenty CDs! Yay!" We went back a month later, and Rich Byrne [then a senior editor at the RFT] wrote a huge piece on us. He'd been there that night, and he just said, "This alt-country thing is startin' to shake, and this is a kickass band."

This is the first time you've sung lead vocals on a track ["Coahuila"]. Are you going to sing it live?

Oh, yeah. We started singing it live on the last tour. When we sang it in Madison, [Wisconsin], Bun E. Carlos [from Cheap Trick] was there -- and I'm just sitting there going, "Oh, fuck." We'd practiced it three or four times. We had some friends there, and [before the show] we went out to eat, drank wine, and I'm tellin' my little stories. When we walked onstage, I looked down at the setlist, and five or six songs down it said "Coahuila." My blood turned to ice. I didn't know if I could hear myself sing, and sure enough, I couldn't. I didn't know how loud to make my guitar. The song came from a side-project band that me and [drummer] Philip [Peeples] had while Rhett was doing his solo record. But it was an acoustic song, not electric -- so it was quiet, kind of, and I could hear myself. It is not quiet onstage at an Old 97's show -- it's loud, there're guitars everywhere, so I'm like, "Oh no!" I got by, but it took me four or five gigs before I wasn't fretting all night long.

You all sound great on the album. The Old 97's have always struck me as a very democratic band.

We're the only band our management's ever had that makes them do everything diplomatically. They have to take a vote on everything -- it runs 'em crazy. It's good overall, but at times things get bogged down in bureaucracy. Trying to find a video treatment has always been tough, because Rhett's always gone for the fade-in-to-the-lead-singer-looking-off-at-the-moon shot, of course, and I'm always for the four members of the Old 97's wearing bowling clothes and diving into a pile of cotton candy.

Does [your three-year-old son] Audie like your music?

He just got into it, just got into the new record. One night I heard him singing one of our new songs, "Moonlight": "Why is this haaappening to meeee?" [laughs] And I'm thinking, "Oh God, not Little Rhett Miller whining in the other room." Audie loves "Smokers" and he loves "Coahuila." He likes the fast songs. Come on out to Mississippi Nights -- we'll do those right. -- Brooke Foster

News Judo
They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, and St. Louis-rooted Wilco seems desperate to prove the point. This week the band settled out of court with Irdial-Discs, an English music label that claims that Jeff Tweedy and the gang's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot illegally sampled a snatch of radio chatter that came off of Irdial's Conet Project. Well, these things happen, but it's the timing of the announcement that raises eyebrows: It came out the same week as Foxtrot's follow-up, A Ghost is Born.

This is just the latest in a swath of pieces of news that seem negative at first but still serve to build the band's myth. The most famous example is how the band twisted getting kicked off their record label into the publicity coup of the year. You can catch a lot more examples in Greg Kot's new biography of the band, Learning How to Die (see this week's Performance page to learn more about Kot's book), but even the past few months have been suspiciously full of Wilco fodder. Let's review:

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