Rhett Miller of the Old 97′s Talks about New Album The Believer

It’s fun to take people to see Rhett Miller in concert for the first time. When a friend took me years ago, in Austin, Texas, to see him play with his terrific band the Old 97′s, she cut her eyes to watch as my jaw dropped. I’d had no idea the blurry image on the CD cases looked like that in person. By the end of the show, full of clever, flirty songs about hard drinking and easy women (“So I sidled up beside her / settled down and shouted, ‘Hi there / my name’s Stuart Ransom Miller / I’m a serial lady-killer’ / She said, ‘I’m already dead’ / That’s exactly what she said”), I was a convert. Since then, I’ve paid it forward. “He’s not human,” said my date to a Bowery Ballroom show Miller played solo four years ago. “He’s from . . . planet Jupi-sexy.”

Onstage at that show, Miller said he and his wife, Erica, a model, were expecting a baby (Max, now three). “I’m starting to think having babies is what we’re meant to do,” he said. Since then, he and Erica have had a second child, Soleil (now nine months); they live in upstate New York, near Erica’s family. Marriage, fatherhood and proximity to his in-laws have in no way turned Miller into the bitter dad stereotype sitcoms trade in. He’s recorded two lovely solo albums: The Instigator and The Believer, has a full tour schedule, and can’t get enough of his kids (not that he minds a weekend alone with his wife).

Ada Calhoun

My baby loves The Believer. I can’t get over how love songs that would at one time have been about someone I had a crush on are now totally about the baby.

It’s true! Max’s in-the-womb song was “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” which Elvis had a hit with. I sang it to him in the womb. The second verse is “Shall I stay? / Would it be a sin?” It’s borderline lascivious – talking about sinning – but it’s so sweet. Because you just love the kid so much, right?

How’d you pick your kids’ names?

Both of our names kind of surprised us and just came out of nowhere – as if the kids were destined, or doomed.

How is it living in the Catskills?

It’s been great. If I didn’t have kids, I’d go crazy, because we’re in the middle of nowhere – three acres of country. But I see it through their eyes, and it’s the perfect place to grow up. It’s a square of land, like a postage stamp. There are trees on the perimeter and we’ve planted more. I don’t let Max go too deep into the brush, because of all the rocks, but when he’s climbing around he always turns around and says, “Daddy, I’m being careful.” I’m already thinking about tree houses.

He sounds like a good kid. What about your daughter?

Both our kids have very strong personalities, and developed them very early. Max is outspoken and opinionated. He’s a Scorpio, which apparently explains that. Soleil has already revealed herself to be so patient with her older brother’s demands and everything else. She self-pacifies – sucks her thumb – which her brother did not do. He was a dee-tee kid.

What’s that?

He used a pacifier. I have no idea where that name comes from. Maybe my mom was saying “binky” and he translated it to that?

Does he like it when you play guitar around the house?

He used to wave “bye-bye” to it when it got on his nerves. Sometimes he’ll say, “Daddy, you’re being too loud.” But I understand Max’s feelings about the guitar. Writing songs isn’t the most fun thing to listen to. You’re playing the same chord progression over and over and saying the same dumb words that you hope become less dumb as you go on. He’s cooler with it now. Before, he’d gotten to the point where he was hitting it. He’s very much a boy in that way: he likes hitting things. That’s only really a problem with the baby. But with her he’s become very sweet. He gives her lots of kisses.

How do you handle hitting? Are you strict disciplinarians? Do you have a philosophy?

[Yells] Hey, Erica, do we have a discipline philosophy? [Sound of laughter] She says, “I’d say we’re sort of laid back.” You have to pick your battles, right? You don’t want to be the parent with the kid who runs amok, but you don’t want to be on your knee your whole life saying, “Say you’re sorry! Tell Jimmy you’re sorry! Say you’re sorry!”

Are you able to bring the kids on tour?

When we first found out we were pregnant, I was touring with Tori Amos for a couple of months and Erica was with me. As a rule, a two-month tour isn’t the best thing to do, having found out you’re pregnant. But Tori had her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter with her. They had a very nice nanny and a crib on the bus and they stayed in nice hotels. I think eventually Max will be able to travel, but it requires a lot of that kind of consideration. He’s already flown probably two dozen times.

Wow, what’s that like?

You know how when you’re a new parent, you’re clumsy? One of the first times we flew, I leaned over him to close the window shade. It was sticking, so I pulled it hard. When it finally gave, my hand flew off and struck the top of his head. And of course he wakes up and starts crying. I was like, “Does that make me an abusive parent?” I’ve been very careful since then. You think it’s possible to be perfect – at least I always thought it was possible – but it’s not possible. You just do your best every day. All kids need is a lot of love.

Fathers on TV are pretty universally grouchy about their wives and kids, but you seem so happy with your family. Do you have any parenting role models in popular culture or in your life?

That’s true. I was just trying to think of anybody I would emulate and I can’t think of anyone. And all the parenting books are either super-technical or silly and glossy. I think you learn by doing. My mom has been very big for me. It’s complicated, like anything else. Right now I live around the corner from my wife’s parents, a bad-ass couple who moved from Ohio to help us. They’re a very close family. Erica’s sister and brother are out here too. My in-laws just took the kids for two nights so we could go to a wedding in Lake Placid – two nights of kid-free rock-and-roll!

You don’t often hear people speak so warmly of their in-laws.

Erica’s dad is a psychiatrist. I know it’s not common, but I so look forward to seeing my father-in-law. I’m like, “Let’s go hang out!” He’s an interesting influence on the kids, especially compared to me. He’s very cerebral and always evaluating everything, but in a good way, for the most part. So my kids have a lot of different characters in their lives. It takes a village, but it’s better if the village is a little weird.

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