In the weeks leading up to the start of the Old 97’s 15th anniversary celebration of Too Far To Care tour, Rhett shared his thoughts and memories surrounding the making of their iconic album, most of which can be read here. The band will kick off the second part of their celebration at the ACL fest in Austin on October 14. Murry was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions Stephanie and I compiled and give his insights on that special time.
1. Tell us a little bit of the background leading up to TFTC. Where/how did you capture the attention of the execs at Elektra records?
In 1994 even hardcore indie music fans could be basically oblivious to the roots underground that was going on that year and in 1995. But enough of those indie fans figured out we existed by the winter of 1996, and a whole bunch of them gathered in the same room at SXSW in Austin in March of 1996. It went from there.
2. We have heard “The One” and some stories about how exciting it was to be wined and dined by the record execs. What were some of the perks/most exciting experiences about being given the star-treatment after years of roughing it on the road? Aside from the thrill of having Exene Cervenka contribute her vocals to Four Leaf Clover, what other opportunities did the connection with Elektra provide? (for example, collaborations, tours, etc.)
Elektra opened us up to radio in a real way, and gave us a universal presence in the record stores, and all that added up into the chance to do bigger things like festivals such as Lollapalooza. It all kind of came together in one package. To get to this other level of live shows, the radio and the distribution all had to be working together. Elektra certainly gave us that.
3. What was the atmosphere like in the studio? In recent years, you’ve been rather prolific, especially with The Grand Theater Volumes I and II being released within six months of each other. Did TFTC come together as easily or was it a more painstaking process being your first album under the scrutiny of a major label? How would you compare the recording of TFTC to the albums before and after your relationship with Elektra?
We were pretty prolific then, too – certainly in numbers. We released a record in 1994, another in spring of 1995, and multiple singles, EPs and comps, and building a catalog of songs that we have pulled out of even as recently as the past five or six years. The songs were coming in good numbers and with great quality. It was a great time for the writing end of things.
4. Were you happy with the input of the record company? Surely, the resources were better, but did you feel stifled in any way by corporate restrictions or did the label brass give you a long, creative leash? Now that a decade and a half has passed, can you tell us about any changes that were made at Elektra’s request?
Electra thankfully left us alone. They stood in the back as cheerleaders only — which is the only input I’ve ever really welcomed from a record company – cheerleading and back-slapping. Several people at Elektra, primarily our A&R brother Tom Desavia, really and truly believed in what we were doing. And if they didn’t, or weren’t sure, Tom worked on them until they did. And I’ll say this for the people at that company — even the marketing people — even if they were unsure of what to do with our sound, they didn’t attempt to try to smooth us out at all, they knew we weren’t that kind of band. They hoped to market that very appeal that brought us to their attention in the first place. They simply *hoped* it would translate big.
5. TFTC is widely considered THE quintessential Old 97’s album. Every song is a beloved classic. Going into the studio, was there a sense that this album was different from previous recordings? Was it evident at the time what a huge, watershed moment this CD would become? You four have had a phenomenal career, what part did this particular record play in your longevity?
We were very much drawing water from the well that had created everything we did to that point — Too Far was the sort of perfect distillation of that first long chapter of our band.
6. Rhett has been quoted as saying this session captured “our little bit of lightning in a bottle”. This album was created at the perfect time, even if the record companies weren’t quite sure how to steer the alt-country ship in the grungy 90’s. This album gave the 97’s the exposure that it needed to continue to rock on through today. Any fond memories/anecdotes you’d like to share about this special time? (Examples: first big music festivals – Lollapalooza, collaborating with other artists, articles/interviews, beds instead of floors…)
It was a time that was very much part early days and part what the days would become. Yes, beds instead of floors… I enjoyed that aspect of it. I remember the first step up in improving creature comforts was when we’d skip sleeping on the floor of a fan, which was the inexpensive and adventurous way to go, and instead go to a motel, send one guy in to rent “one room for one adult” while the other three hid around the side in the van to sneak in with our sleeping bags. That was extravagant at the time, because that room cost $40, and we probably needed that 40.
7. TFTC is that rare album that is listenable from start to finish, there isn’t a skippable track on the listing. It’s not fair to ask you to pick one favorite, so how about your top three favorites and why.
When we finished it, I really had an affinity for House that Used to Be — it was moody, and moving to me, and experimental, too. I still love it.
Murry, we always love to hear personal anecdotes about where these songs come from. Can you share the origins of the crowd pleasing W. Texas Teardrops?
I have a couple TFTC-related… W. Texas Teardrops was my sincere attempt at writing a song for West Texas cowboy/countr singer Don Walser — I realllly wanted Don to sing a song I wrote, and I wrote W. Texas with that in mind. I could never really get it to Don – I guess I wasn’t connected enough, ha – so he never heard it.
The other one has to do with Timebomb. That tune is actually from all the way back in 1991. I was camping in Woodstock, all brokenhearted from a break-up and roadtripping trying to figure things out. I was writing for a cassette album that I eventually recorded but never put out. I wrote a tune called “Outside of Woodstock”, a quicky title with some quicky lyrics. It was real 50’s/Beatle sounding, and I knew it was a good tune, but never was able to make it into a song. I gave it to Rhett in 1996 after we got off of a California tour, and he of course finished it in a matter of days. It became Timebomb — in my hands not good enough to get onto a homemade cassette, but in Rhett’s hands, good enough for a 97 closer. Talented boy. I recently found my 1991 practice tape from that day, and I promise to post a recording of the song as a curiosity.
8. To commemorate the 15th anniversary, TFTC is being released for the first time on vinyl with an additional LP of demos and bonus tracks. Any chance you’ll throw a couple of extra tracks onto the setlist, like say, oh, I don’t know… Beer Cans or Northern Line?
Oh, absolutely! Probably have to be in an encore, but hopefully yes. I’m the king of wanting to play songs that people haven’t heard, so I’ll be fighting for this one.
9. The opening song on TFTC, Time Bomb, is synonymous with the bittersweet ending of every amazing Old 97’s show. Obviously, it wasn’t always the designated closer. How did Time Bomb become the official end of the party? Prior to TFTC, which song held that distinction?
Prior to Timebomb, probably Doreen and Four Leaf…though old setlists tell me that 504 and Por Favor and Eyes For You could fill that slot nicely.
10. Keeping faithful to the original album track listing and 97’s tradition dictates two performances of Time Bomb. Can we fans look for bookend amp leaps from Rhett as well? What do you think? Is he up for the challenge?
If Rhett can take it, I can.
Thanks, Murry! I think I can speak for everyone when I say “yes, please!” to the Outside of Woodstock recording.
Our favorite foursome hits the road again on October 16 with Salim Nourallah filling the opening act shoes after Rhett’s solo set. If you haven’t yet, make sure you catch a show this time around. Trust me. Witnessing an entire audience singing along non-stop to the first 13 songs is not to be missed. Look over the tour dates here, and take a road trip if you have to. You’ll thank yourself later.
In the meantime, don’t forget to pre-order the special edition TFTC CDs/vinyl with outtakes and demos over at Omnivore Records. Who knows, you just might be the winner of a lifetime listing to Old 97’s shows.
See you on the road!