Q&A: Rhett Miller on Writing New Words to “Desolation Row” and the Chili’s Theme Song


Old 97’s bandleader Rhett Miller can tell you the exact number of songs he’s written, but not how many times his fans have proposed at shows. He’s happy to sound off on Battlestar Galactica, Rock Band, his perfect coif, and how to write a cheating song when you’re happily married. Just don’t mention green-eyed women.

Last year you covered “Rocks Off” and wrote new words to “Desolation Row.” How big are your balls?

Seriously, right? I mean, where do we get off?

Did Dylan himself sign off on “Champaign, Illinois?”

It was a crazy thing. We were able to get to his manager–even though he turns down, he says, a hundred requests like this out of hand every day–and because he’s friends with our manager, he passed it onto Dylan. Two weeks later, I heard back that Dylan had listened to it and he’d liked it but he wanted to read the lyrics before he signed off. So then I had to type out the lyrics and let Dylan sit there and read my lyrics. I’d never typed up anything that fast before! And it was on my iPhone, like, thumb typing. The next day I got the call that Dylan likes it, and he likes it enough to give us half the publishing on it, which we didn’t even ask for.

So I just discovered the “Dance With Me” video, with Tricia Helfer in it. Are you guys big Battlestar Galactica fans?

Tricia’s an old friend of my wife and I, she and her husband. And our guitar player [Ken Bethea] wound up being a huge Battlestar fan, so later on we had Tricia and Katee Sackhoff at a gig… man, I have never seen Ken more tongue-tied in my entire life. It was hilarious. That was a fun video and [Helfer] was a good sport to do it. It’s a great show, super smart.

Is it difficult to still come up with songs like “Borrowed Bride” or “Designs on You” when you’re happily married?

It’s not hard to… the whole thing is having to play it for your significant other and having to explain, “It’s a work of fiction, honey.” [laughs]

I think it’s because I don’t get that vibe from you at all and so it’s easy to relish you playing a character. Your pissed-off songs are fun too: “The New Kid,” “Barrier Reef.”

Yeah, and it’s fun to do because I don’t have to feel like I’m standing onstage reading from my diary, which I feel like some people tend to do when they write songs. And [The Grand Theatre] Vol. 2 definitely has more characters. It’s got a sequel to a song on [The Grand Theatre] Vol. 1 called “The Dance Class.” A song called “Perfume” on Vol. 2 is the guy that’s in love with the girl from across the street, but he’s agoraphobic so he can’t go meet her. And he finally gets her, and he’s trapped inside watching her have fun outside and can’t go out and have fun with her and he’s jealous.

I’ve always had little motifs that recur; I don’t know if it’s laziness or self-mythologizing, or just trying to keep myself interested by having fun with little minutiae, an inside joke. But there’s a ship called the Halcyon that’s appeared in a few songs–I like to echo. I mean, I’m pretty aware of my body of work: we play 25-30 songs every night. We’ve got 120 songs released and we still play maybe 90 of those songs on a regular basis. So to me these are all very alive, these songs, so when I’m writing new songs I’ve still got old ones running through my head and it’s kind of fun throw in a knot or something random from our catalog.

Which of your records are more personal and which ones are more filled with invented characters?

Well, that’s thing is I say it’s characters, but it’s all personal. But maybe I’m hiding behind another character.

In “Barrier Reef” you use your real name though.

The funny thing is, I’m Stuart Ransom Miller the second, so technically I’m using my dad’s name in it, which could have very well applied to him at one time as well.

How does your dad feel about starring in a song about drunken one-night stands?

I think he’s proud of it. He’s an attorney in Texas, and every once in a while he’ll go up in front of a judge who’ll ask “Are you Stuart Ransom Miller, the serial lady killer?” and my dad knows he’s won the case before it’s even started.

You’ve had music in two different Vince Vaughn movies (Clay Pigeons, The Break-Up), one of which the band actually guested in. So it’s fair to assume Vaughn’s a fan?

Yeah, Vince is a big fan, he’s been for years, and he’s helped out a lot. I wrote the song “Jagged” actually, for another Vince Vaughn movie called The Cool Dry Place, and they ended up using in a different movie called Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock. But they showed me a tape of Vince Vaughn driving down a highway and sort of told me the story, so I wrote the song for that.

“Timebomb” was also licensed as a downloadable song in Rock Band.

You know, the version they used for that was from our live album [Alive & Wired], so because it’s from a live show, it’s crazy. I’ve never tried to play it, but Ken [Bethea] told me he can’t play it, and he’s the one who played the part.

How many times have people proposed to someone when you play “Question” at shows?

That gets a little nuts lately. It’s sweet and it’s flattering, but I’ve had to stop letting them do it onstage and whatever, because it’s too weird and eventually she’ll say no, or it’ll be a practical joke or…it just takes over the show a little bit much.

Have you kept count…

Of how many people? No, no. The other night in Chicago, I knew there was gonna be one couple, an old friend of ours from Chicago and her boyfriend was gonna propose. And I’d also gotten a handful of other requests for that same show, so I didn’t really say much of anything in terms of setting it up, but after the song was over, I said ‘by a show of hands, did anyone get engaged during that song?’ And there was at least five couples at that one show!

They’re going to have to ordain you.

I should do that! And we could charge money! [laughs]

I’d serenade my girlfriend with “Big Brown Eyes,” but hers are green. Know any good songs about green eyes?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. No. Typically, green-eyed women are insane. She’s not also redheaded, is she?


Okay, all right. Thank God.

So, as an official Chili’s spokesperson, where’s the best place to get ribs?

When we did that commercial for them, they gave us a ton of free coupons, so I went and I ate the ribs and they were good, but I mean, they’re not like the ribs you’ll get in Austin or Texas. But for a chain restaurant, sure.

That must be a relief when you do something like that and then you’re like, “Phew, the product’s actually good!”

It’s funny because they wanted me to rewrite that song, and I liked the challenge of it because I’d grown up hearing the barbershop quartet doing “Baby Back Ribs.” And I thought it was hilarious to take the song I’d grown up with and turn it into something like… you know, I wrote verses for it. I had full verses between the choruses and just played it like it was one of our songs. It was real fun to do.

You should release that on your website or something.

Maybe. There might be some legal hangups, I don’t know.

You can always have Bob Dylan go over the lyrics first.


That’s all I’ve got, but my girlfriend pushed for me to mention: I’ve been known to bring the CD booklet for [Miller’s 2002 solo album] The Instigator with me when I go to get my hair cut.

[laughs] You know, I hate to say this, but I’ve done that exact same thing before.

Old 97s play Webster Hall on Saturday, April 9.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2011

Archive Highlights