When the Old 97's are on—when rambunctious frontman Rhett Miller is cooing and crooning over a ragged honky-tonk snarl and dropping lines so snarky and devastating that they can make you forget how darn pretty he is—there are few bands better. But none of it would work without stalwart sidekick and bassist Murry Hammond and his flawless vintage sensibility. On the handful of songs he sings on each release, Hammond reminds the listener that this band's magic is most potent at its most dissonant—when pop rubs up against punkabilly and when Miller's rakish charm is mitigated by Hammond's unpretentious skill.
Despite Miller's ongoing flirtation with a solo career, and the fact that band members are scattered coast-to-coast, Old 97's recently returned to their old stomping grounds in Dallas to record their seventh studio album, Blame It on Gravity. A breezy, thoroughly listenable collection of tunes, the record finds the band as crisp and unified as ever. The Scene recently caught up with Hammond by phone as he worked on some recording of his own in San Diego.
Scene: So you guys decided to record the new record back in Dallas.
MH: We recorded in Dallas and we recorded with somebody—producer Salim Nourallah—that we've known, basically, since the '80s. He's known us our band's whole life—he knows our catalog and the arc of our sound and where we've been. In a way, we're still real garage-band about everything. It's all super-homemade and not a lot of it can be planned ahead. We trust the process.
Scene: You guys live all over the country now—are there any upsides to that?
MH: I guess the upside is that you're always glad to see each other. But there was a true upside to living in the same town, and we still miss that: getting together on Sunday to play washers, barbecue and drink some beer. There is a glue that happens. The downside to living separately is that you grow separately. We're a unit, but there are also parallel paths that happen, and the parallel paths don't cross. It works because of our personalities and the fact that we're friends. We actually haven't lived in the same state since the band was three years old, and now it's 15. We don't feel like we're any less of a band because of it.
Scene: Since Rhett's first solo record, every album you release as a band surprises people. Everyone assumes that this is the way bands work: They're together, then the lead singer gets something else going and they break up.
MH: Had Rhett's ego run amok during that time, it might have been harder to come back together—if he had had a little more success or even the promise of success. I mean Rhett really, really wanted his solo career to work. I love the Old 97's. I think the Old 97's is the thing. I've always been a band guy rather than a solo guy. Fortunately for us the solo thing kind of—the albums came and went. But, you know, Rhett is a solo artist in addition to the band, especially in his mind.
Scene: Do you have any plans to release any solo material?
MH: I actually have a solo record that has an August street date, but I printed it up in May and I've been selling it at Old 97's shows to raise money for a nonprofit called Project Mercy. Basically it's like Habitat for Humanity—they build very basic houses for extremely poor people in Tijuana, Mexico. To build one house it only takes 234 CDs sold. I didn't get all the way there on the last tour, but I got close, and I was able to make up the rest. Now I'm on to house No. 2.
To listen to Murry Hammond's solo work, visit myspace.com/murryhammond.
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