A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Old 97's bassist Murry Hammond. It was a huge thrill, as I'm a longtime fan (especially of the early stuff—"Hitchhike to Rhome" was the name of my college radio show) and he was a pure pleasure to converse with. Gotta love that lazy Texas drawl.
Hammond was surprisingly candid about frontman Rhett Miller's not-so-successful solo ambitions and also took some time to talk about life in a band that has members scattered to the four winds, how L.A. is similar to Nashville and why you shouldn't miss their live show tonight at Mercy Lounge. Check out the short version here, or the very long version after the jump.
Scene: So are you out in L.A. now?
Murry Hammond: I’m in California—I’m actually in San Diego today. I’m doing some recording by myself, spending two days down here doing that. Then I am going to go back and have a weekend with my family. We 97’s get together next week and do a three week tour that will take us through Nashville.
Scene: I am really excited because I’ve been here for almost three years and I still haven’t seen you guys play here. Rhett played here solo, I saw you guys at SXSW this year and the only other time I’ve seen you as a band was that weird show in New York City that got moved to Stuyvesant High school because of the rain.
MH: Yeah you need the real thing.
Scene: I’ve seen Rhett solo a bunch of times. I will just go ahead and out myself as a huge Old 97’s geek. My college radio show was called “Hitchhike to Rome.”
MH: (Laughs.) Well you know what, we’re a great live band. I’ll say it: We’re better than the Rhett live band thing. It’s cool. It’s what we are known for.
Scene: Well the show at Stubbs at SXSW was really great but I had already been on my feet for about twelve hours.
MH: Oh yeah, that kind of takes the fun out of it.
Scene: Well my first question is about your live show. One of the things I love about your lives shows—the ones I’ve seen—is that you continue to play stuff from your whole catalog. Is it still fun to play those songs so long after they were written?
MH: Yep. Everything we’ve ever done is easily just as much fun to play now as it ever was. I’ve heard other bands say that or other musicians say that, and I was curious. I thought, “Well, how can it really be that much fun?” But it is. You know the tunes so well and each song is like its own little horse or go-kart that you get up on and ride. You know, even when you’ve ridden a go-kart a million times, the next time you get on is still going to be kind of fun. That’s how it is with our songs. A lot of artists tend to want to shed their older material. They don’t think it’s as relevant to them. We’ve never been that kind of band. Once we have what we think is a good little song, we’re happy to go back and play it like we’re playing a record.
Scene: And with a fan base like you guys have—one that is so devoted—they want to hear that old stuff too so they can sing along.
MH: The fan base, they know the whole catalog and are thrilled to hear all of it. I think nowadays we have so many records that if they do hear a truly old song, they think they’re hearing a rarity and feel lucky to catch that particular moment because they know that it probably isn’t repeated that much.
Scene: You guys recorded the new record in Dallas, and it was the first time you’d done that in a very long time.
MH: We recorded in Dallas and we recorded with somebody—producer Salim Nourallah—that we’ve know, basically, since the ’80s. He’s known us our whole bands life—he knows our whole catalog and the arc of our sound and where we’ve been. We knew we wanted to do it in Texas. We weren’t sure exactly where we were going to do it, but we’ve always done real good work in Texas. We kind of added the two together and realized that if we did it in Dallas a lot of things would come together creatively. It’s a very comfortable place and part of the reason our record sounds good beyond the songwriting is Ken’s input [guitarist Ken Bethea]. The studio in Dallas was not very far from his house and he was able to put in much more time than he ever gets to on a record. I think that made a huge difference. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we did the next record in the same situation. It worked that well.
Scene: I think for any band that hopes to be around for along time, it’s really important to evolve.
MH: People think there is a lot of deliberateness in writing albums and that sort of thing. We approached this record basically exactly the same as we have approached every other record we’ve done—except for maybe the last record we did. We sort of come together and add up all of our limitations and our strengths and the pack of songs that are in front of us and we try to do it the best way we can. In a way, we’re real garage-band about everything. We’ve never really gotten much more sophisticated in how we approach things since our first record—and especially since our second record, Wreck Your Life. It’s all really super homemade and there is not a lot of it that can be planned ahead. We trust the process. We know that we’ve got a good eye for quality—we have good crap filters…. In our catalog the only time that we may have a little dip, you can sense that maybe the unity is kind of shaken up a little bit. Those records, there is something about them that is not as good. There is nothing like a band that is truly unified and basically on the same page.
Scene: In terms of your personal songwriting process, do you usually come into the studio already with songs completely written?
MH: Rhett and I do it the same way. We go in with completed songs and the band really does the surgery if there is any surgery to be done. Basically Rhett and I have the finished ideas done. Occasionally I might get inside one of Rhett’s songs and redo something about it—redo the middle or something. “My Two Feet” was one of those. It was already something that Rhett and I had written together, but the middle part needed help and I was able to do that in the studio. For some reason, Rhett is a little more able to let me inside his stuff to rework things than I am able to let him inside my stuff. Maybe it’s because I am only bringing three or four songs to a recording project and he will bring 20. Maybe the stakes aren’t as high, or maybe they’re much higher with me. I just feel, “No, no, no don’t touch it. It’s perfect.”
Scene: You have mentioned a couple times now that you guys do live all over the country, are there any upsides to that?
MH: I guess the upside is that you’re always glad to see each other. There’s always something new going on in your life. But there was a true upside to when we all lived in the same town, and we still miss that and we all talk about that. There is something about when you are in the same town and around each other socially—you get together on Sunday to play washers, barbecue and drink some beer and that sort of thing. There is a glue that happens. And the downside to living separately is that you grow separately. Rhett sort of—we’re a unit but there are also parallel paths that happen and the parallel paths don’t cross. I used to look at bands when I found out that they lived apart from each other and I had no idea how they did it, but now I’m in 97’s and we’re doing it. It works because of our personalities and the fact that we’re friends. It’s actually pretty easy. We actually haven’t lived in the same state since the band was three years old and now we’re 15. We don’t feel like we are any less of a band because of it.
Scene: Since Rhett put out that first solo record, it seems that every album you guys put out 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—had he 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 Old 97’s is THE thing. I’ve always been more a band guy 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. Mentally, he is very much a solo person that also has a band.
Scene: It was funny when [Miller’s solo debut] The Instigator came out I read a positive review. The writer liked the record, but he also said, “I just wish Murray Hammond’s bass lines were on it." He liked the record, but wished it was an Old 97’s record.
MH: Yeah. Well you know people like a band. (Laughs.) You’re not going to listen to a Mitt Jones record and go, “Well, I’m glad he got rid of those other three guys….” But Rhett needed to do what he did. He’s got this pop side of him that just doesn’t work in the band. Really, the only way to pull off that kind of music is with studio musicians and that sort of thing.
Scene: One of the things I have always loved about the band is you have Rhett whose voice has that sweet tone to it—it has that pop tone—contrasted with your more roughneck sound.
MH: Yeah, that’s why we’ve always liked Buddy Holly and things like that. There is always a sweet vocal on top of basically a rough rockabilly band. It’s a great sound and has always worked in music. Hopefully we can keep that together and it will always kind of be like that. We just gotta be able to figure out how to do it every couple of years and not sound like we’re putting out the first Ramones record over and over again.
Scene: Do you have any plans to do any solo stuff? What do you do when the band is on hiatus?
MH: Well, as much as I use the word hiatus, the band is never really on hiatus. Even during Rhett’s solo stuff there is always something on the schedule. I actually put out a solo record that has a street date in August, but I printed it up in May and I’ve been selling it at Old 97’s shows. Before I got it into the distribution system I wanted to take advantage of anticipation for it to raise money for a non-profit called Project Mercy. Basically it is like habitat for humanity: They build very basic houses for extremely poor people in Tijuana, Mexico. It uses volunteer labor from area churches in Southern California and I’ve gone down on the building crew with my church. 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 number two. You can hear some of it at mypace.com/murraryhammond. Also, Last FM put up the entire record and you can even download four songs. I am working on record number two right now and I’m also going to be on a compilation record. Last year there was a documentary about the 200-year history of Sacred Heart singing in America. It was shown on 120 PBS stations last year. This year they’re doing a companion music CD of non-Sacred Heart people doing our interpretations of the music. I am on there with the Innocence Mission and—I don’t know how you say his name but—Sufjan Stevens [said incorrectly]? How do you say it?
Scene: Sufjan Stevens [said correctly].
MH: OK, I had no idea. You are the first person I have ever known who has known how to say it. So: Sufjan Stevens, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, Jim Lauderdale, who narrated the film, Woven Hand, which is ex-16 Horsepower, and I can’t remember who else. I actually just wrote to thank them for making this documentary because I thought it was a great idea and someone needed to do it. They said, “Well, do you want to be on the music part of it.” And I said, “You bet I will.” So I worked with Mark Neil who produced Drag It Up and my solo thing. You can read about it on my MySpace.
Scene: Now I feel embarrassed like I didn’t do my research. I should have already—
MH: Well, it’s been kind of an obscure thing. Like I said, in August it goes into the national belly. But I totally DIYed it; it’s not on a label or anything. I am going off the old punk-rock ethic and kind of doing it all myself. But it has all been for a good cause: One house is going to get built thanks to the fans buying it at shows. Once we get a couple houses built, I’ll let it have more of a normal life.
Scene: Well, I’m looking forward to hearing it.
MH: Well it is different. Its actually kind of more like the “Valentine” stuff. I have a serious old time Carter Family fascination. I’ll take a Hank Williams demo over a regular Hank Williams song any day—I’m kind of that guy. Its kind of in that world, kind of rough and a little bit haunted sounding.
Scene: Well I always liked your ballads—I was glad you got to sing one on this new record.
MH: Well thanks. (Laughs.)
Scene: I have one last, sort-of-funny question. It’s about the term “alt-country.” You guys are still mentioned as one of the first alt-country bands to break big but some people hate the term. Did it ever bother you?
MH: No, I think people get goofy about terms. What are you gonna call it? I mean seriously, what are you going to call it? Alright people, are you going to call it roots music? Does that mean we are the same as Taj Mahal? Are we the same as the Carter Family? Are we the same as Emmylou Harris? I mean they are all in there.
Scene: Well here the new thing here is “Americana,” which I also find annoying.
MH: It’s the same thing. I mean, roots music made Americana. It’s like, OK, the umbrella is just as big except this one is blue and that one is red…. I’m fine with it. Alt country to me kind of implies a certain—You got these people with this country fascination, but they definitely have something that is a little more punk, not in the sense of Black Flag, but punk in the sense of The Clash. They have populist ideas about things that may not fit someone else in that world.
Scene: I guess the term in Nashville means a little bit more because we have the whole mainstream country scene.
MH: Does mainstream country kind of scowl at alt country?
Scene: I feel like some of the mainstream country guys love to lionize alt country heros and bring them on tour and stuff. It all depends. But it is totally a separate world. Music Row is not really a live music world. Most of those performers don’t play clubs, they play showcases.
MH:I know how it is. Like Los Angeles is such an industry town. They don’t have shows as much as they have showcases. I mean, you know how they are: They’re talent shows. And talent shows are a drag. You feel like you’re in this industry thing, and you wish you were in Austin or anywhere that has shows and a little culture going on. Well, a culture that’s not people wanting record deals.
Scene: In response to that, Nashville has this very vibrant underground scene.
MH: A lot of alt country people moved out there. I guess they all live in East Nashville now.
Scene: That’s where I live.
MH: Yeah, see you’re part of the revolution. (Laughs.) You’re part of them. That’s where I would go if I was there.
Scene: I always joke: East Nashville is like the Brooklyn of Nashville. It’s across a river and everyone feels real smug about living there.
MH: Everyone feels really good about themselves for living over there, and I would be one of them.