Old 97's Jump-Start 'Satellite Rides' With Singer's Solo Gigs

In most cases, when the singer in a really great, but not huge, rock band starts playing solo acoustic gigs, it's not a good sign. It's usually only a matter of time before that guy has gone off on hi

In most cases, when the singer in a really great, but not huge, rock band starts playing solo acoustic gigs, it's not a good sign. It's usually only a matter of time before that guy has gone off on his own, leaving the band you once so adored in his dust.

But the solo dates that Old 97's' singer/guitarist Rhett Miller plays between the band's records and tours have had just the opposite impact on the group, he says. Out of the shows -- especially a recent stretch of monthly gigs at Los Angeles' Cafe Largo -- came a chunk of the band's new album, "Satellite Rides," released Tuesday (March 20) by Elektra.

"Every month [I played Largo], I would try and bring in a new song to impress the audience -- and my peers there, like Jon Brion," says Miller. "It really pushed me to write better songs. I was writing one really good song per month. Nine of the new songs on the new record -- I counted -- were specifically written for Largo."

It was just about an hour after a recent gig -- this time at New York's Fez -- that Miller says a couple of fans confirmed to him that the band -- rounded out by singer/ bassist Murray Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples -- is on the right track with "Satellite Rides," its third album for Elektra and fifth overall.

"I wound up an hour or so [after the gig] walking through the East Village, and there were these two 20-year-old girls walking. They had just turned the corner, and I could hear them singing to themselves. I realized it sounded familiar; so I was walking about three or four steps behind them and realized they were singing every word to [the "Satellite Rides" track] 'Designs on You' and jumping up down and giggling. They were doing that thing that girls do. They were talking about my eyes. It was really cute. It was cool."

Miller continues, "I know that this new record is our best record. But, you know, sometimes you get scared and start wondering, 'Well, maybe it's just me who thinks that.' So, it's reassuring to see that [a song is] already so memorable that it's stuck in these girls' heads."

It's songs like "Designs on You" and the rollicking single "King of All the World" that may just break the Dallas-based act this time around, says Dane Venable, Elektra's VP of marketing and artist development. "This band is literally one hit song away from exploding and being huge."

Venable explains that "Satellite Rides," which was produced by Wally Gagel, completes the group's transition from alt-country darlings to simply a kick-ass rock'n'roll band. "These are rock songs... classically written rock songs," he says. "It's not that they've moved away or shed anything; it's just that they've grown to include so many other things."

Miller, who splits time between homes in L.A. and New York, says that with better songwriting, subtle verses, and big choruses, Satellite Rides emphasizes the "linear progression" the band's traveled since issuing its first records -- 1994's "Hitchhike to Rome" and the following year's "Wreck Your Life" -- on Bloodshot. This album, he adds, is "less embattled" than 1999's "Fight Songs," which spawned the radio hits "Nineteen" and "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)."

"The last record was real hard to make," he says. "I wasn't around very much. We didn't rehearse very much. On this record, I came back to Texas for three months and lived with the guys, and we worked really hard on pre-production. It just made us a lot closer as a band. So, it's different from the last record in that respect -- we're a lot more of a band. I think that comes across. The last record sounded a little more like a showcase for these really pretty songs. This record sounds more like a rock band."

Adding a new twist to the band's repertoire is the song "Buick City Complex," which Miller wrote about the closing of a Buick plant in Flint, Mich. Following "East Side Loco," a song he wrote a "long, long time ago" about poverty and segregation in Dallas, "Buick" is only the second political song he's written, he says.

"It's set in Flint at the closing of the Buick City Complex by General Motors," Miller explains. "We were in town the day that it happened. I was imagining, 'What are these unemployed auto workers gonna do?' I was thinking that they're gonna go get drunk and get laid. So I mean, it's not like it's 'Born in the U.S.A.,' but it's the closest I've ever come to writing something more overarching than just a moment between two people."

The initial 75,000 copies of "Satellite Rides" will include a five-song EP containing one unreleased studio track titled "Singular Girl," and live versions of five classic Old 97's tracks: "Time Bomb," "Barrier Reef," "Nineteen," "Victoria," and "Valentine."

After wrapping up a three-week promotional trek later this month, the band -- which is to play "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" April 3 -- will embark on a headlining club tour. The band's booking agent, Frank Riley of Highroad Touring in San Francisco, is also looking to score the guys an opening slot on a summer tour, so it looks as though Miller won't be embarking on a solo project anytime soon. But he says he'd like to eventually.

"I've got a couple of songs already that I've done just as a goof, with Jon Brion producing and playing," he says. "I know there's some stuff that won't work within the confines of the band. But, right now, my whole life is the Old 97's."