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Old 97's drop through Indy with new record 'Most Messed Up'

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After more than 20 years as a band and 10 full-length albums, Old 97's have become trusted purveyors of hook-filled alt-country gold littered with broken hearts and memorable lines. Most Messed Up, the 97's' newest barn-burning Roman candle of a record, is arguably a crowning achievement for a band of veterans who have built a lasting career of ruggedly reliable releases. It's the kind of record that plugs in, gets gritty, straddles a high-wire while stumbling drunk and cursing, dredging up all the lost loves and battle scars of life right along with the oceans of Jameson.

It's not the kind of record you expect from a band of middle-aged guys who have been around long enough to be considered godfathers of a genre that caught fire in the Clinton era. I caught up with 97's bassist Murry Hammond ahead of the band's upcoming return to the Vogue on June 7 to discuss the rare coup the band pulled off by embracing all their most messed up edges and letting loose.

NUVO: I've been racking my brain all morning trying to come up with another band still with its original lineup who have made a rock and roll record that's this damn good 20 years into their career.

Murry Hammond: As a music fan, it's not lost on me what was done on this record. There are tons of bands out there who have been around 20 years, 30 years, and occasionally one will put out a good record. ... Even after being around for so long together, a good band can sort of brilliantly flame up in the middle of their career. And I'm always so grateful when a band does it. But yeah, I'm really proud that I feel like we did that.

NUVO: You sure did.

Hammond: I appreciate it. I feel like we do this every record [laughing]. I feel like we start out fresh every record, because we still feel sort of wide-eyed about what our thing is, and for some reason on this record it not only felt wide-eyed but also really present. And I think the key is in Rhett [Miller]'s writing, you know. He wrote very presently and very honestly on this record, and the more honest he writes ... when he's [the] storytelling Rhett and very honest Rhett, that's the Rhett we all love. That's the one that makes those early 97's records over and over again.

NUVO: You guys have always had rock and roll at the heart of your tunes, but they're usually not as consistently unhinged in all the best ways as with this record. Even after a steady career of top-notch albums, this one feels true to the catalog and especially fresh.

Hammond: I guess again that's why this record is so satisfying to me, because there's a whole lot on this record that feels according to what I believe music always ought to be. It should be raw and honest and not too self-conscious, you know, and should be talking without listening and be really expressive. You know, all the best punk rock records do that. So yeah, I'm enormously pleased with that aspect of it. Yeah, I just don't get why all bands don't just make a fresh record. I don't know; I think bands get bored or disinterested with their own thing, and that's when they start losing it. You stick around with bands long enough, and you see it happen. It's usually around album three or album four, and you go, "Oh! Well, this is just not as good as the other ones," you know; the third Cars album isn't as good as the first two. But, we as music fans, I think we've all had a bit of a stretch of that with our own catalog. We've seen how to not stink it up.

NUVO: I must say I've always loved your versatility, the shifts between Rhett's vocal leads and yours, the rock and roll, the country edges and the gutting ballads. "Valentine" rips me apart every time I hear you sing it. Before listening to the album the first time, I felt like there might be a void without a great ballad in there somewhere. I love the pedal-down, wall-to-wall rock energy. Did you guys always intend for it to be that way, or was there more of a mix of stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Hammond: Initially, Rhett came in with the usual variety of things, but it really was the producer [Salim Nourallah] and the rest of the band that noticed that there's a real snapshot of someone's life inside this stuff. And it's the crazier stuff, the more unhinged music that's doing this. So early on, the band tended to shoo away the ballads and the pretty songs and the girlfriend songs and that sort of stuff. We said the stuff that's really extraordinary about this style is that character who is singing is really broken and in a lot of pain, but he's also really funny. So we quickly got together that variety of material, and Rhett started to notice it too after he started hearing it all together without the ballads. That's how it all came together. It was a bit of, I would say, Rhett not really realizing what he had at first, but once we all came together and all kind of steered it in the direction of this crazy stuff, we said, "Yeah, this is a real snapshot of somebody's life."

NUVO: Having Tommy Stinson [of The Replacements] around probably didn't hurt either.

Hammond: Yeah, I mean it was interesting. And I think because of the nature of the craziness of the material, it was the producer's suggestion that maybe we have Tommy come around and maybe be a bit of a vibe man. We didn't really know what he was going to do, but we had him around just to kind of vibe, you know. There was a lot of this crazy kind of stuff going on with the songwriting and he got a bit unhinged himself, and who knows, maybe something interesting would be there. And it was cool, and I think he added very nicely to the record.

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