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Rhett Miller Meets Black Prairie

Old 97’s Frontman Takes ‘Traveler’ Songs to New Places

For almost 20 years, Rhett Miller has fronted the Americana-fied rock ’n’ roll band Old 97’s, bringing his abundant songwriting ideas and energy to more than a dozen albums. In May 2014, Mix briefly profiled the 97’s most recent record, Most Messed Up, a high-octane concept album about the pleasures and darkness of music and debauchery on the road. Well, it turns out that Miller wrote more than enough songs for Messed Up—so many more that he had enough for a different project: The Traveler, a full-length album with the Americana band Black Prairie.

“We opened for Rhett on a string of shows about three years ago,” says musician/producer Chris Funk, who plays in Black Prairie and in indie folk-rock band The Decemberists. “We had a full band and he was playing solo as a headliner, so it was a natural thing that we should play some songs together. After that, he was like, ‘We should make a record together.’

“Fortunately he held us to it,” Funk continues. “I guess he’d heard that I produce records on the side, so he asked me to oversee production, and off we went.”

Miller brought a selection of songs out to Black Prairie country—Portland, Ore.—to work up arrangements with the musicians. “He and most of the band came over to my house and we jammed on ideas,” Funk says. “But even once we got into the studio, there was a lot of arranging on-the-fly.”

Band tracking happened live to an Otari MTR90 24-track machine in Larry Crane’s Jackpot Studio, with engineer Adam Selzer and Funk behind the glass. “Because we were recording with a core band, which I’m part of, we already had a sound in mind,” says Funk, who would add his own overdubs later in his personal facility, Walker Studio.

“To sit back as a producer and imagine yourself in the song is a strange approach,” Funk says. “I actually fought playing on a lot of it, but Rhett was like, ‘No you gotta be on there!’ It was part of the spirit of the project. So I would say, ‘Leave a solo spot for me here,’ so when I did my overdubs there would be space.

“Black Prairie basically identifies as Americana, so everything we did started in that realm,” Funk continues, “but Rhett wanted to stretch it, and Jon Neufeld, the guitar player, was excited to strap on the electric and give that a shot. There’s a song called ‘Good Night’ toward the end that has psychedelic moments, for example.”

In Jackpot, most of the musicians were situated in the live room, while Miller sang in a vocal booth, and drums were in the small, dead-ish booth called  “the ’70s room.” “We were experimenting with that space, and even used kick drums like marching drums in there; it sounded pretty cool,” Funk says. “I think Larry tends to shy away from putting drums in that room, but we thought we were being really brave!”

The lineup in the live room included Nate Query (who also plays with Funk in Decemberists) on upright or electric bass, Neufeld playing acoustic or electric guitar, and violin/strings player Annalisa Tornfelt.

“We put the amps in the isolation room with the drums,” Selzer says. “With some of the quieter acoustic stuff, like when Jon was playing acoustic or Annalisa playing fiddle, a lot of times they would be in an iso room. But we weren’t trying to avoid bleed at all costs; it was definitely part of capturing a live band.”

Selzer miked Neufeld’s guitar amps with Royer 121s and his Archtop acoustic with a Telefunken U47. The fiddle mic was an AEA R84 ribbon. “I have one of those at my studio [Type Foundry] as well,” Selzer says. “They take EQ really well, but they also smooth out any upper harshness you might get on fiddle.”

In the vocal booth, Miller sang into a Soundeluxe E47 microphone, which went through a Pacifica preamp as well as a UREI 1176 compressor. Almost everything else went to the pre’s in Jackpot’s Rupert Neve Designs 5088 console. Funk says that many of the live vocal takes were keepers, but he did re-cut some vocal parts, as well as his instrument overdubs, to Logic in his studio.

“For me, the most important stuff to get [to analog tape] are the drums and the bass, and I love getting electric guitars,” Funk says. “It saturates in a really cool way without having to work at it. But my tape machine is an MCI 16-track, so it wasn’t compatible with the session; so, we just switched to digital at that point.”

Funk’s parts on The Traveler include multiple instruments and touches throughout the album, including dobro, guitars, bouzouki, Marxophone and bells—mostly miked with an AEA R84—as well as samples here and there. Another secret ingredient added at Funk’s studio: R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.

“Peter played on two tracks,” Funk says. “On the song ‘Jules,’ you can hear his electric 12-string—one of his signature moves—and he played mandolin on ‘My Little Disaster,’ which I’m sure I used the R84 on also. I like to use ribbon mics on the plunkier folk instruments, dark ribbons.

“Peter’s funny,” Funk says. “He’ll show up and play whatever: ‘What have you got there? It’s fine.’ So he used one of my amps; there’s a company called Weber in Indiana that makes these amazing speakers, but they also make kits. They sent me a kit for a ’54 Deluxe-type amp. I never got around to building it, but a friend of mine assembled the entire thing for me for my birthday. So we used that, and I think we also used a Carr Mercury, a really low-wattage amp. I like to split and use two amps to get two different tones.”

“All of the players on this album are so musical and so talented, you can throw anything at them and they’ll come up with an interesting idea,” Selzer observes. “Rhett came in with great songs, and everybody came in with great parts. Pairing his songs with Black Prairie was a really good fit.”