NEW YORK — A hush falls over the crowd as Rhett Miller takes to the stage at Joe’s Pub to preview songs from his new solo album, “The Instigator,” and straps on his guitar in silence. But only seconds into the set, he erupts into the signature head-shaking, foot-stomping guitar strumming that has electrified fans of his country punk band, the Old 97’s, for a decade. The men bob their heads, and the women swoon over Miller’s wry lovelorn lyrics and blue-eyed baby face. “I’ll fix your broken heart, Rhett,” one female fan murmurs.
While charm is something the guitarist has never been short on, a breakaway hit is. The Old 97’s, from whom he split to record the new album, garnered enormous critical success — Rolling Stone included the band’s 2001 release “Satellite Rides” on its list of Top 10 hits for the year — but major commercial success has been more elusive. With the Sept. 28 release of his solo attempt, Miller is poised to rewrite that history, albeit with a softer, more pop sound. “This record was predicated on spontaneity,” he says. “Three or four of the songs I wrote in the studio and we just recorded them immediately. There were no demos. There was no rehearsal beforehand, which is completely antithetical to the way I worked with the 97’s.”
Still, performing alone is nothing new to the guitarist, who honed his craft as a soloist during the band’s down time. After relocating to L.A. from his native Texas, Miller found his niche at Largo, the “magical” Hollywood nightclub that has become an artistic enclave for such musicians as Beck, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith. There, Miller also met his future collaborator, the legendary producer Jon Brion. “The whole vibe there is — it sounds pretentious — but it’s an intellectual scene,” Miller says. “There’s not a lot of posing and not a lot of industry wonks. It’s nurturing.”
That intimate scene is something Miller might crave after his upcoming promo tour. He recently filmed the video for his single, “Come Around,” and after making the rounds to visit radio stations this month, he’ll hit the road in October, either opening for a big tour or headlining. “I don’t even know who’s really worth opening for anymore,” he sighs. “Not to talk s–t, but there aren’t a lot of good records coming out now that I like.”
No matter who Miller winds up touring with, life on the road without the other 97’s will be an adjustment. He’s recently married, for one (sorry, ladies), and his wife, model Erica Iahn, is along for the bus ride. “We’re going to take the back lounge as our bedroom, like Ozzy Osbourne does,” he says. “If it were the 97’s, that might be a hard sell. But as it is, I’m the boss now.”
Despite losing his bachelor status, Miller will continue penning his songs about heartbreak and failed romance. “I don’t really have a choice,” he says, citing a new self-deprecating track that pokes fun at his obsession with losing the right girl. “I knew when I put that on the record I would live to regret it a little bit, but it’s just too true. As I say on my record, ‘This is what I do.’”