There comes a time in everyone’s life when you’ve gotta quit screwin’ around. For Jackpot singer-guitarist-songwriter Rusty Miller, that time came shortly before he hit the big 3-0. The Sacramento-based twang-rockers (Miller, guitarist Lee Bob Watson, bassist Sheldon Cooney and drummer Mike Curry) had their new album, Shiny Things, in the can for 18 months because then-label Future Farmer insisted it was theirs to release. Jackpot wanted to give Shiny Things to Hollywood Records imprint Surfdog and they did. Of course, there was a lawsuit (there are always knots to untangle when one ceases to screw).
“I’m fuckin’ 30 years old,” says Miller. “I was sick of screwin’ around. We just wanted to move along.”
The lawsuit was settled, but Miller is mum, thanks to a pesky gag order. But this much he’s clear about: Future Farmer’s crops were barren, they couldn’t nurture a band like Jackpot that has potential to make waves. With Surfdog, home to such bands as Brian Setzer, EchoBrain and the Butthole Surfers, it’s a gnarly pipeline. They put out like a good-time ho, stuffing envelopes and spreading the gospel of Jackpot. And it’s not simply an effort to recoup; they happen to dig the band. And since Shiny Things is Jackpot’s best set of skewed country-pop yet, the timing is pretty sweet.
“We definitely have more resources this time around,” Miller says. Where the band’s prior tours were weekend jaunts, primarily up and down the West Coast, they’re now able to wade deeper into the U.S. and not stress about returning to day jobs. “Mike just quit IBM. Lee Bob and Sheldon are substitute teachers. I work in the office of my father’s carpet cleaning company, but not for long. We have lives and jobs. A band will burn out with no tour support. Nobody can have a life or any money. And you break up. We were waiting to do a serious tour until somebody could give us some money.”
And so it is that Jackpot is on tour with money, hitting landlocked locales plotted by a real live booking agent. And there’s that album. Shiny Things is Jackpot’s third and certifiable best—a collection of twisted, twang-infested story-songs that evoke Vic Chesnutt passing a doobie with Leonard Cohen and Jeff Tweedy. And the benefit of moolah shows in the production, a veritable sonic wash and wax provided by producer/singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet (ex-Green On Red). Held up to 1998’s Bone-ville and 2000’s Weightless, it might look like a slick, radio-targeted sellout if you’re a lo-fi purist.
“There’s definitely a higher quality,” Miller admits, laughing. “But not like people who spend $500,000 to a million dollars or 10 times that amount on their records. I love scrappy, underground, lousy recordings and still do … but it was fun to actually make a nice, quality recording.”
As for it being a sellout, Miller says his songwriting is a natural process but the radio-readiness of songs like “Far, Far, Far,” “Hide in the Frequency” and “Throw Away Your Misery” was no accident. Laughing, he says, “I’ve almost just given in. Sometimes people wanna hear [poppy stuff]. Why not give it to them?” Given a moment to ponder, though, he gives a serious analysis: “Before, I was always trying to construct and deconstruct into this weird, Lou Reed factor. [But on this record] I’m getting back into my REM and Robyn Hitchcock roots, a more ‘songwrite-y’ thing instead of the live, dance-party, white-guy groove. But every song is pretty schizo, you know?”
But is radio a goal? Nah. Miller says that while radio is great advertisement, Jackpot and Surfdog aren’t baiting for the Top 40 fences. Surfdog’s strategy is to target Jackpot’s existing fanbase, to first work college and specialty radio stations, then nickel-and-dime a handful of commercial stations. A slow build, no screwin’ around.
“There are tons of bands we love that have nothing to do with radio. If we had to choose [whether to be a radio band] right now, we probably would choose not. I think humans like things linear, upwardly mobile. If you’re on the radio and have a hit single, you can’t really go backwards. So we’d rather be a band like the Flaming Lips—they’ve had a steady career without being on the radio. Or like a Pavement or a Granddaddy.
“This is just the beginning. We were delayed there for a while, but Surfdog is doing a great job and we’re high on the totem pole. We could be on some other cool indie like Bloodshot, but we’d come behind Ryan Adams and Willie Nelson. I like the fact I can call up the owner and know exactly what’s going on without the hierarchy of bullshit. You know what I mean?”