Old 97’s: Turn on the TV (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

Ken Bethea says that he’s lost count of how many times he’s engaged in conversation with a stranger, only for the dialogue to unfold like this: “You tell them you’re in a band, and they’re excited,” he says. “Then you tell ‘em the name of the band, and they’ve never heard of us. And that’s here in Dallas!”
After the laughter subsides, he completes his example. “But then when you talk to the fourth or fifth person, they say, ‘Holy shit! I’ve seen you guys so many times!’”

Back in the 1970s when Bob Seger broke out as a national success, there was a saying about him: “He took years and years to become an overnight success.” Though Seger was a well-respected and hard working Detroit rocker since the mid ‘60s, it wasn’t until the release of Live Bullet in 1976 that he became a household name.

And so – just maybe – it might be the same with Old 97’s. Superb albums, spirited concerts and a surprising level-headedness – the original lineup has stayed together all these years without a single personnel change – are all commendable qualities. But they don’t necessarily push a band into next-level, high-profile success.

What might just do that is a little motion picture called Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Released to the Disney+ streaming service last Christmas, the popular action-adventure-comedy film takes the popular Marvel superhero franchise to the next level, and onto TV screens. Alongside beloved characters like Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, Drax the Destroyer and Nebula is an intergalactic rock band, Bzermikitokolok and the Knowheremen. The nearly-unpronounceable band is none other than Old 97’s, making their feature film debut.

It’s fair to wonder how the band landed such a high-profile spot. Not surprisingly, it has everything to do with the fact that the filmmakers could have been the fourth or fifth person in Bethea’s example.

“James Gunn is the director and writer of Guardians of the Galaxy, and his brother, Sean, is also in it.” Bethea explains. Back in the early days of Old 97’s, one Gunn brother lived in St. Louis, the other in Chicago. The two would make a point of attending every Old 97’s show in either city.

Bethea says that he and his band mates only found out about all this six or seven years ago when they met James Gunn for the first time. “And James was like, ‘I’d love to get you involved in our Guardians movie, but the music’s all from the ‘70s.’ So we didn’t really fit.”

Unfortunately, the same would be true when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 were made. But then came the holiday special, a winking nod at the infamous stinkeroo, 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special.

Because the Disney+ film would be a change of pace, Gunn felt he had the freedom to go a different direction with the music. He also wanted actor Kevin Bacon – who had been referenced previously in Guardians movies – to appear. So in the film, Bacon portrays a fictionalized version of himself, and he sings a song with Old 97’s.

Unlike Bacon, the band members were heavily made up to look like intergalactic creatures; until the music starts, they’re barely recognizable as the four Texans of Old 97’s. Reportedly, wrangling the musicians into their costumes and makeup took several hours. “But now I’m in the Marvel universe!” exclaims Bethea. “That so badass! It was really fun shooting the film, and it was amazing when it came out. It was mind-blowing.” And it brought Old 97’s to a whole new audience.

Not making too much of his brush with movie stardom, Bethea is first and foremost proud of the music he and his band mates make. And even though Old 97’s haven’t raked in millions of dollars or achieved worldwide fame – not yet anyway – he says that there’s a simple reason the four of them stick with it.
“It’s our ‘fishing trip,’” he says.

“We get along very well. I like hanging out with the guys [in the band], and I like hanging out with our crew,” Bethea says. “I enjoy the process of going and playing shows, and I think everybody else does, too. It’s still really fun to do it.”

He equates being in Old 97’s to spending nearly all your time doing your favorite thing. “It’s like if you’re really into fishing,” he explains, “and you get to drive around the country doing it with your best friends. But every time you catch a fish, there would be 1000 people that cheer. It’s amazing!”