Tuesday, November 29, 2022 Nov 29, 2022
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Music

An Out of This World Old 97’s Show

As the band celebrates its 30th year, the boys got to play their biggest show ever: a set in a Guardians of the Galaxy special.
By | |Photography Courtesy of Disney/Marvel
Old 97s christmas special
Space Oddities: The members of Bzermilkitokolok and the Knowheremen, aka the Old 97’s: (from left) Ken Bethea, Rhett Miller, Philip Peeples, and Murry Hammond. Disney

With a deep breath, I ripped into a guitar solo, but something distracted me. For starters, I was playing on a street corner of an otherworldly dystopian city in front of a large crowd of dancing aliens. I glanced at my hands, and for some reason I was wearing fingerless gloves and playing a dirty, rusty Flying V guitar that I don’t own. Standing directly in front of me was a massive green humanoid, an insect girl with large black eyes, a scowling bald and blue android, a blond Mr. Handsome with a pair of quad blasters strapped to his hips, and, just for good measure, a 3-foot statue of a raccoon. Still rocking the solo, I looked not 6 degrees but 6 inches to my left, where Kevin Bacon was strumming a guitar and smiling at me. Beyond him was the extraterrestrial band Bzermilkitokolok and the Knowheremen. Earthlings know us as the Old 97’s: Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples, and me.

Oh, yeah. There were also Christmas lights, and it was snowing. What kind of insanity would the 14-year-old me have thought I had gotten myself into in 2022?

What I had gotten into, along with my bandmates, was a role in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, a Marvel Studios’ production that will begin streaming on Disney+ November 25. In August 2014, I had taken my teenage kids Eliza and Audie to see Guardians of the Galaxy. The trailer was goofy. It featured a submachine gun-wielding raccoon and a blue villain whose superpower was a whistle. But the kids told me that the word at Lake Highlands High School was, “Don’t miss it. It’s insane.” They were right. It was the most fun I had had at the theater in years. The movie became a surprise hit, grossing $772 million; the 2017 sequel went even bigger and grossed just under $1 billion worldwide.

In the ’90s, Guardians writer/director James Gunn and his brother Sean, who plays Kraglin, were hardcore Old 97’s fans. James would tell me we became one of his three favorite bands, along with Hanoi Rocks and The Replacements. When the Guardians movies exploded, he reached out to us and said that someday he would like to work us into something, but it probably wouldn’t be one of our songs since the music they use for the show is from the ’70s, and we are a modern band. I remember thinking then that it was a bummer, but you never know. Strange things tend to happen in Guardians of the Galaxy.

That something occurred in the fall of 2021. James reached out to us again and said not only did he want to use two of our songs, but he wanted us to actually play them in a holiday special—as aliens. And oh, by the way, Kevin Bacon would be singing lead on one of the songs. Nuts.

I should take an aside and explain that this was not our first major movie rodeo. In 2008, we were in a movie called The Break-Up, which starred Jennifer Aniston, Vince Vaughn, and, my personal favorite, Peter Billingsley, also known as Ralphie “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” Parker from A Christmas Story. Vince was a fan and wrote a scene in the movie where he and Jen are supposed to have a date together to see one of our shows, but he stands her up.

We flew to Chicago and shot the scene in two days. We got to hang out with all of them, including Jen, who seemed to think we were funny. But it felt more or less just like a regular Old 97’s show: big theater, guitars, and a crowd of people looking at us. But we were about to find out there was nothing regular about working on a Marvel Studios special.

We flew to Atlanta in March 2022 to Trilith Studios, which was just outside the city but at the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The studio complex looked like a Georgian version of Area 51, as it was made up of about 25 brown warehouses, each the size of six high-school basketball gyms.

Day 1 was a Marvel fan’s dream. A cheerful twentysomething met us in a cart and whisked us away to wardrobe in one of the giant warehouses. I walked in and my jaw dropped. The place was packed with 5,000 or so costumes, all hanging on long racks with names such as Drax, Mantis, and Nebula. I was in the rear of our group, and I secretly stuck out my finger and let it drag across the costumes, soaking in the cosmic greatness.

They took us to a dressing room, and a team of wardrobe techs appeared with our outfits. I looked like a futuristic soldier of fortune draped with necklaces, vests, straps, pouches. Our costumes were as legit as if they had been crafted by an artificer from Zenn-La. The metal was heavy metal. The leather was oily leather. And they even came distressed with dirt and rust. I so wished my cosplaying daughter, who buys her costumes on Amazon on the cheap, could be there with me. She would have freaked.

After that, they took us to props, where they had bought us some guitars and a drum set and then covered them with more dirt and rust. My guitar was a black Epiphone Flying V, which was surprisingly light. (Sadly, I didn’t get to keep it.) The coolest part was at the end, when the props designer led us into his office and showed us Captain America’s shield, Thor’s hammer, Doctor Strange’s necklace, and Black Widow’s batons. I asked if I could hold them and he said, “Absolutely.” So I picked up—dare I say wielded—the shield and hammer, which together weighed about 80 pounds. For one shining moment, I could feel the envy of a billion Marvel fans.

Our first day of shooting began with an alarm set for 5:45 am. Hollywood likes to get up early. The bellyaching on the drive to the studio soon turned to joy when we learned that we each would have our own trailer (with our names on them!). Our costumes were inside. They told us to get dressed and head to makeup.

In a lot of ways, this was the most memorable part of the whole experience. We each were assigned two artists. One of mine, Shane Mahan, was a special effects legend and had worked on The Terminator and Aliens, to name just two classics. But the thing he seemed to get the biggest kick out of was that he had designed the original Friday the 13th Jason hockey mask as an unpaid intern when he was only 18.

They started by gluing my hair down tight to my scalp. Of the four of us in the band, I was the only one with a full headpiece. So they had to smear me down with some lube and then slip the thing over my head. The mask was made of a very soft silicon that would change with my expressions. 

Once my mask was on, my other artist, Michelle, specialized in gluing it down snugly and then airbrushing the crap out of it. It was a very up close and personal experience where they would openly discuss my facial features right under my nose, which was weird. It was also early in the morning, and sometimes I dozed off only to be woken by the tickle of an airbrush.

Next, a woman from Marshall, Texas, came in and put in my colored contacts, which were ultraviolet. I’d never worn contacts before, and they felt like tadpoles.

The whole process took three and a half hours and was as bizarre as something could be, but I loved it. It was also when it really hit me that we were in the bigs. All of these people we were meeting worked for Disney and Marvel. They were the best in the world.

I stepped outside of the makeup trailer, and for the first time saw the rest of the 97’s as aliens. This was pretty funny stuff. Rhett had a thin head with an elongated chin and an 8-inch goatee. Murry had a tree head but was wearing his traditional round glasses. Philip looked like himself, if he was about 200 years old and wiser. They said I looked like a fish. The cart showed up and drove us to the set—or should I say the land of Knowhere.

James Gunn pointed straight at us and shouted, “Hey, everyone, I want to introduce to you my favorite rock band in the world, the Old 97’s!”

In the Marvel world, Knowhere is a giant floating head that has been colonized and is used as an interdimensional crossroads. Entering it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It was a full-size city block that was both dilapidated and futuristic all at once. There were screens with alien symbols on them and smoke curling up from the bars, pawn shops, and gambling tables. It was packed with alien townspeople dressed up in sick costumes that would put to shame the best Halloween party you’ve ever attended. And up on a balcony and staring at us were Peter Quill, Drax, Mantis, Nebula, Rocket, and Groot, collectively known as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Standing in the middle of everyone was the director of this incredible scene. 

James Gunn pointed straight at us and shouted, “Hey, everyone, I want to introduce to you my favorite rock band in the world, the Old 97’s!” 

How bizarre, how bizarre.

Looking back at the time we spent in Knowhere, there are flashes of peculiar memories. The robot girl who sold space iguana on a stick. The android near Murry who had a fishbowl head with smoke trickling out of it. The cloven-hoofed guy who was not only shirtless and red but spoke with a Southern accent. Tearing through our song “I Don’t Know What Christmas Is” with James Gunn slam-dancing into me. The humid squishy feeling inside of my mask.

I’ve been in a few plays, but shooting the Guardians special was different. In live theater, performances are tight. I once played a butler. I knew that when the lead actress was saying the word “staircase,” at that exact moment I needed to be pouring cocktails. On the Knowhere set, we were told what to do by an assistant director, and then we would improv it for three or four minutes. We had to do this in complete silence. It was eerie, a working city of alien mimes.

We shot one scene where our singer, Rhett, had speaking parts with Chris Pratt, who plays Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord. Rhett was super nervous about this, but Chris was cool and gave him some acting tips. At one point I heard him say, “Don’t worry about screwing up. I do it all the time, and James makes me look like a genius.”

During a break, I discovered an outdoor market that sold candy, soft drinks, jerky, and the like. Did I say sell? It was all free. Free candy! When I got back to the set, some thieving townsfolk had stolen my guitar picks.

We shot for two days and then broke camp and flew home. A week later, we returned and had a new bandmate. Kevin Bacon was going to lead us in singing our song “Here It Is Christmas Time” for the grand finale of the show. We were stoked to meet him, and he turned out to be a cool guy. He has a band with his brother, so we all talked music and touring, and later I got him to tell me what it was like to be in Animal House, my all-time favorite comedy.

On our last morning of shooting, I walked out on the set to look around and once again have my mind blown by the magic of Disney/Marvel. Over the weekend, they had brought in Christmas lights, decorations, and a 30-foot-tall tree. It was fantastic. Then they outfitted each of us, the townsfolk, and all the Guardians with Christmas accouterments. I got a classic green holiday sweater and a little red top hat that Mantis, who is played by Pom Klementieff, said was “cute.”

We soon got the call to get set up for our final scene. With that, the four Old 97’s—just four guys who started a band together when we were living off Greenville Avenue—got to play with Kevin Bacon. 

And when it came my special time, I took a deep breath and ripped into that guitar solo.  


This story originally ran in the December issue of D Magazine with the headline, “An Out of this World Old 97’s Show.” Write to [email protected].

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