Scott Miller takes a pop quiz
The Bob #30, May/June 1987
By Jay Schwartz
Scott Miller is the most criminally unknown songwriter / performer / all-around Rock Genius in America today. His band Game Theory has been making gorgeous records for over four years now, and while the band have met all the superficial criteria for success on the indie market -- a good label, good placement on the college charts, good press and occasional tours -- the fact remains that too few people are tuned into Miller's painstakingly crafted and very personal quest for the perfect melody.
It has never been easy for the soldiers of intelligent pop. The Winston/Salem axis that Miller is most often compared to blossomed and withered for most of a decade before finally gaining general acceptance on the CMJ circuit in the form of Let's Active. Now it's 1987 and half of the bands in the world are covering 1966 Beatles songs and screaming "Big Star" like a mantra that bestows sudden cool. Even Alex Chilton himself is cashing in. But until the dB's realize they don't have to prove themselves "American" or "rock"; until Chris Stamey comes to grips with the fact that it is possible to be taken seriously just for writing beautiful songs; and until Mitch Easter learns to keep a band together long enough to take it on the road to a Middle America whose underground consciousness is constantly expanding -- until all of that happens, Game Theory will sit back and quietly keep the pop torch aloft with style and grace and hooks galore.
A recent, rare East Coast tour showed Game Theory to be charming as well. At Maxwell's in Hoboken they offered a friendly set that recalled an era when any innovative new band could get major-label attention. Game Theory's audience that night was receptive; but with good support acts (The Johnsons, the Ben Vaughn Combo), a college radio convention in town and free admission to all participants, why wasn't this small club packed?
Scott Miller doesn't seem to mind, though. He's got a high-level computer-programming job, a beautiful girlfriend who now plays in the band, and the freedom to do tours and release records. Miller was extremely open and cooperative for an interview that he'd had no advance warning of. We spoke in a Hoboken pizza parlor on Halloween night, amid quarrelling neighborhood tough-boys and disappointed trick-or-treaters.
THE BOB: How many songs have you written?
SCOTT: In my life? This should be figurable ... I've probably written about twelve a year since I was ten years old. I'm 26 now. That's 192, I think.
THE BOB: Did you go to college?
SCOTT: I certainly did. I have a degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Davis, which is kind of a fun little college.
THE BOB: So you didn't go to UCLA, like the song ("Bad Year at UCLA," from the Blaze of Glory LP)?
SCOTT: No. I was writing a song, "Bad Year at UC-D," and I needed an extra syllable.
THE BOB: What's your favorite book?
SCOTT: For rather perverse reasons, my favorite book is Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce . . . even though I have not read it all the way through. I've read Ulysses all the way through twice, which was not easy.
THE BOB: Are you also a Lewis Carroll fan? You had a band named Lobster Quadrille.
SCOTT: Yeah, I got that from Alice In Wonderland and had that band from '75 to '78. Bucketfull of Brains ran an article on us, and I heard that shortly after that, there was another band called Lobster Quadrille. I'll show you a Finnegan's Wake reference on that [points to Real Nighttime LP jacket]. "Here Comes Everybody" refers to Finnegan's Wake. Since this has appeared, there has been a band called The Wake with an album called Here Comes Everybody, and a band called Here Comes Everybody, so I take full credit for that!
THE BOB: Explain the Real Nighttime liner notes. Does it refer to all of the songs?
SCOTT: Yes. First of all, it's written in the exact style of Finnegan's Wake.
THE BOB: The part corresponding to the song "She'll Be a Verb" mentions all of the Beatles cryptically.
SCOTT: It may take a while to remember all of these things. The pun is "going completely to Help!" and it's sort of a song about a person going to hell in a Beatle-like manner. I had a zillion reasons for doing this and I don't remember them all.
THE BOB: Do you remember what your songs are about while you're singing them?
SCOTT: Yeah, but the older they get, the harder it is. When you go back one album it gets kind of fuzzy.
THE BOB: There are references in this cover to Chris Stamey and the Sneakers. Are you a fan of them?
SCOTT: Huge, yeah! "Condition Red" is one of the great songs of '76.
THE BOB: Every review of Game Theory I ever read said it sounded just like Chris Stamey.
SCOTT: Really? I think I read one. I've certainly heard that it sounds exactly like Alex Chilton, and exactly like Mitch Easter, and exactly like Michael Quercio, but Chris Stamey seems less popular because he's not as well-known. I think Chris is great. He's got this song "Cara Lee" that's just awesome! I can't wait for it to come out.
THE BOB: "Regenisraen" sounds like Stamey. What's the name mean? "Near Sinegar" backwards?
SCOTT: It's not backwards. It's an amalgam of three words: regeneration; crossed with the word Israel, which is a sort of symbol of the beginning of religion, Judeo-Christian tradition; and the word rain, just as a symbol of recurrent events, a cycle of nature. It all adds up to a word which to me means a sort of faith in regeneration after death, a hope that things will get brighter before the dawn, a song about depending on that kind of cyclical hope. I don't think anyone's gotten all that yet. You have the goods now.
THE BOB: Do you worry about people not getting your lyrics at all?
SCOTT: Well, rock music is not something that people in large numbers spend a lot of time trying to figure out. Which is probably not the best situation for me, because I always write songs that that have taken me ages to write lyrics for, and every hair is generally in place as far as this line means this, this line means that. You can spend hours figuring them out, and there will be something there. But do I worry about it? Probably not.
THE BOB: Did you want to put lyrics in your records but Enigma wouldn't pay for it?
SCOTT: That's true, or more precisely, Enigma would pay for it but Capitol refused to put any stuff in any of the records that they were doing. Thanks, guys. However, they were nice enough to put in two big advertisment sheets for other records. I've never talked to Capitol. I have no idea what they're doing. That deal really hasn't changed my life a whole lot.
THE BOB: The Smithereens are getting airplay.
SCOTT: They're doing real well, a lot better than we are commercially. They have a swell video and everything. They write things that sound more like hits than ours do. It will probably help us if it generates money for Enigma. I didn't like their LP as much as I thought I would after that Beauty and Sadness thing, which was pretty wonderful. They do write songs that are good hits; I find myself humming "Behind the Wall of Sleep" all the time. They could be a big hit for Enigma if they play their cards right, whereas it's hard to picture Game Theory in the top five. I do find that hard to picture, though I kind of still hope for it in a vague, non-linear way. I can't see myself saying "Oh, by God, we're gonna have a hit with this next song, and we're gonna have the snare drum happening, and you know, the backing vocals, the slick producer and 80s Bono Vox vocals."
THE BOB: Is Mitch Easter a fan of yours? I'm sure he produces other stuff that he doesn't love, but you're so similar.
SCOTT: Yeah, I think he likes my stuff a lot, and I certainly like his stuff a lot. I think I would go so far as to say we're sort of his pet act right now, and he'll probably continue to do ours. But I don't know if he has any other acts that he's hooked up with these days. I'd say that has a lot to do with our friendship, too; we've just sort of become good friends and get along real well. I'm a huge fan of his, so he can play me his tapes and feel fairly confident that I'll rave to him for a couple of days. And, you know, honestly too, I really think Let's Active could well be the best band around in America today. I really like him.
THE BOB: To what extent does Mitch Easter produce you? You're a pretty good producer yourself, judging from Blaze of Glory.
SCOTT: He helps from the technical end, not from the artistic end. He doesn't say, "You're going to need a lot of backing vocals here" or "Use this guitar on this." I usually do most of that stuff. I'd say I end up doing half of the production myself. He does pretty much all of the engineering and some of the things you'd call production. Like he decides where you stand when you do the vocals, and you know, "We're going to have a nylon stocking between you and the microphone," some tricks like that. He'll do things like say "No, that vocal track wasn't good, let's do it again." He makes a lot of quality decisions, he sort of figures out what we want and has in his head what he thinks a good pop record's gonna be and works toward that. Also, he knows how to use all his equipment precisely and utterly.
THE BOB: Tell us his other secret tricks like the stocking.
SCOTT: Everything you mike, kick down a little bit in the low mids, and kick it up a little bit on the high end, on the way in. That's pretty universal, though -- he just sort of knows the things that all real producers know. He's a real producer, he knows those Steve Lillywhite kind of things. He can get real heavy drum sounds when he wants to. A lot of bands will go in there and say, "Well, we want the most New American sound we can possibly get. None of this reverby stuff." But we'll say ... Mitch and I are real historians, we're both really into 70s rock. The song "I've Tried Subtlety," I said, "I want a drum sound just like Low by David Bowie," so we kind of went for that. We have a lot of these non-descript sounds that we remember liking from these 70s records.
THE BOB: When will you make a concept album?
SCOTT: Probably the next one's gonna be a litle bit of a concept album, but you'll never know from listening to it. They all are, sort of. It's not gonna be the chronicles of a deaf, dumb and blind boy. But I do have these little overtures for albums because I was raised in the golden age of pretentiousness. Mitch wrote me a letter and said of his new amp, "It enables me to be more like my hero Mick Box, the handsomest man in rock and roll." Remember, that guitarist for Uriah Heep?
THE BOB: I hear that Mitch is going more metal.
SCOTT: Mitch is goin' more metal, he's got some serious Zeppelin overtones now. Ledz Active. I like Big Plans for Everybody very much. I think it's the album of the year.
THE BOB: Do you have a computer?
SCOTT: For the last six months, my job has been as a computer programmer in this language called LISP. It's a pretty exciting job, actually. It's a lot of artificial-intelligence related stuff. I enjoy it very much; it's the most enjoyable job I've had. My second most enjoyable job was working at a cappuccino place -- for some reason that was really rewarding for me. I worked for this record distributor for a while and that seemed like pure drudgery. But I don't have a home computer. I don't know what I'd do with it.
THE BOB: Are you an astronomy buff?
SCOTT: A bit, yeah. Not astronomy so much as cosmology. I don't know particular stars all that well.
THE BOB: But you know Rigel Five.
SCOTT: I just got that from Star Trek. They don't know how many planets there are around the star Rigel, but in Star Trek, they had Rigel Seven and Rigel Five and so forth.
THE BOB: I didn't know what that song ("Nine Lives To Rigel Five") meant. I taped it for a friend who explained planet numbering to me. She speculated that Rigel Five must be nine light-year-lives away.
SCOTT: This is the really funny thing about that -- the star Rigel is about nine lifetimes away going the speed of light. When I wrote the song, I didn't mean that, I just meant that it would take nine lifetimes to reach Rigel Five, just off the top of my head. But then one day I decided to figure it out, and it comes out almost exactly that long. And I thought, "Wow, I am certainly in touch with the psychic plane now!" No, just kidding.
THE BOB: So what is the song about?
SCOTT: It's about growing up in the sixties, when they had the moon landing and Star Trek and things like that, and the whole culture led you to believe that we were at this sort of frontier of unlimited freedom of thought and accomplishment. And as I grew up, it slowly but surely all kind of fizzled. So there's a lot of references to both legitimate and sort of cheesoid TV shows. So the main thrust of the song is about someone who is thinking of going to Rigel Five but it's just too far to actually get to, and at the same time never understanding what the advantage of actually getting there is. The end. Did that make any sense to you?
THE BOB: Are you from the Davis area all your life?
SCOTT: Am I from the Rigel Five area? Um, I grew up in Sacramento, which is the nearest big city to Davis. I went to college in Davis for five years, which is when I started Game Theory. I moved to San Francisco in 1985, when the Distortion version of Game Theory all quit. Then we got version two of Game Theory together.
THE BOB: Who do you live with?
SCOTT: The girl who plays guitar in Game Theory now is my girlfriend. Her name is Donette Thayer and we've been living together for a couple of years now. She was in this different band at the time. I produced her record which is called The Veil and it didn't get wide distribution. She wasn't doing anything for a while and joined my band. We're Richard and Linda Thompson now.
THE BOB: So you have a full-time job and are on a leave of absence?
SCOTT: Yeah, they let me go whenever I have to do band stuff, which is very big of them. It's a company called Lucid Inc. that maintains a version of the language LISP and sells it to companies that want to run LISP on their system. My job is I'm one of three people who maintain the compiler. I write parts of the compiler and things like that. I have my textbook here on compiler writing theory. I plan to get through it on tour.
THE BOB: That sounds like a pretty serious job. Are you totally committed to music?
SCOTT: Well, I need to make a living. They pay me a lot of money to do this stuff. There's kind of a carrot in front of me and a boot behind me in this situation with the job. I love music and I'll always write it even if there's no money to be made at it. So no, it's not a question of squeezing music out of my life. Because you know, all along I've had to either go to college full-time [or work] at some grungy job which is worse. Now I have this job that I sort of waltz in and out of, and it's a lot better. I like writing songs for its own sake. For years that was enough to keep me going when I didn't have any public exposure at all. There's plenty of satisfaction in just writing a good song so that you can just play it and record it for yourself, and listen back to it.