Scott Miller Interview
Bucketfull of Brains #38, Fall 1990
By Jud Cost
I tracked down Game Theory's Scott Miller at a subterranean coffee bar in Burlingame, an older upmarket suburb twenty miles south of San Francisco, where he now lives. In basic black and Dylan-ish mop of hair, he wasn't too hard to spot amongst the raspberry polo shirts, aquamarine jogging shorts and (newest atrocity) day-glo chartreuse sunglasses -- standing out in the crowd much as Oscar Wilde must have done whenever he munched on a quarter pounder at his local McDonald's. We ordered more coffees and discussed his musical career, which always seens on the verge of catching the national spotlight, ala R.E.M., but never quite does.
B.O.B: Did Alternate Learning, your band prior to Game Theory, start in Davis, California?
S.M.: I'm from Sacramento, which is very near Davis, practically a suburb. Alternate Learning started in Davis. Before that we had a band called the Lobster Quadrille, named after this thing from Alice in Wonderland. And before that, well, I've been in some sort of musical project since before I could walk. I started out playing guitar and liked folk music, sort of commercial, East Village type of folk music--like Penny & Jean and the Womenfolk, sort of mild protest but mostly just sweet harmonies. My dad got me my first record. He brought me home Sgt. Pepper and I flipped over that. That's when I started getting really aggressive and playing the guitar for real. I was really covetous of any electric guitar that any kid had in the neighborhood. He was my new best friend, whoever he was. My second album must have been the Monkees, because I used to like them a lot and still do. Still a proud Monkees fan.
B.O.B: What was the musical scene like in Sacramento when you were growing up?
S.M.: There were some clubs that specialized in cover bar type music, around the time of the New Wave, although sufficiently late to sync in with the Sacramento mind-set. Some all original band kind of jimmied their way in. I was a huge fan of this Sacramento band called The Twinkeyz. They were really chaotic but good every time. In fact, one Game Theory show we learned "Aliens of Our Midst" and got Donnie Jupiter of the Twinkeyz up there and he sang it. And there was another local band called Ozzie. They were almost too weird for words. They were these attention getters through weirdness types, but for a while they were my favorite band. Before they were called Ozzie, I have to note, they were called Girl Fight.
B.O.B.: What did the late 70's punk revolution do for you?
S.M.: In the summer of '77 I saw this news special about punk rock, so obviously I wasn't aware of it before it was on the network news. But I was just knocked out and I waited for this little independent single of "God Save the Queen" to come into out Tower Records. I expected it to be kind of lousy, but I got it home and the production was just killer. I thought "Wow, what a band!". I immediately wrote exactly one punk rock song. It was called "What's the Matter" and came out on the Alternate Learning record, although at the time we were called Lobster Quadrille. And for awhile, that was the only original we did live. We also did "Astronomy Domine" by Pink Floyd, "Drive in Saturday Night" by Bowie, "Do the Strand" by Roxy Music, and "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult -- a lot of English music because we were big Anglophiles. It was mostly progressive or psychedelic, let's see, we also did "Mondo Bondage" by the Tubes. It was a funny thing with Lobster Quadrille, we'd do these things that were like live albums, except that they didn't get released, and we'd record tons and tons, and these would be all my songs, but whenever we played live we'd do only covers, because it would be too humiliating to do my numbers in front of people. There's enough unreleased tapes to kill a horse.
B.O.B.: What's the story behind Blaze of Glory, the first Game Theory album, being released in a bag?
S.M.: We added up what we could afford, and it didn't include album jackets. Then we bought a whole bunch of white, smallish trash bags that had these ties at the top, and we spray glued some reproduced art on the front and back. If I'd had my way, everything we've ever done would have been more outrageous than the previous, but unfortunately record companies have to make money. I'm much better at losing it.
B.O.B.: How did Rational Records get started, and by whom?
S.M.: When we pressed up Alternate Learning, we just made up a name and a logo -- our record company will be Rational Records. A couple of years later this guy Scott Vanderbilt decided he was going to manage us, and he registered the record company as a corporation and signed Thin White Rope. And then nothing happened because he took a job at Enigma about the time he got us a deal with them, and sold Thin White Rope to Frontier Records, and that was the end of that. Contractually, we've been lost in this netherworld since then, because he has owned us and rented us out to Enigma, who have a diminished motivation to invest any money in us, because they don't get a full return.
B.O.B.: What did you think of Fred Juhos' songs on the Pointed Accounts and Distortion twelve-inchers? They didn't really seem to mesh with yours.
S.M.: His songs gave the albums a different flavor all right. His stuff was really good. Nine out of ten of my fans really thought it was a terrible mistake to put his stuff on a record of mine. I've always thought it was rather clever, in a good way, and kind of a relief from seriousness -- the same way the Beatles wouldn't have felt bad about throwing a song like that on a record, the Beatles being my standard for making music that I'll probably never shake. It's funny that his stuff wasn't popular. We all had the impression that no one was ever going to get into my stuff and that his one or two would be the ones to catapult us to fame. But I wouldn't have complained.
B.O.B.: How popular have you found Game Theory in your travels round the U.S.A.?
S.M.: We've always had a tiny audience everywhere. I think it's being really successful on college radio, and especially smaller magazines, but not anyplace else. We're not on hit radio, weve never had a hometown smash. KDVS, the Davis radio station, was always the one that played us the least. They loved Dream Syndicate and they loved Thin White Rope and stayed loyal to these bands all the way, but I think we trade on something that they don't. I think our hallmark is dedication to melodiousness, and also lyrics that are rather complicated, a little bit hard to get, but strive to be meaningful. There are probably no two less tradeable commodities in 1990 than those two things. I think if you're a would be college hipster -- and I don't mean this as a putdown of Thin White Rope because they're one of my favorite bands; I'd go to any show and I have all of their records -- but if you're a kind of college radio wannabe bad ass and you have the choice between playing something like Thin White Rope and saying "Yeah, this is what I like, man" or playing a Game Theory record and saying the same, with Game Theory you sort of stand a chance of being linked to the Carpenters. And if you want people to think you're a Velvet Underground sorta dude, stay away from stuff that's too melodic. It's not a mystery to me why we haven't got very far, but I feel there's no reason we couldn't find a niche in the real music industry.
B.O.B.: Is that what you really want?
S.M.: I wish the world would just take another listen to all my records and say "Wow, we were wrong -- these are great!" and catapult us to huge stardom and allow us to go on exactly as we are. I don't intend to compromise because I wouldn't know what to change to make people like it. You start doing that and you're lost anyway. I almost think that the better a record we do, the more true to what my real ideal is we come, the more poorly it's going to perform in the commercial arena. I've had to fine tune my ambitiousness to not screw up what appeal I do have to people.
B.O.B.: Michael Quercio is now singing and playing bass with you. Is it hard for him to step to the side after being the frontman of the Three O'Clock for so long?
S.M.: I don't think he likes singing the whole set anymore. It's a strain for him to sing the entire set, and there's a lot of pressure. Michael and I have had critics who are down on our voices..."oh yeah, they have this chipmunk voice". You hear that enough, and you just don't want to do it anymore. I was glad to have him in my corner. We've been collaborating for a long time anyway. I met him at their first show up here as Three O'Clock -- it said Salvation Army on the poster -- at this club called the China Wagon. It was the Dream Syndicate, them and True West.
B.O.B.: Which Game Theory lineup succeeded best live?
S.M.: The five-piece that did Lolita Nation of Donette Thayer, Gil Ray, Gui Gassan and Shelly LaFreniere got to the point where it could really do some killer live shows. None of the other bands really did, but that one was together for so long it could really cook sometimes. But this current line up (Quercio, Ray, and Jozef Becker) hasn't been around long enough to get it all together.
B.O.B.: Do you prepare a song and then just go into the studio and hand it to the band?
S.M.: More or less. We never did any ultra-heavy collaboration, because no one else liked doing that much. Donnette would contribute some good parts and they were all capable of doing it, but for some reason I've never had people in this band with tons of creative energy who can't sit still until the song is perfect. I have to be the guy who does all that. This line-up is the closest thing to that. People are really opinionated and I love to have lots of opinions. Michael Quercio and I have done a significant amount of co-writing.
B.O.B.: How do you write your songs?
S.M.: Very slowly, on guitar. I've never done anything like writing a whole set of lyrics and putting music to it. I don't think in those terms at all. Music and lyrics are intertwined. The music is more important than the lyrics, but the lyrics have to be saying the same thing that the music is. Music has a language, and through this innuendo, and this chord change, and this tempo, and this loud/soft combination, you can tell a little story and get emotion across. The lyrics have to reinforce that, and have to have the right level of playfulness, the right level of screaminess -- directness versus coyness. I don't do music because I like poetry, I do music because I like music, and lyrics happen to be a part of the format of what musicians do today -- they do rock songs They don't do symphonies. I just love music; I love harmonies; I love playing; I love singing.
Epilogue: At press time your intrepid Bucketfull Left Coast guy was still stalking rumors floating out of Burlingame. Scott says that Gil Ray has apparently left the band permanently. His replacement was rumored (for a while at least to be Jonathan Segal (ex-Camper Van Beethoven) although this may not be the case. And could there be a name change in the works for Game Theory? I've heard the Loud Family kicked around as a possibility but Scott says no. Stay tuned for further developments. At least with Scott Miller at the helm, you know, whatever the name, the music will always be excellent. If further proof is needed, why not check out the recent CD compilation Tinker to Evers to Chance which covers the length of Scott's recording career from Alternate Learning (including new versions of old favorites) to the last known lineup of Game Theory with Quercio and ex-Thin White Rope man Jozef Becker. Further delving into the Game Theory back catalog should also be rewarding and there follows a discography to assist you.