Game Theory: 916 Pop Band Goes 800
San Francisco Chronicle, May 22, 1988
By Gina Arnold
When Scott Miller, lead singer and songwriter for the band Game Theory, sings about "the kids from 916" going down to 415 for the evening, quick-eared listeners from Northern California know exactly what he's talking about. But now that Miller, a native of Sacramento (area code 916) and his band are achieving national attention, Miller's local references may be getting lost on a wider audience.
Of course, Miller, 28, doesn't mind losing his obscurity. Four years after being voted "Best Undiscovered Band" by the radio tipsheet the Gavin Report, Game Theory is reaching a mass audience via its catchy hit single "Chardonnay" and a college-chart topping LP called Lolita Nation.
Miller formed Game Theory -- the name derives from a mathematical formula used by war strategists -- six years ago while at college in Davis, where he concurrently earned a degree in electrical engineering.
"Davis is the kind of place where being in a band means, 'Let's all get together at the coffehouse and jam,'" Miller explained. "It's a really nice town... but limited. At any given time, there's only like eight people there interested in rock and they'll all be in two bands."
After graduation in 1986, Miller and the band moved to San Francisco (area code 415) because it is "a lot more adventurous" than playing music in Sacramento, where "you can pretty much predict the outcome of any show you play at: They won't like you."
Game Theory's debut LP in 1984, Real Nighttime on the Enigma label, received rave reviews, including a mention in the Village Voice's annual poll of the year's best releases. But despite two subsequent and equally critically received LPs and numerous U.S. tours, prior to Lolita Nation Game Theory has what Miller called "minimal success. The albums would be getting good reviews, but we'd still be playing to crowds of 40 or less."
In fact, Miller admitted, he nearly broke up the band twice to go into engineering. "Funnily enough, there's not really a market for pop-song type songs [like ours] right now," Miller said. "There's more of a demand for dance music and heavy metal."
Despite the setbacks, Miller kept reforming the band. "It's weird," he said, "I'd sit at home feeling incredibly bitter all the time, wondering why I had to work a crummy job and stuff, when we were making music that was at least as good as some other people's."
Lolita Nation has done well, despite the fact that the two-record set is hardly conventional. Despite a lurking penchant for pretty pop songs, this LP is highly experimental. "The only term I can come up with to describe what we do is 'experimental pop,'" Miller said. "But in rock and roll, that should be a contradiction in terms."
Miller's not kidding: Lolita Nation manages to expand the concept of melodic pop to include 20-second songs ("Watch Who You're Calling Space Garbage, Meteor Mouth Pretty Green Card Shark", a title that practically takes 20 seconds to say), tape loops, sound effects, guitars and bass strings hammered with xylophone mallets, as well as regular old potential hit singles such as the liltingly quick "Chardonnay". "I was in the mood to make a different kind of album," said Miller. "I wanted to throw away some of the givens. It's meant to have a lot of unexpected things happening on it without being abrasive or industrial."
At the same time, Miller long has been known as a songsmith with a penchant for melody. Through Game Theory's first three releases, Blaze of Glory, Real Nighttime,and The Big Shot Chronicles, the band has stuck to straightforward and melodic tunes in the midst of punk rock's more raucous appeal.
"My antecedents are kind of more art rock than punk," said Miller. "Like Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. The first record I ever bought was Sergeant Pepper's, and I'd still say my main influences in rock have been the Beatles and the Monkees. Well, 90 percent Beatles and 10 percent Monkees."