Where Have You Gone, James Joyce? A Nation Turns Its Lolita Eyes To You
Non*Stop Banter, December 1988
By Tina Woelke
Not too long ago there was a cookie commercial on TV in which a woman insisted that the brand name was too dull for the product, and the name should be changed to something more in keeping with the dynamic flavor. She savored a bit of the cookie, thought for a moment, and exclaimed, "I've got it! 'Majestic Interlude'!"
That woman would love Game Theory. Grandiose adjectives just naturally come flooding forth when describing Game Theory's breathtaking imagery and gorgeous pop music. The song titles alone are intriguing: "Waltz the Halls Always," "I've Tried Subtlety," "Like a Girl Jesus," "Dripping With Looks." There's nothing mundane about this band.
The various configurations of Game Theory began when guitarist / singer / songwriter Scott Miller was attending the University of California at Davis. He formed his own label, Rational Records, and put out an EP and an LP by an early version of the group, then called Alternate Leaming. In 1982 he issued the debut Game Theory LP, Blaze of Glory (which was packaged in white plastic garbage bags due to lack of funds). Two EPs, Pointed Accounts of People You Know and Distortion (the latter produced by Three O'Clock's Michael Quercio), followed. Then came the move to Enigma and the 1985 release of the Mitch Easter-produced Real Nighttime, a moody , knife-sharp pop foray. Miller moved to San Francisco, and in 1986 the band released the sprightlier Big Shot Chronicles. Chronicles (which was also produced by Easter) elicited the most enthusiastic response up to that point, with critics falling all over themselves in an effort to top Miller's exuberant verbosity in their reviews.
This season's Game Theory release (and third effort with Easter) is the two record Lolita Nation. The album is a further tangle of crashing guitars, manic keyboards, and fascinating lyrics. This time around, however, Miller adds snippets of old songs, some games, songs that vary in length from eleven seconds to six minutes (there are 35 songs on Side 3 and three songs on Side 4), and other general weirdness. Miller has long admitted to being influenced by Alex Chilton; but what manifests itself here is his self-acknowledged passion for the work of author James Joyce, particularly the book Finnegan's Wake. Joyce's influence prompts Miller to develop a subject spirally, or in odd jumps -- a stream-of-consciousness approach that makes his songs as mysterious as they are rollicking.
The current lineup of Miller, Shelley LaFreniere on keyboards, and Gil Ray on drums, which has been fairly intact since Chronicles, has been supplemented with Gui Gassuan on bass and guitarist Donnette Thayer. Thayer, in particular, has helped the band to rock even harder, crunching up the guitars a bit and propelling the whole mix forward with even more intensity. Thayer also composes and sings on Lolita Nation. (Miller produced a solo album of Thayer's, The Veil. Thayer says, "It failed miserably. I like it, though ... I must have sold 35 or 40 of them. I've got the rest in my storage room.")
Game Theory played in January at the Metro in Chicago (they're even better live!), and we talked with the very amiable Miller, Thayer, and LaFreniere before the show. Following are the highlights.
Non*Stop Banter: Other than the obvious changes in personnel, how do you think the band has changed? How do you think the sound has changed?
Donnette: This gets to be the rest of the band's interview for the one and only time that it's ever going to happen! I feel like I can say that we tend to rock a lot harder than any of those other lineups we ever had. It's not quite so much Scott's the guy and everybody else is the backup band. We're more like a real band who can play together.
NSB: There are co-compositions (Miller and Thayer) on this record, and that's the first time. And there are other individual compositions, too. Do you think it's more democratic now?
Donnette: No. (laughter)
NSB: Still a benign dictatorship?
NSB: Has it been hard making adjustments for your audience?
Donnette: They like us a lot better.
Scott: Big Shot is a better record than Real Nighttime, much better.
NSB: You sound happier. Real Nighttime sounds real bitter.
Scott: It seems like Big Shot is the happiest of the last few. It seems like Real Nighttime and Lolita Nation both have this real chip on their shoulders.
NSB: Is there a reason for the change of attitude? Let's probe your psyche!
Scott: No, I just wrote those serially, all the ones for Real Nighttime were written and then all the ones for Big Shot Chronicles were written, and then all the ones for Lolita Nation were written. I don't know. I don't think they're all that different in mood. I think they're different in production aim. Both Real Nighttime and Lolita Nation were albums that were thrashing around in new territory, whereas Big Shot Chronicles was sort of summing up, an attempt to make a really good record, as opposed to being an experiment.
Donnette: We were thinking about making our next record all two minutes fifty; Pete Townshend said that's how long a song should be.
NSB: You could call them all two minute fifty. (laughter)
Scott: Yeah, I wonder if you had a song that was five minutes and thirty seconds and you put three minutes and ten seconds, if it would get lots more radio airplay and they'd never even think about it. (laughter)
NSB: So, this is experimental again. Is the next album going to be experimental?
Scott: The next one will probably be more like Big Shot Chronicles, you know, more trying to do some great songs instead of getting out there and making a statement.
NSB: What statement do you think you're making? Sorry!
Scott: It's so complicated I have trouble thinking about it all at once, to tell the truth. It's just a real different kind of album; it's got these varying length songs, for one thing. It's a unpredictable quantity whether or not a song, once it starts, is going to be a whole song or just that part of the song which ends, if there are more parts to the song or that's just it. Also these little pieces of old Game Theory records, weird snatches of familiarity, references to outside things like Kubrick films, things like that.
Donnette: This is the James Joyce influence coming into play here. James Joyce loved himself more than any other man has ever loved himself. He'll put in all kind of references to himself. We figured, hey, it worked for him! We love ourselves, too!
NSB: What's the Kubrick reference?
Scott: We have a song title on side three that's an amalgam of a bunch of references to Stanley Kubrick films.
Donnette: Yeah, "All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluids Make Hal a Dull Metal Humbert."
Scott: That's a funny tie-in, because "Lolita" was a Kubrick film.
NSB: What other cultural icons are in there?
Scott: There's a similar David Lynch reference in a title on side three. He's another director; he did "Blue Velvet," "Eraserhead." It's the one that starts "In Heaven," etc. ("In Heaven Every Baby Elephant Wants to be so Full of Sting.")
Donnette: In our video we have an "In heaven everything is fine" scene.
Scott: Yeah, the video takes a lot of those little things one step further, maybe even kind of explains a couple of them.
NSB: Do people actually pick up on these things when you talk to them?
Donnette: They do! Isn't that strange!
Scott: But none of them more than a couple, and there must be a hundred such things on the record. Every now and then someone will get a couple; well, it seems like everybody gets a couple. Some people will know the old Game Theory things. There are even some computer science things in there, for people who know about computer science.
NSB: I wondered about that, especially about the snippets. How did you decide what snippets to use? I had a vision of you sitting down on a computer or a mixer and throwing it all in, and whatever came out...
Scott: No, it's all very organically generated, just stuff that seemed like it meant something. It all means something.
NSB: So when you get tired of making records you can sit down and write a book explaining it all! Have you thought about putting lyrics on an album? Scott: I really hate the way lyrics read. I mailed out some lyrics to Big Shot Chronicles to people who wrote me and asked for them, but they're all written backwards; it starts with the last word and then the second-to-the-last word...
Shelley: Can't make it simple for them!
NSB: There's no way you're not going to make your audience work. Is that what you're saying?
Shelley: We worked!
Donnette: Well, everything's being handed to everybody these days on a silver platter, and so we make it a little harder. All you hear from record companies -- except for Enigma! -- is "Oh, they can't handle that! It's too hard."
Shelley: Let's give them mental marshmallow melba toast.
Donnette: But we don't do that because we don't believe that about people. We believe they're intelligent, in general.
Scott: The reason I can't put out those lyrics, you know, to make it easier -- if people were having a hard time getting lyrics, they could, and it's not hard to just read them backwards, it just takes a second -- but I'm really against the idea of reading lyrics as text because they always look so terrible. It seems like the rhymes come too quickly, and things like that. They took like "I love you, yes I do." With the right pacing those could be ... that could work really well in a pop song. I want them to be taken in in the right context.
Shelley: I remember Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd, and I just thought these lyrics were just amazing. I got the album, and I went running, I got into the car with my mother and I said. "Read these lyrics! Read these lyrics!" I showed them to her, and it was just "Hold still, Ralph," "Don't pale, fail," or whatever it was, and it just sounded really bad. I thought they sounded so phenomenal when I was hearing them, they just sounded so worldly and wonderful, and when they were printed, they just ... well, she didn't get as excited as I did. (laughter)
Donnette: Well, I like the Ramones' lyric sheets. (laughter)
Scott: They always look really perfect.
Donnette: They put in every single "oh" and "yeah!" ... Have you ever had a record, and you think you know what the lyrics are, and you grab hold of the lyrics sheet and hey! Burst your bubble! I don't think I want to go around damaging anybody's opinion of me -- I don't want to do that!
Scott: Many lyric sheets are wrong; they don't always consult the artist for those, and so for things like the Rolling Stones, the lyrics are really off-base.
Shelley: Yeah, and sometimes it's nice if your song has more than one meaning to different people.
NSB: So, you're not going to go that route?
Donnette: I think he should because I think he's got really good lyrics. I think they read really nicely. And even when you read them straight on through, they still don't make any sense.
Scott: It seems to me like you can understand every word that's on those records, but maybe you can't.
NSB: Usually you can. But there's one line I can't get in "Waltz the Halls Always." It goes: "I think I saw the movie where you learned that you can't be nice / you write the boys in your hometown and sing yourself 'Edelweiss' / how much did you give up that it should make me this guilty..." What's after that?
Scott: "Don't tell a soul that you would be off on larger lives / but I've clamped you down."
NSB: How did you get the name Game Theory? That's one thing I've never read.
Scott: Well, game theory is a real theory; there's this thing called game theory. It's a theory of probability that's a mathematical discipline that more or less has been applied improperly to real-life situations. It's just that idea of a set or rules that gets misused that intrigued me about it. I was reading how it was used in cold war strategies and all sorts of high-level things like that, with no particular record of success. And I just thought it was kind of a negative comment, really, but kind of a telling comment on life in general -- that you just have to have some sort of set of rules, but who knows what the set of rules should be. You just sort of make up what you can and go with it.
NSB: That's what a lot of your songs are about, isn't it?
Scott: Right. Always be wary of the superstructure of whatever situation you're in. It may just be that the whole game that you're into is something very bogus and you should get out. That kind of idea. It's also about taking a cold, hard look -- at least, a lot of them are.
NSB: Coming of age.
NSB: What about the name Alternate Learning, or ALRN (the band Scott had before Game Theory)?
Scott: Well, ALRN is just some letters from that word. I guess we were into typography way back then, because we had the words "Alternate Learning" ... have you seen that little 45 that we had, that first one? Well, we just took the letters and sprawled them out. It was "ALRN," and the "TE" was really small down here, and then "AE" something-or-other, all spread out on a kind of Giorgio de Chirico-looking landscape of letters and weird kind of perspective thing. But who knows where the name came from. It just sounded like a special class where you learn rock or something like that. That was when I just started college ... Alternate Learning was 1979-1981. Game Theory was started in fall 1982.
NSB: With totally different people. How did you hook up with Michael Quercio?
Scott: He apparently heard that record, Pointed Accounts, and thought that we were something he might like to produce. A friend of ours sort of hooked us up together. But he(Michael) expressed interest in producing the project, and so we just did that. At that point we were on hold with Mitch Easter; he had said he wanted to do a project with us, but his time was being taken up with Let's Active at that point.
NSB: So Michael went ahead and produced Distortion.
Scott: Right, and then we did Real Nighttime a few months later with Mitch.
NSB: But Michael still plays on your records, and you keep in touch?
Scott: Yeah, we still keep in touch. I wrote a song for one of Three O'Clock's records ("Girl With The Guitar" on Arrive Without Travelling), and he did a bunch of singing on Real Nighttime and a bunch of singing and keyboards on Lolita Nation.
NSB: You do a great live version of Todd Rundgren's "Couldn't I Just Tell You."
Scott: Isn't that a winning recording? Oh, you haven't heard the record? I just heard that the other day, and it just sounded glorious. I thought, "Wow, what a recording." I really wish I'd written the song, is the only thing. It's not one of my songs, but boy, that sounds great!
NSB: It's one of my favorite Todd Rundgren songs.
Scott: Isn't that an amazing song? It's just godlike. If you ever think, oh, maybe Todd wasn't such a great guy, he's done a lot of schlock, just go listen to that song and it's all okay. I have a lot of respect for that album in general.
NSB: I've heard you do that song live, and I know there's a recorded version of it but I've been unable to find it.
Scott: It's really hard to find; in fact, it took me two years to obtain a copy of it because it was released in Australia. What happened was Enigma sold the rights to Game Theory to Big Time Records and then apparently pulled out of the deal right when they were going to release the record or something really awful like that. So Big Time just pressed up Big Shot Chronicles on Big Time Records, and this single with "Erica's Word" backed with "Couldn't I Just Tell You." We wanted to give them something that wasn't available on the record. So there were 100 copies made, or something like that, and all pulled. They didn't get in the stores, or a few of them slipped out to distributors or something like that. Finally someone found me a copy. I think Big Time in Los Angeles was finally able to find me a copy. But apparently someone else found a bunch of copies in a store in England and is going to send some to the band.
NSB: I read a review of the record in the English fanzine, Bucketfull of Brains, and they said it was great. I had wondered if maybe it was only released there.
Scott: I hadn't even thought about it. I was sort of unconscious during the mixing of that; Mitch pretty much did all of it, and I just sort of slept through the performance of it. I thought when I read the review, "Oh, this guy's just a fan, and it's probably just a stupid recording," because I didn't remember it being anything special. But I got the record and I put it on and it really is just incredible.
NSB: I also read that it was going to be added to the cassette version, and it wasn't.
Scott: It should have been. I don't know why it wasn't. They have a bunch of those cassettes that they can't sell now just because it's just a plain old cassette; it doesn't have any extra stuff.
NSB: Was Lolita Nation named after the Kubrick movie? Does it refer to youth culture in America, or did it just sound nice?
Scott: Well, it is youth culture in America. That was exactly my intention. I haven't read the book, but I have seen that movie. But I thought that it was a great sort of thing where Lolita is a symbol for America, and Humbert is the old world, that sort of analogy. The old world is fascinated by the new world, and infatuated with it, but doesn't regard it as something worthy of ... that its opinions are important, as a very sentient being. It seemed this kind of perfect metaphor for being a young person, the situation being put upon. You're in this society where you're more than likely going to be taken advantage of by it, and coddled by it. Everybody makes sure that all your abilities are fulfilled. It is a chip-on-your-shoulder kind of title, but it seemed really poetic to me.
NSB: Considering that you concentrate mostly on personal politics, do you stick much political stuff in there?
Donnette: He's the type of songwriter who writes from what makes him feel the most emotional impact. You can get intellectually excited about problems in the world, but...
Scott: Suppose Country A is fighting Country B. Even if one of them is really put upon, can you really write -- people do, but I don't see how you can write a song that's just about that, "Go, Country A!" It seems kind of trite. What you should really do is skip the surface issue and talk about what you really want to talk about which is something like jealousy or greed, or one of those issues behind the whole thing -- self-importance.
NSB: You're a big Seventies music fan. It seems like there's a big resurgence of Seventies music, especially Seventies metal. So do you think that's just a natural progression? Also, it's ironic that pop music always gets associated with the Sixties, starting with the Beatles and the Byrds.
Scott: Yeah, I get really tired of reading the word "psychedelic" to describe my music. It's like, "Yeah, I'll have to get rid of that sitar and strobe light and dump the Nehru jacket." My music has nothing to do with that acid stuff, that mysticism, and even less to do with what the Sixties were actually about, which was those Vanilla Fudge-type bands, those Organ-heavy boogie bands. Things that we now associate with the Sixties, the Byrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, all that was way in the background. The Byrds had a couple of number one hits in the beginning, but it wasn't like you walked out to your car and turned on "Eight Miles High"or "Manic Depression." (It was) you know, Seargent Barry Sadler doing "The Ballad of the Green Berets."
NSB: Plus, people then were concerned with the larger political spectrum, and you're more concerned with the personal political, which is also more of an attitude that emerged in the Seventies.
Scott: Exactly. It's an entirely different aesthetic, really. I think it all stems from the fact that I literally have been in bands since the Sixties. When I was eight years old I started playing the guitar, which was 1969, and even before that I was kind of writing my own songs in the shower -- with nothing to play them on, and they all sounded like other songs. And all through the Seventies I was in bands and playing clubs that no one ever heard of because it was in Sacramento, and no one hears of anything from Sacramento; besides which, they wouldn't have cared about it even if they did. When things like punk rock and all these subsequent movements came along, I couldn't just switch over and decide, "Oh, I'm going to be this now." I'd been doing music for so long that the whole idea of what music was had already been formed. It's a Beatles aesthetic more than anything else; I'm a huge Beatles fan. So I think it's not that we're psychedelic, it's just that we're not all these other things, and if you subtract out everything that's happened in the social end of things rather than the musical end of things, you end up with...
NSB: What do you think of the Replacements' song, "Alex Chilton"?
Scott: Very nice song; I like it.
NSB: Now people are starting to appreciate ... are people catching up with you now, or are you going to be in vogue now because people are starting to appreciate Seventies music?
Scott: Back in those days, before we had Alex mania, I was really spreading the word and doing the songs on our records. It finally did start to work, and people started to find out who he was, it was all like, "Oh, yeah, Scott's just trying to cash in on this, or sound like him," which is totally untrue. So I just kind of subtracted all that Alex stuff from the set. I really felt like I'd accomplished something in bringing the guy to light. I mean, did anybody ever do that guy a favor? It didn't seem like it. He did have that initial success with the Box Tops, but that was just an attempt to exploit and it happened to work. Since then I don't think anybody ever gave his music a chance except a couple of rock critics. I thought, rather than just seek the guy out and try to meet him, that I'd do something that would really do him some good. So I used to always tell people about him. We were on that first tour in 1984, and we heard that he was doing a blues cover band in Louisiana, in New Orleans. So we got in touch with him and we said, "Look, we're huge fans of your songs, of Big Star and Like Flies On Sherbert and stuff like that. We really think if you taught some your own songs to this band you have, it would be really good and a lot of people would like it, and you could see some success. You should come up, you could play this show in Memphis" -- which is his home town -- and we'll open the show for you." So we did that and it was a big successful show, a lot of people still remember it. Ever since then he's been taking that band on the road.
NSB: He's doing quite well now.
Scott: He's doing great. I feel like that's what I set out to accomplish, and I'm not saying I accomplished it. But now that he is getting recognition I'm sort of backing off from the crusade. Because it will only screw both of us at this point.
NSB: Why did you describe your voice as a "miserable whine" (in the credits) on Big Shot Chronicles?
Scott: Because someone described it that way in an actual review. It was the Sacramento Bee music critic -- who, to give him credit, after that decided he really liked us, and he supported us early on. But in one of his first reviews, rather than say "Scott Miller's voice," he referred to it as "Scott Miller's miserable whine." I just thought is was so funny, it was just hilarious. I mean, it didn't make me feel great about my voice, but I was so taken by it that I decided I would put that as my vocal credit.
NSB: You should change it now on every album.
Scott: I was thinking of that, of maybe calling it "robust baritone" next time.