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Interviews and Reviews

[Photo]Scott Miller: Deep-thinking "failure" of a pop star

Sacramento Bee, May 23, 2003

By David Barton

Scott Miller knows he's too smart for his own good. He just can't help himself.

"I gravitate to stuff that's inappropriately difficult for my field," he admits. "That has a bad effect on my songwriting, because pop songs are a very limited-attention-span sort of thing. I try to give my songs a very big job in terms of the scope and cultural impact they're going to have.

"I know why I'm a failure," he adds pre-emptively.

Of course, Miller, 43, who grew up in Carmichael before leaving for the San Francisco Bay Area more than 18 years ago, is hardly a failure. Over 21 years he's recorded 10 albums of his sometimes torturously complicated, sometimes disarmingly pop-savvy songs, first with Game Theory, his Davis-based band, then with The Loud Family, his San Francisco-based band.

Miller returns to Sacramento on Saturday night for two shows at the True Love Coffeehouse with Anton Barbeau. It is his first show in Sacramento in years.

Between Game Theory and The Loud Family, Miller has sold what he reckons is about 70,000 copies of his records, and he admits that he's been modestly successful in artistic terms.

"I'm grateful, very grateful, that I've had so many opportunities to make medium-budget records that came out the way I intended," he says by phone from his home in San Mateo.

And while he hasn't made a fortune -- he pays the rent through his day job as a computer programmer -- his rigorously creative music has received serious kudos.

"Music Hound's Essential Music Guide" calls Miller's melodies "the musical equivalent of intricate math problems" and says he is "one of the few in the genre (power pop) who has a sound all his own."

The alternative-rock Web site www.trouserpress.com calls Miller's work "Either the madness of a borderline visionary or the indulgence of a studio/computer geek... but either way it works, adding depth, thematic unity and overall sonic craziness to songs that are already uncommonly strong."

Miller describes his work as "kind of dense, I gravitate toward that, because my literary background is (T.S. Eliot's) 'The Wasteland' and (James Joyce's) 'Ulysses,' the iconoclastic works of the first half of the 20th century.

"I try for a complete worldview," he says. "Most artists are savvy enough not to try to make that happen. I'm one of those... who tries to get my songs to contain all the convoluted feelings and ideas I have about how people should treat each other."

Sonically, Miller says he favors densely produced albums, because "I like a lot of cinematic drama in albums. I like a variety of moods, very orchestrated arrangements, so that you can tell that the person thought about how (the album) would unfold song-to-song."

Sacramento pop singer/songwriter Anton Barbeau, a long-time admirer of Miller, will be performing with him Saturday.

"He's capable of consistently conjuring up songs that are simultaneously complex and yet emotionally resonant and really a pleasure to listen to," says Barbeau about Miller. "The first time I saw Game Theory, I thought, 'That's the kind of rock star I want to be.' "

Another admirer of Miller's is singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, once a member of '80s pop group 'til tuesday, who has since carved out a career with her somewhat off-center songwriting. Her cult following includes movie director Paul Thomas Anderson, who based his award-winning 1999 film "Magnolia" on her songs.

Mann, for whom Miller has opened shows on occasion, is seeking to extract pop gems from Miller's often over-wrought recordings, the result being that the two are working on an album of stripped-down remakes of some of Miller's more accessible songs.

"I pitched some songs, but she'd very frankly say, 'No, I want this to be stuff that people like on first hearing.' So that's where we're going," Miller says.

Among Miller's songs that Mann has picked for the duo to record are Loud Family songs such as "Don't Respond, She Can Tell," "Last Honest Face" and "Inverness," as well as Game Theory's "Throwing the Election." They are also writing a song together.

Granted, Mann is not exactly Madonna -- her greatest post-'til tuesday claim to hits were the songs in "Magnolia" -- but she does have a great pop ear, and Miller says he's glad to have her perspective on his songs. And, he says, he is happy to have found a fellow "plodder."

"I've heard these wondrous stories of people getting hits in 20-minute bursts, but I don't ever get an idea that good that quickly," he says. "I have no natural gifts, I have to work at everything. It's always been that supremely laborious process, and I think (Mann) has a similarly laborious process. We just think and think and think."

Working with Mann has made Miller think some more, and what he's thinking is that he wants "to write more straightforward songs."

Now that The Loud Family is apparently history, along with his record label, Miller says that "Part of me wants to make a very simple album, with simple chord changes, stick close to the raw feeling of how you feel for the key moment of the song."

But without pausing, he returns to form.

"On the other hand, I love great musical arrangements with Beach Boys harmonies," he says. "But you can't really have both those things. Perhaps something that has a certain stylistic purity, but admits just enough ambitious musicality to keep it seeming polychromatic and dramatic."

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