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Interviews and Reviews

Mixed Doubles
Scott and Shalini take on James Joyce and Liz Phair

Bucketful of Brains, #45, May 1995

By Jud Cost

Note: This interview was actually conducted over a year before it finally hit print.

As the battered old Puff Mobile wheezes to a stop in Burlingame's main street around six in the evening, I find Scott Miller dutifully scribbling a note to Shalini Chatterjee, his wife of eight months, to meet us up the street instead of at our original rendezous spot, the boarded up Cafe Bistro. "Looks like this place has been boarded up for quite some time," he mutters as he tapes the message to the front door. Scott and I amble up to Starbucks, a block away, where we nurse lattes and cappucinos and take turns at wedging batteries into my just-out-of-the-carton Walkman cassette recorder, while awaiting Shalini's arrival.

All three of us comfortable at last--batteries installed and coffees in front of us--we proceed with the evening's business: the third bi-annual shareholder's report of Scott Miller's Current Band. Just as in 1992, the last time Miller and I did an interview, it's the increasingly popular Loud Family, with the same personnel. And since Scott and I have just about drained the biographical well in previous chats, we can concentrate this time on what's currently stoking his fire. Shalini's here to talk about Vinyl Devotion, her own group of up-and-coming popsters, as well as to bestow bouquets and brickbats on the ever-mutating animal that is pop music.

SCOTT (Immediately sussing out this interviewing biz): So, Shalini, tell us about how you first met Freedy Johnston.

SHALINI: I was in a band in the midwest for three years called Kissyfish, a pretty successful college band that never got signed. We met a fan of ours called Otis Ball--who had a band called Otis Ball and the Chains--at a show we played in Illinois at this academy for gifted math and science students. Otis Ball was in with the Bar/None crowd in Hoboken, and that's how I met Freedy Johnston. They both had albums on Bar/None.

BOB: Okay, so how did you meet Scott Miller?

SHALINI: I interviewed him for The Octagon, my high school newspaper, in 1985. I was sixteen at the time and going to this private high school in Sacramento. My mom invited my high school journalism advisor to my wedding last summer, and she sent me a copy of the story--it was awful.

BOB: You've toured Europe finally, Scott?

SCOTT: When the album came out (Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things) we went out for five weeks, the standard loop around the country, and we did a few dates in England last October--my first time over. Well, actually we had a vacation over there in '91, and I did a few solo shows, but they were terrible, because I was ill.

BOB: How have you managed to maintain the same personnel in the band? Game Theory had a different lineup for every record.

SCOTT: I keep 'em drugged and hypnotized. No, these guys contribute a lot more (than Game Theory people). We kind of had this theory that the next Loud Family album was going to be this ultra-democratic record, everybody bringing in four songs, and we'd choose from those. But I'm the only one going at it full hog. It's going to be more like another of my records than I would have told you it was going to be four months ago. But there's at least one contribution by Paul (Wieneke) and Rob (Poor) and two from Zachary (Smith).

BOB: Just like anything Steve Wynn's on--no matter what it's called, a record with you on it always sounds like your record.

SCOTT: Unless other people in the band are fretful over whether an album is getting created--if everyone just sits back and lets it happen--the most protean person is going to dominate. It's just unstable equilibrium at work. You start bringing in ideas, and the album evolves until you get an album. But it doesn't evolve until an equal number comes from everyone.

BOB: Maybe you and Steve Wynn should go one on one, like a World Wrestling Federation death match, to see who's top dog.

SCOTT: Yeah, maybe so. We could have little wrestling personas. Maybe I could wear an eyepatch, for James Joyce and he could have some sort of Neil Young or Bob Dylan thing.

BOB: Yeah, how about a fringed jacket and a bandanna? Did you hear the Action Figures album on Eggbert? Some of it was heavily influenced by Game Theory.

SCOTT: Yeah, that was quite nice. I didn't catch the Game Theory influence at all. But I've run into that a bunch of times before, in descriptions of other bands, and have just not heard it at all. I'm sure there's something I don't realize I'm doing when I'm making my own songs sound that way.

BOB: Are you happy with Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things?

SCOTT: Oh, yeah, quite extraordinarily happy. I think it's much better than the best Game Theory record. I listen to some old Game Theory records from time to time, and they bother me--mostly the singing. It's kind of awful in a lot more places than Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things. I keep thinking one day I'll be able to listen to those old albums and be completely objective, and not feel that twinge of shame for having done every little thing that's wrong about them. There's a ton of stuff I would let slide listening to someone else's record, but I think, "Uhhh, how could I let that go out?" when I listen to my own. I've never felt altogether great about those old records. I go from periods of feeling more okay to feeling less okay. They're not gelling into any beautiful memory of my youth. I wish they would.

BOB: So saying, how do you feel about putting Blaze of Glory on CD?

SCOTT: Oh, I have no problem with the material being sub-brilliant. If I worried about everything that has room for improvement being released, first of all, I wouldn't have any back catalogue.

BOB: Any complaints from the rare record people about re-releasing one of their big-ticket items?

SCOTT: Not yet, but I've seen some ridiculous price tags on Blaze of Glory. And there are some real glaring differences. It's all been remixed except for two.

BOB: Any thoughts about putting it out in a trash bag?

SCOTT: You know what? Alias is going to do a boxed set with a trash bag inside the box containing all the CDs--a limited edition of 178 sets. Maybe that's how many copies of Lolita Nation they had left. And I've heard them talking about putting a Live 1984 CD in there. They've been bugging me to come up with a title and some artwork. I came up with the provisional title of "I'm All," "What's That?"

BOB: Would you care to explain?

SCOTT: If you write it out, you'll see its two ways of being read. I do explain things. The only problem I have with explaining lyrics is that a short time after I've written the lyrics and no one's asked me about them, I'm not real clear on what they mean. I'm internally clear--very careful not to say the wrong thing--but that's part of a subconscious process. I'm not to the point where I could write an essay, in other words. They just seem to say the right thing. But explaining them is almost like trying to tell you what someone else's lyrics mean. I have no clue what a paraphrase of my lyrics would be than anyone else's lyrics I kind of understand.

BOB: How do you view the relative importance of lyrics versus melody?

SCOTT: Oh, 75% melody. There is such a thing as lyrics that are as good as a good melody--they really zing and say something in this pithy way--but it is music, y'know. It's not poetry. Music has to operate as music, and so many people forget that these days. As long as I've been alive, people have been in this perpetual state of thinking that melody was this old thing they did in the 40s and now there's this striking new non-melodic thing that's just going to take over the world. They think that melody started just before they reached their adolescence and it's all going to go away now that Punkabilly or Metal or Industrial has taken over. People never learn that melody's been around since the days of the troubadors, and it's just not going to go away. I've met people who think nothing of worth happened before the Beatles. The Beatles were certainly the most brilliant band in history, but they didn't invent the use of verse and chourus.

BOB: I think their major contribution to pop music was trashing the AABA 32-bar pop song straitjacket, using melody segments of different lengths.

SCOTT: Oh, very much so. A Lot of their songs didn't have choruses, like, say, "Paperback Writer"--they just had these little tags that sufficed as the choruses. And a lot of AAA patterns, where the hook was the first line of each of those.

BOB: Okay, here's a trend since we last got together: The Breeders, Liz Phair, Belly, PJ Harvey and Aimee Mann.

SCOTT: All females. I think they're all really terrific acts. And I think it's great that there are so many of them that it's getting cumbersome to treat them as this funny little minority market that you can get away with reviewing three of them under the heading New Albums by Women Artists. In fact, I don't think I have any kind of gender reaction at all. But I have vastly different reactions to each of the artists you mentioned.

BOB: Well, let's talk about specifics. I know you're a big fan of Aimee Mann. What's so special about her music to you?

SCOTT: That's one of those albums that's not carving out the brave new direction that rock is going to take in the next five years. But it's really smart, and it's got a lot of terrific melodies--and definitely some Chrissie Hynde influence in the vocal inflection. I like it a lot better than 'Til Tuesday. I never got into them, even the supposedly great latter days. But the first time I listened to the new one (Whatever), I thought it was sparkling.

BOB: Okay, do you think the Breeders are the best new band in rock and roll? That's the party line in San Francisco.

SCOTT: It's a fine album. "Cannonball" was dynamite, but I thought it was a little monochromatic and significantly overrated.

SHALINI: I like the Breeders. It's always been harder for women to get signed because of the way they've traditionally been treated. I've had a lot of contact with local journalists in San Francisco, and most of them are narrow-minded. There was an article in the Chronicle recently that ended, "It's been a banner year for the gals"--really condescending. I haven't listened to the whole PJ Harvey album yet. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I can't get through it.

SCOTT: Actually, that Breeders album is my number 15 of the year, so I didn't mean to say everyone's saying it's good, but it's not. 1993 was a very tough competition year, incidentally--the best year in rock, I think, in a very long time.

SHALINI: I've got mixed feelings about Liz Phair. I don't like the fact that she can't play live. I've struggled for a long time, and it makes me a little bit jealous that she can't play her guitar in front of people while I slave away at guitar lessons. It makes me feel like doing my guitar solos with my eyes closed to never be like her. She looks at her guitar, but because her record is so successful, it doesn't matter to people that she plays like crap. He (pointing to Scott) loves her.

SCOTT: I think Liz Phair is utterly brilliant. Without any question, Exile In Guyville is the best album in the last ten years, an album without weakness. Her singing has exactly the correct amount of understatement. She's technically a good singer. She doesn't miss notes. She doesn't over-use flourishes, but she's capable of doing them--vibrato and things like that. And I think the lyrics are far more effective than we have a right to expect these days. I mean, gone are the days when Bob Dylan albums made people think in inventive new ways about their lyrics. But this is an album chock-full of pithily worded observations, and on top of that, she's very literate--lots of literary and historical references. Impressive as hell.

SHALINI: That's another reason I don't understand her success, since people today are into acting like ignorant slobs. Maybe she's fooled everybody, and they don't realize how literate she is.

SCOTT: I don't know. She's got the word "blowjob" in there. Nobody's going to miss that. That's going to be grunge enough for some people, and that's why she's a great artist. She doesn't have an axe to grind in either respect. She's not trying to prove she's literate, and she's not trying to prove she's just a rocker, man.

BOB: So what about Nirvana? You were head over heels about Nevermind two years ago.

SCOTT: Yeah. I wasn't nearly as head-over-heels about them as some stuff that's going on now. I don't like the new Nirvana as much, but it's quite respectable. I really can't stand Steve Albini. I think he just wrecked a few of those songs. He's far more into brutality and non-musicalness than I'll ever be. He's just out to prove something that I've been tired of people proving for so long I don't have any attention span left for it.

BOB: Well, let's talk about a producer more to your liking. How about good old Mitch Easter?

SCOTT: He's one of my favorite people on the planet, a joy to be around--truly as entertaining as any movie or book or whatever else you'd be occupying your time with. And he's got this killer batch of songs now that he's making no effort to get out. I can sympathize that the music business isn't always barrels of fun, but it seems criminal that stuff's not getting out. It's stunning material. One day, I'm gonna get on the phone and do it myself.

BOB: The Loud Family has a recent in-betweener CD, Slouching Towards Liverpool. Would you care to explain that title?

SCOTT: (chuckling) Sure, I'll explain the title. There's a Joan Didion collection of essays called Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title of which comes from a poem by Yeats ["The Second Coming"]. So I replaced Bethlehem with Liverpool--because Jesus came from Bethlehem and the Beatles came from Liverpool--in a sort of parody of a holy spot.

BOB: (laughing) Well, I hope there are men wise enough out there to give you some shit about it.

SCOTT: Well, your readers will be. (laughs)

BOB: Can you foresee ever making major changes in your music?K

SCOTT: Sweeping changes? No, I always set out to make music that's entertaining and interesting. And touching when it should be touching and aggressive when it should be aggressive. I haven't abandoned those goals along the way. It's not like I've discovered the new album has to be jazz (laughs). I've done a lot more listening to new bands than I have in a long time, so maybe it'll sound more current because of that than the last record, where I was unaffected by the outside world. And I've done more reading recently.

BOB: So what have you read that would influence your music?

SCOTT: Three books, all of which I can say affected me a lot. The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. I haven't become a Zen acolyte, but it's extremely well-written and it makes you think. Then there's a book I got because it had the title of the first cut off my last album: He Do the Police in Different Voices, a critical reading of The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, a very good analysis of asceticism in general--desire being the great threat to one's higher nature. I had to skip passages that were doing this syllable-by-syllable analysis. But that comes from loving the poem so much you just want to wring it like a sponge.

BOB: What the hell could the third book possibly be?

SCOTT: The third book affected me most of all. It was yet a new analysis of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I'd kind of gotten off Finnegans Wake for a while after reading it all the way through one and a half times. I had to get on with my life. The book was Joyce's Book of Dark by John Bishop. It pointed out how a lot of Finnegans Wake is puns and parlour trickery, and it discussed words that have common Indo-European roots that we've completely forgotten, like "dark," "dim" and "Dublin."

BOB: Could you ever become immersed in this to the exclusion of your music?

SCOTT: No, only because my concentration isn't that good. I can absorb so much, and then I have to go listen to the Ramones. Not a chance, really. I've never even had a four-month period where I haven't done music. It always keeps coming back. Pop music is really making a lot of good new records available to us, and when that happens, my mind starts cranking out little tunes. (Pauses for a long pull on his coffee.) There are probably people in the world who already hate me or ignore me because of things like that rant about James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, but I just can't help it. I can't be the sort of textbook rocker with no intellectual pursuits because that's not what people want, man. I guess I just have these things that interest me and I've sort of stopped apologizing for it.

BOB: Were you interested in music as a kid, Shalini?

SHALINI: I had really strict parents. When I was twelve, REM was playing in Sacramento and I couldn't go. The first live show I ever saw was The Bangles at Club Minimal when I was thirteen. I started taking bass lessons at Davis music shops when I was seventeen. But I didn't have anybody to play with until I started at the University of Wisconsin. I played my first show that same year, and now I'm twenty-five, so it's not like I started yesterday. I'm a little defensive about that. I don't want people to think I just woke up one day and started doing it. I've put a lot of years into it.

BOB: When did you put Vinyl Devotion together? I've heard some grousing about the name.

SCOTT: Oh, I think it's a great name, the literal meaning--devotion that is not real, manufactured devotion--and there's this cute meaning of being devoted to vinyl records.

SHALINI: That's not what I had in mind. I thought it was obvious, but I guess it's not obvious. I'm gonna stick with the name. It's a really good name . . . but I also meet a lot of weaselly people. (To Scott:) Wouldn't you say the majority of people I've worked with have been unusually unfaithful and weird?

SCOTT: You've had worse than average luck with people quitting for random unrelated reasons.

BOB: How would you describe your songwriting influences?

SHALINI: I'd have to give an influence credit to Liz Phair. She really doesn't care if a song's stupid. She'll just go with it.

SCOTT: (chuckling) High praise indeed.

SHALINI: It's because she's not self-conscious about music. That's what's great about making records. You're not suffocated unless you do it to yourself. I like the Posies a lot. I like Flop a lot. And I've liked Big Star for ten years. And the Supremes, the Sex Pistols, Roxy Music and Blondie. I started the band in 1991, and even though I've had some bad luck with personnel, I'm not quitting. I'm careful not to tell people I'm with Scott. I don't want to be perceived as riding his coattails. We just wrote a song together that I'd like to put out as a CD single--"Be the Quarter Monster." It's a really good song, and we did it almost half-and-half.

BOB: How do you collaborate, by bouncing ideas off each other?

SHALINI: I'll four-track something and play it for him.

SCOTT: And I'll listen to the initial idea and say, "Here's the part I'd add if I were you."

BOB: You seem to place more importance in year-end polls and lists than most musicians, Scott.

SCOTT: Let's see, do I? In a way. If enough people mention something, I'll usually check it out. If I hear three records doing one good thing, I'll say, "Aha, there's more of that than usual." For example, in this last year, there was a lot of compressed drums.

SHALINI: But that's the producer in you talking.

SCOTT: Yeah, mostly sound kind of things, like tuning the guitar down to D. But I'm sure that as my melodic vocabulary grows, I'll make reference to things I heard back in '91. Nothing so obvious as a five-note lift, but maybe a three-note lift--a really passing reference to my favorite Teenage Fanclub song. I just couldn't possibly deny that that's true. I don't ever catch myself doing it, but it just has to be true.

BOB: Any major musical ambitions for 1994?

SHALINI: I really want to make an album. I'm sick of putzing around.

SCOTT: (Spreading his arms a la Eddie Cantor:) I'm just gonna go out there and sing and dance like no one's ever sung and danced before.

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