Keeping the Music in Mind
Los Angeles Times, Orange County Edition, 6/22/96
By Mike Boehm
Even after 14 years of putting out records as a complete unknown or, at best, a semi-obscurity, Scott Miller retains both his marbles and his enthusiasm for finding fresh, artful possibilities in that old, worked-over form, the catchy, post-Beatles pop tune.
Actually, the marbles came in handy during a session for Interbabe Concern, due out Aug. 20 on Alias Records. It will be the 10th release of Miller's career, and his third fronting his current, Bay Area-based band, the Loud Family.
By rolling marbles down a glass incline, Miller and his band mates (who open for Aimee Mann tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre) came up with a clicking, percussive effect for the song "Don't Respond, She Can Tell."
"We had to do lots of takes," Miller, 36, reported in a recent phone interview from an office near San Francisco, taking a break from the computer programming gig that pays his bills while he follows his calling. "You'd drop it and it wouldn't land on the beat. That was a real multi-hour project."
Every record Miller makes is, in a sense, a reversion to childhood: "I've been seriously in bands since I was 9," the tousle-haired singer-guitarist said. But rolling marbles in a recording studio was no idle game. Miller is serious about making records that can engage the mind as well as the ear, and he had an express aim in using this very low-tech substitute for a drum machine.
"I think my subconscious was wanting to represent machinery [in people's] mental processes, something obsessive like Humphrey Bogart with the steel balls in 'The Caine Mutiny,' " Miller said. "The song's about this guy, the wheels are turning [as he thinks about] how he goes through these mechanical motions that are unacceptable."
Miller has done quirkier stuff than that -- one abstract experiment on Lolita Nation, a 1987 release by his former band, Game Theory, was an attempt to create the sonic equivalent of James Joyce's broken-apart and stitched-together dream-language from "Finnegans Wake."
"I think the perception is that I try to play games and be obscure and be thought of as an intellectual," Miller said. "I'm pro-intellectual, certainly, but that's not what's on my mind."
Miller says he wants to be able to give an unexpected twist to something as familiar as the traditional pop-rock song, while preserving the inviting, accessible qualities that draw listeners in. He wants to avoid the commonplace, yet not go so far in the other direction that he's "being too experimental and excusing yourself from getting through [to an audience] at all."
"Ultimately," he said, "your goal is to try to get across the important things you've found in life."
Album by album, Miller has moved between dense, relatively demanding pop and more straightforward approaches. Interbabe Concern swings toward the demanding side, but without going overboard. The album's prevailing mood of frustration and loss grew out of the collapse of Miller's marriage to Shalini Chatterjee, a fellow singer-songwriter who fronts the San Francisco band Vinyl Devotion. Miller conveys hurt or sarcastic bite in a frayed, wounded voice that can sound a lot like Dramarama's John Easdale; he also can reach for higher, creamier tones reminiscent of the Raspberries' Eric Carmen. The Loud Family is capable of playing quiet, acoustic songs or living up to its name by stomping hard on the fuzz-tone distortion pedal.
Miller's love of pure pop began when he was a small boy in Sacramento and his parents brought home the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band he started at 9 was called the Monkees. "We were really little kids, and we didn't realize you had to have your own personality," Miller said in his even voice. "I was Mike Nesmith, of course" - the one Monkee who could write a good song.
Miller launched Game Theory while at UC Davis. After three do-it-yourself releases, the band signed with Enigma Records and struck up an alliance with producer Mitch Easter. The guitarist, bandleader and former R.E.M. producer worked on all of the Game Theory and Loud Family albums from 1985 until Interbabe Concern, which Miller produced himself. Game Theory broke up in 1988, and the Loud Family started in 1991. Miller named the band after the subjects of the 12-hour 1973 PBS documentary "An American Family," a more trenchant and less contrived ancestor of MTV's "The Real World" in which cameras followed the daily doings and internal crises of an upper-middle-class family in Santa Barbara (the Loud kids, incidentally, had great taste in rock music).
Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, wryly named after a snippet from America's lyrically atrocious hit "A Horse With No Name," established the Loud Family as critics' faves after its release in 1993. The Tape of Only Linda followed in 1994. Aimee Mann became a fan, and the Loud Family is opening on her current West Coast tour. After a recent lineup change, the Loud Family is now Miller on vocals and guitar, holdover keyboards player Paul Wieneke, and new members Kenny Kessel and Dawn Richardson on bass and drums.
Miller says he is content without stardom and the riches it brings, although he is hungry for a shot at being a full-time musician. "You certainly want your records to be successful enough that you could make a living by them, but if your records are paying the bills [for a high-budget lifestyle], you'll make records that will pay the bills," thereby compromising artistic purity. "If you're a person really centered and free of corruption, [stardom and its riches are] great. But it's hard to be that way."
Miller cites Mann's standing as a cult artist with a major label deal as "the level of fame I'd want, or a little less. What would be the payoff [of mass stardom]? Beyond a certain amount of money and fame, I wouldn't want any more. My motivation would be to wreck things so they would be like they were before."
Even if he doesn't aim to cash in royally, Miller thinks it's a plus that melodic, song-oriented music is again finding favor with a large audience. "Nirvana opened that up a bit; their songs have all sorts of tricky chord changes. Since then, bands like Elastica or Oasis [have had hits]. They're not bands that blind you with their melodic complexity, but they write from the real mainstream of pop that goes way back. I'm curious to see if that benefits me at all. I think it'll find a way not to, because that's always been the case."
Even after all these years, Miller says, writing pop songs hasn't lost its allure. One of his new numbers, "Not Expecting Both Contempo and Classique," touches on both the subtle aesthetic rewards of good pure-pop and the difficulty of being fresh and distinctive while working in such a constrained and ultra-familiar genre:
Admiring paper on my wall,
"That does apply to songwriting, and being influenced by the Beatles, for instance," Miller said. "It's hard not to want to do everything exactly as they did, but you have to find a way not to. It is a very complex problem, and I don't think too many people get it right. The vast majority are repeating some party line. I keep thinking I'm finding ways to -- horrible phrase -- 'grow as an artist.' [The fascination] hasn't run out for me."