Lifes Rich Pageant
Magnet, Oct/Nov 1996
By Jud Cost
Photos: Viviane Oh
Scott Miller, one time curly-haired poster boy for alternative '80s cult heroes Game Theory (and now raison d'etre behind noisy popsters the Loud Family), is about to chow down on a cheeseburger. But first he feels the need to explain himself. "I want to feel the hours ticking off the end of my life when I eat a burger," Miller chuckles one sleepy Sunday morning, seated at an outdoor picnic table of the Alpine Inn, a legendary Portola Valley Calif., beer and burger garden. Though people might take him for a vegetarian, Miller -- whose incendiary new Loud Family album Interbabe Concern, has just been released by Alias Records -- insists appearances can be deceiving. "Someone told me recently about meeting the Cocteau Twins, assuming they were into this new age, ascetic, vegetarian lifestyle. And he found them to be these foul-mouthed burger swilling kids. Of course, I immediately bought one of their records in celebration. And it was pretty good."
Miller is even more excited this morning about another somewhat esoteric recent "musical" purchase. "My new bass player Kenny Kessel, heard about this estate sale by Todd Rundgren, who's moving to Hawaii," he says. "And I found Todd's original Nehru jacket for sale. It was only 50 bucks. Now I've got to thumb through all my Nazz albums to see if it was on any of the covers. I'd just flip if it was." But it's another 60's cult icon, Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, that has served Miller well over the years as a vocal benchmark. "I don't take singing lessons," insists Miller, "but I'll frequently attempt to sing exactly like one of my idols -- I'll try to do 'Maggie May' as close to Rod Stewart as possible, for example -- just to try to get a better delivery. And Colin Blunstone is probably No. 1 on my list for that. Eric Matthews can do that Colin Blunstone thing better than anybody."
Miller's attempts to "improve" his singing has led to recent major changes in how the Loud Family records. "The new album is the most different I've ever been from the previous albums," he explains. "I decided this time to focus heavily on getting my vocal delivery exactly the way I wanted. Since I don't have that strong or dependable a voice, I didn't want to take the chance of relying on it for any one given day in the studio. So we recorded the vocals and guitar sound first, which makes it very tricky to add the bass and drums later."
The most noticeable change on Interbabe Concern is that for the first time since Game Theory's 1984 EP Distortion, Mitch Easter is not twiddling the knobs for Miller. "It wasn't a conscious decision not to work with Mitch," Miller says. "Since we don't sell many records, we told Alias we'd do the new one for a lot less than the last one." Thus Miller found himself in the producer's chair. "Through no fault of Mitch's," says Miller, "the last album had some waste involved in the recording process." Billed beforehand as a democratic band effort, The Tape of Only Linda sported a few noticeable weak spots. "Band members would come in on their own to cut their own parts," he says. "And then we'd have to cut them out later. As an experiment in democracy, it was a disaster in some ways."
The subsequent departure of guitarist Zachary Smith and bassist Rob Poor and the retirement of longtime Miller pal, drummer Joe Becker ("he wanted to spend more time with his family"), left keyboardist Paul Wieneke as the lone holdover from previous Loud Family incarnations. "Zach had the problem of being too good a guitar player," explains Miller, now assuming lead guitar duties himself. "I would have to alter the natural direction of a song to make room for him to play good guitar. As a result, I think the last album may have been too polished."
The newest Loud Family recruits -- Kessel on bass (formerly with San Fran art rockers Indian Bingo) and temporary drummer Mike Tittel, who replaced the recently departed Dawn Richardson -- were not found via notices pinned to bulletin boards at the local Laundromat or alternative record emporium. "Sue Trowbridge, who runs our Loud Family homepage, tipped me off about them," says Miller. "I guess that makes us a true cyber-band for the '90s." A dedicated webhead, Miller recently explained to an e-mail pen pal how to overcome songwriter's block. "I told him if all he needed was the rest of the verses, to sing what he had at a very loud volume. Just make yourself sing nonsense, and you'll start hearing things you wanted to say." Miller's corollary rule is also effective. "Just sing the first verse as many times as you need. No one will care."
Miller has tried writing while super-caffeinated and found it to be misleading. "Lyrics I write on coffee are really questionable," he says. "I'd get myself all excited, but they'd turn out too complicated and flowery." A la Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard, Miller occasionally prefers the spiritus fermenti method of completing the songwriting task at hand. "If you get as drunk as you need to be to finish the song, you'll be surprised how good it is. There are plenty of drunk poets." But one particularly sober poet has caught Miller's attention as of late. Always intrigued by the writing of James Joyce, Miller has recently been on a t.s. eliot jag.
"I've been reading The Waste Land and Four Quartets again and again," says Miller. "Boy, I'm sure eliot lovers will despise me for this, but I'd like to make a film of those works, and I can see Patrick Stewart doing the narration." Insisting that he's not a Trekkie, Miller adds, "For some reason I love adding 'Star Trek' references to my lyrics."
Though almost too intelligent for his own good (when prodded, he will reveal theories on "multiple dimensions, curled in a helix that allow super-string equations to be solved"), Miller has never forgotten his roots as a suburban California kid, especially his early love affair with the Monkees. "They were an effective introduction to the blues," he swears. "That's a really alien concept for a little white kid to grasp. When I was seven years old, I couldn't understand gospel-based shouts like 'What'd I Say' by Ray Charles." The Monkees helped grease the skids for Miller. "Those songs by Neil Diamond and Carole King translated blues ideology for me in a fluffy watered-down way -- like what Pat Boone had done for Fats Domino in the previous generation." The lyrics to "(Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow" from More of the Monkees, particularly floored him. "I remember just loving that line, 'I see all kinds of sorrow.' That anybody would dare to have a negative thought like that seemed incredibly cathartic to me. I just came alive when I heard that."
Miller's recent divorce proceedings have been less that cathartic. "It wasn't particularly rancorous," says Miller of his separation from Shalini Chatterjee, singer/songwriter of Vinyl Devotion, "but it's affected me more deeply than anything else in my life. It was very painful, and it's certainly contributed to the themes of my new songs."
It's Miller's natural talent, of course, that keeps him on track, focused on what he does best -- penning quirky pop songs that sound like no one else's. "I usually have about 12 songs in progress at any given time," he says. "And my ideas come at the most inconvenient times. I get really good ideas when I'm already late for something. So I have to choose between being late and screwing up my life in some way, or getting that thought down." An ever-present notepad and the recent acquisition of an A-DAT recorder have helped him with his efforts.
From its first sustained, ragged-glory chord, Interbabe Concern feels like Miller's long overdue breakthrough work. "I haven't given up on the idea we might sell lots of records some day," he ruminates. "But young audiences may not appreciate what I do at all. They won't understand the 40 hours I spend re-working a set of lyrics. Maybe you have to be a little bit older to appreciate that. I put these songs past my ear a whole bunch of times for very subtle wrong rings. I've always tried to sing in a vulnerable way, letting emotion blow my voice wherever it wanted to go. And those things may never translate into mass acceptance."
If creeping doubts remain about his music's intellectual accessibility, Miller can always shift gears to its visceral appeal. "The new album," he warns pointedly, "sounds like a slab of living flesh."