Talking loud and saying something
Orange County Register, January 1994
By Mark Brown
Since recording his first album in his bedroom in 1982, Scott Miller has been crafting some of the finest songs in pop music, first under the name Game Theory and most recently as the Loud Family.
His latest album, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, is packed with catchy, instantly memorable pop hooks and wry lyrics. It made at least two Top 10 lists for best albums of '93, including mine.
All of which doesn't give Miller a lot of comfort when, after a dozen years in the recording industry, he gets up every morning to go to his computer programming job.
Listen up, rock-star wanna-be's: When you're selling multiplatinum you can take 1993 off, as R.E.M. did, or wait five years between albums, as Bruce Springsteen does.
If you're Dramarama or the Ramones, you can at least quit your day job and scratch out a living off touring and album royalties.
But most rock 'n' roll stories are like Miller's. Critical acclaim is only so many words, and the best album in the world is just a piece of plastic sitting in a warehouse if no one hears or buys it.
And if you don't sound like what's hot on radio at the moment, it's easy to disappear.
"My career was just kind of absolutely nowhere after Game Theory," Miller said from his San Francisco home. "I really had to start from ground zero in a lot of ways."
He sighed. "I suspect it'll be a case of building that up again."
While the Game Theory albums always contained some highlights, the songs seemed like rough sketches. Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is a major step up, with perfectly crafted, fleshed-out songs such as "Jimmy Still Comes Around" and "Give In World."
"I think it's my best album, actually," Miller said. "It has fewer obvious flaws than those old Game Theory records, if nothing else. It doesn't have so many places of blatantly bad singing.
"But as far as a career progression, it's a lot of coming back up to speed. This did just zilch on college radio. A lot of college radio ears are listening for a more Pavement-type sound. If you want to have a big smash hit five years after your last record, it sort of better sound like what's going on."
Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things doesn't. Its pop songs are strung together with bits of dialogue, sound effects and instrumental bridges, coming together as a body of work rather than just a collection of songs.
"We had really big plans, and only two-thirds of them got pulled off," Miller said of the earlier Game Theory albums. "This time we got all the ideas on the record by the time we ran out of money."
A tip to other musicians recording on a budget: Home computers are advanced enough that you can do a lot of the post-production right on your keyboard.
"We did things like digitally slowing things down without changing the pitch, things you couldn't do 10 years ago," Miller said.
Thus, patching together two parts of "Spot the Setup" took just a few keyboard strokes on Miller's Macintosh, while in 1967 George Martin labored for days in Abbey Road Studios to do the same thing with John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Miller's frugal recording ways are legendary. While taping his first album in his bedroom, he had to deal with distractions such as the vacuum cleaner being turned on downstairs. When that happened, he said, "you had to think of a reason why there should be a vacuum cleaner on the record."
Miller's influences are obvious: He recorded a straight cover of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on an early Game Theory album. Bob Dylan, the Stones, Roxy Music, David Bowie and punk all weigh in. He throws in the occasional tribute -- a snatch of "Stairway to Heaven" guitar between songs on Real Nighttime, a line from "A Horse With No Name" put in a song and the title of Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things.
Labels died under him -- Restless and Enigma both closed, leaving Game Theory's catalog out of print.
Tiny Burbank-based Alias Records has rereleased the impossible-to-find Game Theory albums -- The Big Shot Chronicles, Real Nighttime and the compilation Distortion of Glory. The band's classic, Lolita Nation, is due next for reissue, but no date is set.
"They say they're really pleased with the sales. They're going to do a box set, a Game Theory box set, in spring," Miller said.
Part of the problem is that independent labels -- the small record companies who find the next big thing -- are being crowded out of the market after the success of alternative music. Major labels are throwing money at the once-ignored college market.
"Competition from major labels is a good three times as fierce as it used to be back in the Game Theory days," Miller lamented. "Major labels all now have their hands in the college radio market. We're on a little label. We have limited clout."
"The majors have always dipped into the indie scene," said Gary Downs, graduate of the University of California, Irvine, now Alias' director of radio promotions. "In 1985, bands on an indie level would get two or three records to develop. Now it's more like you put out a great single and there's already major label attention."
Which is why Alias is working to keep Miller, its biggest artist, by rereleasing the older material and putting out a live EP.
But there remain restrictions. Except for the occasional promo jaunt, touring is limited to how far a tank of gas can carry the band.
"We're kind of like Steely Dan. We really just concentrate on the record and tour as time permits," Miller said. "Three of us have full-time jobs. That limits how much you can tour."