Option no. 52, Sept/Oct 1993
By Jason Cohen
In the landmark documentary An American Family, a camera crew recorded the day-to-day life of a real family in Santa Barbara, California, intimately capturing divorce, adolescent rebellion and homosexuality within the upper-middle-class Loud household. More recently, Scott Miller named his new group the Loud Family after the subjects of that controversial, early-'70s PBS series. However, after this erudite display of TV literacy, Miller realized he had forgotten about the Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name. "It was like, oh, ick, I've named the band Land Shark!"
Truthfully, Miller did his homework. He even contacted the most celebrated real life Loud -- Lance, now an L.A.-based free-lance writer -- to ask if the family minded his use of the name. "He said no," recalls Miller, "but that it would be good if we didn't use pictures of any of the family members, or if we didn't have some sort of derogatory or cruelly ironic reference -- which was never the intention. It was a sympathetic reference."
What Miller wanted to put across was the feeling of being constantly scrutinized. "I just thought An American Family was a really good metaphor," he explains. "Going through life is a lot like having cameras on you, and you have to perform, but there's no script; you just have to do the normal kind of bumbling thing." Besides, he adds, "it had the word 'loud' in it."
A former art student who cut nine albums worth of unreleased material before he was 22 and today earns his living writing computer programs in Silicon Valley, Scott Miller was never one to ignore his wild ideas. "I just got the right kind of coddling as a child," he admits. Both Lolita Nation, an album by Miller's '80s band Game Theory, and Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, the Loud Family's first record, are willfully odd works in which the Northern California native drops rich veins of power-pop into maelstroms of experimental effects such as processed vocals, cut-and-paste soundscapes, spoken interludes and recurring motifs. As a pop songwriter, Miller's skill is abundant if mundane; tied to his ceaseless ambition and restless vision, that skill becomes a weird sort of genius, even when flawed or excessive.
"The property of being creative is really the simplest of things," he says humbly. "If you get some little idea, no matter how good or bad, the person who's supposedly creative is egocentric enough to think, 'Wow, that's a great idea,' and kind of nurture it into something. The supposedly uncreative person will think, perhaps much more accurately, 'What a stupid idea,' and then drop it."
Miller is sitting at a Greek cafe in Austin, Texas, in town for the South By Southwest music conference. With the same moptop of golden brown curls he's sported since Game Theory's early days, and wearing a lightweight jacket and jeans, he still looks boyish at 33 years old.
"You don't want to set yourself up as someone who people don't actually have to like to be considered good," he continues, over fresh coffee and baklava. "Like this kind of academic attitude -- 'Oh, well, he's just doing stuff that no one understands, but it's brilliant, you know.' Lolita Nation was a little bit of that kind of album. I went through a lot of anxiety producing that. Like every single thing I did, everyone involved would give me funny looks: 'Why do you want to do that?'"
One thing listeners found odd was the two-minute noise track that Miller divided into six parts and titled "All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluids Makes Hal a Dull Metal Humbert - In Heaven Every Elephant Baby Wants To Be So Full of Sting - Paul Simon In the Park With Canticle - But You Can't Pick Your Friends - Vacuum Genesis" - followed by a 172-character string of capital letters and numbers, some of which form words and some of which don't. "You go into it thinking that no matter what happens you'll be able to be bold and confident and keep doing it no matter how many funny looks you get," Miller says. "But by funny look number 73, I was beginning to wear down a bit, where it was, Oh, let's just get this over with and then we'll do a normal album and everybody will like me again."
Game Theory's first three releases -- Blaze of Glory and the EPs Pointed Accounts of People You Know and Distortion -- were savvy but undistinguished attempts at melodic guitar music in the American power-pop tradition. For Miller, Alex Chilton has been an albatross of an influence, and so have Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter, whose Chilton-inspired mid-'70s group Sneakers provided the archetype for Game Theory. For the band's second full-length album, Dead Center, Easter even signed on as producer.
No one hates those early records more than Miller, who dreads their forthcoming reissue on Alias. But the label is also reissuing the "good" Game Theory records, originally released on Enigma: 1985's Real Nighttime, wherein Miller's songwriting flowered and the shape of his slightly spicy, keyboard heavy sound became clearer, and The Big Shot Chronicles which was better produced, had a tighter band and a harder feel. The latter was a seamless 10-song set that included delicate psychedelic balladry ("Like a Girl Jesus," "Regenisraen") and power-chord posturing ("Make Any Vows," "I Tried Subtlety").
Game Theory went out with more of a whimper than a blast in 1988 with Two Steps From the Middle Ages, a more "normal" reaction to its predecessor, Lolita Nation. A best of compilation came out two years later under the esoteric title Tinker To Evers To Chance, a reference to the famous double play combination in baseball. "The sounds of the names have these evocative meanings," Miller says of the title. "Also, it's a case in baseball where someone didn't get a hit, so it was definitely an appropriate title for our greatest hits."
The Loud Family evolved out of Game Theory's final line-up, a trio that saw original drummer Jozef Becker returning to the fold from Thin White Rope, as well as the Three O'Clock's Michael Quercio -- who had produced Distortion -- on board as a musician. But with Quercio living down south in Los Angeles, the lineup didn't last long. Miller and Becker eventually hooked up with Zachary Smith, Rob Poor and Paul Wieneke, who played in a band called This Very Window and had appeared on Game Theory records as session players. Game Theory had always been Scott Miller and whoever else decided to come along for the session, so the name change is somewhat symbolic of a new phase. But Miller doesn't make a big deal of it. "I usually just said, 'Yeah, let's call it Game Theory, until one day I didn't."
The songs on the first Loud Family album, Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, consist of three years' worth of lyrics fueled by a bleak period in Miller's life. "I was really going through a depressing time," he says. "I'd lost my girlfriend [ex-Game Theory singer Donnette Thayer, who resurfaced in the duo Hex, along with Steve Kilbey of the Church] and I'd lost my band. There was also a period where I got laid off from my job. I was hitting rock bottom, nothing was working out in my life at all. It seems like I was always in some state of trying to get things together, trying to get my situation out of some state of brokenness and hopelessness. I missed everything -- I missed having a record deal and making records; I missed playing live." The Loud Family's formation helped soften the edges. "The good part about all that is that I do have a record deal now, so it takes longer to occur to me to be depressed about not being a big star."
Success, or lack thereof, is a touchy subject for Miller. He jokes that most articles or reviews about him begin with: "Nothing good ever happens to Scott Miller, but somehow he's managed to drag his broken body into a studio one more time and make another album." Then they go on to discuss how arty or brainy he is. "It's stuff that would make you think I'm a real arch intellectual," he says. "I'm past the point of fighting against that, but it's odd to me that that stuff doesn't fall into the background. My songs are never about the funny word play, and I hear a lot of emphasis on that and not much on what the songs are about -- be it the boy-girl situation, or being depressed about some key failure I've had, or getting a little bit of understanding about life. That's all the stuff I try to get across."
Set among Miller's simple themes, there's substance and strong imagery in the lyrics to Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, most of which sketch out characters with real names and personalities -- people like Lawrence, Suzie, Julie, Christine, Sharon, Jimmy, Rosy, Isaac, Joe, Julie Ann, Cath, Celie, Cindy Lee, Kim Novak and Martin Luther King. (Miller figures he picked up the technique of giving his characters names from Bob Dylan.) Two post-love songs, "Slit My Wrists" and "Some Grand Vision of Motives And Irony," sit alongside the self-deprecating, antidelusional "Spot the Setup" ("I used to go out with supermodels/But it didn't make my life OK"). With sarcasm, Miller characterizes the facile environmental anthem "Idiot Son" as a "novel message, turned into a winner by the power of power-pop."
The album -- Miller copped its title from America's early-'70s hit "Horse With No Name" -- has many moments of prog-rock playfulness and pretension. The opening track, "He Do the Police In Different Voices," was named after the working title of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The song lays a chorus of radio chatter over quotes from "Come Together," "Crystal Blue Persuasion," the Pixies' "Debaser," Alex Chilton's "Bangkok" and Television's "Venus." Also, the sound effects and interludes of Lolita Nation are back in full force.
"There's both experimentation in structure and kind of -- what would I call it? -- mood roller coasters," Miller says. "But also there's a lot of production and a few high tech touches, like really funny effects on instruments and slice-and-dice computer processing. When you get both of those working at the same time, you get this really, really crowded feeling. You can try to make it uncrowded by subtracting things out, or you can just realize that there's going to be a whole bunch of sensory overload involved and just play that up -- make people deal with that or take the record off. We just kind of let it be a difficult listen and hopefully those production touches are kind of... conciliatory moments, where there's just a normal chorus with a nice normal arrangement, and then it goes into things that will jar you, make you feel something funny."
Miller and Mitch Easter presided over the production, with input from the band's new members, two of whom studied computer music at Stanford. As a result, the album retains the traditional big hooks and guitar centered structures of psychedelic power pop, bringing the genre into the 21st century with an emphasis on keyboards and computers. "I kind of like overproduction," Miller admits, before changing his mind. "Actually, that's not true. There are times when I like a lot of production; I try to make a point of not being technophobic. There's a lot of high-tech sounds I find really appealing." For instance, he always liked the way Eno and Devo used what he calls "those old buzzy synthesizers" without making the electronics sound stiff. "They were kind of a rock-out feature," he says, "like a synth freak out, which could be really nice and really rock 'n' roll, especially when you were tired of every sound that guitar and bass and drums get. Somebody getting a mini-Moog and making the funniest noise they possibly could was... 'Wow, neat!' I've always tried to have a keyboard player for that reason."
A large part of Miller's vision borders on what could be called "meta-pop," a predilection for references and repetition and recurring thematic sound bites. Plants begins with the same note of feedback that kicked off Lolita Nation and first appeared on Real Nighttime. "Ballad of How You Can All Shut Up" has a female voice reciting the names of old Game Theory songs. And, as with Lolita Nation, several tracks have Miller grunting the words, "No one twisting his arm, no one twisting his arm." On "Don't All Thank Me At Once," which he calls "the most hated track on the record," the phrase is sped up and repeated more than a dozen times before giving way to a brief bit of wimpy guitar jangle. Even though Miller would prefer to have it otherwise, it is those moments which tend to define his work, offering a glimpse into what he's trying to do with music beyond merely writing good tunes.
"I really like to have things ring a little bell, you know? I love to make references. "No one twisting his arm" is one of the key ones for me, because it's kind of a feeling I've had a lot -- especially when I'm doing a record where I have to put a lot of my personality on the line and it looks funny." Miller glances down at the tape recorder on the table in front of him. "It just seemed like a resonant phrase," he continues. "There's this tone of a person being judged, and it's trying to be some demonstration that this person did what he did voluntarily."
Contributing editor Jason Cohen recently relocated from Austin to New York City, where he continues to write for a variety of publications including Details, Spin and Rolling Stone.