Star on hold
Pacific Sun, 3/6/96
By Rafer Guzman
To most music listeners, the name Scott Miller will not ring any bells. With his outmoded overcoat and cumbersome hairdo, Miller does not look like a bona fide cult figure. Yet to a small but devoted legion of fans, Scott Miller is the J.D. Salinger of pop music.
Miller is the kind of singer-songwriter who speaks with such eloquence and insight that each listener feels he alone is being directly addressed. Just as Salinger's readers suffer the rather touching delusion that the famous author somehow knows who they are and loves them dearly, so Miller's followers regard him as a lifelong and very close friend.
In his first band, Game Theory, Miller drew comparisons to Alex Chilton long before that name was fashionable to drop. Marching impeccable pop melodies to highly literate lyrics, Miller explored mid-twenties angst with humor and honesty, predating "slackerism" by several years. Yet despite critical praise and a die-hard following, the band never broke into the mainstream. (In Miller's own words, "I really don't do what you need to do to sell a lot of records.") When Miller's girlfriend, guitarist Donnette Thayer, left the band in 1988 to form Hex with the Church's Steve Kilbey, Game Theory dissolved.
It's been over a year since Miller recorded The Tape of Only Linda with his new band, the Loud Family, but they've been playing a few dates around town to road-test new material for their upcoming album and tour. On a chilly Sunday afternoon, Miller takes a break from recording to sip a cappuccino in Café Flore and chat about such casual topics as the meaning of success, coping with failure, and the need to reach out to other human beings.
They Might Be Giants once sang, "No one ever gets what they want out of life/And that is beautiful." Miller also seems to be moved by the challenges of human existence. The name Game Theory comes from an actual mathematical science which computes gains and losses between opponents. "It was the study of calculating the most appropriate action given an adversary," Miller explains. "You had someone who was thinking against you, and you had to organize what his moves could be, and what your moves should be, to give yourself the minimum amount of failure." Miller named the Loud Family after the subject of the famous PBS documentary which intended to study the daily life of a typical family, but instead watched them go to pieces on camera. The connotations of unpredictability and frailty appealed to Miller. "Also, it had the word 'loud' in it," he notes.
The Loud Family rocks a good deal harder than Game Theory, but they have yet to crack the Top 40. Miller continues to pen cryptic but brilliant songs like "Marcia and Etrusca" and "Some Grand Vision of Motives and Irony." (It's hard to imagine rabid concertgoers shouting out such tongue-twisting titles, but they do.) Though Miller's work with the Loud Family is some of his best yet, the same low-profile marketing that Game Theory received will probably keep them from reaching a wider audience.
"I don't know if the biggest marketing push in the world would make my records sell," Miller says without a trace of bitterness. "I've really become comfortable not selling. You think every record's going to sell, and none of them ever do, so it's a little bit less of a disappointment every time. So you think, well, I'll just make a record that the fans will like. That becomes the issue -- not disappointing what the expectations for you are within your sphere. However small that sphere may be."
Miller's dedication to his fans is reciprocated. "You realize that you can't tell with things like record sales whether you're getting through to people. But you get a letter from a stranger telling you how you affect them, and you think, wow, I did get through. That's something I think I continually strive for."
Some in Miller's position -- on the far side of 30, struggling through a divorce and wondering where that hit single is -- might call it quits. Miller, however, is still writing songs and hoping for success. But success is a term Miller defines a little differently than most. "Someone listens to my stuff thirty years after it's released," he says, "and because they listen to it, they decide not to kill themselves." Miller laughs. "I guess before that happens, we won't really know."
Thanks: Kenny Kessel