Scott Miller Interview
Snap Pop!, March 2000
By Doug Mayo-Wells
The Loud Family has just released its fifth album, Attractive Nuisance, on Alias Records. Bandleader Scott Miller, a perennial critic's choice since his 80's tenure with Game Theory, continues his singular artistic vision, a formidable mix of head and heart. The band's music defies easy categorization: the rhythm section of Gil Ray (drums) and Kenny Kessel (bass & backing vocals) has the chops of a prog-rock band, but Miller has a passion for melding sing-along hooks with twisty lyrics. Pianist/keyboardist/vocalist Alison Faith Levy fills out the quartet with a mixture of gentle piano accents and noisier bits. If you think power-pop is too straightforward, but prog-rock is too self-indulgent, if you don't mind lyrics worth chewing over, the Loud Family might be tailor-made for you. Snap Pop spoke to Miller from his San Francisco-area home base, and he was remarkably candid about his philosophy of recording and songwriting, as well as technical details of the process. We started out by talking about the sound-collage snippet -- a Miller trademark -- that opens the new album's first song. He'd joked in an e-mail that it started with the first verse of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog."
SP: ...I can almost convince myself that that's really what's in there. Is it?
SM: [laughs] No, it was some TV dialog. I just sort of put the mic in front of the TV, and it was going through this strange series of processors, and I noticed that you could get a really good effect if you would smack the microphone stand, so it'd have this horrible bassy event that it would find its way out of. And so it kind of got this screechy sound as it recovered from that, so that's what all is going on, some TV dialog, plus some microphone trauma.
SP: While we're talking about gearhead stuff, what goes into the guitar sound on "Backward Century?"
SM: Let's see, that one, if I remember correctly was all my standard stage pedal setting. I use one of these Boss -- what's it called, SE-5, I think is the name? -- the only remarkable thing I remember about it is that I heard recently that that's what David Gilmour uses too. And I don't know if that's true or not, but I was excited enough to repeat it here.
And the main setting is just a bunch of compression and digital delay, so it's kind of a rockabilly-slapback sound. And then of course you have to sort of get the amp just right -- I do an EQ going from the effect pedal out into the amp -- I sort of kick up the bass because the Marshalls like the bass to be overdriven a little bit in the pre-amp phase, I find. And then give it just a little bit of overdrive at the pre-amp stage and re-EQ that after it comes out, to make it sound pleasant in the mix. So I typically will sit there for an hour and fiddle with the EQ and the compression at various stages until it sounds pretty good. It's probably more work than is "up there on the screen," as they say in movies, but I kind of enjoy the process of putting some loving attention into sounds like that.
SP: That was another thing I wanted to talk about -- the process of making this record. You did some of it in the studio--
SM: Right. We always do the drums and the mixing in the studio because they're beyond my capabilities at home. In a way they're not because you can do a whole lot on computers now, but I still like to work with a live drum room, that's just, personnel-wise, how we're set up. Gil and Kenny interact a lot and depend on actual physical performance to get the rhythm section, so it's unthinkable at this point for me to do a rhythm section with a drum machine or anything like that.
SP: But then you're doing a lot of work on the recording without the rhythm section being present?
SM: Right. So we get the tracks in the studio, and typically there's this middle portion of the making of the record, which is all done in my living room. And we'll do the guitar sounds, I'll have my guitar amp set up in an adjacent room. And I'll be sitting there with headphones on, doing the guitar and -- traditionally I used to have a foot pedal for any punch-ins or overdubs that'd I'd do...so this new generation of ADATs that came out that has that has this auto-punch feature was really good for me, because you can play the track, and with your hands punch in where it's going to come in and go out of record mode, and then rehearse that and see if it works OK...So equipment just gets better all the time. Well, that's not true, it doesn't get better all the time, it goes through some periods of getting worse in faddy ways, like, for years [chuckles] synthesizers weren't fun anymore. And now they kind of are again. But aside from that, generally speaking, technology has done a lot of good things lately for the home recording person.
SP: You've certainly used it a lot, as the digital technology has evolved, you've been using it continually--
SM: Yeah, I didn't get in right away -- I think ADATs sound pretty good -- there have been some digital formats that I didn't think sounded that good in the early days. They didn't sample enough, and you could just hear the discreteness of the types of sounds you get, so certain -- where is it most apparent? -- cymbals would sound a little mechanical, they'd sound sort of like the analog to, oh, not enough levels of brightness or color when you're looking at a digital picture. If it's a smooth surface like a basketball or something like that, you can see all these isobaric lines where the increment of color does its change. And there's kind of that analog in sound, it sounds limited in some way that's hard to describe -- brittle, metallic.
But it's been a little bit out of necessity that I've gone to digital, because you can get a really affordable, good-sounding home system with ADATs as of three years ago, or a bit more than that, but that's when I started, about '96 -- that Interbabe Concern record is where I really took the plunge into ADATs. And I was so thrilled that you could get something that good-sounding for two thousand dollars or whatever an ADAT costs. Because I've been doing home recording my whole life -- when I was a teenager the first big purchase I ever wanted to make was a TEAC 4-track. And I just dedicated my life to getting one of those, and I would spend my whole life, literally, in front of that thing, unless dragged away for the requirements to stay alive.
SP: Do you find that the new gear makes it easier to do what you want to do in a live performance, or do you see the goal of a live performance and the goal of making a record as different, sonically?
SM: They're pretty different. It used to be almost unthinkable to use synthesizers effectively in live performance if you were a little band -- I mean, if you were Emerson, Lake & Palmer, you could cart everything up there and have someone responsible for [chuckles] whatever they do, these horrendous patch cord arrangements and maybe fixing the mellotron every night, but if you're just a little band and you set up your own gear, things like Prophet V's and the good-sounding analog synthesizers used to always be out of tune. The stage would get hotter, and they'd respond to that by getting sharper [laughs]...and really nasty problems like that, so not too many people did it, but nowadays they're pretty reliable, and it is funny how between '94 and '96, which were two years that I did tours, it went from having about 10% of the bands having keyboards in the lineup to about 60% -- it was really shocking. And I don't know why it suddenly happened then, because a lot of this technology wasn't new in '94, something about the dynamics of what's available and what the indie scene was doing, it just all switched over exactly in the middle of the 90's as far as what bands were willing to tolerate...I mean, some of it had to do with the popularity of Stereolab, and some obvious things like that.
SP: One the thing about the new record is that there's more collaboration, as indicated by the songwriting credits, than you've had in a while.
SM: Right. Well, we collaborated a lot on this, and we collaborated a lot on the last record, too -- it's a process that -- you know like anything, it can be good or bad, you have to be able to go through a period of it not sounding like much is succeeding. When you have something like a jam session, and you're not all master jazz musicians [laughs], or people who'd normally have a jam session for the good of any listener, you come up with a lot of things that are just noise. And out of that noise will eventually come some things that sound good, and you build on those, but the building process can be slow, so you kind of have to go through a period of discouraging practices. You have some ideas of -- well, this is some very loose structure that's going to be "Song A" and some very loose structure that's going to be "Song B." That one on the last record called "Good, There Are No Lions In The Street," is a good example of that kind of thing, where you're just getting some good drones and sonics together, and out of that you -- over a long period -- develop melody and verse/chorus-like structure.
But it's very different from the kind of disappointment you have to get used to when you're just the songwriter, and you bring a finished set of melodies and lyrics together to the band. The disappointment in that latter case is more, "Well I can picture in my head how it's all going to sound, but it seems kind of puny when I'm just playing it for these three other people." And they're thinking, "Oh, well, Scott was kind of excited about this and it really doesn't sound like much. This is going to be the one where he's really lost it." [laughs]
So there're two different brands of forbearance that you have to get used to if you're going to be a collaborative songwriter or a songwriter who works alone.
SP: So a fair amount of these songs do evolve out of practice jams?
SM: Yeah, also just certain discussions, like we kind of need a slow one, what kind of album is shaping up, do we have too many that're mid-tempo. We thought this one was going to have a certain kind of beat, but we're in the market for a faster one, so we changed the beat around. There's this one on the new one called "No One's Watching My Limo Ride" and we had a very slow, grooving beat for part of that for a while, which we're changing back into a fast beat, and we ended up deciding that, just because how I'm conceiving of the album fitting together, I want one that's all fast there. That kind of discussion happens communally too.
SP: You're thinking about the sequence of the whole album at that point?
SM: Well, you better at some point! Songwriting is a process, at least for me, you just kind of gravitate towards an easy-going mid-tempo song. And if you're just going to let gravity take over, you'd better be prepared to have a very monochromatic album. So you'd better be thinking about how things are going to be varied and how the drama of the album is going to play out -- how it works in a cinematographic way.
SP: I'm interested in that because one of the things you hear a lot is the idea -- I don't know how many people actually work this way, maybe it's a myth -- that you record the songs, and you mix them down, and you don't get serious about sequencing until you're in the mastering phase.
SM: Usually I'm thinking about sequencing long before that. I don't think I've ever gone all the way to mastering and not had a clue what the sequences was going to be. Some albums -- like Lolita Nation, I had completely mapped out to the last detail what was going to happen and when. Other albums that aren't as centered on the concept of structure as that one was are a little easier to shake up. But typically I know when we go in to record them what I want the sequence to be, and sometimes a really early song will come out kind of crummy, and we'll move it [laughs] away from the front of the album, just because you don't want people who've never heard the band before to listen to a couple of songs and on that basis decide "Well, I don't want to listen to this anymore." So you are a little bit sensitive to making sure that the first few come out well. Usually it's not a case of having to bump songs back...it's more that you allow plenty of room to get the ones that are going to be first, right. Especially the first one. Because the first one tends to be technically ambitious, at least for me. Like "Sodium Laureth Sulfate," I remember took a whole lot of time to get everything that was going on there to sound good in real life the way I pictured it in my mind, and the same with "720 Times...," the one that starts this latest album, it just has lots and lots and lots of stuff going on in those tracks.
Sometime-Zappa side-man Mike Keneally plays a guest solo on the outro of "Nice When I Want Something," one of the album's most rocking tracks. Snap-Pop! asked Scott how this came about.
SM: Well, Kenny [Kessel, bass and backing vocals] had been in touch with him, Kenny was just a fan of Mike Keneally's and he played me some of his stuff, and I thought it was really good. And at one point he just talked him into playing something on our record, on a day that he was going to be in town, I think doing something with Henry Kaiser, if I remember correctly. And Mike's very nice, he said, "I'll stop by and put something down." The only problem was, we didn't have anything recorded. Literally. [laughs] So we had to go home, take one of these songs that was still being written, sort of finish it, what the verse/chorus sequence was gonna be, that day, lay down a click track, and just sort of have an acoustic guitar playing along with some scratch vocals, and then the click goes on a while at the end for where this solo could be. And so he just came and played on this sketch of the song. And, literally, his solo was the first thing that was recorded.
SP: No kidding! So he didn't take that at the same time as Kenny's bass part?
SM: Well, he's a real pro, he can just do that -- yeah, so for a while, all that existed of this album was that solo and nothing else, and then we came along and played drums to that click track, etc., etc.
SP: You usually think of that as the sort of accusation you level at a heavy metal artist, building everything around the solo.
SM: [laughs] Well, true. It's kind of a heavy metal song, in a way, or at least a Spiders from Mars kind of song.
SP: Hmm. That may be why I like it so much -- spiders are a good thing.
SM: Thank you. It's always something I strive for as a guitarist.
Miller frequently includes short experimental tracks on his albums -- he was playing with sampling and tape-manipulating vocals at least as far back as 1987, before it was fashionable -- and Attractive Nuisance features an unusual track, entitled "Controlled Burn (Parts 1 and 2)."
SP: Want to talk about "Controlled Burn?"
SM: Sure! It was just two fragments, one that I'd recorded by myself, and one that Gil [Ray, drums] had recorded by himself, that we just sort of stuck together on a whim, and it went together in a way I thought was pleasant. Gil wrote the first part, and he just built up all his parts on this home 8 track cassette machine that he had, and we transferred that to ADAT and did the edit. And mine was a home, 8 track job on ADAT, and I guess I can speak more authoritatively on what happened on mine. But it involved playing all the drum tracks you hear on a sampler that had a different drum assigned to each key on a piano keyboard, right, this is kind of standard -- and so I was sitting there, I didn't have a sequencer to make things happen on beat, and I don't have a very good sense of rhythm when I'm tapping things with my fingers -- or any time, really, but I don't have that precise sense of rhythm. So I'm sitting there and tapping one key for closed hi-hat and one key for open hi-hat [laughs] and just sort of going [makes drum noises] and my wife was in the other room and she'd hear this inaudible tapping and then this horrible swearing, cause I'd mess up every other measure and have to go back and do that foot punch-in thing that I was talking about, because that was before I had the new deck. And it's pretty hard to punch in right before you're going to play this thing with your fingers. I don't know why, again, drummers would probably have no trouble with this, but it was this terrible human trial for me, and I finally got through it and just added a bunch of other samples.
The other funny thing about that one is that the fragments of voice, that sounds like I had finished tracks with all of the words like (sings) "I only," and then it would be quiet for a while, it sounded like I started with complete tracks and then made holes in them, punching-in silence for a lot of it. Actually I tried that, and it didn't sound interesting any more, it didn't sound like -- toward the end, when you can hear them both and they juxtapose, they sort of alternate, one says one word and the other says another word, it didn't sound like that was happening at all, it just sounded like a single track. Because punching in and out, if you do it right, it's kind of seamless, it just sounds like a single track. So I ended up having to actually say those things by themselves and do the punch-in and punch-out by hand, sort of as I was saying the one word. And the combination of doing that, it finally sounded like it was an interesting effect. I don't know if I articulated that very well, but the moral of the story is that performance was done just exactly like you hear it. It didn't have "more" which was punched-out beforehand.
SP: My assumption was that you'd recorded the whole thing two or three times and then done a--
SM: Exactly. No, it's two tracks, and for each one, I had to have this little script in front of me that mapped out exactly where each word was gonna happen, and say that word when it came up. And I'd sort of punch in before and after the word, just for the sort of noise-gating effect that you want a word to jump out from -- it doesn't sound good if you just say it and then have room noise before and after. But I did have to follow along this little script for the whole recording and say the words as they came up. This is going to be a long story with no payoff for a lot of people who are reading this! [laughs] But such is life, such are the travails of 'techie' discussions.
SP: There's a song on the new record called "Soul DC." Why DC? What does DC mean to you in the context of that song?
SM: Um , well, it's funny -- whenever anyone asks me the meanings of lyrics, there's this terrible temptation to lie. And so I try to resist that, and when you try to resist lying, and then actually say something, it comes out really funny, because these lyrics in a way, form very unconsciously. It's kind of like, how do I construct the sentence that I'm saying right now? It would be a lie to say that I deliberated about what was going to be the noun, and what was going to be the verb: it just sort of wasn't there, and then it was, based on something that I was feeling, something at some level that I wanted to get out. And it did, but how it got out is entirely unclear, it's entirely behind the curtain. Why it's called "Soul DC" is entirely behind the curtain. That's not to say it doesn't have meaning, but the meaning is occluded in a way -- in my editing process, I'll collect these things, these lines, and elaborations on lines that I've collected, and that kind of thing with an eye toward their not having bad associations. In other words, my editing process will often be, "Soul DC" could mean this, the homonyms could mean that, the political associations could mean this other thing. Does any of that add up to something I don't want to say? If it adds up in a useful way, a bunch of coincidences that I think reinforce each other correctly, then it will stand -- then it will be done.
There are some obvious associations to Washington, a little bit about politics. There's another theme of musicality, and specifically the word "drum" appears and those intersect in the word, "drumming up support," but there's a lot of mediations, and word associations, and trying to get things across in a little bit of a -- this almost in the category of lying, because this is unconscious too -- but the general intent is to bring ways we think to the surface in ways that, if it were brought to the surface consciously, we'd reject it. We'd feel that our integrity was being challenged too much to think of things in that way. So in that song, it's treating little weird human ways of...of falling under spells of fascination, falling under movements, under the influence of social movements, that type of thing, presented in a way that's hopefully kind of fun -- fun in a little bit of a dark way, but I've tried in all the lyrics of this album to have to bring rather heavy things across in the gentlest way I possibly could.
SP: Read any good books lately?
SM: Let's see -- well right now I'm trying to read Schopenhauer, because I have this "Ask Scott" column, someone asked me something about Schopenhauer, so I got a Schopenhauer book, and it's pretty slow so far, I think I might have to read some summary of what Schopenhauer was saying, try to answer the question as best I can.
I read the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, that was brilliant, maybe the best book I've ever read. I would recommend that for just about everyone, except that it's very long, it's 950 pages, something like that, but I just thought it was fantastic. There are always the wrong people and the right people to recommend any book to, but if how would I put it -- if you like my music, you'd probably like this, because you like stuff that you have to be at least a tiny bit patient with. [laughs]
I re-read The Tempest by Shakespeare when I was making this record, and there's a song, "Motion of Ariel," and Ariel is a character from The Tempest, I thought The Tempest was just...luminous. Extremely moving.
SP: You mentioned "Ask Scott," [a question and answer column on the band's website, www.loudfamily.com]--
SM: Thomas Mann! The Magic Mountain. I read that. Stupendous. Sorry -- just had to get one little advertisement for something that I read really recently that I loved. You were asking about the web column?
SP: It's an unusual look into many aspects of the process of being an artist. You talk about details of the recording process, songwriting, what you're reading...
SM: Well, that's just thanks to the people who ask the questions. The fact that there's a variety. It's a good forum though, because -- it's a little better than writing a newspaper column, in that the newspaper columnist always has to come up with his own subjects, and if you have this steady stream of very unrelated ... Or, I should say, oblique angles of approach to a person, the only common denominator of all these questions really, is they relate to me in some funny way, so when you let a person be a complete person like that -- forget whether I'm an interesting person or a boring person -- it opens up the scope and potential for understanding, because you can ask so many questions in context of other questions.
You aren't limited to answers that might be prescriptive the way an advice columnist would be. I don't have to always be giving someone good advice, or else there are some consequences. I imagine someone like Miss Manners or, especially, Ann Landers has to take a fair amount of care in answering some of these troubled souls lest they make some terrible life decision and get themselves into trouble.
But I have a little more freedom, because I don't get asked that kind of question, generally speaking. So I can be more open about how, "Oh well, maybe this is the way I tried something in the past, and it seems to have had that effect," but you know, you take away whatever you want from that, your mileage may vary, as the cliche goes.
But I enjoy it very much as a forum.
SP: I've noticed recently that there are bands cropping up named after some of your songs, there's Crash into June, Rosy Overdrive...do you have any thoughts about that?
SM: Well, my first thought is I wish I were more of a reliable ticket to success [laughs] to refer to. But there's such a thing as having fun with obscure references, and maybe they'll -- a good way to start a career is if there's some obscure band, and if you make a reference to it then other people who like that obscure band will check you out, rather than if you named yourself after an Alanis Morissette line or something like that wouldn't have much purchase in that kind of sense.
So, yeah, I can see it as a thing to do. I used to be very excited about doing that with, oh, Alex Chilton or something like that in the days when Alex Chilton was extremely obscure as a reference point...not in 1967 of course, when he had the number one song in the country, but in the middle there, it was good obscure reference.
SP: And there's another aspect to that too -- I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but it was the Replacements' song "Alex Chilton" that got me to listen to the Big Star catalog.
SM: Oh, that's probably true of a lot of people. Yeah, that was great. I always wondered what he thought of that song -- what Alex thought of the song, because it's -- I can't remember the lyrics right now, but it seemed like it was -- maybe not slightly off-color, maybe I imagined that...
SP: Westerberg was very dismissive about it at the time, I remember him saying something along the lines of "Oh, well, I just needed something that rhymed with million."
SM: [laughs] And that's the best he could come up with? Well, I guess there aren't too many exact rhymes with million...
SP: I get the feeling he may not always have put the care and polishing into the lyrics that you do.
SM: Yeah, although, as I say in the first instance, it's all just whatever pops into your head. You can't polish "nothing" into being "something." You have to take some germ that seems good to you, for no other reason than that you're egotistical enough to value something that you came up with yourself, and nurture it into something that has its own little presentation. I forget how I started that sentence, it's gotten so long... [laughs]
But, I think Paul Westerberg was really good. I guess that's the moral. I thought he was a fine lyric writer.
© 2000 doug mayo-wells, courtesy of Snap Pop!