Al Einstein Meets Willie Mays
Ptolemaic Terrascope, Volume 4, #1, Spring 1993
By Jud Cost
Scott Miller, his previous band Game Theory a svelte combination of brain and sinew even now receding into the mists of the eighties, has resurfaced in San Francisco after a four year lay-off, on Alias Records of Los Angeles, with a freshly stocked aggregation in tow that he calls the Loud Family. Anybody secure enough to put up a spirited five minute defence of Don Mclean's "American Pie", as he did when we spoke recently, wouldn't bat an eye at lifting the title of his new album, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, from something as "unhip" as America's "Horse With No Name".
Of course the Miller originals on the album are anything but retro. Old production collaborator, Mitch Easter, has polished these new gems -- Miller's warble instantly familiar -- to a hard gloss and then strung them together with as seamless and sympathetic a use of digital sampling as could be imagined. "I think this album takes up where Lolita Nation left off," Miller claims. And he's right. It's the extra large Scott Miller combination pizza with nineteen toppings to tempt your palate. If you don't like anchovies, just push them onto someone else's slice.
Game Theory was one of the "Big Four" indie guitar bands whose roots can be traced back to the early eighties music scene surrounding the University of California at Davis. But Miller now seems as unable as any of the Dream Syndicate, True West or Thin White Rope people to explain why so much talent germinated in such a tiny pond. He reckons, however, that the college radio station, KDVS, had a lot to do with it. "It acted like a carrot for us. If you put together a tape of your band that was good enough, you could actually hear it on the airwaves. I remember that being quite a thrill. But I had no idea that things were happening either more or less successfully here than any other college town in the world."
Now, ten years later, Miller is back with the Loud Family -- guitar more prominently featured than before -- to finish the job. The only familiar face this time around is drummer Joe Becker, a veteran of the last Game Theory line-up as well as Miller's first college band, Alternate Learning. "He's my oldest and dearest friend. We met in Sacramento in the second grade at Eastern Avenue Elementary School." Lead guitarist Zach Smith, who "can play anything", came from one of Donnette Thayer's pre-Game Theory Sacramento bands, No Matter What. Keyboardist Paul Wieneke and bassist Rob Poor are described by Miller as "hypermusically educated guys from Stanford (University), who decided they wanted to be in a pop band." They probably couldn't have done much better than to sign on with the hypertalented Scott Miller, still creating pop music that Al Einstein or Willie Mays might have dug equally.
PT: The last time we did this was during the death throes of Game Theory, the Quercio, Ray and Becker lineup two years ago.
SM: Those were the mildest death throes there could possibly be for a band (laughs). It just evaporated. Nothing happened to break it up. We were just so far apart, we just didn't do anything anymore. It was like euthanasia. It ceased to be kept alive by heroic means. Nature understood that there'd been too many Game Theory lineups.
PT: Why change the name after all these years?
SM: People wanted the Game Theory name to be identified with a certain set of people who just weren't there. I'd just become Mr. Game Theory, and that wasn't what I was after. A group name should represent a certain group of people.
PT: Why not just record the stuff under your own name?
SM: It's such a flair-free name, for one thing. "Scott" is an extremely common name, and so is "Miller". It'd be like calling it "the Steve Johnson album".
PT: Hey buddy, I've got a good friend named Steve Johnson. You got a problem with that?
SM: (laughs) Exactly. I'm sure he's terrific. I'm the salt of the earth myself. "Scott Miller" is an incredibly unexciting name to me, and I just feel the need to tart it up -- to overcome the blandness of my birth. I've done a few solo shows, and I guess I get nine times as nervous doing those as group shows, to the point of actually trembling. More effort goes into keeping my nerve under control than in putting the song across. I'd get very self-conscious being a solo recording act. Putting an album out is midway between being an author and making a movie, the movie being the utter team effort. A writer does it all. No one does more on my albums than I do, but they can be really great or horrible exclusive of what I do. If it's the Scott Miller Band, people might not be taking enough responsibility for their actions. It's especially tough before small crowds where there isn't that core of people who'll like me no matter what.
PT: I take it that now with the Loud Family it must be almost like starting over.
SM: With Loud Family gigs -- smaller crowds and no record -- I've rediscovered the thrill I'd forgotten of taking an unreceptive audience and, by being a wild man of rock, winning them over. There's been that other thrill of having 700 people who know who you are -- the best Game Theory shows had about that many people -- and that really strokes your ego. But in a way it was a letdown. You feel you should have done a little more for that kind of adoration.
PT: When you get nervous on stage is it to the point of being physically ill?
SM: To the point of thinking "Is my voice quavering when I'm singing?"
PT: Well, it always quavers, right?
SM: (laughs) If you have a somewhat quavery style, it's disguised. No, it's a really uncomfortable feeling being up there, knowing you're nervous, and putting effort into "unnervousing" yourself, instead of getting the vocal delivery right. Nothing I do really works. I try to take even breaths. I'll keep thinking, "Well, we're five songs into it. I ought to be a little calmer now." Sometimes I am, and by the end of the set I feel like starting over, doing nine more songs that'll have some emotional validity, as opposed to being this charade and masking my inhibitions. If I knew exactly why I got nervous, I'd never get nervous, because it would be perfectly explained in my mind, but it's still a confusing issue.
PT: I've had people tell me that the Loud Family is into a more "macho" groove than Game Theory.
SM: Wow, is that true? I guess we had no all-male Game Theory lineups, except for the last one, so that makes a little difference, missing the woman's touch on stage. Loud Family shows are more rock and aggressive, but that's not really the personality of the band. When you play at a club, and they don't know your material, they're going to think the slow, sensitive songs are incredibly tedious, and not give you a good response. They can't understand the words, and you have other thongs to do in a club -- like get a beer (laughs). It's not the same thing as having loved The Big Shot Chronicles for a year, and then when you finally see the band, and we do "Girl Jesus" -- you can re-feel some tender emotions. Now, in a first-time hearing situation, we limit it to the ones that have visceral impact. We do throw in a minimum of three Game Theory songs a set, which we rotate around.
PT: You've had quite a while to work on the Loud Family debut album.
SM: We usually get record company interest by osmosis, by word of mouth rather than getting a lawyer-type. We're so non-commercially viable. Far be it from me to predict how much my records could sell if they were treated like Madonna records. But I think the new stuff is far and away my best effort. My career could have been over after Game Theory, but I've taken advantage of that time off to do some real homework, sitting and playing these songs on guitar, and then going over them two days later to make changes. That way you get this steadily fed-back notion of how the songs should be sung to capture their essence. You have to guard against that original emotion eroding. By the time you get into the studio all you're thinking about is hitting the notes and getting the right EQ -- all things that can be so irrelevant to a good record. It's nice to have time to be level-headed about it.
PT: Do you ever daydream about having hit records?
SM: Pop music is such a random kind of thing. Music in the sixties, for instance -- you'd take a zillion nutty little crazy groups around the country and give 'em all a single, and pick your favourite one percent, and those were the hits of the day. It's unfortunate that isn't quite the case any more. Even a small signing by a major label -- everybody's losing sleep over whose job's going to be gone if these guys don't sell well. So I kind of manufacture my own version of that: Do a bunch of songs and throw away the ones that don't quite zing. It takes four or five records to find out the good and bad ways to do a record. I've got a "right on track" feeling about this album, because I've had time to throw away the songs I would have thought were great for four months but later discovered they were crummy. It really is a lot like starting over. I've never really had a career debut like this, where I've had four years to write the songs. I've always limited myself, in the past, to releasing material from the previous year and a half, tops, because I thought that was better for my soul. And it probably was, but not quite as good for the audience (laughs).
PT: Did you come from a musical family?
SM: My mom plays the piano, but only rarely. I certainly didn't grow up in a household where we'd have hootenannies every Saturday night. But my dad had this immense record collection -- lots of Broadway show tunes. But the things I was really interested in were these New York folk scene records -- Bohemian on one extreme to maudlin and commercial on the other, like Peter, Paul, and Mary, but from the late fifties, the Womenfolk being really prototypical. And after that it was the Beatles all the way. They were gods walking the earth to me. Writing songs like the Beatles and trying to obtain real equipment -- that's been my goal in life since I can remember. The Beatles had this kaleidoscope genius that I couldn't resist.
PT: Any other driving passions in your youth?
SM: Art. I did a lot of drawing. I was very serious until my first year at college (at UC, Davis.) I was extremely serious about being a visual artist, and only so-serious about doing music. I was producing really bad music and really good art. But that sort of flip-flopped around when I entered college. I got a group together that was really creative -- Alternate Learning -- and we produced good things, as opposed to this pretentious crap I was doing before that. And I was getting a university art education -- very hard to take because you want to draw your own lines and say, "This is the way I do art," and throw it in the face of your professors. And that's the very way not to get good grades. I'd always gotten excessive praise from high school art teachers, and suddenly I wasn't getting any praise. In hindsight, I wasn't doing anything very good, and they had no obligation to praise what I was doing. But that put an end to my art career. I changed my major and graduated in Electrical Engineering, which has paid the bills for most of my adult life. I took a lot of math and physics, which I liked. If you get to a certain level, it really becomes interesting. When you get into relativity and quantum mechanics, you find yourself saying, "Oh, wow" a lot -- the test of good math and physics.
PT: An old pal of mine from college once said to me, in all seriousness, "You know, that Einstein was really pretty smart."
SM: (laughs) He makes people who can't tie their own shoes, but who still consider themselves smart, feel better about themselves. He was the ultimate example of that. He could not get a leg up in things like long division, yet one day he figures out how light is the fundamental fabric of the universe and rewrites Newtonian physics. You just have to let people find their little way to be smart.
PT: Since "Tinker to Evers to Chance" was an old double-play combination from the Chicago Cubs, and you used that as the title for the last Game Theory album, I assume there must be some baseball in your background.
SM: Oh, yeah, that was one of my interests as a child. I played Little League baseball. I was pretty horrible but was real spunky and wanted to play with the athletic lads just the same. I liked to pitch. In the last game of my last season -- the game didn't matter in the standings -- they decided to "let Scott pitch", because they knew I wanted to and hadn't shown any promise. I pitched okay, and it was fun. Those are situations in life that make it worthwhile -- the things you don't deserve, and someone says, "Okay, go ahead." (laughs)
PT: What kind of books did you read as a kid?
SM: I was really poorly read. I read nothing as a kid except Mad Magazine and National Lampoon Magazine. I forced my mother to keep my huge collection of baseball cards, so I now have this bagful of cards from 1969-70. As soon as I can't pay the rent, I'm gonna sell 'em. But I'll hang on to 'em until it's either sell the cards or find a nice doorway to sleep in on Market Street.
PT: That ninety minute tour video from the last Game Theory go-round is positively brilliant. And the Loud Family name must be a tribute to the family featured in that all-time great PBS cinema verite series, "An American Family."
SM: I love that form. We were just rolling on the floor when we saw (Photo) Robert's film. And I did love "An American Family." Getting into it took time. It was like listening to the first Velvet Underground album and saying, "They could have been much more careful when they made this" (laughs). Little by little you realize these are the most hummable songs ever. I never tire of the songwriting. I got into the Velvet Underground by way of John Cale's music. "White Light/White Heat" was similar to "Fear" so I was prepared for it. "Lady Godiva's Operation", which has a rhythm section that won't quit, would come on at a dance club, and it really made me want to dance, and it's a very scary song.
PT: Whose idea was it to videotape the last tour?
SM: It was Robert's idea. Actually I was kind of dreading it. When you're on the road, there are a lot of situations where you just don't feel like being filmed for posterity. You haven't bathed in some time, and perhaps you have a disease, and are behaving like an asshole, and you don't want the world to know what an asshole you behaved like on tour.
PT: And then there's the Donnie (Thayer) subplot. Will she make the next gig or not?
SM: Right. Donnie and I were breaking up in this visible way. I can look back now and think it might be enjoyable viewing, but at the time I wasn't into it at all. But I wasn't stopping him.
PT: Yeah, you look pretty glum sometimes as they're filming your breakfast.
SM: Right. But no one stays glum for a month, so eventually I got into it. I'm pretty sure Robert put a really short version of it together and sent it to the original solicitation for "America's Funniest Home Videos" (TV show). And apparently it got pretty high up in the consideration. I don't know what the hot one minute was that he submitted, but we know the things that wouldn't be in it, don't we? (Laughs hysterically)
PT (choking on beer): Gui (Gassuan) being undraped after a rough night.
SM: There you go. By the process of elimination, maybe there was only one minute that could have been in it (still laughing).
PT: Was that an accurate portrait of Gui, or is he really a shy, sensitive type?
SM: He was a wild man. Everything you saw or heard was true, definitely not staged. He was indestructible and would take all these risks, and nothing ever claimed his life, or more to the point, his position in the band. He was always there one minute before we'd have to leave town without him and fly in a bass player from back home. He'd fall down after drinking a lot and break somebody's basement steps bannister.
PT: You seem pretty happy with your Alias Records deal. I take it the Restless/Enigma deal was not nearly so salubrious.
SM: I never had any Restless people come up to me and say, "Oh, hi, you're Scott, I like your record." It was only three or four people at Enigma who liked us. I hear that Nirvana had a hard time at Geffen, one or two people really gunning for them. That's something that bands never think about. They just read the contract. But, "Young, hot bands out there...When you've got nine labels bidding for you -- a situation I've never enjoyed in my life -- you might go down to the offices and suss out their opinion of you, and that'll help you make the decision."
PT: What did you think of Nirvana's rocketship to fame last year?
SM: I think it's a fabulously positive turn of events. I think their album is great. It's my second favourite album of last year -- to Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub. But Nirvana were a very close second, and in a style of music that I don't particularly go for. I don't really like bands like Soundgarden. But Nirvana is totally different in that they're this high chord change rate band, the same as Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin, like them or not, and I happen to like them, were thought of at first as this prototypical simpleton headbanger band, succeeding through decibels and thud. But those arrangements were very complex with very difficult chord changes and harmonic structuring. And the same is true of Nirvana. They have the reputation of being the louder, faster band of 1991, but pieces like "In Bloom", an incredibly handsome little composition, are really very challenging.
PT: So what did you love so much about Teenage Fanclub?
SM: It's hard to describe what's good about Bandwagonesque. Rolling Stone gave it one and a half stars, as low as anybody gets. But Rolling Stone is really good at missing what's good about an album, leaving you with this hush of its mundane aspects. That was the first time I thought, "Hmmm, if Rolling Stone hates it, it's probably pretty good in some way." So I bought it, and it ended up being my favourite record of the year. It offers the most little moments of beauty like the guitar thing in "I Don't Know", where the interplay is just gorgeous. And this song "Alcoholiday", which I ignored the first time through -- I've become quite obsessive over that, an amazingly perfect little song. So 1991 was really an encouraging year for me, finally getting something together that has a buzz and some momentum. I think music is coming around. There've been years when Teenage Fanclub wouldn't have cut any ice with anybody. It would have been flushed down the toilet immediately.
PT: Do you ever feel a martyr to the public's taste in music?
SM: People hate certain things for reasons I just don't understand. Apparently the song "American Pie" is universally hated by everyone now. And I don't know why. "Bye bye, Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry." That's a good little sentiment. It's very catchy. The vocal delivery is nice as hell. Maybe the words are a little pretentious, but how much of a candle are you going to hold rock lyrics up to anyway? It's no worse than "Visions of Johanna". And no one comes down on that for being loopy. I mean, no one's been more good and bad than Dylan, and mostly bad. We must be honest. He puts out almost enough crap for you to write him off, but not quite.
PT: Any thoughts on the current mega-stature of REM?
SM: That was terrific of course. I sort of knew about them from the beginning. Oh, here's a chance to plug a little known band. There was this band called the Features from Sacramento (near Davis), who were this ultra-pop kind of Knack-like act, who I liked a whole lot back in my college days (early eighties). They really pulled off these catchy pop songs like "Last Rites", an absolutely classic little power-pop song. This guy named Johnny Pride was the lead singer, and he was from Athens, Georgia, and knew Michael Stipe. He gives me "Chronic Town" which had just come out and says, "I think you'll like these guys, but they're too weird and loopy and not outstanding enough to ever do anything" (laughs). I thought they were great and that it was too bad they'd be buried by this murky sound they had. But how nice that REM actually made it. They slugged it out all the way and finally got their number one record. They really put over this subtle art, no mean feat in this country, and they've had this nice gradual logarhythmic growth from selling ten thousand to forty thousand to now they sell forty gazillion. And of course it was through meeting them in Sacramento on the Murmur tour that I met Mitch Easter, and we struck up this potential for working together that we did. Working with Mitch on the new album was better than ever. He's got a whole new bag of digital tricks since the last time we worked together, sampling and all of that. But, yeah, it's amazing how the REM guys have maintained that sort of approachableness after the kind of success they've achieved. I doubt I would have retained that. I can see myself becoming Sting in a year.
PT: If your career in music had ended with Game Theory what would have taken its place in your life?
SM: Boy, I don't know. That's always been the thing I measure my life by: 1987 was when I did Lolita Nation. But about two years ago I started playing tennis. I don't exercise other than carrying equipment, and once you've hit thirty you've got to do something to maintain that girlish figure. Tennis is really addictive. It's very Zen activity. Some of the things you do in tennis are very hard, like a serving motion. It's inherently difficult because you can't look at your target. You have to look into the sky to hit the ball and then feel where the court is. It's very much like singing -- a very physical thing. You have to keep yourself in shape, and you're going to have good days and bad days. And then you have to know when your body or your voice isn't going to do what you want it to do. You have to work within your limits. Strength helps, but finesse is a necessity.