A Little Quality Time with Scott Miller of the Loud Family
You Could Do Worse, #1, Summer 1994
By Julie Grob
One of the bright spots of independent music in the 80's was Game Theory. Fronted by thoughtful singer-songwriter Scott Miller, they created shimmering gems of California-style keyboard and guitar pop. Game Theory broke up in the late 80's, so Miller kept a low profile until the recent release of Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things from his new band, the Loud Family. It was released in early 1993 by Alias Records. The Loud Family features ex-Thin White Rope drummer Joe Becker, along with some new recruits from the Bay Area. The songs are either fast and chiming or sweetly moody; some of it is Miller's best work to date...
YCDW: So when did Game Theory end?
SM: Well, the last record we had was in '88 (Two Steps From The Middle Ages), and then we kind of tried to reform with Michael Quercio from the Three O'Clock on bass guitar. That lasted about a year, but we didn't put out anything. I just put this new band together little by little, and eventually Alias signed us and put out our album.
YCDW: Is there anyone from Game Theory in the Loud Family?
SM: No. the closest thing is when we were doing the Michael Quercio version of it. The drummer, Joe Becker was involved. He was my best friend going way back to second grade. At one point, he started his band Thin White Rope and I started Game Theory, so we did different bands for a while. When those bands broke up we got a band together. A couple of other people in the new band did some work on random Game Theory sessions.
YCDW: Are the other new members from other bands?
SM: They were all in the same band before this one. They were called This Very Window, and they played around San Francisco some.
YCDW: What was This Very Window like?
SM: Oh, they had a techno side to them. I liked their songs and I produced a single for them, and that laid the groundwork for getting the band together.
YCDW: Does the new album sound different from Game Theory to you?
SM: I think it sounds different, but I've seen some reviews that say it sounds much the same. It's still me singing and writing the songs, so that's going to account for a lot of the similarity.
YCDW: Is the Loud Family a collaborative effort, or do you just bring in your songs?
SM: Well, this time it was "bring them a song," but I think that in the future, we'll do more collaboration. I went through a long period of not having an album. That gave me a big backlog of songs. There really wasn't room to write together.
YCDW: The name "The Loud Family" comes from An American Family, right?
SM: Absolutely. We got in touch with Lance Loud from the Loud family. Got his permission, I guess you'd call it.
YCDW: Was he all for it?
SM: Well, he said it was O.K., but the really exciting part about it is that he wrote an article which I haven't seen, but apparently, it's a review of the record where he took it around to all the family members and got their reaction to our record. I'm dying to read it, but unfortunately, they did it for Details magazine, and I heard a rumor that they thought it was too long and not the right format for them or something, and they're not going to run it. It 's really disappointing to me.
YCDW: So why did you decide to name your band after the Loud family?
SM: Just because of the feeling of being the Loud family, you know. It must have been like, here you are going about your life and all its potential for fallibility while the cameras are rolling, and it's going to be used as a form of entertainment, or a study. You've got to be on for people. You've got to do your job or you've got to be presentable for your date, or some such thing, so it's a sympathetic response to the predicament that the Loud family found themselves in. I saw it when it was rerun recently, and it seems like a really important event in history to me, because it opened the country's eyes to what was really going on in American families. For one thing, it helped homosexuality become a little less taboo, because it presented the point that the average family, a family supposedly picked at random, is liable to have a homosexual person in it. I don't think people could face that before, so it was a liberating thing. Besides that, their name was "Loud", and it had the suggestion of some loud music, or a really good band name.
YCDW: On looking back, how do you feel about Game Theory? Were you happy with what came out of it and how far it went?
SM: Well, I wasn't happy with the level of success. I always had real trouble getting success. As far as the albums go, I don't listen to them a whole lot. I listen to them and I can only think about the things I might change. I can't listen to my voice and not be critical, maybe I should have something differently, or changed some little things about the arrangements. I can't think of those songs without thinking in terms of it being something I'm working on. It's hard to assess, but it seems like those albums had plenty of good material on them.
YCDW: It seemed to me that Game Theory got better as it went. For most bands, they get worse the older they get.
SM: Success can do that to you, and we hardly ever had any success, so that could be an explanation. When you're struggling just as much on your fourth album, then you're still in pretty close touch with your emotions, so that may tend to keep the quality up.
YCDW: Did Game Theory albums get good critical response?
SM: Yeah, they tended to get really good reviews, but that's just not quite enough. You need to have some sort of marketing power behind it to really get it in front of a lot of people. I've only ever been on small record labels so I don't know what the potential is for being that miracle band that breaks through on a small label. The odds are never really great. Right now, it's sort of a skewed game anyway, because not only are we on a little label, but I have to overcome that no name recognition situation where people who would come to see me because they liked Game Theory haven't connected that with the Loud Family.
YCDW: Maybe it has something to do with the kind of music that it is; hard to describe, hard pop. And it's not really simple enough. I think the good qualities in it are...
SM: ... things nobody likes. Well, that's kind of true. I certainly don't write with the express purpose of being a nobody forever. I write with the purpose of having some songs that I think are really good and everyone will like, but that sure hasn't been the case. It's funny; I get really good critical response and I just don't know if critics are that different from the people at large, or if I just haven't got the right breaks. It always seems that within the music industry, everyone thinks I'm really good. I just have never had that experience of getting the time of day from the general public. It's never been the case that I'll probably write any less music because of it.
YCDW: I don't know, it just seems that there's some complex ideas, big words...
SM: ... maybe it's just that people tend to give things only one listen and they'll think, "Oh well, I don't see it", and then they'll go on to something else. If you give our records just one listen, you're out of luck, because there are a lot of chord changes and some oblique words. They're not oblique to me, but they don't tell a really linear story.
YCDW: It's not like it's really obvious what the songs are about. Even when you think of a band like Nirvana getting big, it still seems like a lot of people don't get it, or there's a whole other level of Nirvana songs that people are missing.
SM: Oh, I'm really convinced of that. They're not a simple band, their chord changes really mean something to me, and I think there's a lot of people to whom Nirvana having good chord changes or just random chord changes would be completely irrelevant to the fact that they have just the right sound and are kind of surly in a way that's appealing. But they're also surly in a way that's perceptive, and they're good lyricists. I think they're doing something right that I'm not and I don't know what it is. You just hope that one day, your sound will be O.K. enough that people buy it.
YCDW: Does it seem like it's different starting up now compared to the mid-80's when Game Theory started? There is just so much more music out there today.
SM: It's true, there is a whole lot more. I guess the word is "competition." There's a gazillion records out there and the CMJ charts go up to some ridiculous number. Things are different and harder today. I'm still getting acclimated, like something did happen during those years, but I'm not sure what. I've kept up with a lot of the music, and it doesn't seem like all that much has happened stylistically. Teenage Fanclub could just as easily happened in 1982 as 1992. None of it is super-new compared to the Embarrassment or the Dream Syndicate or a lot of those bands that happened way back when. I don't feel like there's any particular new groove; it's just that the "biz" is just more clogged. I think we'll end up doing O.K., but there's a longer process of getting a foothold. We're getting some better gigs back home in San Francisco, and the first tour is always tough, so we're doing the tough part now.
Recording the album was actually really pleasant. We got Mitch Easter to do it again, and he's great to work with. The sessions went really well, and I'm happy with the outcome. I think it's my best album. That's a good feeling. I was not sure that I'd ever get another album out. It was conceivable that I'd just get rejections forever...
YCDW: But you knew you still wanted to do it?
SM: Well, you can operate at any kind of fame the world lets you. I could have a band that only plays parties for our moms. That's what I would be doing if no one in the world was interested, but fortunately, we were able to get a record out try to build some success as best we can.
YCDW: Do your songs tend to arise from your personal life or from other sources?
SM: No, they're all fictionalized ways of expressing something in life that was important to me. I'll just keep it personal. I tend to use names like Jimmy in songs. There's never a real person that the song's about, like I'm painstakingly trying to re-create their personality in a song.
I don't question what I should be writing about; I just start writing without a subject. I'll usually have a line, some line that seems to say something right, and I'll just keep that around, and the song will just build itself up from that. Without thinking about it, I'll have constructed what I want to say. I never start from the other end, so I need this verse to set it up and this verse to really drive the point home, and it needs to enlighten people about world hunger or something like that. I just wouldn't know how to do that, but a lot of people do, and some of that stuff is even good. Maybe I'll try it someday.
YCDW: Do you ever surprise yourself when you rind out what a song's turned into?
SM: Sometimes, yeah. It can really end up sounding like a song that's supposed to enlighten people about world hunger. You can arrive at a result like that without intending to. I have this one song, "Idiot Son," on the new album, and it ended up being this environmentalist thing, but it didn't start out that way.
YCDW: When you finish a song, do you have a sense of whether or not it's a really good song, or do you figure out which ones are best after you've been playing them awhile?
SM: There's always a class of songs that sound great in your mind, and maybe even playing them at home, but you try to get the band to play them and they never come out just right. Generally, I've got a feeling early on for what's good for our band.
YCDW: Do you get people's responses to what they think the songs are about?
SM: I get a number of people writing me letters.
YCDW: Do they seem like they get the songs?
SM: Absolutely. That's the funny thing; a lot of reviews don't touch on anything like that. They'll analyze things like the sound of the album, but you don't usually see "this one has real emotional parts". You'll get credit for some good hooky choruses, but it's a coup when you can get a reviewer to say "I absolutely felt the way that that guy was feeling and that's why I like that song." That's something much more commonly gotten in letters.