Discovering and Mourning Scott Miller
A warning: this is a long post. Really, really long. Sorry.
Scott Miller died on April 15, 2013, at the age of 53. I didn’t know who he was.
Following the public announcement of his death, Carl Newman of the New Pornographers fired off a short series of reverential tweets.
Game Theory had a massive influence on me from my teens onward. Incredible voice, lyrics, melody, production. Damn.
Aimee Mann chimed in. I’m with you. So awful. This may have been enough to lead me to Google the name, possibly read an obituary or two, I don’t recall. Surely there had to be something to Scott Miller if two of my pop heroes were this affected by his passing. But then again, Twitter is so often a grief echo chamber, and this was happening at the same time I was completely distracted by the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.
On June 18, Newman again tweeted referring to Miller as one of his favorite songwriters, and posting a link to an upcoming tribute concert in New York. The tribute was assembled by Matt LeMay, mostly known to me as a longtime Pitchfork writer, and would feature performances from Newman, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Ted Leo, Charles Bissell of the Wrens, and others. Scott Miller became an intriguing mystery. How could I know nothing about this guy, given his influence on some of my favorite artists? How had I never come across Scott or Game Theory in my years of obsessive music consumption?
He was all too easy to miss. Despite being Matt LeMay’s favorite musician, Pitchfork has never reviewed a release from one of Miller’s bands. Game Theory was well regarded in the jangly California “Paisley Underground” scene in the ‘80s (mostly remembered for spawning the Bangles), but it was just one name in a larger list I always figured I’d properly investigate someday – the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, the Three O’Clock. Game Theory.
At some point I assumed I’d dig into these names on Spotify. Or the ones you can find on Spotify, anyway – Game Theory is not among them. Nor can you buy any of their albums digitally, or on CD, or easily track them down on file sharing sites.
Even the name Scott Miller makes research difficult. His Wikipedia listing is “Scott Miller (California musician),” so as not to confuse him with “Scott Miller (country musician).” Or “Scott Miller (artist),” or “Scott Miller (author),” or “Scott Miller (footballer),” and so on. He was that one particular Scott Miller who was a musician and whose main other distinguishing characteristic was being from a state.
So this, I gather, is how I missed him for the past almost-three decades I’ve been alive. I had no intention of trying to track down a ticket to the tribute show, despite living in Brooklyn and salivating a little bit over the lineup. But that same weekend in June, I decided to hunt down some of his work and fill this gap in my musical knowledge.
By the 1990s, Miller was heading a group called the Loud Family. I discovered their material is still in print and much easier to find, but being the particular breed of music geek that I am it seemed wrong not to first find a way to expose myself to Game Theory. I wanted a proper point of entry, and it was that band that appeared to come first for his mourners.
So I turned to YouTube, and allowed its algorithm to suggest a 1986 clip for a song called “Erica’s Word.”
According to RateYourMusic.com:
Power Pop is a genre that combines pop melodies with loud power chords. Its major melodic influences can be traced back to The Beatles and The Byrds and the guitar sound of The Who. It is characterized by relatively short songs, catchy melodies and prominent electric guitars.
“Erica’s Word” is unabashed power pop. The power is a driving hook, a set of pummeling major and minor chords positioned in perfect balance to rewire something in your brain. When done well, power pop is a drug, pumping addicting, high-inducing chemical waves through your nervous system. Despite the apparent simplicity of the formula, few do it well. In “Erica’s Word,” Scott Miller fucking murders it.
Read any gushing comments or reviews of “Erica’s Word” and its parent album, The Big Shot Chronicles, and you’ll surely come across phrases like “should have been a huge hit.” And this, I think, gets to the heart of the power pop problem: the drug effect only happens if you’re predisposed to it. If you’re like me, quality stuff like “Erica’s Word” is enough to send you on a bender for weeks or months, hunting down increasingly obscure pop songs at the expense of friends and obligations. Somebody reacting to the same song with indifference is unfathomable. If only this had gotten more exposure, or better distribution, it would have been a hit for the ages. When I was a little kid growing up in Connecticut and unusually obsessed with the band Squeeze, I would have conversations like this with my dad. Squeeze should have been the next Lennon and McCartney, as they were advertised by their label for a moment. They shouldn’t have broken up when they did, and A&M should have handled them better.
This mindset is addressed well in the recent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Big Star were the godfathers of power pop, releasing three stunning LPs between 1972 and 1978 to the enthusiastic acclaim of rock critics and the ears of few others. Observe the faces of those critics as they recall listening to #1 Record for the first time, or witnessing Big Star’s performance at the single ill-fated meeting of the National Association of Rock Writers. These were religious experiences. In a post-‘60s culture that was deeply familiar with most recreational drugs known to man, Big Star was one of the best trips they’d ever been on. If only Stax had known what to do with them, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell could have been the Beatles.
That Beatles factor may be what causes all this frustration in the first place. They are not only the point where power pop begins, but they were also instant masters over its magic. And they wielded their gift over the minds of a generation, benevolently delivering dopamine explosions to the masses for the better part of the ‘60s. Why couldn’t this continue forever, with the formula being passed on from artist to artist?
And here, maybe we fanatics miss the point. Not everyone was drawn to the Beatles for the same reason. They were youthful, novel; masculine, attractive; catchy, danceable; and very quickly important, iconic, woven into the fabric of a moment in history. The fact that they were able to produce thrilling, original songs while both inventing and shattering the limits of the power pop equation is what matters to some above all else, but that isn’t exclusively why Beatlemania happened. It was never going to be reproduced by Alex Chilton’s eccentricity, or Difford and Tilbrook’s esoteric Britishness.
And the same goes for Scott Miller, despite his undeniable talent. In my head, yes, he should have been huge; “Erica’s Word” should have been a massive hit. But listening to it more objectively, it’s a pretty weird song – it stretches the upper limits of Miller’s limited vocal range (which he called his “miserable whine”); meanders through a peculiar and unresolved verse melody that dares you to sing along; and lyrically baffles (“Twelve years ago / Shorthand allegiance to the long throw”).
Like all the best power pop, “Erica’s Word” is exhilarating. But you’ve got to be wired for it.
After “Erica’s Word,” I needed to track down the full Game Theory catalog. Miraculously, it had been made available as a digital download following Miller’s death, on his official LoudFamily.com website.
The homepage was, and remains, terribly sad. A message to fans from Scott’s wife, Kristine. A link to a memorial scholarship fund to support his two young daughters. A note from the webmaster stating that Scott had been planning a new Game Theory album, to be called Supercalifragile. And a page template decorated with tongue-in-cheek re-creations of classic album covers for his book, Music: What Happened?
Upon acquiring the complete works on MP3, I dug in, again looking for the right entry point. The earliest Game Theory LP and EPs were collected in a package called Distortion of Glory, but I’d read much of the material was relatively primitive. Game Theory’s collaboration with genius R.E.M. producer and Let’s Active frontman Mitch Easter began on 1985’s Real Nighttime, and The Big Shot Chronicles followed the next year. Lolita Nation, a double LP with legendary status among fans arrived in 1987, and earned this impressive warning from AllMusic.com: “Lolita Nation is probably Game Theory’s finest and most impressive album, though it’s also the worst place for a beginner to start examining their work.” More on that one later. Then in 1988 came 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, and that was the end of the band.
There were clear signs that Game Theory had been something more than a well-oiled pop song machine. Obviously Lolita Nation’s reputation (and daunting tracklist) implied as much, but there was also the recurring “G” motif across the cover art, and the odd, short groove that began both Real Nighttime and Lolita Nation for no apparent reason. At some point during the early discovery phase, I played a bit of the first Loud Family album on Spotify, and found it started with that same strange amelodic snippet. This only amplified the intrigue – there was a mythology here.
I determined that the appropriate record with which to fully engage was a catalog-spanning compilation from 1990, the brilliant-sadly entitled Tinker to Evers to Chance. This 22-song collection immediately became my new personal soundtrack – the consistency of the pop craftsmanship so mindblowing, the drug effect so overwhelming that I physically craved it when separated. New releases in my queue were set aside. The last time I’d found myself nearly this hooked by one artist was ten years prior, when I fell in love with Carl Newman’s New Pornographers, previous band Zumpano, and subsequent solo material. And that was in college, when this sort of musical binge was a little easier to indulge.
The opening track on Tinker to Evers to Chance is 1989 re-recording of a song from an even earlier Miller band called Alternate Learning. Scott must have been no older than 20 when he wrote “Beach State Rocking,” and he would have been my age when he revisited it with Game Theory’s final lineup. Lyrically it’s more direct than most of his later work, a California nerd’s coming-of-age anxiety set to a synth-decorated, modified surf beat. But even here, barely out of his teens, his mastery of the pop formula is stunning.
The Cool Factor
If vulnerability to power pop is an inborn disposition, then it’s surely passed on via the nerd gene. There’s an enormous overlap between power pop fandom and nerd culture, vividly illustrated by the devotion of critics to Big Star. To those who dedicate their lives to memorizing, quantifying, and cataloging the art they adore, Alex Chilton was a god. To most everyone else he was the kid with the raspy affectation on “The Letter.”
Scott Miller fell squarely in the Chiltonite segment of the population. He was a UC Davis graduate and a professional software engineer. He was a devourer of knowledge and literature, deeply influenced by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. And he was himself an exceptional writer, as evidenced by Music: What Happened? – in which he curated lists of his favorite songs since 1957, revealing his own critical tendencies.
If power pop’s special brand of alchemy holds a deep appeal to the nerdier among us, Game Theory pushes this appeal to the surface of its songs. There are allusions to Star Trek and The Twilight Zone (in addition to the aforementioned Joyce and Eliot), obscure computer programming references, and meta quotations spanning the Miller oeuvre.
This subject is well covered in a beautiful essay by Harvard professor and poet Stephen Burt, and it would be ridiculous for me to rehash it much further. But I think it’s worth quoting this point:
Game Theory imploded, in part due to drummer Gil Ray’s back problems, in part due to band members’ love lives: singer and keyboard player Donette Thayer, brought in for “Lolita Nation,” left Miller for Steve Kilbey of the Church. “Steve taught me how to groove,” Thayer later recalled; “his objection to Game Theory was that the minute we caught a groove, we would be off on something else (and indeed most Game Theory songs had about sixty zillion chords, forty bridges and two hundred different verses).” She might as well have said that Game Theory were great for conversation, but no good in bed.
Power pop tends not to be a super sexy genre in the first place, and Game Theory is power pop at its most introverted and brainy. But if you’re coming from a similarly introverted and brainy place, the sexuality is there, as well as frustration, and love, and the full human emotional experience. It’s simply conveyed in a different language. It’s a language that was bound to be perfectly understood by, say, a guy who used to dream of drawing comic books for a living, once asked his parents for a C compiler for his birthday, and brought Squeeze songs to learn at guitar lessons in the late ‘90s.
Related to the groove factor is the cool factor, where Game Theory also apparently failed. Burt quotes the typically self-deprecating Miller:
“We were fairly close to both the R.E.M. jangle camp and the L.A. psychedelic revival camp,” Miller recalled, “but the dealbreaker in both cases was that we had prominent synthesizer. And of course we weren’t within a country mile of synthesizer music that was actually selling, like New Order.”
R.E.M. was my second great musical love, a status sealed by seeing them on their Monster tour in 1995. They had the cool factor, albeit more for the generation just before me than my own. R.E.M. had the rare ability to bridge the chasm between the brainy introverts and the cool kids with a style both restrained and rhythmic, abstract yet inclusive.
And later, when Monster tour openers Radiohead released OK Computer, my impressionable 12-year-old brain blew up again. At a time when I’d only ever struggled to connect with peers musically, Radiohead brought an undeniable, intelligent, deeply felt masterpiece into the world, giving me a meaningful album to share with friends.
Maybe if Scott Miller had possessed a striking, deep voice like Michael Stipe as opposed to his “miserable whine,” Game Theory could have succeeded like R.E.M. Perhaps if Scott Miller had worn his heart on his sleeve in a more openly wounded, Thom Yorke-like fashion, Game Theory could have bridged the gap that way.
To extend this questionable metaphor further, Miller actually did accomplish some bridge-building in the Loud Family. His vocals grew more refined and affecting, and he honed a sort of groove of his own. At the same time I was going batshit over OK Computer, I conceivably could have been having a similar experience with the Louds’ Interbabe Concern, a record which at least to my ears is terribly cool. But Miller was by then well into his 30s, I did not know Interbabe Concern existed, and neither did just about anybody else. The chasm was always too big, for one reason or another.
After taking a couple of weeks to fully digest Tinker to Evers to Chance, I dove into the Game Theory albums proper. And they are really wonderful – not in some flawless, infallible way, but in a way that’s nonetheless completely validating to my paralyzing infatuation.
Distortion of Glory is a mixed bag, sure. But both Real Nighttime and The Big Shot Chronicles are a dream, hitting that sweet spot between Squeeze and early R.E.M. that must exist at the center of my being. Interestingly, while Scott Miller was a huge admirer of R.E.M., I can find no record of his thinking much of Squeeze either way – outside of him being very complimentary of Glenn Tilbrook’s vocals on the Elvis Costello track “From a Whisper to a Scream.” But there’s a long list of shared influences, from Costello himself to the Monkees, whom both Miller and Tilbrook have spoken of emulating in their youth.
2 Steps from the Middle Ages is the only Game Theory record that could be considered a letdown given what came before it. Its production is a bit thin and dated, its tunes less memorable and alluring. And yet, it does contain a handful of jaw-dropping moments, the best of which is Game Theory’s finest song – a “young-adult-hurt-feeling-athon” (in Miller’s words) called “Throwing the Election.”
I haven’t yet discussed one of Scott Miller’s most important strengths, which is mastery over the album as an art form. So now, onto Lolita Nation.
For good reason, Lolita Nation is the sort of album that begs to be written about. And as it’s existed for 26 years, it’s been written about very thoroughly by many people already. So I’ll start by pulling some choice quotes from a terrific essay by William Ham:
The band name doesn’t appear clearly on either the front or back cover; the songs are full of samples of and references to earlier Game Theory records; tracks blip by in seconds or dig in for six-plus minutes; and the track listing on the back looks like it was written by a schizophrenic, James Joyce-crazed computer programmer prone to speaking in binary tongues.
Faced with the possibility of breakthrough, Miller reacted like any great (or greatly self-conscious) artist would — with willful, full-blown perversity. He made the difficult, insular album he always knew he had in him.
As it turns out, however, the insularity is just a ruse — beneath all the oddball sonic intrusions, cryptic spoken-word interpolations, and song structures completely puréed by the whirring blades of his peculiar Cuisinartistry, Miller covertly grapples with some of the universal concerns of our age — “Can I keep sight of my ideals in the face of yet another disillusionment?,” “How much longer can I protect the blush of youth from the gust of mortality?,” and “Can I get away with letting my girlfriend sing lead on a couple of songs?”
For me, the key point is that Lolita Nation marks the moment when Scott Miller graduated from songwriting wunderkind to top-shelf album craftsman. And not with a small step, but rather a giant, dramatic, weird, potentially career-destroying double-album leap.
The pretension trap is a curious one when it comes to rock music. An excess of ambition is a major taboo in the culture, and putting out a double album is one of the biggest red flags for an artist who’s crossing the line. I have mixed feelings about this; there’s little more off-putting in pop music than the egotistical presumption that what one’s band has to say is so important it simply cannot be contained by the physical limits of the long play record. But at the same time, I like ambition in my music when it’s coming from artists I happen to connect with. Should the Beatles and the Beach Boys have been more humble, to keep true to some kind of rock ‘n roll purity ideal? That’s ridiculous on its face.
I’m not generally a fan of grand narrative epics in my pop music, and tend to find the whole proggy rock opera thing a turn-off (though for Pete Townshend I make a pretty massive exception). As an introverted, non-theatrical type, I consider that a matter of preference rather than some kind of absolute truth for the medium. All that said, I have no problem completely embracing Lolita Nation. It is confrontational and unwelcoming; the moments of pop clarity are frequently overwhelmed by tape experiments; it is long, and feels it, and yet demands to be listened to in its entirety. On an earlier Game Theory record, the two Donette Thayer-sung numbers would have sounded disappointingly slight and out of place. On Lolita Nation, they are welcome breaks from the grueling experience that is a tour of 27-year-old Scott Miller’s brain.
It’s a thrilling record. It isn’t showy, but it is ambitious. And expressive, and honest. I so badly wish I’d been around to see Game Theory live during this period. As you can imagine, quality footage is hard to come by. This is an extremely compelling taste.
The Loud Family
I’ve spent most of this essay on Game Theory, but I actually like Miller’s work in the Loud Family even more. It’s not much of a distinction, anyway; despite his desire to find and keep a consistent lineup in both groups, they were always Scott Miller plus whomever he was playing with at the time.
After taking a few years to settle on a path forward, the Loud Family emerged in 1993 with the wonderful (and wonderfully named) Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things. As I noted earlier, the album draws an immediate link to its Game Theory legacy within the first few seconds, mimicking the introduction of Lolita Nation, which itself sampled the introduction of Real Nighttime, and The Big Shot Chronicles, and the single opening chord of the even earlier Distortion EP. The very first sound of Scott’s voice is a line from “Throwing the Election.” So there was never any question what fans were to expect from the Loud Family.
Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is a masterpiece. It may openly invite comparisons between itself and Lolita Nation (“No one twisting his arm!”), but the focus is less on experimentation and more on consistent, quality songs from beginning to end, only one of which was written by someone other than Miller. It’s still plenty eccentric, but the potential for wider appeal was absolutely there – maybe just not in 1993.
And then there’s the third Loud Family record, 1996’s Interbabe Concern. It’s Miller’s other masterpiece – grittier, more exasperated, more explosive than anything else he ever released. The album opens with an eardrum melting burst of noise, which replays midway through the record without warning. Songs present you with what could be killer hooks, and then abruptly move on before they can become too familiar. Interbabe Concern is, at least right now, my favorite Scott Miller album.
It also contains two of his greatest standalone songs. One is the album’s catchiest moment, another example of the “should have been a huge hit” factor called “Don’t Respond, She Can Tell.” The goofy video doesn’t exactly do it justice:
The other song is the denouement, “Where They Walk Over Sainte Therese.” If I had to pick one track to represent the genius of Scott Miller this would be it, even over “Throwing the Election.” It may go beyond verbal explanation for me here – this is simply one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
The rest of the Loud Family catalog is spectacular as well, with the sole exception of 1994’s collaborative-to-a-fault The Tape of Only Linda. Interbabe Concern was followed by Days for Days, another album that plays with pop conventions by pairing nine exceptional pop songs with nine nameless, more experimental tracks. And finally in 2000, the Loud Family released Attractive Nuisance – recorded on a tight budget, toured in front of miniscule audiences, and announced as their last record.
Attractive Nuisance is a remarkably straightforward collection of 12 songs, only one of which is particularly untraditional. This record isn’t the sound of a band that’s worn down, or an artist who’s lost inspiration – in fact, it contains some of the most gorgeous songs of Miller’s career, particularly the Lennonesque “Blackness, Blackness” and the calculated farewell number “Motion of Ariel.” But a dwindling cult fan base was not enough to sustain a career in music as Miller entered his 40s. Stephen Burt notes that Miller admitted in 2008, “I’m utterly serious about music, I just respect the buying public’s judgment that it’s not what I should do for a living.”
Miller did release one more album in 2006, a collaboration with Anton Barbeau that featured a few new originals. And then there was his book, which he continued to update through 2011. He had a family. And in April, he died.
Depression is a theme in Scott Miller’s work that’s palpable, and occasionally blatant. It’s certainly one of the threads in his music that I find deeply relatable. I fear clinical depression may too be passed along on that nerd/power pop gene; this is a genre, after all, whose ostensible godfathers include Badfinger and Chris Bell. Escapism from an unmanageably depressing reality is one of the defining traits associated with nerd life – online gaming, fantasy role playing, compulsive cataloging and list-making. If power pop is indeed an effective drug for some fraction of this group, then of course it’s going to be a preferred escape method as well.
In the chorus of Lolita Nation’s remarkable closing track, Miller suggests his own obituary: “He never ran out when the spirits were low / A nice guy as minor celebrities go / All right, all together now, very minor, I know.” On Interbabe Concern, he exudes bitter resignation about both his present (“I’ve thought about it for a while now and I’m okay with things not being okay”) and future (“Do me a favor, forget me quick when I’m gone”). And yes, there’s an upbeat cut on Days for Days entitled “Deee-Pression” whose refrain is, “fit of depression right now.”
But even more chilling in its frankness is a track on Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things called “Slit My Wrists.” Its lyrics are as explicit as the title implies: “What I need is not cut costs / What I need is a life where I’ve won all the times that I’ve lost / What I need is not ways to go on / What I need is to slit my wrists and be gone.”
When asked to defend this song in 2002, Miller wrote:
When I’ve been depressed, it’s helped me to know I’m not all alone in that feeling, and that is why I wrote it; part of the song tries to empathize with the alienation of feeling like the world is one big, triumphant party except for oneself.
It works for me. “Slit My Wrists” doesn’t treat this head space in a maudlin or flowery way. It isn’t emo. It’s just incredibly matter-of-fact – while also managing to be one of the loveliest songs he ever wrote. I am sure it’s difficult for many longtime fans to listen to now.
The Next Day
Happening upon a body of work like Scott Miller’s is a rare and beautiful thing. But it’s strange to feel grief for someone the same day you learn who he was; stranger still to be doing so while those who knew and loved him for years or decades are actively mourning as well.
Fandom is one of the more plainly irrational parts of the human experience. It’s universal enough that we all more or less accept it. You could dismiss it as a vestige of man’s spiritual heritage – the ecstasy once reserved for deities, evicted and searching for a new home. But I’d wager it’s still serving a useful function as a survival tool, providing a motivational link between our hopeless earthly lives and the awesome – Jesus Christ, a walk-off home run, or “September Gurls.” Whatever delivers the chemical spark that pushes us into the next day.
The need to worship makes otherwise levelheaded people think stupid things. It makes me feel like it’s acceptable to mourn a person I never met. It puts ridiculous questions in my head: I wonder what Scott Miller would have said about the new Deerhunter record? Does the fact that I kind of looked like him when I was 20 mean something? Would we have gotten along?
It motivates me to write nearly 5,000 words on the subject. Why? To evangelize? To contextualize my feelings? To try to be a part of a community I should have been engaging with my whole life?
I’m simply doing what I can do. I bought myself an Interbabe Concern t-shirt, and wore it to an Aimee Mann/Ted Leo concert. I tweeted Carl Newman and suggested he play a Scott Miller song during his opening set at Neko Case’s Radio City show (he didn’t, but we got a phenomenal Vic Chesnutt cover instead). I make playlists, track down live recordings, enjoy the music over and over again.
I’m living it, while being grateful for the opportunity to have my brain rewired by one of the best. I would recommend the experience to anybody.