I became a fan of Scott Miller’s music in 1986, when I heard “Here It Is Tomorrow” from The Big Shot Chronicles on a local college radio station. That song was captivating, as are all his songs, from the earliest Game Theory recordings to the Loud Family’s (his band after Game Theory broke up) 2006 album What If It Works. I managed to see the Loud Family twice, and the band was as good live as they are on disk.
Miller’s latest musical contribution is his book, Music: What Happened. He started making CDs after he had put his young daughters to bed, based on lists he had made as a child. These lists replaced “Ask Scott” a blog he kept on the Loud Family site. He collected these lists into a book with the help of Joe Mallon and Sue Trowbridge, who run the Loud Family site and 125 Records, the label that put out the current Loud Family CD What If It Works. I had first read some of these lists on the site, really liked them, and was delighted when this book was released. The review of his book follows the interview.
I recently interviewed Mr. Miller. His answers to my questions are delightful, and I feel very fortunate to have had this chance to interview him. Thank you, Scott, for both the music, and for this interview. And thank you Kristine Miller for the photo, and to Jen Grover’s help with the editing of the questions.
Andrea Weiss: Was it hard to write prose after many years of writing lyrics?
Scott Miller: I did the "Ask Scott" column for a pretty long time, and that was good practice. I was used to writing lyrics for an audience, and prose to one person as in a letter or email, but that was my first prose for an audience, really. I was forced to listen to myself err on the side of trying to sound some way, as opposed to saying what I had to say. When you write lyrics that are just trying to sound some way, it's a lot less decidable that you're doing anything wrong. When Freddie Mercury sounds like an upper-crust twit, he's not doing something wrong, it's just a way of dramatizing.
AW: Why 1957 to start your book with?
SM: We started the project in 2007, and the idea was to go back fifty years.
AW: The way you approached these reviews has the “wow” factor in it, as in “wow, that does make me think” or “wow, he said that, that’s great.” And there is much humor as well thrown in, as well as seriousness. Was it hard balancing all three of these elements?
SM: It's very nice of you to say I did balance those, thanks. I wasn't thinking in quite those terms; it was more jogging myself out of the habit of writing about every song using the same mental checklist--how's the production, quote two good lines--but instead asking myself what actually made the song special for me, which is usually wildly different from song to song, and in a weird way it's embarrassing for me to come right out and say what the real attraction is when I chase it down. If the truth is I like a song because it has pretty harmonies and tells you to be a thoughtful person, I have to get over this inclination that people are going to go, what, are you an idiot? So, okay, that step would just be achieving what you're calling seriousness, and beyond that, I think I just feel like cracking a joke every so often, and ranting on a soapbox every so often, and then I feel like people are going to have had enough of either of those for a stretch, so self-consciousness probably makes for good timing in that respect.
AW: There is so much jazz, blues, Broadway musicals, and early R&B, as well as rock and roll, in the early years of the book Do you hope people, especially young people, will read these and realize that while these songs are not “rock” as we know it today, these genres were still the building blocks of what is known as “rock” today?
SM: Sure, I'd call it making my perspective, such as it is, available, especially to young people. There's kind of a weird gap in music writing where there's no good way to find out just how catastrophic the Beatles' impact was. Over a certain age, you're just supposed to know, and under a certain age, they've been too much part of the furniture for it to occur to you to question it all. I don't think there's "rock as we know it today" without the Beatles, period. They radically changed what, say, the Stones and Dylan did, the way I read it; those artists would have been doing Chess R & B on one hand, and Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger folk on the other.
AW: And then you don't talk as much about these genres in the later years. Why is that?
SM: Short answer: Beatles. In my adolescence, if a piece of music wasn't a self-composed, stand-alone, 4-minute vocal rock song, I literally didn't know how to evaluate it as a musical achievement. A folk tradition like blues, or playing style tradition like jazz, or even a division between songwriting craft and performance craft, seemed like the ways of the ancients. But those went from being the coin of the realm to marginalization in, what, a three year period? I wouldn't have known how to create the 1960 list until fairly late in life. And it seems to me that none of the styles you mention has ever quite recovered. I mean, is there a whole lot of great, more recent material in those areas I'm just not getting exposed to, or my ear is just not sensitive to? Is there a lot of great material in *Cats*, or the Robert Cray catalog, or the Al Jarreau catalog? I seriously don't know. There's a lot of John Zorn kind of stuff I have insufficient exposure to, but I wouldn't rule out becoming a fan if I can afford the exploration.
AW: It's pretty clear from your book that you didn't like 80s or 90s music in general. Were you, in your own way, trying to change the face of music by choosing power pop as a starting point, which harks back to the 70s?
SM: You mean when I first put out music? I never thought of what we were doing as going back to a different starting point, but the current music I liked at the time was what was called “paisley underground” in L.A., or southern-based east coast stuff like the dBs and R.E.M. Those communities didn’t have any signifiers of the vanguard like music that took *Thriller* as the starting point, which in a way is to focus as much on dance performance as on music. What you’re saying definitely makes it sound like I'm more down on the 90s than I am. Power pop doesn't have the slightest chance of saving music. In a way it's a permanent fixture now, and no Cheap Trick or Badfinger fans are planning a victory parade. I would think most of the world would listen to anything from Green Day to Katy Perry and say, how is that not power pop? What kind of micro-distinction are you making between those and "September Gurls"?
What I'm down on is much more a matter of emotional depth and intellectual rigor than just being down on the nineties. I'm down on the *eighties*.
AW: What did you look for in the songs you chose for the book?
SM: For one thing, not so much that anything was flawless, but rather that the high points were so insanely high that they inspired a love I can't keep myself from sharing.
AW: Were there any songs you liked as a kid or teen that you don’t like as an adult?
SM: In most of those cases, I had my favorites, but I only knew about a small fraction of the material I was exposed to the whole rest of my life, so a certain portion of it faded into the shadows. Oh, one case of that was I badly wanted to put an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song in there somewhere because they did that sort of complicated, bombastic orchestral style in a way my ear could easily relate to, but over the years, I found so much music I related to better, especially lyrically, that they just didn’t make the cut late in life. But "Knife Edge" from the first album is a near miss.
AW: Where would you put Game Theory’s music on your 80s list, and the Loud Family on the 90s, and 00s lists in your book?
SM: Seriously, wouldn’t it be creepy if I thought they belonged there? If I was reading a music criticism book where I agreed with the writer, and he or she had their own old, obscure band that they completely seriously talked about as doing the important music at the time, wouldn’t that be terrifying? “That was when Iggy and Bowie were doing the Berlin stuff, and the Soft Waffles were making their legendary bedroom tapes.”
AW: Will the rights issues ever work out so that Lolita nation and the other classic Game Theory albums can be re-released?
SM: Trying for ten years to work with the guy who owns the rights has become such a soul-destroying exercise I’ve just given up.
AW: You wrote this book to suggest songs for your daughters to listen to when they get older. What do they like to listen to now?
SM: Early in my relationship with my wife Kristine, I converted her to the Posies, I think when Ken Stringfellow and I were on the same bill in a Los Angeles show, and to this day when she’s driving the kids around they hear enough Ken and Jon related material that I think they can, say, sing most of *Blood/Candy*
Music: What Happened
This book is fun to read. These song lists, spanning 1957-2009, of music he loves, are at once insightful and funny, thoughtful and delightful. Each song merits one paragraph. Scott describes the music within, which is like a musician would. For instance, chord patterns, melody lines, beats, how notes are used, how sound is used, and how the lyrics fit in with the music. These enhance the capsule reviews in a way not often seen from critics. That is, not just the way a song makes someone feel, but what makes the song the way it is.
Miller selects from every genre of popular music, and he has managed to make them all fit. Every song he chose has something to offer, and in the end startling for what they do have to offer.
Everyone will have his/her interpretation. Some songs will mean more to them than others. I want to focus on two songs that stand out for me, not just because I love these songs, for the something they have to offer.
One is the Bangles’ “Hero Takes a Fall.” “Had this been the album that sold, what might have been?” So many possibilities: The Paisley Underground doing for L.A. what Seattle would do some time later? Power pop with some folk and garage in it opening things up for college rock as a whole, even more than REM were doing? Women opening doors for other women musicians at a time when feminism was a dirty word? Just to think any of this might have been the case is beautiful.
Aimee Mann with “How am I Different?” In addition to famously flipping the bird to the mainstream music biz, there is “she established a mid-tempo, less rocking out standard governing the emotional moments of a certain class of later mature audience artists like Sufjan Stevens in a way that superseded Cobainesque howling.” That Aimee Mann drew the blueprint for a certain type of indie rock, which to me seems to be most of today’s big indie bands, isn’t that far fetched when Stevens’ sound, for instance, is thought about. And as with the Bangles, to think about this is beautiful too.
Taken all together, this book is truly amazing. It is a reason to cheer, and to marvel at for the sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of the writing. [www.loudfamily.com]