Scott Miller, 10 Years On

By Michael Zwirn

Scott Miller of the Loud Family and Game Theory took his life ten years ago this week. This reflection and appreciation was written at the time, April 2013. Since then, all the Game Theory music has been returned to circulation via Omnivore reissues and streaming. For many years the unavailability of that music was part of what formed the cult/community of listenership. For better (mostly) and worse, that is no longer the case.

Scott Miller, photographed by Robert Toren, 1985.
Courtesy Angrylambie, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The news came hard, and it’s never been taken right. 
Amid a dreadful week of Boston attacks and fertilizer explosions, there was one tragedy you might not have been aware of — the sad and untimely death of Scott Miller, who led two minor bands, Game Theory and the Loud Family, neither of which even escaped obscurity at the national level. Through a career in music, he attracted glowing reviews but a scant audience, which made up in devotion what it lacked in numbers. Miller died last week at the age of 53, leaving a widow and two young daughters. 

To explain the significance of Miller’s music in my life, I need to preface it with a lot of caveats. I never heard the music of Game Theory during the band’s existence — it was a college band while I was in elementary school and high school. To my chagrin, I never even heard the Loud Family while I was in college and running a radio station. The name was out there somewhere, on the pages of CMJ and probably in the stacks at KRLX, but the music never so much as crossed my ears. Instead, it was via mail order from Northfield, MN, while I was living on a kibbutz in southern Israel, that I first heard the Loud Family’s Interbabe Concern after reading Glenn McDonald’s rapturous and completely over-the-top 1996 two-week review, which probably comprised several thousand words, in The War Against Silence. That prompted me to add the disc to an order, and it arrived, replete with baffling in-joking liner notes and an audacious overlay of scraps of noise and found sounds on top of hummable harmonies and wry humor.

Interbabe Concern is not the easiest place to pick up the work of Scott Miller. In retrospect, it may be Miller’s finest achievement under the Loud Family, but there are easier records to start with — specifically, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, the first Loud Family album. But living in a desert setting in a foreign country, before the age of instant-anywhere access to music online, I listened to it obsessively. I recently re-read a review I wrote of Interbabe Concern, from a desert outpost in Israel, and this section emerges as an accurate synopsis of my thoughts at the time:

He writes pop, to be certain, but he writes it as if he weren’t. Lyrical convention is completely absent; while the songs deal with girlfriends, breakups and fading nostalgia, the images, language and metaphors are completely alien to the pop music standard. In terms of the sound of the songs, the hooks which define a great pop song are there in abundance but never left on their own. False starts, shards of guitar noise, countermelodies, peculiar instrumentation and pieces of found noise intrude and wander in and out of the mix as if in abeyance to the lo-fi ethos of permitting and celebrating mistakes. But the liner notes declare proudly “Everything on this album was on purpose,” which appears to demonstrate conclusively that Scott Miller has somehow sought, and found, a long-lost no-man’s-land between Crowded House and Sonic Youth and wishes to share its treasures with those few brave enough to accompany him.

Capital, whispering in my ear.
Returning to the States, I joined and became an active part of the wildly entertaining, extraordinarily discursive community of Miller disciples known as the loudfans. Finding common cause with Miller’s followers was easy; finding Miller’s actual music was a lot harder. Pretty much every Game Theory CD and vinyl record was out of print, and even the Loud Family — a going concern at the time — usually required a special order. 

I would buy the Loud Family records from the band itself, or from one of a few sympathetic CD stores in Washington. Once or twice, I would stumble across a used Game Theory CD in the misc. G section of a store, like Annapolis’ Oceans II. Otherwise, I scoured listings of used CDs online. Securing Lolita Nation was the high point. I had listed the album on want-lists for literally years when a copy suddenly became available from a sympathetic collector. What I paid for it was a scant reflection of the album’s going value online. 

The band’s peripatetic nature — Miller rarely maintained the same band members two albums in a row — and home base in Northern California meant that East Coast appearances were scant. In 1998, I played a small part in rectifying that situation, securing them an in-store gig at DCCD, a smallish (and now long-defunct) independent record store in Adams Morgan. Days for Days had just been released, and DCCD only stocked it because I specifically requested it be on order. The owner humored me and scheduled the in-store on the day the band was scheduled to play in town on one of their infrequent tours. 

My memories of that day are pretty vivid, but if they have been obscured by the passage of time, I have my notes written that day. The in-store show was attended, err, sparsely. Perhaps 20 people total were in the store, including the band and store employees, and maybe 10 were there to see the band. The set list was short — five actual songs and two of the interstitial bits from Days for Days. They did “Dee-Pression” and “Crypto-Sicko,” plus two other DfD pieces. The surprise for me was “Asleep and Awake on the Man’s Freeway,” from Interbabe Concern. They played about 20 minutes total, and people were still arriving to see the band as they were finishing. Charmingly, they had issued a call to their fanbase to provide mix tapes for them to listen to on the road, and I made a mix of New Zealand pop, mostly from the Flying Nun label. Scott and the rest of the Loud Family were unfailingly welcoming and sincere in their appreciation of the effort their few fans had made on their behalf. Scott famously wrote extended, ironic, grateful notes to his fans, and I have a few handwritten notes from him thanking me for helping to arrange the in-store, and subsequent e-mails thanking me for the Kiwipop mix tape. 

It was sweltering in DC that July afternoon. After the usual hassles moving equipment out the door, etc., the band drove off to the Metro Cafe. I walked over later, just avoiding the torrential downpour that appeared out of nowhere and completely obliterated the humidity that had prevailed up to that point in the day. The subsequent rainbow was spectacular and bode well for the performance. But the opening bands went on far too long, and the modest audience’s attention waned. The crowd, somewhere between 40 and 60, was very knowledgeable, and people regaled Scott with stories of seeing their first Game Theory gig in 1985 or whenever. I felt out of place among these decade-long fans, but people were singing along, albeit awkwardly at times. The crowd response became more energetic when — bizarrely — the club manager tried to hustle the Louds offstage without an encore.

Crowd reaction forced his hand, and they came back for two more songs, closing frantically after midnight with “Here It Is Tomorrow” from the Game Theory days. There were highlights from the Loud Family catalogue and two intriguingly chosen covers (Beatles and My Bloody Valentine). The band rocked. Onstage and off, they proved to be about the most charming, self-deprecating, sincere folks you’re likely to run across. Ironically, if they were your neighbors, they’d have been the exact opposite of an actual loud family — they’d invite you over for vegetarian barbecue, make sure they weren’t playing the stereo too loud, and walk your mail over if it went to the wrong address. (Of course, the band name was actually a reference to the pioneering reality TV show about Lance Loud and his parents.)

Friend of the family
So, in short, I was a fan, and I began interacting with the other fans more intently. In fact, Loud Family-linked listening formed the core of my musical life for some years, and I made lasting friends through that fanbase in D.C., Boston, Portland, etc. Indeed, for years, if I was traveling to a new city for work or personal reasons, I would reach out to the loudfans list for recommendations on record stores, bands to see, decent food or just an opportunity to hang out.

Attractive Nuisance was released in 2000, and with it the unmistakable sense of the band having run its course. It was clear that the band was unlikely to continue as a touring concern, based on record sales (or non-sales) and comments Miller had made. The album featured some spectacular valedictory songs — “Blackness, Blackness” and the closer, “Motion of Ariel.” The band toured for that album, though, and I saw them in Cambridge, MA in April 2000 along with a host of other East Coast fans, some of whom trekked to the venue from substantial distances. It was a special but bittersweet moment, since it seemed unlikely that the band would be touring again. But they certainly went out in style. I had never realized what an absolutely great guitarist Miller was, or how effortlessly drummer Gil Ray pulled off the most insanely convoluted drum fills. Pianist/keyboardist Alison Faith Levy sang lead on several songs, including the catchiest number on the new album. Kenny Kessel on bass was the lowest-profile band member but also extremely technically savvy, and the band used rhythm and dynamics far more effectively than Game Theory ever did. They emphasized the new material, but also did a couple of earlier Loud Family classics, including “Inverness” and “Rosy Overdrive” from Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, and a few Game Theory chestnuts (“Erica’s Word” and “The Waist and the Knees”).

On the band’s final tour, Miller was violent, abusive, drunk and ill-tempered — no, of course he wasn’t. He was polite and self-effacing, the band was lovely and everyone was happy to see them. Of course, with the scant number of fans, there were a lot of chances to visit with the band and speak to Scott.

And that was the extent of my personal relationship with Scott Miller. He played periodically in San Francisco and the East Bay, often sitting in with friends famous (Aimee Mann) and obscure. He recorded a final album with Sacramento power pop auteur Anton Barbeau, but didn’t tour outside of the region, and I never was in San Francisco for one of his infrequent live shows. He did answer the odd e-mail from me, and he was typically effusive and engaging with his fans on Facebook and his delightful, if sporadic, Ask Scott question-and-answer column on But I never met Scott personally again, and that’s certainly my loss. 

All the way down Van Ness Avenue.
Miller was definitely Californian: land of freeways, parking lots, suburbia. Much of his fan base was there. He sung about California in terms both direct (“Bad Year at UCLA,” which replaces the un-rhymable UC-Davis) and wildly elliptical (“Why We Don’t Live in Mauritania”). It’s clear he had a love-hate relationship with the place, “hanging out near Manson slayings / industrial decayings / inverse utopia.” But it was what he knew, and the setting informed a lot of his lyrics. He was once quoted as saying that if he’d been born poor and black he’d have sung the blues, but his music was rooted in the ’60s and ’70s guitar pop that white kids of his day would be hearing. He was just far, far better at understanding the music than the average kid — even the average record store geek. 

Miller played music from so young an age that he apparently never recalled when he first tried to play guitar. And that attitude of being a fan and a music lover, even before creating his own music, never waned. He did covers all through his career, from renowned and obscure artists alike. He was unabashed about the holy trinity of power-pop Bs (Beatles, Big Star, Badfinger) but also did a truly inspired Hollies cover and songs by Brian Eno, the dB’s, Pixies, Cat Stevens and Zombies. He often included Roxy Music and Bowie songs in his band’s sets. And, yes, he did cover Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” and Perry Como, too.

Miller’s fandom and deep insights into pop music history informed his book, Music: What Happened?, a learned and witty commentary on the pop music from 1957 (his birth) to 2011, structured as mix tape selections from each year. Yeah, he was a fan, and a knowledgeable and penetrating one when it came to the music that moved him. That insight, shared among many of his fans, helped to shape much of my listening outside of the Loud Family oeuvre, through mix tape swaps and recommendations on the loudfans list and the Ask Scott column. And for those years of great records and bands and concerts brought to my attention, which I might have never experienced, I again owe Scott greatly.

I got a feeling it’s all rigged.
It’s an inescapable sensation, listening to Game Theory and Loud Family records in no particular order, that Miller in a sense saw life — romantic, commercial, political — as a game in which the puzzle pieces never lined up right for him, in which the goalposts kept shifting, in which the ground was slanted ever so slightly in the wrong direction. “That was my mistake / I didn’t spot the setup.” Game Theory was initially a “next big thing” and got some videos on MTV in the early years. The Loud Family, too, was once seen as a potential commercial success in its initial days, but that never panned out, either. 

He had, based on his interviews and his reams of writing online, an exquisite sense of self-deprecation about the commercial success that eluded him. It was expressed with great humor and no shortage of wit, as in, “Like the Beatles, I’ve somehow managed to write lyrics a lot of people think have hidden meaning to be deciphered, but I’ve done it without any of the burdensome worldwide superstardom the Beatles had to put up with.” Miller was never going to be a Beatle. He lacked the populist instincts; even at his most ineffably hummable moments, he would often sabotage a song with a puzzling lyric or a deliberately convoluted chord change. 

Production was where Miller wreaked the most havoc on his own pop songs: An immensely respectful tribute in the Guardian last week praised Miller’s songwriting and lyricism but noted some “shocking aesthetic choices” in the Game Theory records. I’m pretty sure Miller and longtime producer Mitch Easter knew exactly what they were doing when they juxtaposed crushing guitar chords and dinky drums and synths, or when they devoted most of one side of a double LP to a lengthy found-sound experiment whose unrepeatable name is an extended joke on Nabokov and Lolita, Paul Simon and the programming language LISP.

While lyrics were Miller’s métier, and he packed his songs with double-meanings and literary references, Loud Family and Game Theory were by no means all a slog through impenetrability. Yes, he quoted Joyce and Nabokov, but also Star Wars and misunderstood parking directions by his wife (“Good, there are no lines in the street” became an Attractive Nuisance song, “Good, There Are No Lions in the Street”). And of course, there are the indelible earworm melodies, those should’ve-been-hits like “Take Me Down (Too Halloo),” “We Love You, Carol and Allison,” “Aerodeliria,” “My Superior,” “Crypto-Sicko,” “Inverness,” and dozens more. I doubt anyone who listens to a Game Theory or Loud Family “single” (not that such things existed) for the first time won’t hear a vivid and approachable band — maybe one slightly out of time, never belonging to an au courant movement, but worth hearing and cherishing regardless of the context. 

But still, recognition was something that Miller seemed to crave, and it may have been a disappointment that audiences never responded to his music the way critics and fellow musicians did. Game Theory and Loud Family were perpetual cult bands — the intensity of their fan base in inverse proportion to the bands’ visibility and record sales. And that must have hurt. 

Wake up, you’re sleeping through heaven.
Reading this set of thoughts you might think Game Theory and Loud Family would make for some pretty depressing listens. And they did, in haunted minor chords and achingly lonely lyrics. But that was just a facet of Miller’s songwriting. At his most inspirational, he could depict — in musical and lyrical terms — a desperate drive to live life and experience the possibilities within it. The archetype of that is the Game Theory song “Sleeping Through Heaven,” which I included on mix tapes for years, and which provided the name for my personal thread on a discussion board for many years. Its lyric is couched in the terms of a would-be relationship with a girlfriend, as much pop music is, but its message is universal:

I want to go bang on every door
And say, “Wake up, you’re sleeping through heaven”
And I don’t care who knows, I don’t know who cares
If you don’t want yours then let me have my share

Shine in column inches on the page.
There have probably been more words written about Scott Miller in the past week than in the past decade and a half, and that’s a shame. Many of these are from listeners immensely learned in pop music, with personal history with Miller that far exceeds my own limited involvement. (I suspect most of the people reading this note will be represented in that description, and I apologize to them for any glaring errors or mischaracterizations.)

Among these tributes from around the world, they are mostly white music nerds, recognizing one of their own. A touching number of those are from fellow musicians, including those who achieved greater renown that Miller ever did. Aimee Mann, who sang with Miller on many occasions and promoted his work incessantly, and her husband Michael Penn, both shared heartfelt words of appreciation. Ted Leo, Mary Lou Lord, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and a lot of other cult artists shared their fond memories.

The band which I feel best embodies Game Theory — in at least some of its modes — is the New Pornographers, and Carl (AC) Newman was positively heartsick in his commentary on Twitter. (Someday I would love to hear Neko Case and Carl Newman blasting through “Shark Pretty” on a tribute album.) The success of a band like New Pornographers, of whom I first heard via the loudfans mailing list, and whose music was championed by Miller in the early days, demonstrates that there is a market for hyperactive pop with cut-and-paste pastiches from glam rock, day-glo harmonies and stomping choruses. They are a great band, and they deserve their audience. Couldn’t Miller have shared a small portion of their success?

What I need is not to cut costs.
Dealing with this loss, of a man I barely knew but whose music has been a big part of my life for the past 17 years, makes me sad and inexpressibly mournful about the unfairness of it all. Miller was, from every interaction I had with him, and every story I’ve read, not only enormously talented, but humble, funny, kind, appreciative of his fans, and a loving husband and father to his children. He held down a day job in the computer field for decades, applying his insights and aptitude in arcane technical gadgetry to a productive livelihood when his music failed to succeed on a commercial level. He wrote, drolly, “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.” 

In short, he’s the sort of person that anyone would want to succeed, regardless of the music he might have made. And part of me wants to yell, pointlessly, “Yes, you did win. You won an incredibly devoted fan base, you won acclaim from musicians and music critics around the world, and you won a beautiful and seemingly happy family (queue Tolstoy, etc.) You could have, it seems, focused on family life and your day job and released the odd Internet single or collaboration, and it would have been a noble and worthy continuation of your work. But now that won’t get to happen.

“The outpouring of grief and recollections of fans and admirers around the world are testament to your victory. Rest in peace, Scott Miller.”

Where to begin.
If you’re unfamiliar with Miller’s music, the sheer volume can be a bit daunting.

Tinker to Evers to Chance is the “hits” (ha) compilation, with some of the catchiest and most accessible moments. True fans, of course, will dismiss it and seek out the original albums for the full interplay of pop savvy with noise experiments and weirdness. Much of the earliest material was re-recorded for the compilation, including songs from Miller’s very first band, Alternate Learning, and the famous garbage-bag-wrapped first Game Theory EP. Candidly, I think it’s great, and listen to it more than any single Game Theory album. Lolita Nation is the “difficult” “impenetrable” “cult” album, and it tops a lot of fan lists. Don’t listen to it if you’re just checking the band out for the first time. Instead listen to Big Shot Chronicles, which has the highest ratio of pop single wannabes and is glistening and immediate. Real Nighttime (Big Star reference) and Blaze of Glory both have lots of amazing material, but I admit I don’t listen to them as often as I could. The final album, 2 Steps From the Middle Ages, is puzzling; some very good songs, some middling pacing and sequencing, and too many odd leads by the other band members.

Loud Family material is available on iTunes and Spotify. The easiest place to start is the 1993 debut, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (classic joke about America’s “Horse With No Name”). It is amazing — Aimee Mann called it one of the Top 5 albums of all time — and it has a host of what should have been hits. “Jimmy Still Comes Around,” “Idiot Son,” “Sword Swallower” show the ability of Miller and his band to be as catchy as Game Theory was, but with a more emphatic rhythm section. “Aerodeliria,” “Inverness,” “Take Me Down (Too Halloo)” and others are immensely hummable and show the band’s ability to craft an indelible melody. If anything could have made Scott Miller a star, it would have been this. (The New York Times described the songs as “shimmery-sweet”).

Interbabe Concern is as good or better but far less immediate. It may be my favorite, but it was also my introduction to the band, and there are some experimental pieces at the end that can grate a bit. After that, both Days for Days and Attractive Nuisance have a host of great songs — Days is catchier, but both also have some rather mournful elegiac material as well. The Tape of Only Linda is kind of at the bottom of the barrel, in part due to poor production, even though it has a few tremendous rock songs (“Soul Drain,” “My Superior”). And What If It Works?, a late collaboration with Anton Barbeau, is a worthwhile addendum, even if it’s slight on new material and long on covers. They’re still good, but it’s not core to the Loud Family body of work.

These excerpts come from a phone interview between Ira Robbins and Scott Miller, 12 May 1993. The Loud Family had recently released its first album.

Scott Miller explains what happened to Game Theory.
Scott Miller explains things with a funny remark about convenience.
Scott Miller on songwriting.
Scott Miller on ego and honesty in songwriting.

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