Family Values

The Loud Family's Scott Miller battles the limitations of life in pop-cult hell

Keith Richards once made the point that all good rock music should basically aim for the crotch. According to his theory, rock is a primal, visceral force free of intellectual hang-ups, and anything directed at the cerebral cortex is a self-conscious perversion of the music's essence.

Scott Miller loves rock 'n' roll as much as anyone you could name. As a kid growing up in Sacramento, California, he fell under the spell of The Beatles and The Monkees, even forming a childhood band where he pretended to play his favorite hits. He remembers that as an 8-year-old he would "write" albums, and sing his songs in the shower as a way to "preserve" them.

These days, Miller--the former curly-haired mastermind of '80s pop heroes Game Theory, and currently the curly-haired leader of the Loud Family--diligently maintains a year-by-year list of his favorite albums, from 1965 to the present (available on the Loud Family's Web site) which he uses to help him make mix tapes for friends. He calls the list "a labor of love."

But even if Miller's rock 'n' roll heart is clearly in the right place, he has spent his entire career in the small-cult hell that rock reserves for those auteurs considered too clever for their own good. Any Loud Family review inevitably refers to Miller's convoluted-but-tuneful songwriting as brainy, smart, witty, intelligent or literate. Not exactly adjectives that make fans of the Backstreet Boys start squealing.

So Miller has been forced to endure conditions that no pop genius should be subjected to: working on minuscule recording budgets, handling countless band-member defections, and maintaining a day job as a computer programmer in San Francisco. Clearly, the shakeups that have affected the lineups of both Game Theory and the Loud Family bother Miller the most.

"It's been difficult," Miller says. "You definitely lose momentum every time someone leaves. But it's hard to keep a band together. Personalities are a tricky thing to keep in an enclosed space for a long period of time--an enclosed van or a studio or something like that.

"People also just have to move on with their lives. This band typically isn't the way that people can make their living. We don't have huge record sales or anything. So, you kind of have to make your living in San Francisco, which is a very difficult thing, and have enough room left over in your life to do music with the level of seriousness that I do it. It's pretty hard to hold together as far as having the balance sheet work out."

Game Theory rode the crest of a California pop renaissance in the '80s, which manifested itself in Los Angeles with the so-called Paisley Underground bands like the Three O'Clock and the Bangles. Blessed with a wimpy but effectively yearning voice, Miller seemed like the perfect extension of the dreamy but discordant pop ethos that Big Star had handed down to the dB's. Throughout his career, Miller has often suggested what Alex Chilton could have been if his psyche hadn't crashed and burned after Sister Lovers.

Between 1985 and 1990, Game Theory released five albums on Enigma Records, with an ever-revolving cast of players. When the label folded and bassist Michael Quercio quit, Miller finally decided to scrap the Game Theory name altogether and work with three musicians who'd played sessions with the band. The Loud Family signed with Alias Records, a label that has been supportive but somewhat shy of resources.

It's one of the sad ironies of the music biz that countless dull-witted bands get huge recording budgets so that they can refine their tripe, while a genuine sonic visionary like Miller, who could really go kaleidoscopic in the studio, is forced to make due with minimal recording time. Miller--who has assumed production duties on the last two albums after years of working with Mitch Easter--now gets around these restrictions by laying down drum tracks in the studio on ADAT, and taking the tapes to his home eight-track studio. At home, he painstakingly builds mind-altering soundscapes replete with trippy backing vocals and oddball sound effects.

The Loud Family's fourth album, the new Days for Days, might be the strongest testament yet to Miller's resourceful working methods. Unlike past masterworks, like Game Theory's much-loved Lolita Nation (a sprawling 27-track encyclopedia of weirdness) or the powerful Loud Family debut Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, Days for Days consciously separates Miller's experimental side from his catchy popcraft side. Each "conventional" song is followed by a freaky instrumental fragment that revisits a musical theme from that song.

"I was thinking it would be an interesting variation on some of the other ways I've structured albums to have an obvious split between songs that were conventionally structured and songs which were unconventionally structured and pair them up this time, so that one had a relationship with another as a sort of variation on a theme," Miller says. "To me, it's a way of asking people to listen to conventional and unconventional presentations with the same ear. [I'm] kind of being a little bit demanding."

If Miller frequently makes demands on his listeners, he also rewards them with moments of ear-caressing beauty that few of his contemporaries can match. Who but Miller (with the cleverly titled "Cortex the Killer") could make a lyric as inscrutable as "We brought compasses and felt pens/Strong as Boris Yeltsin when he looks and sees" roll off the tongue in such a melodious fashion? With "Way Too Helpful," he goes for the slow burn, gradually letting a languid, lo-fi groove build into a lush burst of symphonic grandeur. With this subtle gem, Bedhead, Pavement, Radiohead and the Viennese masters seemingly all get up and do a slow dance together.

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