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.
Miller says that over the past two decades, the climate has become less receptive to his brand of pop eccentricity. Though an admitted fan of Nirvana, he sees much of the alterna-dross that followed in its wake as being narrow-minded and unimaginative.
"Everybody knows this, but the alternative movement was yet another mainstream, yet another canonical way that you had to sound to fit in: the sort of raspy voice, a certain rhythm, a certain attitude, you think about being a depressed loser," he says. "That was just morphologically the same thing as having to be a hair-metal band or something like that. It's the semiotics of newness and originality that doesn't really have any substance to it."
Miller finds it easier to get behind the semiotics of the small-but-intense new pop movement that's being driven by events like the Poptopia and International Pop Overthrow festivals in Los Angeles, and by the host of pop-worshiping magazines like Amplifier, Popsided, and Yeah Yeah Yeah.
"Theoretically, I'm kind of a believer in that," he says. "The idea of pop music is fundamentally a little different from these other music movements in that ideally it's not excluding any audience segment. It's not saying, 'Okay, we're the gangster outlaws or we're the metal wild men or we're the country people who don't like these other people.' These markets tend to be awfully exclusive. They paint themselves as not being something else."
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Miller sees pop as an elastic form that draws from various traditions of music making. Even as a willful musical misfit with a relatively small audience, he seems comfortable within the parameters of pop as defined by the new wave of melody fanatics.
"I think what they have in mind is a base of listenership that spans everyone, that has the same vision that pop music of the late '60s and early '70s had," he says. "In other words, you would have black music and white music on the same station. What has to go away is the idea of listening to music with the idea of aligning yourself socially. It's a powerful thing, if you look at the weight this phenomenon has on people's lives, where they're afraid to get behind the wrong music, 'cause that would put them in the wrong social milieu. It can completely displace your ability to hear music for what it is.
"In a way, music is just this minor thing in anyone's life, but in a way it's not, because the same sort of things are happening in life. Your complete perception of how you place yourself socially is going to be colored immensely by what you think are going to be the gains and losses of that perception. Listen to the music at all costs, and don't listen to what are going to be the consequences of your reaction. If I have a mission, that's part of it. To get people to listen without thinking that way."
The Loud Family is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, July 29, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Hammertoes. Showtime is 9 p.m.