And write the obit when you do
He never ran out when the spirits were low
A nice guy as minor celebrities go
— Scott Miller, “Together Now, Very Minor”
I’ve been rightly accused of liking Beatlesque bands better than the actual Beatles. True, give me Big Star over the Fab Four any day. But given how rarely either band actually figures into my everyday universe, my dispositions are even one more generation removed. Truer, give me Scott Miller over Alex Chilton any other day.
Miller led two phenomenal and phenomenally underappreciated bands: Game Theory through the ’80s and the Loud Family through the ’90s. Trouser Press summations do them best: The former was a “mildly psychedelic, pop band from northern California, whose departures from conventional meat-and-potatoes reality were more quirky than trippy,” while the latter used Miller’s “tremendously hooky pop songwriting with false starts, shards of guitar noise, countermelodies, peculiar instrumentation and found noise” to take “power pop into the realm of musique concrete.”
Over the holiday, I devoured a biography: Don’t All Thank Me at Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller by Brett Milano. Miller died in 2013, leaving an underappreciated career well-positioned to remain so. A friend quoted in the book says, “People who fell in love with Scott’s music tended to keep it to themselves because they figured that nobody else would really get it. So after he died you’d find out who was a fan and it was ‘Oh my God, you too?’” For those in the circle of this treasured discovery, Milano’s book is as fine a memorial and headstone as we could have asked for. The book thoroughly and tidily accounts for Miller’s creative life, balancing just the right amount of song-by-song criticism with astute reporting and interviews. Highly satisfying and recommended.
Miller’s music has been a constant in my own life, and I’ve proselytized to those I thought might “get it.” I found Game Theory in the mid-’80s once I’d identified Enigma as a trustworthy label, and when I became a pop critic I did what I could to ink my adoration (even though, lamentably, I once described the “Two Steps From the Middle Ages” album as sounding like “a postmodern Kansas”). Of the Loud Family’s landmark “Interbabe Concern” album I wrote, “Miller cycles through incongruous guitar chords with the same bravery and success of Steely Dan” (again with a mid-’70s comparison), and I still regard that album as one of the most inventive and satisfying in my collection. In 2013 when I interviewed Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel, who’s quoted frequently in Milano’s book, Miller had just died the previous week, so we both mourned him. (Segel’s “Storytelling” remains one of my top-five favorite records of all time, and I learned in the book that Segel was inspired to go ahead with the risky double-LP because of the impression made by Game Theory’s “Lolita Nation.”)
Miller was an excellent critic himself, and I frequently suggest that music fans check out Music: What Happened?, his decade-by-decade, song-by-song accounting of pop’s history (a steal on Kindle at 4 bucks). On the Stones: “’Waiting on a Friend’ is by far the significant achievement of ‘Tattoo You.’ … All the lines are good, but ‘I’m not waiting on a lady / I’m just waiting on a friend’ in isolation has a maturity and gentleness that is genius.” On R.E.M.: “They practically single-handedly authored the school of no-keyboards, no fuzz on the guitar, organic drumming, lyrics about fields.”
Miller described his own vocals as a “miserable whine,” and he wasn’t just being self-deprecating. But it’s worth wincing through it to explore albums such as the Mitch Easter-produced and slightly straightforward “Big Shot Chronicles” (1986) and the ambitious soundscapes of “Lolita Nation” (1987). Game Theory albums are hard to come by these days — and when googling you must add “band” to “game theory,” lest you receive only search results about actual game theory — but the music is worth all efforts to find it and to suture it into your everyday life.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.