Game Theory

Music Can Only Be Love: The Secret Influence of Scott Miller

Matt LeMay

By Matt LeMay

on 09.05.14 in Features

“It is my sad duty to inform you that I had every intention of…cannily inducing millions of people to listen to music more like the way I listen to it.” — Scott Miller

“Scott Miller is the best songwriter out there. I often think about that when I’m writing: ‘Would Scott think this song is any good?’” — Aimee Mann

“People have said that they think I’m influenced by Big Star, but really I’m more influenced by Game Theory, who were influenced by Big Star.” — Carl Newman

If you have kept up with independent rock music over the last 20 or so years then Scott Miller has been a presence in your life, whether or not you recognize his name. The records he released with Game Theory in the 1980s and The Loud Family in the 1990s never sold particularly well, but Miller found his way to a specific thing in his songwriting that has extended far beyond the reach of those bands. Maybe you’ve heard that thing in songs by Aimee Mann, Carl Newman and Ted Leo — all of whom were directly influenced by Miller’s work. Or maybe you’ve heard that thing in songs by Okkervil River or the Wrens, who seemed to absorb it second- or third-hand without ever hearing Miller’s music directly.

What exactly is that specific thing that characterizes Miller’s work? It’s hard to pin down in writing. When trying to describe it to friends, I usually find myself saying things like “emotionally incisive lyrics” and “melodies that sound obvious, but are actually really complicated.” Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and R.E.M. cites Scott as proof that a songwriter “can be clever, educated, funny, and still soulful and lucid — and that songs can be immediate, and yet bear more fruit with further listening.” Okkervil River’s Will Sheff locates the “true personality” of Miller’s music in the duality of its “wounded heart” and its “carefully composed braininess.” “His braininess is what makes me like those records,” writes Sheff, “but that heart is what makes me love them.”

Aimee Mann may have captured it best while introducing Miller before a duet of the Loud Family’s “Inverness” some 18 years ago: “There’s a song that’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and it’s his. There’s only one little problem: it’s got about a gazillion chords. It sounds really simple, but it isn’t.”

“It sounds really simple, but it isn’t” may be as close as one can get to describing Miller’s music in a single sentence. There is nothing categorically unique about Miller’s work, no grand aesthetic departure that announces itself the second the proverbial needle drops. At first blush, Miller’s songs usually sound more or less like power pop-leaning indie rock. But on repeat listens, they reveal much more. Miller had a singular way of working deep, irreducible complexity — both musical and emotional — into compact and memorable songs.

Unpacking his songwriting was not a task that Miller left to his fans alone. In the “Ask Scott” section of the Loud Family website, Miller laid out both the philosophical and procedural underpinnings of his craft with disarming grace and generosity:

I gravitate toward fairly routine chord progressions with one particular odd thing about them. Anything that involves doing some one thing differently from how I’d ordinarily do it…. To me the tastiest changes are always a high wire act. They’re always one step away from total cliché or from not making sense at all. But that’s only one way to like to listen to music, and clearly it’s pretty different from what most people like or I’d be selling a lot more records.”

The relationship between Miller’s songwriting and his writing about songwriting constituted a different but equally perilous high wire act. Miller certainly had ample opportunity to cast himself as a misunderstood genius, to assert that those who didn’t like his music simply didn’t “get” it. But Miller rejected any such assertions — both in his writing and in his music, where he studiously avoided any self-conscious gestures to draw attention to his own craft. “There’s only room to say one true thing in a song,” wrote Miller, “if you try unconsciously to introduce self-serving commentary, you just run out of room to still embody the subject. Your words and the way you sing them make their own case.” Miller used his brain to fact-check his heart, not to obscure or justify it — and in doing so, he charted a hugely instructive path for any artist whose work could be described as both “meticulously composed” and “emotionally devastating.”

When I first heard Game Theory’s incredible The Big Shot Chronicles and Lolita Nation records a handful of years ago, I was immediately struck by how much of that characteristic balancing act I recognized from albums that were released 15 or 20 years later. The upbeat, clear-eyed and open-hearted “Erica’s Word” recalled my favorite parts of Ted Leo’s The Tyranny of Distance. The reedy synth lead and rapid-fire chord changes of “Crash into June” sounded like it could have been on the New Pornographers’ Electric Version. The intricate-yet-conversational guitar playing on “Dripping with Looks” reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite place what until I heard Doug Gillard cover that very song at a tribute concert last year. Diving into Miller’s catalog, I felt as though some deeply rooted puzzle in my musical consciousness was finally being solved — like some invisible thread that ran through my favorite albums, songs, and artists had now been given a form and a name.

The connection I heard between “Erica’s Word” and Ted Leo was not a matter of mere coincidence. “I remember very well when “Erica’s Word” first came out,” Leo wrote to me. “It was the kind of song that made so much sense to me because it bridged so many gaps in my brain — scratched so many itches that I had at once.”

Six years later, Aimee Mann had a similar experience upon hearing The Loud Family’s debut album, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things: “I got that record and immediately started playing it obsessively…It was a mix of pure pop with some really deep and raw feeling, articulated in a way that I hadn’t heard before. That and Liz Phair’s first album were the only things I played for the next several months while I was writing my next record, I’m With Stupid. I was so taken with Scott Miller’s songwriting, his melodies and intricate, oddball lyrics, his slightly nasal vocals, the arrangements that were both raucous and elegant; it was an enormous influence on me.”

‘There’s a language of chord changes and arrangements, of melody and strangeness, of tautness and release, that I definitely partly learned from Scott. — Ted Leo’

Mann was so taken with Miller’s music that she got his phone number from a mutual friend and, in what she describes as “a VERY bold move for me,” called him up from England to introduce herself. “I was hoping he’d heard my record but he hadn’t,” writes Mann, “he was very gracious nevertheless.” That initial phone call turned into an ongoing correspondence, and several years later Mann received a CD in the mail from Miller along with a note that read “I thought you might like this guy’s music, I think his songs are really great.” That CD? Ted Leo’s The Tyranny of Distance.

Miller would go on to initiate a parallel correspondence with Leo a few years later, but it wasn’t until Mann and toured in 2012 that they finally connected the dots. “All of a sudden,” writes Leo, “this long, hidden strand of DNA in both of our work revealed itself. We began writing together, and said time and time again how excited we were to tell Scott what he had, in a way, wrought in our collaboration.” That collaboration produced a project called The Both, whose song “Bedtime Stories” pays explicit homage to Miller’s unique voice as a songwriter. Its basic structure, writes Leo, “really screamed to us ‘Scott,’ so we listened and allowed what we thought we heard of his voice to lead us, and we tried to sing with it, and asked some questions of it…And we came up with our own song that we sing for him.”

Along similar lines, the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman wrote “You Tell Me Where,” a standout from the recently released Brill Bruisers, as a nod to Scott Miller’s influence. In an interview with SPIN, Newman describes the song as an attempt “to write something that musically was a tip of the hat to Game Theory.” More broadly, Newman writes, “about 10-20% of my melodic sense is cribbed from [Scott Miller].”

The brilliant, brutally self-implicating lyrics of the Game Theory song “Come Home With Me,” meanwhile, immediately made me think of Okkervil River songwriter Will Sheff. Last year, I passed along some of Miller’s music to Sheff and he, too, was struck by a strong sense of recognition. “Though I hadn’t been familiar with Miller previously,” writes Sheff, “I realized I recognized him. I’d heard his influence, particularly with bands like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the New Pornographers. If you’ve heard these guys, you’ve heard, without knowing it, the ghost of Scott Miller, his adventurous melodic leaps, his hopscotching chords, his confident intellectualism.” In what seems to be a recurring theme, Sheff cites “Come Home With Me” — the very song that first prompted me to make the connection between Miller’s work and his — as one of his favorites, describing it as “a song that should be a come-on but comes across instead as almost bottomlessly sad.”

‘Underneath the carefully composed braininess of these songs there’s a wounded heart that gives Miller’s work its true personality. — Will Sheff’

Miller recognized Sheff, too. In an excellent volume of music criticism titled Music: What Happened?, Miller wrote beautifully and insightfully about his love of Sheff’s music — as well as Newman’s, and Mann’s and Leo’s. As a fan, it’s almost galling to read Scott write so adoringly about a song like the New Pornographers’ “The Laws Have Changed” without thinking “Yeah, of course you like it, you could have written it!” And, sure enough, Miller was provided many such prompts by fans who heard echoes of his work in better-known contemporary artists. When a fan wrote that a new Spoon song seemed to be lifted directly from “Erica’s Word,” Miller wrote back not with a simple “Hey thanks, but I don’t really hear it,” but rather with a little theorem which, like his music, gives us a lot to unpack:

It would hard for me to work up an aggrieved feeling short of [Spoon] copying “Erica’s Word” exactly and calling it “Erica’s Word, Not By Scott Miller.” Here’s a little theorem of mine about music, which I’ll now lay out in the following poor-man’s Wittgensteinian manner:
1. All good music sounds like something you’ve heard before. If you hear good (to you) music, you will either:
a. Consciously recognize (what for your purposes is) the source and attribute the good of the music to that source, or
b. You won’t consciously recognize the source, and you’ll attribute the good of the music to the music you’re hearing itself.
…. Music is a machine that requires the sound at hand, and also requires the set of subconscious echoes and reference points that make it act as music. So in my book, being a good writer of melodies is a matter of magic and blarney, stealing without getting caught. I still think it’s a valuable pursuit, and I’m never intentionally underhanded when I write a song; it all only turns ugly if I start looking around for ways my material has been lifted.

If the Wittgenstein-citing outline doesn’t give it away, Miller often seemed less interested in specific sounds and words than in the systems that give those sounds and words meaning. As such, Miller’s work isn’t so much the sum of his influences as it is an articulation of his own particular way of hearing those influences.

In Miller’s estimation, “originality” was a false construct; something that emerged from music that “successfully imitates what people have associated with the avant-garde.” To Miller, music itself didn’t really exist apart from the act of being listened to, and was always a negotiation between the mindset of its creator and that of its listener.

This intimate, reciprocal dance between artist and listener doesn’t play by typical space-time rules, and sure enough many of Miller’s songs seem to uncannily foreshadow the sounds of other contemporary artists. “I’m Not Really a Spring,” from 1996’s Loud Family opus Interbabe Concern, struck me as sounding so much like a Wrens song that I was certain Wrens frontman Charles Bissell has heard it. (I asked, and he hadn’t.) The Game Theory song “Together Now, Very Minor” (my very favorite song in Miller’s extensive catalog) could have been airlifted directly from the closing slot on a Shins record, right down to Miller’s specific way of saying the word “girl” — but I have no idea if Shins frontman James Mercer has ever heard a note of Miller’s music.

With Game Theory’s entire catalog solidly out of print since well before I knew it existed, I’ve been hesitant to assume that anyone has ever heard a note of Miller’s music. Thankfully, Omnivore Records is now embarking upon a comprehensive series of reissues, beginning with Game Theory’s 1982 debut Blaze of Glory. Blaze of Glory is certainly not Miller’s best work, not is it necessarily the best entry point for the uninitiated. But it offers several strong hints as to the particular kind of brilliance that Miller would refine and cultivate in the decades to follow.

My favorite moment comes about halfway through album highlight “Sleeping Through Heaven,” when Miller squeaks out, at the top of his range, “With all these lessons I am learning/ I know I can’t stop the yearning” — a clunky couplet that could easily betray a young artist’s awkward lack of self-awareness. But Miller gives us a strong hint that he’s right there with us, swallowing the end of the word “yearning” and catapulting directly into a more structurally elegant but emotionally dangerous lyric: “I want you tonight.” One gets the sense that, even at the beginning of his career, Miller included such lyrics not because he didn’t know that they were embarrassing, but rather because he knew exactly how well they telegraphed embarrassment. Miller himself, of course, wrote about this distinction as well:

The problem with hipness is that it usually means you know not to do certain embarrassing things, and if you get a large enough library of things you have to avoid doing, you become hysterically unmusical: music, being entirely temporal, will only ever run on similarity, it will never run on difference. There is no such thing as negative resonance at the level of the ear. To put it in overly poetic terms, music can only be love, it can never be hate. What is purely musical is always love of what the music is, it can never be hatred of what the music is not — such a reaction is only valid in the realm of rhetoric, not music (not to claim my records work independently of a rhetorical dimension).

It seems fitting, then, that Miller’s legacy has played out in the musical realm more than the rhetorical realm. When Miller passed away suddenly last spring, he left behind a sprawling network of musical influence that extended well beyond his own records, and touched more people than I suspect he ever knew. Ten years before he passed, Miller wrote of “cannily inducing millions of people to listen to music more like the way I listen to it,” as if it were an obviously, tragicomically unattainable goal for a musician who was never particularly well-known. It sounds really simple…but it isn’t.

Remembering Scott Miller:

Aimee Mann:

I had read some review of the Loud Family’s first record Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things…it might have been by Brett Milano for the Boston Phoenix. I just remember that it sounded like something I would like. I hadn’t really known any Game Theory music and in fact didn’t really know anything about the Loud Family…At that point I was sort of into listening to things and NOT knowing anything about them. I got that record and immediately started playing it obsessively. It was right around that time that I moved to London for a while, and when I was there I only had a cassette player, and I really scoured the town trying to find a version of it on cassette. I was very excited by even the interstitial elements that tied one song to another.

We kept in touch sporadically, with me being by far the worse email-replier. (At one point I did some recording with him, the idea being that the two of us would make a semi-acoustic record of my favorite songs of his, but I didn’t really have enough money to finish it, and recent searches of mine have not been able to produce the work we did end up doing.) [When he sent me the] first Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record, I paid attention because I had such respect for his taste and knew he knew what a good song was and that we cared about that in a similar way.

Scott’s sound for me always has a really pure kernel of melody with unique chord progressions underneath, but with a more free-form arrangement approach that always sounded as if there was a little prog-rock lurking just around the corner.

Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices, Death of Samantha):

Game Theory were brand new to me in the mid 80s. I immediately found things to play from their albums that would appear in the new release bin when I was a college radio DJ in Cleveland, and so did a few of my fellow programmers. Scott Miller and future Dream Syndicate founder Steve Wynn were roommates in Davis, CA, and Scott’s best pal there, Jozef Becker, later drummed for the band Thin White Rope. The three bands those guys ended up in all shared a dark pop element, though disparate in approach.

Scott was heavily influenced by Brian Eno, Roxy Music and David Bowie. He was also proficient at physics and math. It’s been said he didn’t use the latter two factors when writing music, but I have a feeling they had something to do with the structure of a lot of his songs. In 1989 the band I was in, Death of Samantha, was playing in L.A., and we went to A&M Studios to meet Geoffrey, head of the Big Time label, who took us to his bungalow to B.S. and listen to his record collection. He pulled out the 7-inch of Game Theory’s “Erica’s Word,” which I hadn’t seen when it was released. I flipped it over to see that side B was a cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”! Just knowing they covered that song gave me a kick, and Scott’s whole deal shot up even more in my book because of that.

A few years later, The Loud Family came through Cleveland, and I was one of maybe eight people who went out to catch them and wished more were there. I have no idea if any young future musician heard my show and was inspired by any Game Theory or Loud Family song I played, but I do know that there are more complex pop bands in Cleveland today than there were then.

Will Sheff (Okkervil River):

I wasn’t familiar with Scott Miller’s music at all, which I’m pretty embarrassed to admit. Regardless, I’m lucky that he was familiar with mine, because he wrote some great stuff about our music on his website and in his book Music: What Happened? The positive stuff he wrote was the kind of thing where you read it and think, “This guy gets it,” and the negative stuff was the kind of thing where you think, “uh oh, he’s right.” All of it was intensely flattering because you could tell this very insightful and intelligent brain had taken the time out to alight on you for a moment.

I only discovered Scott’s work through his death and the resulting tiny weather system of grief that moved through the social media accounts of the friends I have whose taste I trust the most. Out of guilt, I started checking out the records and discovered a brilliant lyricist I hadn’t previously known existed who left behind several classic rock ‘n’ roll records. Also, though I hadn’t been familiar with Miller previously, I realized I recognized him. I’d heard his influence, particularly with bands like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the New Pornographers. If you’ve heard these guys, you’ve heard without knowing it the ghost of Scott Miller, his adventurous melodic leaps, his hopscotching chords, his confident intellectualism.

I also like all that stuff about Scott Miller, but I think what I like the most about his work is this kind of wounded interiority it has. You get the sense of a soul reaching out to be accepted and then reflexively flinching away and then lashing out, angry and hurt. It’s in his voice in songs like “Nothing New” or the “Big Shot Chronicles” (ha) bonus track “Come Home with Me,” a song that should be a come-on but comes across instead as almost bottomlessly sad. Underneath the carefully composed braininess of these songs there’s a wounded heart that gives Miller’s work its true personality. His braininess is what makes me like those records, but that heart is what makes me love them.

Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate):

I’m far from an expert on Scott’s career or music. I just have that early connection and a general uneducated admiration. I will say this. You often end up with the career you choose based on the people you admired even if it’s not a conscious or calculated choice. We both loved Alex Chilton and in our own ways we each became Alex Chilton, cult figures carving out our own little corner and intending to be in it for the long haul as a stumbling adventurer rather than a pop star. I just wish that in the case of both Scott and Alex that their long hauls could have been a little longer.

Scott McCaughey (The Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M.):

When I think of Scott Miller it’s always my mind’s-eye pic from the night I first encountered him, a bobbing fuzzing head at the mic shouting “Bangkok!” as a tag on one of his own songs, opening for the Young Fresh Fellows at the Golden Crown (yep, a room above a Chinese restaurant) in Seattle in 1984 or so. It was an inside joke, a nod to Alex Chilton that he figured we’d “get.” We had been paired up by Dan Vallor, a Bay Area friend of our dear (now long-lost) songwriter cohort Jimmy Silva. Dan knew that a Game Theory/Young Fresh Fellows summit meeting would suit us both, and we were happy to arrange their first visit to our home turf. Scott’s music was more cerebral than ours, but not void of humor, though certainly more subtly employed than ours, which regularly exploded into onstage buffoonery. I felt a kinship with him lyrically — I saw being somewhat obtuse as a treat, not a crime. And when I lost a caster on my amp, didn’t I prop up the three-legged beast with my trusty and well-traveled hardbound copy of Ulysses? I think a writer can be clever, educated, funny and still soulful and lucid. And that songs can be immediate, and yet bear more fruit with further listening. God, I hope that’s the case! Otherwise I’ve wasted the last thirty-plus years.

Ted Leo:

You know, I remember very well when “Erica’s Word” first came out. It was the kind of song that made so much sense to me because it bridged so many gaps in my brain — scratched so many itches that I had at once, and it lead me deeply into both Lolita Nation and The Big Shot Chronicles. From Chisel’s 8 a.m. All Day through to my most recent record with Aimee Mann as The Both, but probably closest to the surface on Hearts of Oak, there’s a language of chord changes and arrangements, of melody and strangeness, of tautness and release, that I definitely partly learned from Scott and these two records, in particular.

And “Erica’s Word” is one of those very few songs that has never left my mind — never been more than a half a thought away from the forefront of my consciousness. The chorus is perfect.