The Loud Family’s Father Figure Speaks
by William Ham (July 1998)
Quixotica. I’m not at all sure whether I just made that word up or it’s another piece of blackened iron that flaked off my brain pan, but after struggling to find words to do justice to the pop-art art-pop of Scott Miller, The Loud Family’s frontman and principal songwriter, without hydroplaning on my own inchoate tears of joy and spinning off into far too many words for a proper introduction, the above word occurred to me as a succinct capsule of his gifts. His music and lyrics may be a touch too convoluted for the masses, but spend enough time in his presence to dig the exquisite ache in his voice and catch the finely-hewn beauty of his melodies and I swear you’ll get it: this man is the last romantic hero in pop, utilizing an intellect as febrile and complex as any in the medium to decipher the complex equations of the heart and soul, tilting at the kinds of windmills you can’t knock a miniature golfball through. (I know, I know lemme just try to steer into the skid here.)
His eighties band, Game Theory, fit into the rough niche carved out by the psychedelic pop bands and R.E.M-itators that filled the collegiate airwaves of the time, and thus gained a certain amount of attention; la familia loud, however, arose out a four-year slumber to find themselves alone in the post-Nirvana soundscape (exiles on mainline street?), its praises sung by a small cabal of critics and cultists and ignored by all others. In a perfect world, TLF’s fourth album, Days for Days (Alias), would be the one to break that curse – its gorgeous songcraft is matched by the fullest-sounding production they’ve had in some time, and Miller’s propensity for weird experimental flourishes has been segregated into untitled interstitial tracks that bridge each song (so you can program them out if you’re chicken) – but that’s what we friends of the Family have been saying about every album they’ve done, so I won’t bother.
So here’s a simple test to see if you’re worthy: I’ll give you the name of the first official song title off the new album. "Cortex the Killer." If that made you chuckle in rock-geek appreciation, you’ll probably like the Louds. If, after that, you started ruminating on the state of intellectual predation, how the cerebral always bursts in to ruin your emotional good times and yet, deep down, you wouldn’t have it any other way, well, then, you’ll definitely like them.
The interview that follows was pieced together from three different conversations: one phone interview (sabotaged by an unruly tape recorder) and two e-mail chats, the last of which was finished mere hours before the band dashed off for their summer tour. My sincere thanks to Scott for his good-humored aplomb in the face of all unnecessary delays.
PSF: Let’s start at the beginning - what was the first song that sparked your interest in/obsession with music?
Sometime as a six or seven year old, listening to the Monkees and the Beatles. Some kids in the neighborhood and I used to mime playing instruments and singing these rock songs, mostly Monkees songs. It was the most intense role-playing memory I have — more than playing soldier or playing sports, or whatever else kids do. The first song that actually meant something to me was "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow," which was a Neil Diamond tune the Monkees did. I didn’t understand the ostensible meaning, which was Davy having to choose between two girls, I just really related to the idea that the singer was voicing anxiety about something. I felt the deep beauty of the world involved suffering in some way I couldn’t describe in words any better now than I could then.
PSF: Where does your fascination with oddball noises and offbeat sounds stem from?
Being socially inept as a teenager, maybe. There certainly wasn’t much social cachet in making field recordings of random noises at school, but I remember skulking around doing that. I wasn’t even savvy enough to be recording illicit conversations, I just wanted the sound of a drain pipe or something. When you’re recording your own band I think you can lose your mind obsessing over how it all works because you wonder why The White Album sounds so amazing and sinister and your stuff doesn’t. Sixties records were the ones that tended to have that particularly contagious expansionist ethic.
PSF: Pull a little Darwin here and give me "The Origins of Scott Miller - The Condensed Version." Did you have bands in high school, for example? I seem to recall reading some years ago that you had one called Lobster Quadrille.
I sure did, and one called Mantis, and one called Resistance. I had pretty serious bands from seventh grade on, always with my friend Joe Becker.
It’s funny about that name "Lobster Quadrille," because it was only slightly related to what was really the inspiration for it, which was the phrase "Thwarted Lobster." I saw some Brady Bunch-like show where a kid gets a talking to about how someone behaves badly when he or she feels awkward around the opposited sex, and the kid botches whatever the explanation was and blurts out "you’re just a thwarted lobster" to some other kid. I forget how thwarting or lobsters were actually involved. I didn’t have the gumption to use that oblique a name, but I remembered the poem in Lewis Carroll with the word "lobster," and I thought because it’s in a book, that’s public enough to justify a band name reference.
PSF: When Game Theory formed in the early '80's, did you consider yourselves part of a community-of-sorts of like-minded bands or did it just happen that you fit into that rough niche of gangly, jangly groups that came in R.E.M.’s wake? (Not that I’m implying any sort of calculation on your part - I’m more curious as to what personal/cultural confluence made GT what it was.)
We were fairly close to both the R.E.M. jangle camp and the L.A. psychedelic revival camp, but the dealbreaker in both cases was that we had prominent synthesizer. And of course we weren’t within a country mile of synthesizer music that was actually selling, like New Order. But thanks to being slightly jangly in some people’s minds and slightly psychedelic waif-like in other people’s minds, we related to the college radio set for about four years. As you say, it was pretty unintentional. The songs I was writing in 1977 were in essentially the same style as in 1987, and are in essentially the same style today.
The cultural influences were primarily the Beatles and James Joyce. There was some T.S. Eliot thrown in, but not as formatively as with Loud Family songs. I suppose you’d have to say rock in the seventies was supremely influential, it just had a chance to all cancel each other out as a side-taking entity by about 1977. You couldn’t like both the Sex Pistols and Yes and expect to fit into any music scene that had a dimension of defining yourself according to what you did and didn’t listen to, yet I was well aware that my lot in life was exactly that. I related to the Beatles and Joyce as people who proceeded from a point of having sorted out and gotten beyond the issue of making certain kinds of expression out to be the enemy.
PSF: To follow up on the previous question, do you find that TLF is in some strange way more at odds with the prevailing culture than GT was? GT seemed like the quintessential college-radio band in a lot of ways , whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find TLF on any radio station these days. Is that at all frustrating for you?
Part of it was luck, and part of it was that when you’re young, you do certain things to please your audience without even thinking about it. Then you acquire those problem-causing missions in life where you feel humiliated to imitate something you see all young artists doing, just so you can ingratiate yourself. I never would have made a flat-out grunge record, or a flat-out electronica record, or whatever it is. I allow small doses of such things to become part of my compositional palette, but I never make that commitment that would ensure success. It would undermine one of my biggest goals, which is to tear down the stupid cultural reasons people get loaded up with for not liking certain things. I mentioned Yes, as I often do — Yes is one of those bands that are really good, and one day it became effective culture to hold a gun to people’s heads and say "you can’t like them, you have to like punk because it’s unpretentious." And the world bowed down; I bowed down, to a limited extent, or I should say the pressure to was unbelievable. I realized what I "liked" could turn on a dime according to the social powers of the world. That really put the fear in me at a certain level.
PSF: A theoretical question: if a major label approached you and said, "We like the cut of your jib, young man..."
(laughing) "I like your moxie, kid."
PSF: ...and offered to sign you on the condition that you deliver a radio-ready single or two, would you do it? COULD you do it?
Probably not, if they were thinking all the ingredients are there except for the sheer will to have a hit, because I really can’t think of anything I do to avoid hits on purpose. I’m sure we’re in the category of bands that could have hit records, just because that spectrum is very broad, but short of worsening the material by for instance attempting a really condescending imitation of a current big-seller, there’s not a lot of room for lateral movement. I suppose you could put a big-money producer on the job, but that can go one of two ways to put it mildly.
PSF: In relation to the previous question - your songs are most definitely pop songs, but they often (if not always) have one or more elements in them (whether lyrics, arrangement, or production, if not some combination of all three) that bends them somewhat askew. Is there a conscious or semi-conscious element of sabotage in your work that keeps it from being "conventional"?
No. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t know if it’s unconscious, but I’m just so confident there isn’t any such thing. You hear big magazines assess something like a Pavement record as if they really and truly have some sort of childish attachment to failure, and it’s the critic’s duty to goad them into forthrightness, but that seems completely off to me. They’re kind of saying "please don’t have so many ideas." Not that it’s unquestionably a wrong thing to say, because it could be an issue of bad pacing or something, but it’s a dangerous thing to say. If you’re wrong, you’re asking that real individuality be tossed out in favor of an appearance of individuality that’s aimed at critical consensus.
PSF: Give me some idea of the nuts and bolts of the songwriting process. You once said your strengths ran more towards "dogged persistence" than talent- does that mean that there’s a lot of painstaking craftwork (no Krautrock pun intended) involved rather than the songs leaping fully-formed from your brow, Robert Pollard-style?
That’s exactly true — nothing leaps fully formed into my head. I have to work on it and fret over it for months and months. And I keep getting slower and slower. If you’re at it seriously for a long time, you don’t just ask yourself if it’s good, you ask yourself if it’s going to stand up to your own scrutiny in a year, and that tends to make me take close to a year to finish it. When you’re young you can have really naive ideas about what people are even paying attention to. You can think they care deeply whether you just bought a new guitar, and things like that. Later it becomes more intuitive how to focus attention accurately except that the focus of fashion changes, so you want to be careful that you’re not unknowingly flitting around whichever way the wind of fashion is blowing.
PSF: Do you have an audience in mind when writing?
There are a lot of ways to answer that question. In a way I’ll be fishing for like-mindedness, so I’m thinking of a listener who’s in a similar enough realm of experience, but is in an earlier stage of their thoughts about it crystallizing. The service you’re providing is validation. You’re saying that having seen something through to conclusion, or gone through it many times, you’ve come to a certain state of mind. It has to be a gentle guide to where they would want to get to anyway. You’ll have nothing to say to people who either don’t care about what causes you to be reflective, or maybe are still in the throes of what to you is wrongheadedness. The less jaded the listener has become, the better, and I suppose it’s realistic to say it helps to know my reference points. A good match of influences is always better than a bad one.
PSF: You are unique to me in that you’re a very literate, clever songwriter who somehow manages to skirt pretension and insularity - I look at smart people in pop music and I find people like Pavement, who are very good but can be a trifle smug in their obfuscation, or Elvis Costello, whose lesser stuff is so convoluted that it’s impenetrable. On the other hand, there are a number of pop culture references in your songs, yet you don’t fall into the trap of making easy ironies to get a cheap laugh. The point I’m trying to make is that your stuff achieves a miraculous (and I would think perilous) balance - it may not be strictly linear yet it plugs directly into the emotions. How do you maintain that balance?
Being mentioned in the same breath with Pavement and Elvis Costello is a real honor for me, I should say right off. This Year’s Model is one of those transcendentally great records, by which I mean he breaks through the world-bound way we experience life and dares to do battle for the human soul. He has really watched romance and romanticism die a grisly death, and isn’t going to take it lying down. He’s not going to let go of the impulse toward attachment or the truth of the failure of desire — it’s really, really something. To not flinch from that complexity is incredibly key to doing the best art.
If for you I maintain the balance to do something like that, I couldn’t be more flattered, but I’ll tell you that while I’m doing it, I can feel no proof that what I think ought to be said is getting said, that it has any radiance. It’s all on faith. What I want is the opposite of the cheap laugh — to move what the cheap laugh packages up for comfortable storage right back in front of your face.
PSF: Are happiness or misery more conducive to writing songs? (In other words, which mindset inspires you more often - "Sleeping Through Heaven" vs. "Slit My Wrists?")
With me it’s usually that I’m happy going into relationships and depressed when they fall apart. That aspect of life pretty much drives my mood, as I think is the general case for people. There’s more of a desperate need to find an outlet when you’re depressed than when things are happy and peaceful, but often the two are hard to separate, because there’s a dynamic of anxiety and resolution. You can want to write a song either because you want to express deep confusion or because you want to convey an understanding of something.
PSF: Obviously, James Joyce is a major influence on you - what other authors do you dig?
Flannery O’Connor is brilliant beyond words. I’d almost say she has most of the incendiary insight of Joyce without the difficulty. I don’t think any fiction writer since holds a candle to her. I’ve been greatly influenced by a lot of non-fiction. Gil Bailie, Rene Girard, Alan Watts on Buddhism, a whole community of Joyce and Eliot criticism which you’d have to say use their subject as a springboard into whole other insights about life. But that’s the thing about Joyce and Eliot — they know you better than you know yourself, so discussion of them naturally tends toward the issues which you’re going to consider important but may not have known you would in advance.
PSF: Who are your favorite lyricists?
Elvis Costello as I said, Lennon and McCartney for sure, Dylan for sure. Liz Phair is what I would call extremely vivid, though she has that cocksureness of one who knows unshakably that what’s wrong with the world is that he or she doesn’t have the personal advantage he or she deserves. However, she is one of the best. Elliott Smith may have overtaken her for the top spot among writers who have emerged this decade. He seems to have a very keen eye for the bad machinery, yet he always maintains a warm heart. I know I’m forgetting a lot of people, but it’s probably safe to say the currently emerging lyricist to be aware of is Elliott. I actually know a lot of people personally who I consider excellent lyricists but I’d feel self-conscious touting them here.
PSF: Which song(s)/album(s) embarrass you now, or at least don’t hold up as well as they should?
The Tape of Only Linda (1994) was one where I didn’t get my way as much as I like, but that’s my problem. The point of that one was to relax some of my despotic urges. Although, maybe the worst thing about that album is some really sloppy communication between me and the mastering engineer, which was possibly all my own fault, but it’s really a godawful mastering job, and it’s especially noticeable because it’s sandwiched between Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993) and Interbabe Concern (1996) which were both done by Bob Ludwig, who is sort of the acknowledged world’s best mastering person.
I hate to list songs of my own I don’t like because people who like them feel kind of betrayed, but I think side two of The Big Shot Chronicles (1986) has some weak patches, parts of "Friend of the Family" don’t hold up too well, "Chardonnay" is a little ditzy, and that one also got cut from the original 8-minute version which I don’t know was necessarily an improvement, some of Lolita Nation (1987) and Two Steps From the Middle Ages (1988) were simply a little half-baked, Plants has some overwrought moments. That’s off the top of my head. There’s really no end of things I should have done better.
PSF: Conversely, which song(s)/album(s) make you want to call the engraver to put the sheet music on your tombstone?
So far, Interbabe Concern. I like Plants and Lolita for the most part, too, but what I’d really like on my tombstone is, I don’t know, how about "made you look"?
PSF: You consider...Linda to be something of a failed exercise in democracy - am I wrong in thinking that the current TFL lineup is more successful in that manner, more of an organic entity than previous incarnations?
Well, Linda wasn’t a failed exercise in democracy for any reasons I think are blisteringly obvious from the results, I just think I wasn’t a very good delegator of authority, and so the use of the studio time wasn’t too surgically precise, and the mastering got botched because I didn’t communicate effectively with the mastering guy, and so forth. I wasn’t thinking, never again will I let anyone else in my band have creative power. I think the band on the recent record worked really efficiently to get good results and on Linda we didn’t, but that was certainly not anyone’s fault. The exact same group of people made Plants and Birds, and that one went really smoothly except for one miscalibrated tape machine that cost us some time.
PSF: Is each album in some way a reaction to the one which preceded it?
Probably too much so. I’ve gotten this criticism that every *other* album of mine is a more adventurous one, so I’m trying not to get into any sort of oscillation mode. It’s easy to be keenly aware of the shortcomings of the last one and trying to compensate, but Interbabe was actually my favorite of my albums so I don’t have the same sort of agenda as following some albums.
PSF: Explain the relevance/meaning of "Days for Days." (the title, I mean.)
The key point is that it’s a variation on the expression "legs for days," which is one of those phrases that’s amusing because it’s unabashedly intended to incite desire. In no wise is this a useful term, it simply says "envy me my catch" or some equivalent. It has an overtone of enduring sufficiency. All the legs you’ll need for a long time. Don’t even bother thinking about a time when these legs won’t do it for you. So "days for days" is a tricky substitution, and I think of it as making a little bit of a comment on desire, as well as having a generally cheerful ring to it.
PSF: Do you think we’re in a "boom" or "bust" period when it comes to popular music? (Illustrate with graphs and charts and support your answers using the available literature.)
Kind of a bust, but not a terrible one. 1997 was not bad, with Elliott, Belle and Sebastian, Radiohead, the Negro Problem. I believe a breakthrough is waiting to occur, though. A sociological breakthrough is possible. I think the whole issue of avant-garde vs. mainstream resolves now, but people haven’t seen the sense of the resolution yet. But no one’s progressed past the Beatles in the mid-sixties, that’s almost beyond question in my mind. I believe actual progress is a lot more hard-won than most people realize. Punk rock certainly wasn’t progress past anything, for example. It has a point, and it produced a lot of music I like, but as a way of thinking it’s nothing that hasn’t been around for at least a thousand years in any Western revolution politics. You could say it was a step back toward the stone age from Pete Townshend and "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
PSF: How many roads must a man walk down before he can call himself a man?
If he walked all the way down something like ten thousand pretty long roads, he’d have to end up being too old to call a boy, even if he started young.
PSF: What would you like to accomplish (musically or otherwise) before you slip outta this mortal coil?
I’d hope that whatever there might happen to be that’s valuable in my worldview is something I’m able to pass on to others, and if there doesn’t happen to be anything of value, I hope whatever I’ve "accomplished" is nullified and forgotten as quickly as possible. I’d hate to have done much permanent damage.
PSF: Any final words for the youth of America?
Turn down that damn Hanson record. That’s not music, that’s noise.
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