On the music, death, and prophetic weight of Scott Miller
About three and a half years ago, Omnivore Recordings reissued 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, the final studio album, originally released in 1988, by the Bay Area band Game Theory. That reissue concluded Omnivore’s multiyear project of reintroducing Game Theory’s entire eight-record catalog, which had been out of print for years. “With the Omnivore series complete, future opportunities to write about Our Scott will be few,” I surmised then, referring to Game Theory’s leader, Scott Miller, who took his own life in 2013.
Last year, however, brought another Game Theory album. Across the Barrier of Sound: Postscript compiles Miller’s demo recordings of an album’s worth of new songs. These date to 1989-90, a period of creativity Miller once characterized as “a hot streak.” He was “writing in peak form,” a longtime musical associate of his observes in Across the Barrier of Sound’s liner notes.
Meanwhile, Miller was reassembling his band, whose members had departed for different reasons (the lineup frequently changed throughout the decade). He recruited a pair of formidable new players and took them out on the road for a brief west coast tour. A fan newsletter sent out around this time, reprinted in Across the Barrier of Sound, hinted that this combo would soon be heading into the studio to record the next Game Theory album.
Instead, Miller’s career took a three-year hiatus. Some of the new band members lived in Los Angeles, too far to keep the group together. Meanwhile, Game Theory’s contract with their record label expired. Miller found another one, but not until making the decision to retire Game Theory for good. He put together yet another lineup and gave it a new name, The Loud Family, whose first album didn’t come out until 1993. It comprised fleshed-out versions of most of the demos on Across the Barrier of Sound, plus a few others.
The Loud Family were active throughout the 1990s and are worthy of their own extended consideration. But when Across the Barrier of Sound was released last year I became interested again in Scott Miller ca. 1990-1992, the one who had just entered his thirties and was in the prime of his life, peak form—his “moment par excellence,” in his own words (but applied to the Paul McCartney of 1963)—but whose hot streak coincided with his longest radio silence.
After Miller committed suicide in 2013, at age fifty-three, I often wondered whether his extended hiatus as he crossed the barrier of the 1990s sealed his fate. What if he had kept the heat up after that end-of-the-decade tour, gotten right back into the studio with his strong new band and suite of demos, and recorded and put out the next Game Theory album, a prompt follow-up to 2 Steps from the Middle Ages? Might that have diverted his path and kept him from self-destruction more than twenty years later?
Wishful thinking. Fates are seldom sealed until the very moment they are, and there’s no point in trying to pinpoint moments that lead to the end, or hours of opportunity that go by—or never come by at all. Every decision then and every decision that followed could have been made differently. And so, listening to Across the Barrier of Sound¸ I find myself focusing on his choices at the level of song, measure, sound, and word. Most of the demos closely resemble their final results on the Loud Family’s first album, but what about the differences? The tune originally called “Some Grand Vision,” for example: why did he change the title line from “Some grand vision of physics and irony” to “Some grand vision of motives and irony”—and then make that new line the full title of the completed song? What prompted him to completely rewrite the bridge of the tender and longing breakup song “Even You,” and then record the updated version with the Loud Family as a heavy slow-rock number? What bones was he worrying, who had his ear, or was he just following his nose?
It’s questions like these I’d want to ask him if I could. Not why he couldn’t bear to go on living anymore—aren’t there a dozen reasons a day, for which we manage not to spare a second thought? Except that Scott Miller’s music is a music of second thoughts: “Everything on this album is on purpose,” assured his liner note to one of them. It is painful to have a world he could still have been in, and a consolation, with Across the Barrier of Sound, to be able to give him another second thought. “Listen,” he sings on that deleted bridge, “I was there.”
On the Loud-Fans listserv in the 1990s, it was common to refer to Scott Miller as “Our Scott.” This usage was mainly to clear up any confusion with another Scott Miller, whose alt-country band called the V-Roys were popular around the same time that Our Scott Miller’s band, the Loud Family, were active. The name Loud Family could cause confusion, too, because it was borrowed from the subject of a somewhat infamous proto-reality TV show from the 1970s called An American Family (the family’s actual last name was Loud).
Our Scott Miller was multiply obscured, sometimes by his own choices. Even the praise he got from America’s foremost rock critic, Robert Christgau, in 1990, called him “a prototypical eighties artist: serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand … rendering the ostensibly public essentially private.” (Another critic called his music “obscurantist pop.”)
That same year, Our Scott joked that “Erica’s Word,” the catchy 1986 single by his previous band, Game Theory, had only managed to earn them “national obscurity, as opposed to regional obscurity.” And he never relinquished his attachment, even the commitment, to his obscurity. On the final formal Loud Family album, released in 2000, pointedly named Attractive Nuisance, Miller sang of his own “willful obscurity” (summoning and subverting the rock-critical cliché “unjustly obscure”) and ended his musical career. Thirteen years later, he ended his life. He had just turned fifty-three.
Over the last couple of years, the revival label Omnivore Recordings has been re-releasing Game Theory’s entire catalog, all of it out of print since shortly after the band broke up at the end of the 1980s. Two months ago, Omnivore delivered Game Theory’s final studio album, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (1988), bringing the project to completion. That was followed, earlier this month, by another Our Scott-related release: Supercalifragile, a crowdfunded album of songs derived from recorded fragments, notes, and ideas he was kicking around (including that felicitous title) just before he died. He was intending to make what would have been the first new Game Theory album in a quarter century. He had even gone so far as to contact members of his old band.
After his suicide, the project was rescued from its demise by Our Scott’s widow, who enlisted pop maestro Ken Stringfellow to oversee a posthumous LP: something more than a tribute but less than a true Game Theory album, although it is officially billed as one. It’s a sort of speculative reassembly of a ghost’s ephemera, and with an initially ghostly presence, too: Supercalifragile was first distributed privately, only to fundraising campaign backers. A few of the dozen or so musicians who helped finish Our Scott’s partly-conceived compositions and play them on the album, like Aimee Mann, are famous enough to draw limited outside attention to it, but mostly as a curio. With the Omnivore series complete, future opportunities to write about Our Scott will be few. Following his life, the afterlife, too, is coming to an end.
For me, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages will always be a beginning. Although it was the final Game Theory studio album, it was the first one I encountered, and I still think it might be his best. It is almost certainly the most accessible introduction to Our Scott’s music. It was the fourth straight Game Theory album produced by Mitch Easter, who would go on to produce the first two albums by Our Scott’s next band, the Loud Family. I was a fan of Easter’s own group, Let’s Active, before I knew about Game Theory. (I bought 2 Steps only because the promo sticker on the cover said, “West meets Easter”—the wordplay referred to Game Theory’s home in the Bay Area.) Scott once identified the key gravitational element in the songs Easter wrote for Let’s Active: “what I’d call prophetic weight,” Scott wrote. “His recurring theme was people—in love relationships especially—wandering into a world of undreamt-of emotional turmoil, and how that alone makes the human horizon look dark.” (“Weight must be the message,” went a line in one of Easter’s much later songs, as if confirming Our Scott’s assessment.)
Scott’s description of Easter’s lyrics also perfectly—and perhaps better—applies to many of his own. His recurring theme was people—in love relationships especially—wandering into a world of undreamt-of emotional turmoil, and how that alone makes the human horizon look dark.
Perhaps, in 1988, when 2 Steps from the Middle Ages came out, the darkness was farthest away. He was twenty-eight, the greatest age anyone ever turns. Although Game Theory were still somewhat obscure, they were no longer insecure: after numerous personnel changes throughout the band’s first few albums and tours, a stable lineup had formed behind Our Scott by the late eighties. It included his girlfriend Donnette Thayer, who joined Game Theory around 1987 and contributed not only her voice and musicianship but also a dose of camera-friendly glamor and heat-seeking rock-and-roll instincts (among her roles was an active effort to increase Game Theory’s exposure, spearheading music video and other promotional efforts). Fans bought Game Theory’s records and came to their high-energy shows. The group had good press and one of the 1980s’ better indie record labels. Although Our Scott was socially introverted, he was a natural performer and quite happy in the spotlight. The brightness and straightforward vivacity of 2 Steps from the Middle Ages is evidence of that.
The previous year, Our Scott had made Game Theory’s bid for a magnum opus with Lolita Nation, an extravagantly inventive double album built around a dozen or so discrete pop songs interlarded (and sometimes corrupted) with mad-scientist sound potions and other experiments with their lids left off: assemblages of musique concrète, melodic and lyrical bric-a-brac, unrelated riffs jammed together to make side-filling instrumentals, and so forth. For all its literary and mathematical intelligence, its sheer workaholic accomplishment, and its complex concept-album aura, there’s something a little jejune about Lolita Nation (echoed by Our Scott when he compared his vocal performance on the album to that of “a drugged twelve-year old”). In retrospect, the album might have been better served by being either stranger or less strange than it is.
2 Steps from the Middle Ages, on the other hand, is “funkier, I guess you’d call it,” Robert Christgau wrote, approvingly: he meant “funkier” in the sense that you could dance to it. The album’s first song approaches on the fade-in runway of a drum pounding out 4/4 quarter notes, lifts swiftly up off the ground, and immediately takes the proper altitude for its survey. “Flying in/Over Asia, low,” is the first line: a foreign world seen from an aerial view, yet near enough to the ground to discern the details of the landscape below.
The rest of the LP maintains that slight elevation at jet speed, in midair but not high-flown, and making frequent returns to street level. But even those touchdowns maintain frictionless velocity and detachment. “In a DeLorean”—a reference to the outré sports car popularized by the 1985 movie Back to the Future—is the name of one song. The flaneur-narrator of another declares, “I’ll walk around the city snapping pictures uninvolved.” Game Theory’s idiosyncratic sound—“foamy,” Mitch Easter called it—is clarified, not obscured, by subtly studio polish (the band’s label assigned a pair of extra engineers to the project, to Mitch Easter’s dismay), and Our Scott’s busy, serpentine melodic and lyrical routes often lead to rich payoffs that seem in retrospect to have been waiting there all along. He was a master of creating extremely difficult routines and then sticking the landings: the game of Game Theory. He had a disarmingly deft way with slang and received and conversational language, and he could be frankly carnal: “Must have been your little sister I saw,” he repeats, menacingly, in one song, to the girl his affections are already dangerously straying from; and he had an instinct for trenchant and sharp language hooks that whole songs could be securely hung from—prophetic weights.
And then there was his voice, which he once half-travestied as a “miserable whine,” cheekily co-opting the cranky complaint of a reviewer of one of Game Theory’s early records. Our Scott told an interviewer: “I’ve always hoped my singing would fall into that category of being technically poor but emotionally engaging for a few people.” His voice was reedy, straining and high-pitched, so overfull of feeling that it would often shoot up into falsetto, the rising counterforce to his prophetic weight. Although he was capable of singing in a lower, more controlled register, and did, especially as he moved through his thirties and his voice continued to deepen with age, the miserable whine—which was neither miserable nor a whine—was his trademark. It expressed all the undreamt-of emotional turmoil he was otherwise at pains to conceal. The voice can be wildly pleading or painfully confused, orbiting in rapturous dreamspace or blown like a feather by diffidence, disbelief, or desperation. It is a passionate unearthly overwhelmed voice that strains at the top edge of its range—a supercalifragile voice.
When I interviewed Mitch Easter in 2016 about Lolita Nation, we naturally fell into a discussion of Game Theory’s failure to surpass national obscurity. Mitch thought Game Theory might have done well to relocate to the east coast, where the prevailing indie sound—exemplified by R.E.M., whose first two albums Easter coproduced—was earthier and more organic than what obtained in California, especially among practitioners of the arty, twee “Paisley Underground” scene that flowered on the Pacific in the 1980s. Or perhaps Scott might more simply have kept the name Game Theory after he regrouped in the early 1990s instead of rechristening his new act the Loud Family, throwing fans off his trail; but on the other hand, the Loud Family’s first album, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993), attracted plenty of press coverage, including a spotlight from no less a national non-obscurity than Rolling Stone magazine, which included the Loud Family in a “New Faces” triple-feature. The two other acts were Liz Phair and Radiohead.
It’s quite plain, though, why those two acts hit the big time and the Loud Family did not. Obscurity was Our Scott’s great subject, his poetics, and the lot he cast on himself in life.
Obscurity even became an inadvertent part of his name. Another common usage on the Loud-Fans listserv was the construction “ObScott.” This was shorthand for “obligatory Scott content,” which was a way of acknowledging that he was an infrequent generator of news, especially as the 1990s wore on. Outside of his biannual emergences with new Loud Family albums, none selling well, and each followed by only a brief domestic tour, he was not a public figure. Our Scott held down a day job in Silicon Valley, was married and raising a family by the time he was in his mid-thirties. As a consequence, Loud-Fans listserv discussion threads tended to drift away from their nominal subject. It was a courtesy to try to introduce, with the phrase “ObScott,” some pertinent content into any given posting.
Over time, “ObScott” also seemed to collect secondary meanings: Obscure Scott, Oblique Scott (he himself was fond of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies”), then Obsolete Scott, and finally, after his suicide, Obliterated Scott. So many “Obs” managed to accrue to the prefix—even, for me, the made-up language “ob” spoken to each other by a mother and her young son in Don DeLillo’s novel The Names. DeLillo’s ob is a Pig Latin-like idiolect that is—to return to Robert Christgau’s summary assessment—“serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand … rendering the ostensibly public essentially private.”
“Our Scott” is itself the language of privacy, of course—even possessiveness. Despite Omnivore’s Game Theory reissues; the eventual public release of Supercalifragile; and even an admirable biography of Our Scott (albeit by a longtime fan, and published by a record label created by a friend of Our Scott’s to release his desultory recordings in the new millennium); and notwithstanding that Scott Miller will never be a household name—no matter how many other Scott Millers we distinguish him from—we are still speaking in ob about him. The connections his songs make with his fans are so personal, and his pleas of obscurity, both unjust and premeditated, are so persistent that it is almost impossible to release him into the wild. But wild he was. He is gone but you can still hear and still behold this creature. In death he is, as he once sang, unadorned therefore not poorly adorned. And he is there for all the lovely eyes to see.
This article was previously published on Adam Sobsey’s blog on August 17th, 2017, and it appears here with permission from the author.
Adam Sobsey is a multidisciplinary writer whose work includes narrative nonfiction, essays, journalism, and plays. His book Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography (2017) is available from University of Texas Press.
I was born of left-handed parents; I never felt right. Furthermore, how are Universal Healthcare, clean air, and clean water even political issues in the first place? Shouldn’t those just be the standards by which any society should live? Isn’t that common sense? Those issues, among others, are what I address in my art. The “ZipGun Laboratories” project is my AgitPop response to them. Normally, I just paint paintings of rage; sometimes, though, a pretty abstraction emerges under my brush.