January 18th, 2011 1:30am
Fluxblog Interview With Scott Miller
Scott Miller was the frontman and primary songwriter for two great indie pop bands — Game Theory in the ’80s, and the Loud Family in the ’90s. I’m especially fond of the latter, mostly because the Game Theory albums are kinda hard to come by and so I’ve just spent a lot more time with the Loud Family. His aesthetic is consistent over the course of all those records: Sharp melodies, unusual song structures and chord changes, and carefully composed, postmodern, often very witty lyrics. If you’ve never heard his music, I strongly recommend listening to this mix I made collecting highlights from the Loud Family discography.
Miller began writing about music on the Loud Family website sometime in the late ’90s. Music: What Happened?, his first book of music criticism, was just released and I can’t recommend it highly enough. As it turns out, Miller is just as clever and insightful as a critic as he is as a lyricist. The book is pretty simple: He selected 20 favorite songs from every year between 1957 and 2009, and wrote a bit about every song. The format is actually very close to what you get on this site, but without the mp3s. I loved it, and I think that if you enjoy what I do, you’ll get a lot out of Scott’s writing.
Matthew Perpetua: You’ve been a musician for many years, but you started writing music criticism on your website and that evolved into your new book. It’s somewhat rare to find music criticism written by notable musicians — why do you think that is?
Scott Miller: They’re different skill sets, that’s for sure. Just writing a number of pages about music you like without repeating the words “great” and “brilliant” is an eye-opening exercise. To the extent I’ve actually gathered input, I think musicians often think music contains absolutely inexpressible value and it’s silly to try to write about it. It definitely takes practice. You have to understand your own habits of expression, observe how much you’re really just imitating other music writing, not laying out what you feel, and then sifting for little nuggets of your own experience that stand a chance of actual translation. Kind of like lyric writing in some ways, but with lyrics, you accidentally get a good rhyme and you’re done, and you probably unconsciously recommissioned what you wanted to express before. It’s a really good expression mode for young people. Trying to hammer the feeling into critical writing a little more of a grown-up task.
Matthew Perpetua: I was thinking about how writing about music and making music are in some ways related impulses, and like you say, it depends on your skill set. If you have the ability to make music, you can just make music that is like the things you enjoy, or you can be like “this is how music ought to be.” One of the more provocative bits in your book touches on this — the blurb about the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” where you say that originality isn’t musical. When did you have that epiphany?
Scott Miller: I don’t want to create the false impression that the more derivative a piece of music is, the more I like it. But liking something because it’s new is never a musical response. Music carries a lot of potential for emotional impact that is not musical impact. As a simple example, a moving set of lyrics may have more or less the same impact if you just read them. Five minutes of sound might have dramatic impact, and five minutes of compositionally vapid music in a film score might work great to telegraph a set of emotions and surprises to go with the scene. But a purely musical response always needs an existing music context. You can’t play Andean flute music to Rush fans and expect the value to be apparent in isolation, or vice versa. There’s a world of context needed by the ear to support a musical reaction. I like originality in music, but that is a non-musical reaction.
Matthew Perpetua: How often do you think originality actually occurs? I tend to think that it usually comes down to the personality of the artist more than the formal aspects of things, which are usually lost on non-musicians. I found it interesting that you chose the Smashing Pumpkins as the vehicle for this thought because while that band didn’t really invent anything, I would think that to some extent there is originality there simply because Billy Corgan is such a one-of-a-kind figure. If nothing, he has this distinct voice and persona.
Scott Miller: That’s a very good observation. On the artist side, there are gestures intended to be taken as originality, and on the listener side, there are experiences of novelty, and they might not match up at all! One of the most tried and true formulas is for musicians to strive mightily to do something as well as their heroes, but while failing miserably at that, arriving at something close enough for a certain size audience to relate to, but with a whole new aspect of appealing sound that simply came from who they are.
Matthew Perpetua: Have you had that experience as a musician — aiming for something but ending up with something more interesting instead?
Scott Miller: I’ve always hoped my singing would fall into that category of being technically poor but emotionally engaging for a few people. As far as songwriting, the more I strive to capture unvarnished truth, the more people have described the results as radical or off-putting. We’re talking fairly obscure material here; once in a while I get praised for innovation in those cases, but a whole lot more often it just strikes people as shrill or ornery, and doesn’t click.
Matthew Perpetua: What would be a more radical work, something like Interbabe Concern?
Scott Miller: Yes, that’s a good example. And now I’ve published a list of all my favorite music from around 1995 to 1996, so in a sense that music as well as all that went before it is what I was striving for, the forum in which I was somehow trying to shine, and tell a story.
Matthew Perpetua: At what point did you start writing criticism?
Scott Miller: I don’t credit myself with shouldering the whole responsibility for criticism yet, because I’ve never had to write about music I genuinely don’t like but am conscious of the feelings to get hurt by what I say. I almost felt obligated to invent reasons to sling some gratuitous insults in the Music: What Happened? thing just to avoid giving the impression I just like everything I hear. I can’t recall doing that kind of writing much before that, and I know it felt like I had to learn how to do it, build up certain areas of expertise. I did write a survey of my favorite rock era songs in 1982 for a college newspaper, but I wouldn’t want to be forced to read it–not because my tastes changed, which they almost haven’t at all, but it’s probably horrible writing.
Matthew Perpetua: I think there is an idea that critical writing has to be negative to qualify as being critical. But it’s really more about examining a piece of art, trying to make sense of it, put it in context, point something out that makes it interesting. Are there any critical writers who had an impact on you, in terms of how you write or maybe how you choose not to write?
Scott Miller: I think the keenest critical mind in history is T.S. Eliot’s, and woe to anyone who writes like that, because it’s very stuffy, and he’s about as intellectually unfashionable as you can get. But feeling that way teaches me that being honest and accurate entails a certain amount of stuffiness, so there should be a leash on the ultracasual, Lester Bangs approach. I’ve probably read more Robert Christgau than any other writer, and he has this ultra-imitatable way of reviewing a record by telling you what the artist is trying to pull. But while it’s a compelling style when you pull it off the way he can, it obligates you to get way inside the artist’s head, and really you only need to be inside your own head to know if it was good music to you. I read Pitchfork sometimes, but I don’t know reviewers by name.
Matthew Perpetua: Has anyone’s critical writing ever had much impact on how you write music, whether it was something written about your work or someone else’s?
Scott Miller: Oh, definitely. That whole Lenny Kaye rock worldview of intellectuals being the guardians of basic primitive expression is something I wouldn’t have happened upon socially or doing music in a million years, that was just available from reading. In the early seventies I read Rolling Stone a lot and Creem occasionally. But when I first got a record contract, it was nice to get praise in the press for sure, but there wasn’t a steady stream of handy tips like, “stay away from too many D to A-minor changes,” or “watch that gated reverb on the snare, everyone will hate that in two years.” Critics have been nice about my lyrics, thank God; it’s hard to hear you write bad lyrics, and they can’t really teach you to do better in the space they have.
Matthew Perpetua: Not a lot of music criticism deals with the more technical aspects of songwriting, and I wish there was. I know in my experience I am often trying to figure out why a piece of music feels a bit off or fresh or whatever, and my technical understanding of music is at best slightly above that of a layperson. There are parts in your book where you mention something specific about a chord progression, and it’s like you’re seeing something I can’t. You know part of the magic trick. Is that an advantage?
Scott Miller: I was trying to see if a writer can get away with a little more of that. My goal was that even if the reader doesn’t know and doesn’t care about a single technical detail, I’ve kept it so brief or deducible from context that the momentum survives. The motivation isn’t to reveal the mechanics, it’s to employ just enough mechanics to identify a sonic element, where the alternative seems to me to always have been just to not talk about sonic elements at all. I suppose you could literally say, “I love it from 1:26 to 1:55,” but a little of that goes a long way. I don’t remember if I actually resorted to that. In a way it’s too much for a monthly buyer’s guide context, but maybe not if you’re literally trying to decide what the best few pop songs of the era are, and your position can only be defended in terms of smaller units of great work.
Matthew Perpetua: The book covers your favorite music from the late 50s on through 2009. Having some familiarity with your taste in older music from reading the Loud Family site in the past, I read your take on stuff from more recent years first. I was curious what you liked most from 2010.
Scott Miller: Getting the book out took most of my limited time away from paying attention to 2010 music, so I’m not very close to a good enough exposure pool. My first pool of recommendations is always Sue Trowbridge and Joe Mallon’s year-end list, and Bradley Skaught’s year-end list. Listening to candidate songs with my wife Kristine and my kids is a good screening for whether I feel I can say, “Yeah, this part is odd, but here’s why I like it” or no, now I realize no one really enjoys listening to this, including me. I need to go through that whole exercise when I get a set of maybes. I’ll have something from the Joanna Newsom for sure. I have a lot of gawker level possibilities, like Ariel Pink. “Angry World” by Neil Young is amazing. Teenage Fanclub’s “Baby Lee” is one of those terrifyingly perfect pop melodies.
Matthew Perpetua: Since I knew your music, there were times when I had an “oh, of course he likes that” response. It made perfect sense to me that you’d love the New Pornographers and Dirty Projectors, for example. In different ways, kindred spirits in cerebral pop.
Scott Miller: I definitely feel like I could join the New Pornographers and just show up for work. Joining the Dirty Projectors, I would feel totally lost.
Matthew Perpetua: What is the status of your own songwriting these days? Aside from your collaboration with Anton Barbeau a few years ago, the Loud Family has been more or less defunct. Do you still write songs?
Scott Miller: Predictably, I write fragments, but never finish whole songs. I’m looking for an opportunity to put out one more album before I’m too decrepit. I got to the point of really dreading self-promotion that doesn’t pay off that much, but the world keeps changing in ways that are mostly tragic for socializing music, but in some ways leave room for my position, which is it’s a waste of time if fewer than around a hundred people like it, but no particular advantage if a million more people than the first hundred like it. Hardly anyone actually gets paid anymore anyway, right?
Buy it from Amazon.