Miller’s father recorded his son singing the theme from the TV show Have Gun—Will Travel when Scott was four years old. Soon Miller was making up his own songs to sing. By age nine, he was taking folk and classical guitar lessons from a man named Tiny Moore, who had played with Bob Wills.
By 1971, Miller had switched to rock, and he was in his first band just a year later. Throughout his childhood, he had been interested in anything having to do with recording, and when he turned fifteen he finally got the TEAC four-track machine he’d been coveting. Like many others his age, Scott Miller loved the Beatles, the space program, and those shows that counted down to the number one song for the week. He started making his own countdown lists when he was twelve.
Many people find that the music they listened to during a formative period in their lives has become their music, and they no longer feel the urge to keep up with what’s new, year in and year out. Miller, too, went on to college, got jobs in the non-music world, got married, started a family—but somehow he never stopped finding ways to play, and listen to, and talk about music… He’s had two major bands—Game Theory in the eighties and The Loud Family in the nineties—and he put out more than a dozen albums. Yet Miller once said of his failure to capture major success: “I’m utterly serious about music. I just respect the buying public’s judgment that it’s not what I should do for a living.” So instead he became a rather successful database programmer.
Sometime after the release of the Loud Family and Anton Barbeau album What If It Works? in 2006, Miller began to stay up after putting his daughters to bed to make CDs from the annual lists he’d maintained since his youth. In that year, Miller took a hiatus from music making after the release of What If It Works?—a collaboration between the Loud Family and Sacramento expat Anton Barbeau—and turned to writing a blog. His posts were wildly entertaining and had a huge following of musicians and fans. There, Miller reflected on the songs he loved and wrote about them in a style that was part confessional journal and part music critic, choosing a handful of songs from a specific year, ranging from 1957 to 2009, and explaining why he loved those songs, pointing out details that only deep listeners and a lifelong fan would hear.
Soon, he was approached to compile these lists into a book, and in 2010, Music: What Happened? (125 Records, $15) was released to widespread acclaim. As someone who never hesitated to set the bar a little higher, he conceived of using this CD-making project as a springboard to an even more ambitious idea, one that could connect with a like-minded audience. He approached Sue Trowbridge and Joe Mallon, his longtime friends and supporters through the Loud Family website and 125 Records, to suggest a project to write about each of the last 50 years in popular music… He called the new blog “Music: What Happened?” and published the first list (for 1966) on the website on May 26, 2008. Over the course of the next 16 months, he responded to requests for all 50 years, ranging from 1957 to 2006. The publication of this book draws the 50 blog entries together (plus three bonus years: 2007, 2008, and 2009) in a single, remarkable volume.
A revealing yet veiled observation Miller expressed in a 2011 interview read:
“Predictably these days, 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?”
On April 15, 2013 Scott Miller committed suicide.
Music fans the world over were stunned and saddened by the news of the death of Scott Miller, the brilliant singer-songwriter who fronted Game Theory, Loud Family and Alternative Learning, better known as ALRN. Miller, a Sacramento-born musician, was considered an influential force in the ’80s- and ’90s-era Davis and San Francisco music scenes.
• Nan Becker, a keyboardist in ALRN and an early incarnation of Game Theory, remembered her late friend with admiration.
“I’ve known Scott since I was 10 years old, and he was my brother’s [drummer Jozef Becker from Game Theory, Loud Family and Thin White Rope] best friend,” she said. “He followed music like some people would follow baseball, which he also did. He had the most incredible mind that I have ever encountered.”
• The bands that Miller started are a testament to not only of his encyclopedic knowledge of music, but his love of literature as well. The Game Theory album Lolita Nation references Vladimir Nabokov, and he claimed T.S. Eliot and James Joyce as his two favorite writers.
That affinity made its way into Miller’s music. A Rolling Stone review of Lolita Nation likened it to “Big Star with lyrics written by Thomas Pynchon”—a near-perfect encapsulation of the sound of Game Theory and Loud Family. (To hear Miller’s work, all of Game Theory’s albums are available to stream at www.loudfamily.com/game.html.)
• Sacramento writer and musician Jackson Griffith says Miller was as talented a critic as he was a musician. “I think he was fucking brilliant,” said Griffith. “His insights were completely original. He basically wrote what he thought. That’s not always the case,” Griffith added.
“With music critics, a lot of people are always looking over their shoulder to see what someone else is saying. I read one of his pieces—it was about a Kanye West and Jay-Z record—it was quite droll, and it seemed like he was giving props to them, but if you read in between the lines, it was like, ’Whoa!’ I thought it was very well-done.”
• Becker, now residing in Wisconsin, said: “I’ve admired Scott’s music since I was about 19 years old, and it still blows me away.”“He was an amazing songwriter, an amazing lyricist. … He had the simplest ideas that could express the profoundest thoughts,” she said. “He was wonderful at being able to string words together in an original way.”