Behold the cult band, that scintillating species of rock group whose breadth of popularity is inversely proportional to the depth of its fans’ devotion. Scott Miller is behind two of them: 1980s college radio darlings Game Theory and the next decade’s lush, loopy Loud Family. He’s an eccentric, cerebral power popster, deeply loved but not by enough people, according to Miller’s calculations, to justify his musical existence. At 51, he is not at all sure he will make another album. Miller is, however, releasing a second edition of his book, “Music: What Happened?,” a collection of reviews of his favorite songs grouped like mixtapes from each of the last 50-plus years. He called from San Mateo, California, where he lives with his wife and two daughters and works as a computer programmer.
Q: I have to say I feel weirdly close to you even though I don’t know you because I’m a critic who’s writing music and you’re a musician who writes criticism. What made you want to write about music?
A: It all started with a band, and it’s just a tiny little band, but it has its followers and they have this fan site and I was doing a question and answer thing. No matter what kind of a question people emailed, about physics or world politics or whatever, I tried to answer it.
Q: That’s the Ask Scott column at the Loudfamily.com.
A: Ask Scott, exactly. I did that for a while and I started thinking that what I really want to do is try to collect all my favorite songs from over the years, because it’s suddenly easy with iTunes, and instead of Ask Scott I would write about a year and pick my favorite songs and write about those. It’s like a little justification of my choices. And so it became one of those a week. It wasn’t really a decision to become a music writer, but I certainly had strong urges to write about music, I think.
Q: I’m struck by what you said about justifying your choices. There’s something self-validating about putting your feelings about music into words.
A: I couldn’t agree with you more. There is a self-validation dimension to that.
Q: Do you draw on your skills as a songwriter when you’re writing about music? What’s the common ground?
A: Once I started writing these entries about songs I knew what it felt like to be a writer on assignment and falling into a pattern. What I wanted to do was make it really clear what it was about these songs that appealed to me, but you fall into these patterns of amassing knowledge about the song, and its background, and the artist. You get into this defensive attitude, and the process that I drew on from songwriting was you have to get rid of that. When you’re writing an album you don’t have too much control over just the little ideas that you get, but you have control over what you’re screening for. Like, I’m in the market for a slow song that talks about how I’m feeling. I want this album to cover in some sense the important feelings and observations of this year or two years of my life. So I make notes. I’m walking down the street and it occurs to me that this is the way I could express this important feeling that I’ve had about how people behave in relationships, or something like that, and you just make a little note of it. And it’s not done but you’ve made a note that this is a task you want to complete.
Q: How does that relate to criticism?
A: I realized that I had tasks that I wanted to complete that weren’t getting complete as I was writing about music, so I started imposing a different kind of screening process. I decided I’m no longer going to allow myself to do a bunch of research on these songs while I write about them. I’m going to sit down and write them in a night, not even being able to hear them, and that will force me to write exactly what I know, because I already have the answer to why I like them. Sometimes the reasons are somewhat embarrassing, but I have to stick to it. Sometimes the reason I like a song is it made me tear up. Or, I like this because someone else liked it and I just caught the bug.
Q: So you’re trying to be honest.
A: Right. But you can fudge what honesty is. You can say a lot of true things and lack a certain fidelity to what your ears are doing. So the phrase I kept coming back to was, tell people what your ears are doing, for real.
Q: How much time do you spend writing music?
A: Almost none.
A: Well, that’s hard to say. I went through the music business a bit, so it’s hard for me to think outside of songwriting as fueling a commercial process. And I don’t know if I’m proud of that. But the fact is if I don’t have an album deadline that is driven by a recording deadline, which drives a songwriting deadline, which drives completing songs at a certain rate, then I don’t complete the song at a certain rate. It’s like I don’t have the right carrot and stick on either end of me now.
Q: So if you’re not working on a specific album project intended for release you don’t write songs?
A: No. But the ideas continue to come. My brain is kind of funny. I literally hear music in my head all the time, and it’s mostly bad, but I could just finish the music and have a song. So I just sort of have to wait for the good ones, and every now and then a good one comes and it will be accompanied by a little lyric phrase or whatever. And I’ll write it down and I put this piece of paper that I’ve written it down on in a drawer. And I will sort of remember how these things would go together into songs if I ever did have an opportunity to do an album. So it’s just in that nascent state, in perpetuity, now.
Q: That seems sad.
A: I’ve lost the thread of how the music business works. No one, except a very few people, make money doing albums now. So it’s an odd calculation where I have to figure out how much money I want to lose on this, and I have to figure out how much money I want to be responsible for the record company losing, and it’s going to cost a certain amount of time away from my family and time off work. It’s become that kind of a calculation.