Allusions of Grandeur
Hearsay #15 / 1997 / Email interview with Neil and Ewen


"One thing about doing music forever is that new trends aren't very seductive. You see the world hitching its wagon to something and think 'how unseemly'"

Where they exchange finely-honed sentences, analysis and observations with San Francisco-based, part-time power pop prankster and sizeable influence SCOTT MILLER (erst­while Game Theory nucleus, contemporary Loud Family patriarch) and subsequently present the spawning of said discourse for your contemplation.

I. While Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is a very diverse and demanding record, it's almost polished in parts, punctuated with potential Big Pop Hits, but the journey to the self-produced Interbabe has resulted in a more abrasive but still involving sound. You can hear a similar thing happening with two of your peers — Stephen Duffy on his Mitch Easter-produced album and Aimee Mann on her vastly underrated I'm With Stupid. Like them, do you feel you're moving away from 'pop' music to something more impure?

SCOTT MILLER: Well, I'd be honoured to move anywhere I'm With Stupid moved, but did you intend that one phrase to be such a mouthful —'pop' music versus 'impure' music? I sometimes misinterpret use of the word 'pop’, so I'll give you my meaning, which has more to do with being impure than being pure, and it's that pop means trying to connect in broad cultural terms, not targeting a subgroup. It's contrary to what most people want to believe, but making an anti-pop record usually means you have a market sector in mind, namely college people in the throes of defining themselves factionally, and you're throwing them a bone. You're making the boldness of your method obvious by purifying it of musical complications. I'm not against that way of doing things, in fact I try to keep all the aesthetics I've had at different ages alive in my mind, but I naturally gravitate toward the hairy jungle of musicality approach, which I consider a forthcoming, poppy approach. Ironically it's far from the right way to get popular.

You're generally correct about Interbabe being less polished than Plants and Birds, but I'd like to refine that distinction to say that just as much energy went into getting the sounds on Interbabe, but the focus was redirected away from the setting of the sounds, whether they're being played in a big room or a small room for instance, and toward the source of the sounds, trying to make the sensation of playing or singing more explicit. I wanted it to be easy to hear how hard I'm hitting the guitar strings, to notice the little resonance you can get when you're singing quietly and up close to the diaphragm of the microphone, details like that.

II. Calling one of your songs 'He Do the Police in Different Voices' [Eliot's working title for The Waste Land] prompts the questions have any of your songs or albums had memorable working titles which didn't make the final cut? And do your songs require patient Ezra Pound-style editing with an Exact-o knife when in the works or do they emerge with all their bits intact?

I never get the whole idea at once, at least not in a ready- to-communicate form. I have to fuss over it for six months. What it feels like from my perspective is that the spark of it comes all at once but it takes me a long time to find actual words and details that are true to it. That's probably somewhat inaccurate. I probably mentally modify what my original intention was according  to what alterations happen to seem successful. Looking back at certain interviews I realise I've told lovely stories about intentions behind songs that have more or less been complete fabrications.

As for working titles, I remember that for Plants and Birds we were thinking of using a variation on a classic album name, like ‘The Loud Family and Nico', which has absolutely been done to death so I'm glad we didn't. The best one, and this still seems pretty good come to think of it, was 'The 'Chirping' Loud Family'. Tape Of Only Linda was going to be Unglamour for awhile. A couple of songs that got left off Interbabe Concern were 'Chicago and Miss Jovan's Land-O-Mat' which got as far as being partially recorded and which we recently finished up for a Yellow Pills compilation, and this other that I didn't get as far as teaching the band called 'Dr Feelin' Begs to Differ'.

III. Do you think your records provide a synthesis of different voices all given tongue by you or are they all reflections of different aspects of your personality? On Plants and Birds the effect is sometimes like channel-hopping on cable TV...

God knows devaluing the narrative voice has been a thriving academic industry for a while. and I'm sure I've absorbed that thinking somewhat, James Joyce and T S Eliot fanatic that I am. Language has a way of spawning its own agenda, so to record two different feelings in two different songs, there is a sense in which it's more honest to sound like two different people than to meticulously clean up your presentation so you'll seem more reliable. That's one of the main reasons something like Exile in Guyville is a deeper record than something like the Downward Spiral.

You mentioned channel-hopping, and let's think about that. If you channel-hop among, say, a slasher movie. a Burger King commercial, and maybe a hyper-emoting soap opera, what you'll probably notice is that they look sillier next to each other than by themselves. Your impression is of a bunch of not very credible attempts to manipulate you.

Self-defeating as it sounds. I'd like listeners to a record like Plants and Birds to have that ongoing awareness of styles and personas in songs being to some extent there to manipulate you, consciously or not. There's this business aspect of style that's bad for the listening experience—you're kind of supposed to see a value in aligning yourself with the style, which is way different from tuning into the artist's feelings. I use contrasting styles, for one thing, simply because I think it works as a dramatic technique, but also as a reminder that style is somewhat arbitrary, and related to the habits of the times, and I'm trying to share feelings with you that probably have nothing to do with the habits of the times.

IV. Was making Lolita Nation nerve-wracking or liberating? And how do you prevent a double album turning from a magnum opus into a behemoth?

With Lolita Nation, the whole idea was to make a behemoth and not a magnum opus. Concept albums at the time had a very bad rep as being something where you'd try to jimmy songs into a storyline. I wanted to do the opposite, get rid of as much of that 'fitting in' idea as possible, to the point where you could have three-second songs with titles that were eight-letter fragments of a sentence, and all that. The jumping-off point was the white album, which is my favourite double album. What a magnificent, disturbed record! It wasn't the first weird record: Zappa was certainly all over the map. But it was easy not to let Zappa get to you because you knew he was trying to get to you. With the Beatles, they had you convinced they were just out to innocently record the truth of the world however they found it, and when they found these pockets of horror, things like Happiness Is A Warm Gun or Revolution Number 9, it was actually chilling. My feeling is that, however intuitively, the Beatles were vastly more on top of how art and music work than anyone else in my lifetime.

I was 26 and 27 when we did Lolita, and that's young enough that making an album which you expect people to think is a giant mess can be terrifying. We were in a huge studio and when you're doing experimental stuff the dollars trickle away fast, which puts an additional knot in your stomach. I was enough of a big talker not to chicken out midway, but being that Game Theory had some career momentum in 1986, it was in a way excruciating to be coming to the band and the label with these kiss-of-death sounding ideas.

Experimentation is fun some of the time, but more often you get these ideas that seem inspired, like dropping an autoharp out a window or something, then you do it and play it back and it's this unremarkable plunk. But I'd been doing weird recordings for a very long time and so had Mitch [Easter], which made for an unpressured atmosphere where everyone understands that you just need to keep at it until you get something.

V. Did you consciously bring a different purpose or philosophy to the Loud Family from what lay behind Game Theory?

No, not really. but I was older and older people make music that de-emphasizes what young people are still attached to, so it's going to sound like a shift in philosophy, probably for the worse. One thing about doing music forever is that new trends aren't very seductive. You see the world hitching its wagon to something and think 'how unseemly', and start to see it as a sort of noble act to do whatever it is that's five years old and everyone hates now for no good reason. But of course people only think ‘boy, they're really out of it'. Also, there are subjects in my songs now that I know would have been meaningless to me if I'd listened to them when I was 22.

VI. You've always seemed ambivalent or self-deprecating about some of your early work. Do you still feel you're on a learning curve? Are you conscious of any significant turning points in your career?

The albums that seemed like turning points at the time have been Lolita and Interbabe. Plants is a good record but it took four or five years to write so if there was ever a feeling of something bursting forth, it got pretty diffused. I don't steer people away from all my early stuff out of some implication that my current songs are so incredibly brilliant by comparison, it's just embarrassing to be reminded of your old self. I'd say the records starting with Real Nighttime have something to offer, especially to people roughly the age I was when I made them, though like I say, there's no accounting for how people's ears change with trends over time.

VII. Is time long or is it wide?

Time is long; quite long, but not as long as Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Does this question come from the two-dimensional graph of time in Linda? If so, that's supposed to be for home amusement only. Do not attempt to upgrade your wristwatch.

My favourite poetic work, T S Eliot's Four Quartets, deals with what I think you're really asking, which is whether I believe conceiving of time as a simple linear progression leads to fallacy. I've spent many months studying and discussing Eliot and while I couldn't possibly do justice to what I've learned from Eliot in a sentence or two. I'll quote a line which I think says a tremendous amount even out of context 'we cannot think of a future that is not liable, like the past, to have no destination.'

VIII. Have you found San Francisco provides a mutually supportive and enthusiastic (perhaps even incestuous) musical scene? Bands like SF Seals, The Grays, Jellyfish — even Red House Painters with their Jon Anderson covers — all have a fascination with pop's colourful history and 70s rock. Have Game Theory and the Loud Family always felt strong connections to the city or is place largely irrelevant In the bands' legend?

Very irrelevant. I love San Francisco. but I sure don't fit in whatsoever. San Francisco values artistic experience that is pure, shocking, exotic, mannered, confrontational, tending less to say something than to make the saying intriguing. I think when you actually have something to say, it's hard, and your art is likely to come out complex and demand patience, yet because of that you're all the more forthcoming about your having to grope for a tradition in which to communicate, and all of that is death in SF. It's too economically competitive — everything becomes gesture. Complexity is certain death. Evidence of groping is death. Tradition is either death, or it's the gimmick itself, never the way to transmit something.

That's partially true of the music scene, but it's more true to say there's no coherent scene at all that I know of. Slowcore, derived from American Music Club, maybe. I don't know the Grays, I think they're L.A [oops--eds]. Both the Red House Painters, who are kind of slowcore, and Jellyfish used to rehearse next to us. They were both quite good. Jellyfish are somewhat more my speed, literally. It was amazing — they'd repeatedly practise the same five-second vocal harmony for over an hour. But it paid off at least for me; they were probably my second favourite local band in the early 90s, after the Billy Nayer Show, who people outside SF won't know. You'd almost call them a cabaret comedy band I guess, but surreal, and thoughtful as hell.

Someone pretty reliable told me that Barbara Manning doesn't like me because she thinks I made this obnoxious comment about her. I'm not going to repeat it but it was something I'd really, really never say. Anyway, she's great, and she's also one of the notable exceptions to that San Francisco outlook I described.

VIII. The technical input of Mitch Easter is obviously important to you. What do you admire so much about his skills as producer? Was it a new challenge or fun to produce Interbabe yourself and are there other producers you're clamouring to work with?

I'd work with Eno in a heartbeat. Isn't that original? Anyone else I'd have to weigh the pros and cons. I've produced other bands over the years, and I'd say you could apply the words 'fun' and 'new challenge' to that but doing Interbabe was not that comparable an experience. So much was just me in a corner of my house swearing and stewing over these weird little parts like a crazy old hermit

I guess at mix time there was a clear difference between Mitch and me, mostly because there's almost no such thing as an engineer arguing with Mitch. We had this one guy in LA when doing Two Steps who had a hard time containing his discontent when something didn't sound like Ted Nugent, but Mitch can do literally all his own engineering and he's so good the studio people don't sass him. whereas I sometimes have to plead and grovel to get them to do something if it's the least bit out of the ordinary.

IX Your ever-fluctuating band line-ups, rival the Pretenders and the Chills for perpetual mutability…

Yeah, I can't understand it. I gave them all six-figure salaries and company cars.

… is it frustrating or exhilarating to find yourself accompanied by (more or less) a new band of co-conspirators every time you go into the studio?

Usually it's just frustrating because not only does their whole contribution go away, but the rapport you built up has to be rebuilt with someone else. Still, there is a cobweb-clearing factor in there. People get their own little laws of conduct passed, like you can never ever sound like Bowie or something. I'll admit I've had thoughts along the lines of 'thank God for a stretch of life not having to abide by that person's crap.'

X. How comfortable are you with your level of being able to make records? Are you always able to put out exactly what you want, when you want? (Elvis Costello's fond of saying he awaits a tap on the shoulder when his bluff is called and an executive says, 'sorry, it’s all been a mistake: you're not allowed to make records after all.') Do you still have your day-job in computers or are you an underground icon full time now?

I still have my day job. and I've been in this pattern for so long I can't imagine anything else. Well, I can easily imagine not having a record deal; Elvis Costello's rhetoric there is my fact. If it weren't for one person, Delight who runs Alias, I'm sure I would be shut of the music business entirely, so I'm underground in that sense. 'Underground icon' sounds way too newsworthy, though. I can't see there being a career as an icon for polite, sensible conduct.

XI. If you were a Sesame Street character, which one would you be?

My favourite is still Kermit the Frog, even though the kids today all seem to like that new one called Marilyn Manson.

XII. You take a Nabokovian delight in wordplay and allusion in your lyrics and allude to the man himself on Lolita Nation. Is he an influence? And do you feel you absorb techniques or styles from writers which then show up in your own work or an they more responsible for changing your world-view in a way which only indirectly affects your writing?

As I mentioned, the two literary figures I'm in awe of are Joyce and Eliot, and it would be hard to nick technique from them because physically all their shining moments occur as long sentences, and songs as I write them use a very tight rhyming pattern and are sung as music, so my brain has to attempt pithy moments in completely mechanically different ways. That fact has probably saved me from quite a bit of mimicry.

Beyond that, I'm not sure I'd flatter myself so much as to publicly proclaim to have absorbed a perceptible amount of Joyce's or Eliot's world-view. I can say that studying them has given my adult fife immeasurable satisfaction of discovery, and that If I pass any of it along through my songs I'm honored to have been the carrier. Nabokov hasn't roped me in the way Joyce and Eliot have but I haven't read much of him, and, as people are fond of pointing out, I haven't actually read Lolita, only Pale Fire. Nabokov seems, to dwell on the subject of obsessiveness beyond my attention span for that issue.

XIII. You've expressed enthusiasm in the put for dadaism and surrealism; what do you find so stimulating about those movements? Do you think the way to sanity is through nonsense... or vice versa, perhaps?

That question might well be going over my head, but I'll say that I'm aware of there being a way to a less obscured reality, not sanity, through paradox, not nonsense. Insanity to me means you can't focus your thoughts enough for valid insight, and nonsense to me means there's no sense to see no matter how you look at it. Paradox is hidden sense, an opportunity to expose a prejudice of the mind. When you see the Magritte painting of a pipe that says ‘this is not a pipe', you say 'of course it's a pipe. What’s your point?' Then it occurs to you that a painting of a pipe is not a pipe, and the truth relative to context equation flip-flops. Paradox demonstrates that truth can be contextual; there is a way of looking at something such that it is a contradiction, and another way such that it is not.

The satisfaction of dadaism and surrealism is that an artist encapsulates something you have vaguely suspected is a flaw is a widely held cultural outlook. I'm not an expert but my conjecture about what underlies dada is that the notion of beautiful objects is the mate selection impulse horribly overgrown and it does us the disservice of casting our ordinary surroundings as somehow inferior. Artificial as this casting tends to be, we becomes a sea of insecurity wherein the only basis for wanting something is that enough other people want it. Dada exalts objects that are not in any way conventionally beautiful, and I find it exciting and liberating.

As I understand surrealism, it takes as its premise that dreams point up hidden truths. This is a much more mystical approach, and therefore potentially less reliable, but I nevertheless usually finds surrealistic work satisfying, often in ways I can't describe. I would say that dreams are not necessarily true, but they raise important, unlikely issues that wouldn't come up when awake, and such questioning probes conventional thinking for holes. Dali is endlessly fascinating to me. How much of our landscape is really unsolid and held up by crutches? Is a great lover really a great masturbator?

XIV. Who's best: Ptolemy or Copernicus? Or are you more of a Galileo chap...?

I would have to say Galileo because he was in that Queen song. That ought to tell you how useful I am on this subject. I saw Hale-Bopp and didn’t even know to kill myself.

XV. Tell us about your rats.

Well, I bought two females as pets and one turned out to be pregnant, so I ended up with eleven rats. However, I have shown these rats some Dada art and explained to them that mate selection was rendering their ordinary surroundings inferior, and they have chosen a life of celibacy where the males live in a different cage from the females.

XVI. How can we tempt you back to the UK for live shows?

Oh, I'd love to get back to the UK. Are Brits everywhere clamouring for a return? Down with the Spice Girls! Down with the Aphex Twin! We must have the Loud Family!

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