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Mourning those you never met: Scott Miller

Last week was a stressful, dreadful one, not just for people in Boston who lost friends in the marathon bombing and a colleague when Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed. It was a dreadful week in Iraq, a week that featured a massacre in Syria and an industrial explosion in West, Texas that killed at least 15 and raises difficult questions about the poor state of industrial regulation in the US.

During that miserable week, I got a piece of sad news: the untimely death of a man I’ve long admired, Scott Miller. As more than one music critic has pointed out in their elegies for him, Scott Miller is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. He led a band in the 1980s called Game Theory which produced four hooky, catchy and deeply strange power-pop/new wave albums, then formed Loud Family, which released seven albums between 1992 and 2006. The Loud Family albums cover an amazing stylistic range, from cheery pop songs to unpredictable sonic experiments, sometimes within the same track.

“Don’t Respond, She Can Tell”, by Loud Family

Miller often answered questions about his obscurity, noting that he’d never set out to make music that would be appreciated by critics and a small army of obsessed fans, and ignored by the wider world. I was deeply struck by a comment he made some years back, answering a fan’s inquiry: “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.” One of the many hopes of an age of digital distribution was that artists who produce work adored by a small artist, instead of appreciated by a large one, will be able to make a living. Miller walked this narrow path well before the tools and support systems smoothed the way.

The first Game Theory albums got some college radio play, but by the end of that band, Miller had given up on the prospect of following arty-yet-accessible artists like REM into the mainstream, and stopped editing himself. The result was Lolita Nation, an unbelievably strange and wonderful album that also became legendarily unobtainable. (Amazon will sell you one of the few CD copies extant for about $100, but Scott’s friends are posting links to digital copies of the albums on the Loud Family site. You really should download these, particularly Real Nighttime – perhaps the most accessible – and Lolita Nation – the masterpiece.)

Loud Family took off where Lolita Nation left off, juxtaposing pop songwriting with sonic collage, remixing his back catalog into new songs, snippet by snippet. The six Loud Family albums, especially Days for Days and Interbabe Concern, are near the top of my most played list over the last decade, and often find myself caught between wondering why everyone isn’t as in love with this music as I am, and wondering how Miller persuaded a record label to ever bother releasing it, as it was clear his music was very much an acquired taste.

Not everyone who deserves an audience finds one. Miller turned to music criticism (appreciation, really) in recent years, and his book “Music: What Happened?” introduced me to other bands who’ve become favorites, like Thin White Rope, whose remarkable lead singer, Guy Kyser, now studies invasive plants at UC Davis. Kyser and Miller are two in a very special class of artists – visible enough that you might discover them and have their work change your life without knowing them personally, but invisible enough that they need day jobs. Finding an artist like this is a special gift, a treasure you share with friends you trust enough to believe they might “get it”, a secret handshake, not a badge.

Miller, like most professional musicians, didn’t make much money, and his friends have set up a scholarship fund for his two daughters, open to contributions from his fans. The Onion’s A/V Club has a particularly good remembrance of Scott Miller, including three music videos. Rest in peace, Scott, and thanks for the music.

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