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Supercalifragile

February 24, 2016 | by

Game Theory’s Lolita Nation, thirty years later.

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Scott Miller, 1983. Photo: Robert Toren

This month, Omnivore Recordings rereleased Lolita Nation, the 1987 double album by the San Francisco pop band Game Theory, who were dissolved in 1990 by their leader, Scott Miller. (Obligatory note: he’s not the Scott Miller from the V-Roys). It’s the latest and most prized offering in Omnivore’s reissue of Game Theory’s complete catalog, long out of print—original pressings of Lolita Nation sold for more than a hundred dollars on eBay.

Lolita Nation checks off all the boxes of the sprawling, ambitious double album: its twenty-seven tracks, mostly of Miller’s knotty but grabby songs, are interspersed with outbursts of experimental noise, rash new musical ideas, a backward-masked Beatles crib, and references to the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Joyce, and Kubrick. There’s a song in 5/4 time, loosey-goose instrumental interludes, and self-referential snippets of other Game Theory songs—a trademark Joycean habit of Miller’s—all of it marshaled into an apparent concept album about the anxious transition from youth to adulthood. But Lolita Nation defies thematic pigeonholing, just as its songs resist easy listening, and it still sounds fresh and compelling almost three decades after its release. Mitch Easter, who produced it along with five more of Miller’s albums, told me, “Scott was always modern in a way that took me a minute to say, Are you sure?” 

Miller is not here to celebrate Omnivore’s rescue of his music. He committed suicide in April 2013, just after his fifty-third birthday, shocking his family and friends. Although he was introverted and emotionally guarded—“Spock-like,” as a Game Theory bandmate put it—he didn’t seem worryingly depressive, not even with songs in his catalog like “Slit My Wrists” and the surprisingly bouncy “Deee-pression.” Dan Vallor, his longtime friend and Game Theory associate, and the primary producer of Omnivore’s reissues, told me, “The idea of him as the tortured artist is a wrong read of who Scott was.”

Who was he, then? Miller’s fairly ordinary Sacramento upbringing led to associations at University of California, Davis, with the burgeoning “Paisley Underground” pop scene. Game Theory’s first two records garnered enough attention to attract Mitch Easter, who had produced R.E.M.’s first three records. “I was excited to work with him,” Easter said. “I thought his band clearly was up to something. His degree of individual, this-is-my-shit creativity was really, really strong.”

Easter went on to make more albums with Miller than with any other band, including his own. Game Theory’s punchy 1986 single “Erica’s Word” drew some attention, but they had still only “reached national obscurity, as opposed to regional obscurity,” Miller joked. When the band returned the studio to record their third LP with Easter, Miller had little at stake commercially but everything, it seemed, artistically. According to Easter, “Scott said, I want to make a double album so that everybody can say it would have been a great single album.”

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I once asked Miller about the relationship between Lolita Nation and Nabokov’s book, and was surprised to learn he’d never read it. (“Too relentless,” he explained. He preferred, not surprisingly, the trickier, self-referential Pale Fire.) In his Ask Scott Internet column, he answered:

I knew all I needed to know for my appropriation of the concept to work for me. In my midtwenties I felt powerless and persecuted. What did the world want me for? The title made me think of an entire generation of Lolitas: someone—our parents? God?—needed us to be there, but the need felt neurotic and uncompassionate. In “We Love You Carol and Alison” (my favorite Game Theory song) I'm trying to express that teen alienation thing that the kids go for, but I’m also fishing around for a basis of proper adulthood.

That fishing around for adulthood gives Lolita Nation its conceptual framework, but there’s also plenty of sheer fishing for musical ideas, and not only Miller’s. The band’s keyboardist at the time, Shelley Lafreniere, told me, “Scott was still writing as we went. He even used a bit of lyrics that I came up with. We were all just hanging out and feeding off of each other.” Perhaps the “proper adulthood” most urgently on Miller’s mind was more pedestrian than literary: the IRS was after him while Game Theory was recording Lolita Nation, whose lyrics contains numerous references to his looming tax audit. He felt “a desire to throw out a lot of what I began to think of as tyrannical conventions, and I just ended up with a big, very contentious record.” (It did not go unnoticed by some clue-seekers that the date of Miller’s suicide was April 15.)

Most of the basic recording for Lolita Nation was done with the full band in Berkeley, California. Afterward, Miller and Easter decamped for Easter’s Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he produced R.E.M.’s first single, “Radio Free Europe” and their debut Chronic Town EP, making him and his studio the southern epicenter of eighties East Coast college radio. In 1994, Easter built a new studio, the Fidelitorium, in nearby Kernersville, about an hour from my home in Durham. When I visited him there recently, the old two-track machine he used to mix Lolita Nation was just a few feet from where we sat, and he still has the handwritten track sheets from the sessions.

Photo: Mitch Easter

“We finished it together, just him and me,” Easter said. “Every bit of that ‘sound design,’ you might say, did not exist and had to be made up. We recorded some of the noise bits, and the funny bits, and the chopped-up editing things.”

I was especially curious about one of those “chopped-up editing things,” a two-minute crazy-quilt of twenty-eight fragments, mostly of other Game Theory songs. (There’s also “Vacuum Genesis”: possibly a reference to the Big Bang; definitely the sound of Miller vacuuming the Drive-In while singing “Illegal Alien.”) Despite its scavenger-hunt enticements, Easter said it wasn’t at all premeditated, and that for Miller its design may have been as much visual as aural:

We sat there one afternoon and just grabbed stuff, quickly, and printed it and ran it through reverbs and turned it backwards and just worked really fast, having our sort of afternoon of musique concrète. We did it with a billion razor-blade edits, and we had a lot of fun looking at the editing tape go by: f’p-f’p-f’p-f’p. He wanted to have a CD track ID on every one of those things, because CDs were happening then and he was excited about them. I think he wanted to see the numbers go by really fast on the LCD. But whoever mastered the record wouldn’t put a code for [each one].

That masterer’s act of resistance to Miller’s musical ideas seemed to stand in for the world’s. Although “Lolita Nation has about seventy minutes of songs and four minutes of explicitly experimental material,” Vallor told me, “those eighties alarmists missed the great big beautiful forest for the trees.” Easter said: “It really is a typical double album in feeling a little bit dissipated in some ways. The thing about that that works really well, if you can hang with it, is the sort of rise and fall of conciseness and un-conciseness, catchiness and un-catchiness.”

Game Theory made one more album with Easter, the smoother and more accessible Two Steps from the Middle Ages (1988)—an easier introduction than Lolita Nation—and then went into limbo during Miller’s protracted breakup with his girlfriend, Donnette Thayer, who was one of Game Theory’s members. But Miller kept writing songs, on what he later called “a hot streak.” Easter visited him in the Bay Area. “He was living in Burlingame, this slightly sad, kind of funny lonely-guy existence where he was showing us how he worked on his demos by getting into a sleeping bag and zipping it up and singing inside it so nobody would hear him in the apartment building.”

He was heard anyway. Miller got special notice in Christgau’s Record Guide: The ’80s: “a prototypical ’80s rock artist,” Robert Christgau wrote: “serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand.” Meanwhile, Miller found a new record label and bandmates. He renamed them the Loud Family, after the infamous ur-reality TV show, An American Family (the real-life Louds signed off on the name). The Loud Family’s first album, also Easter-produced, the harder-rocking Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (title borrowed from America’s “Horse with No Name”), landed the band in a Rolling Stone New Faces feature with Liz Phair and Radiohead. Years later, Miller wrote: “Funny to think of a time when no one knew which of [us] would soon enough own the new century and rent out space to everyone else.”

Mitch Easter, Michael Quercio, and Scott Miller, recording Lolita Nation in 1986. Photo: Robert Toren.

After a second Loud Family album with Easter sold poorly, Miller self-produced three more albums by the group in the nineties. The third, Attractive Nuisance (2000), borrowed from Eliot’s elegiac Four Quartets and Shakespeare’s muse-relinquishing Tempest to suggest his retirement. He didn’t exactly retire, though. Instead, his Ask Scott column transmuted into another musical project, a series called Music: What Happened (another shrewdly borrowed title, as his biographer Brett Milano points out—the “secondhand” quality Robert Christgau observed). These were capsule song reviews and notes for ostensible mixtapes, one compilation for every year from 1957 to 2011. They’ve since been collected into a book of pop-music criticism: wide-ranging, erudite, and disarmingly funny, it’s also Miller’s de facto autobiography and statement of personal aesthetics. In 2006, he and the Loud Family made a joint album with likeminded Bay Area popster Anton Barbeau, but by then Miller was married (for the second time) with two daughters. He’d settled into a life of “work and days and mornings,” as he sings on Attractive Nuisance, a Silicon Valley breadwinner.

Later in life, Miller’s literary attention turned from Joyce and Eliot to the controversial cultural theorist René Girard (“my pick to be remembered as the important humanities theorist of our age”). Girard, who passed away last year, at ninety-one, taught at Stanford, near Miller’s home; like Miller, he was revered in small circles (one of the immortels of the Académie française) but virtually unknown to the world at large. And the eulogistic praise of Girard by one of his colleagues perhaps suits Miller, too: “A solitaire. His work has a steel-like quality—strong, contoured, clear. It will be there and it will last.”

There might have been more of it. After Miller died, it transpired that he’d recently started planning a new Game Theory album—the band’s first in a quarter century—to be called Supercalifragile. He had done some preliminary home recording and talked to former members about reuniting, but he never played them his demos. “Very suddenly he lost confidence,” his old bandmate Gil Ray told me. Dan Vallor also observed Miller’s abrupt “retreat to an uncharacteristic lack of self-assurance. This was not Scott in a clear state of mind. He didn’t doubt his work.” Supercalifragile was barely begun when Miller killed himself. His widow has enlisted pop maestro Ken Stringfellow, who collaborated with Miller in the nineties, to elaborate the material into a full album with former Game Theory members and other musicians from Miller’s devoted circle of admirers, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck; Aimee Mann (with whom Miller also once made some preliminary recordings, now evidently lost); and her partner in the Both, Ted Leo.

René Girard is best known for his “scapegoat theory”: “mimetic desire,” he argues, causes rivaling conflict invariably settled by transferring it onto a sacrificial victim. In game-theory terms, perhaps: a and b are triangulated (and reconciled) by an arbitrary c. It’s tempting to think of Miller’s death as the saving act of the scapegoat, but that notion doesn’t withstand any kind of scrutiny. “He was really just intrigued by the power of the ‘third point,’ ” one of his friends suggested. If his conflict was existential, perhaps Miller’s crisis of confidence over Supercalifragile dispossessed him of c—his music, that necessary third point.

Revisiting not only the newly reissued Lolita Nation but all of Miller’s records, delighting in their sonic experiments and “gazillion chords,” as Aimee Mann once said of her favorite of Miller’s songs, I realized that despite years of attention I don’t actually know most of Miller’s lyrics. When I read them, I admire their searching complexities and their quadruple rhymes (“friends against me […] frenzied ten-speed”), but I don’t quite understand them. Their potency, for me, is in how Miller sings them. On Game Theory’s final album, he credited himself not with vocals but “miserable whine,” cheekily appropriating a Sacramento critic’s complaint (later he shortened it to “Le Mis”). His natural range was very high, his tone plaintive and straining, all raw nerves and excitement—a supercalifragile voice, perhaps. It cuts right through the welter of his musical ideas in the passage from speakers to ears, a live wire of perception and emotion, ardor and wit, and surprising carnality: “the stuff of life,” as he called Game Theory’s music, long ago. I am thinking of the last sentences he ever published, from the final entry in Music: What Happened. He quotes the climactic line from Wild Flag’s “Romance”: “Sound is the blood between me and you.” And he adds, in parting: “I think it is, too.”

Adam Sobsey is the lead author of Bull City Summer. His biography of the rock musician Chrissie Hynde is forthcoming from University of Texas Press.