Musician Scott Miller, best known as the leader of the ‘80s band Game Theory, has died, at the age of 53. The news was announced yesterday at Miller’s website. The site’s webmaster Sue Trowbridge revealed that Miller had been planning to record a Game Theory reunion album, to be called Supercalifragile, and advised that “If listening to Scott’s own music is too painful for you right now, as it is for me, I can tell you that he absolutely loved David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day.”
Game Theory emerged in the early 1980s as a power pop band with one foot in the Paisley Underground, the California-based, psychedelia-influenced pop movement that spawned the Dream Syndicate, Opal, and the early Bangles. (Michael Quercio, who is given credit for inventing the term “Paisley Underground,” co-produced one of the band’s early EPs.) But its jangle-pop aesthetic and Miller’s cryptic, often impenetrable lyrics were also very much of their time, linking the band to such up-and-coming world beaters as R.E.M. (Game Theory’s masterpiece, the 1987 double album Lolita Nation, led off with a song called “Kenneth, What’s The Frequency?” seven years before R.E.M.’s Monster led off with one called “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”) The band began to hit its stride when it teamed up with R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter on its 1985 album Real Nighttime and the 1986 follow-up Big Shot Chronicles.
Miller, whose interviews made it clear that he lived and breathed pop music, was an acolyte of Alex Chilton, whose ‘70s band, Big Star, was almost as influential among offbeat rockers in the ‘80s and ‘90s as it had been commercially unsuccessful in its own time. Unfortunately, commercial success eluded Game Theory as well.
The writer William Ham described Miller as “one of those rarefied creatures, more prevalent in the '80s than any time before or since, who managed to survive with only the college-radio ecosystem to sustain him.” The band’s cult status did sustain them, in the sense that it kept them alive and performing, but Miller seemed bemused, if not pained, by the group's inability to break wide. As he told Ham in an interview that appeared in Perfect Sound Forever, “I really can’t think of anything I do to avoid hits on purpose.”
By the time of the band’s 1988 album, Two Steps From The Middle Ages, internal tensions and other factors, including the demise of its record label, was tearing Game Theory apart. In 1992, Miller released Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, the first album from his new outfit, The Loud Family. He would continue to release new material from The Loud Family through 2006’s What If It Works, a collaboration with Anton Barbeau, by which time it seemed clear that “The Loud Family” wasn’t the name of a band so much as an umbrella title for Miller and whoever he was playing with at the time.
In 2010, Miller poured his obsessive love and encyclopedic knowledge of pop into a book, Music: What Happened? which collected his thoughts, first published at his website, on more than 50 years worth of other people’s songs. Right now, his own songs with Game Theory are available for free download through his site—a measure that has been taken, Sue Trowbridge writes, “to prevent people from trying to capitalize by selling these long out of print albums lots of money. I want everybody who would like to gear these albums to be able to do so without paying outrageous prices.”
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