Throughout his songwriting career, Scott Miller, who led the alternative pop-rock acts Game Theory in the 1980s and the Loud Family in the 1990s was given to prodigious complexity in his lyrics, in both sound and sense. The reason his words worked, when they worked (and they didn’t always), was that he seemed to know just when to cut through their beguiling thought-tangles and expose both himself and the listener to emotional accountability. Better still, he accomplished this without sacrificing any of his lyrics’ ramifications but in fact, complicating them, e.g. “I get it now how people see injustice / And want it to prevail”.
Miller sings that couplet in “Don’t Bother Me While I’m Living Forever”, the last of the tracks he wrote for What If It Works?, a 2006 collaboration with his Bay Area confrere Anton Barbeau. Originally released as a sort of laggard and unplanned postscript to the Loud Family’s formal discography, What If It Works? has just been reissued by Omnivore Recordings, which also rescued the entire Game Theory catalog from oblivion not long after Miller committed suicide in 2013.
To listen with the right ears to What If It Works?, it’s necessary to acknowledge any number of injustices and try to keep them from prevailing. Two seem superficial, but consider them for more than a moment and they aren’t. One is the name of the act, officially “The Loud Family and Anton Barbeau”. This ungainly mouthful is accurate enough, even though the band was no longer extant in 2006 and was never the band in any case: the Loud Family underwent a wholesale personnel change partway through its five-album run from 1993-2000, and the lineup that played most of the tracks on What If It Works? was Miller plus the drummer from the first lineup and the bassist from the second, with Barbeau where either of the keyboardists would have been.
More to the point, calling the assembly the Loud Family went against the artists’ intention: they wanted What If It Works? to be credited to “Scott Miller and Anton Barbeau”. Even Miller’s Loud Family bandmates agreed. Drummer Jozef Becker told me: “I didn’t think What If It Works? sounded at all like a Loud Family record and I went back and forth with the folks at the label about their choice to call it a ‘Loud Family and Anton Barbeau’ LP. To my ears, it was a Scott and Anton LP, which had a bunch of former Loud Family members playing on it as well as various members of Anton’s bands. The feel of What If It Works? is different from any of the Loud Family records.”
Nonetheless, the label, 125 Records, successfully pressed its case for a Loud Family album, for three reasons: first, there was another semi-popular musician called Scott Miller, the one who had led the alt-country act the V-Roys but was by then performing under his own name; second, the label was hoping to benefit from the Loud Family’s name recognition, even though one of the reasons Miller had disbanded the group six years earlier was poor sales of their final album for Alias Records.
A few months after Attractive Nuisance came out early in 2000, Miller wrote in his “Ask Scott” column, in response to a fan’s importuning him not to finish off the Family: “There’s just not the slightest doubt that people need a rest from me.” Then he rededicated himself to his Silicon Valley day job (which he genuinely liked) and, as far as the music business went, “learning not to be around”, as he had sung a few years earlier on the Loud Family’s 1996 album Interbabe Concern.
He was already quite cognizant then of the band’s waning popularity and had titled their intentional swan song, pointedly, Attractive Nuisance: the world didn’t find them unpleasant, but when would they just go away? Miller himself seemed to understand why his music didn’t work in the marketplace: he was asking more of the rock audience than it generally wants to give. “To the extent that the artist expresses the human experience lucidly, charmingly, and professionally, all is well and the listener enthusiastically accepts the results,” he wrote in 2004. “But in some respects, what is swallowed that easily is actually ineffective. It’s only what comes across as arch, wimpy, off-putting, disappointing, inappropriate, out-of-it, etc., that offers the opportunity of actually imparting something – of actually teasing someone into growing a little.”
Half a decade later, Miller came back around. He and Barbeau were kindred pop spirits. Miller had produced, played on, and mixed some Barbeau songs in the mid-’90s, and Barbeau contributed vocals to Interbabe Concern (1996). Miller was seven years older than Barbeau, an exponent of the seminal Paisley Underground scene that preceded Barbeau, who had been an admirer of Miller’s in his Game Theory days. (“He had a larger-than-life vibe,” Barbeau recalls.) In 2004/2005, Miller attended a Barbeau show as a fan one night in Sacramento but ended up on the stage next to him knocking out a by-all-accounts knockout cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off”, the lead track from 1972’s Exile on Main Street.
Enough sparks flew from that impromptu moment that Miller’s wife, Kristine, suggested to her husband that he might find an enjoyable, low-stakes way to get back into the studio by sharing it with Barbeau: “a guy he’d known and trusted and genuinely really liked,” she told me. They decided to make an EP. “Let’s keep it short and sweet, make a small thing, put it out there, and be happy with it,” Barbeau recalls of the impetus behind working together.
That gets at the third reason for 125’s request for a Loud Family album, and more deeply at the label’s involvement in the project. It was founded by close friends of Miller’s, who also maintained the Loud Family’s website and had already released two previous Barbeau discs. They offered to put out the Miller-Barbeau collaboration, but an EP “would have carried a list price of $9 or $10 instead of $15,” 125’s founder (and Miller’s friend) Sue Trowbridge told me, and that wasn’t financially viable. She asked Miller and Barbeau to work up a little more material, which they did by adding cover tunes to their studio take of “Rocks Off”: the Zombies’ “Remember You” and Cat Stevens’ “I Think I See the Light.”
These songs managed to extend the total time to only half an hour, though, so Trowbridge gamely asked for still more minutes. According to Barbeau, “Scott jumped up and said, ‘Yeah, but Hard Day’s Night, you know?’” Kristine recalls that although the project began to feel “onerous” to Miller at that point, “he wouldn’t say no because they were fans of his and they created and maintained his band website for which he was grateful. Scott wanted them to be happy even if it caused him anxiety.”
He and Barbeau each contributed another original song to What If It Works? – Miller insisted that they be appended as “Bonus Tracks”, an idiosyncrasy which the Omnivore reissue duly reproduces – and the LP they never meant to make was complete. Even so, it still lost money, and when Trowbridge shuttered 125 Records a few years later, more than half of the 2,000 copies the label pressed remained unsold. She regretfully destroyed them.
Miller’s bonus track was “Don’t Bother Me While I’m Living Forever”, the one which gave us the line about (not) wanting justice to prevail. Barbeau thinks the song’s title was Miller’s subtle, smirking complaint to Trowbridge about her request for another song, although Miller later thanked Trowbridge for it: “Doing music can hardly be considered a burden,” he told her in an email. “I’m eternally grateful that there are people like you out there who make it possible for me to reach an audience.”
He proceeded to propose a marketing idea for “special editions, which also serve as record store countertop display ads”: a limited-production run of clear six-inch cubes each containing a signed copy of the CD, which was to be suspended within the cube “in the general shape of a flat umbrella” by means of “a bolt that stuck up from a block of pine woodcut with a table saw.” Just like some of his bands’ recordings, this was one of Miller’s characteristically overthought, way too busy contraptions, heavily conceptual yet somehow also functional, and organic to his originating artistic impulse: “You never quite know what the object is,” Miller explained, “except that it must have some working mechanism (‘What If It Works?’).”
The CD-in-a-cube gimmick never happened, for better or worse; but the combination of interpersonal happenstance, creative variables, and production arithmetic that went into the making of What If It Works? was already plenty complicated. If you run all that math, as Miller might have said – it’s an expression that pops up once or twice in his marvelous book, Music: What Happened (125 Records, 2010), which every single pop music criticism reader should own; seriously, go order it now – run all that math and the operation results in what is officially both the final Loud Family LP and the very last piece of Scott Miller’s recorded output. The album’s official status as such, like the name “The Loud Family and Anton Barbeau”, is also accurate as far as it goes, but it rings with a portentousness that What If It Works? should never be asked to live up to. The spirit of the project was “modest and humble,” Barbeau told me. “It was not Scott at his most epic and complex, and it wasn’t meant to be.”
Deep in the fine print of the liner notes to the Loud Family’s epic, complex Interbabe Concern, made a decade earlier, Miller had declaimed, or perhaps disclaimed: “Everything on this album is on purpose.” A good deal of What If It Works?, including its very genesis, is by accident, which is one way of understanding the title. It’s taken from the name of one of the album’s Barbeau-penned songs, but it was Miller who chose it for the LP as a whole. Under the circumstances, it comes off as his genial shrug: “Could this cobbled-together thing actually hold together?” Yet the very appearance of a titular question mark (echoes of 1972’s Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren, one of Miller’s heroes) also suggests an undercurrent of anxiety and hesitation that ran under nearly all of Miller’s music, even when it rocked out: “If this does happen to work, then does it require me to restart my music career?”
And what if it did, as Barbeau sings on the title track? Despite “the latter-day isolation that is my dad-dom,” as Miller called his mid-2000s life in Music: What Happened, “Scott never considered himself retired,” Kristine told me. “He always had ideas for new songs. He would write chord progressions and rhythm ideas on tiny scraps of paper, which would find their way to various places in the house. He had lots of ideas for new music projects” and did in fact occasionally pursue them, but not as far as seeing them through to publication. (One was a sadly lost project in 2002-03 with Aimee Mann, who was an ardent admirer of Miller’s.)
The problem with the prospect of once again “working up the ol’ magic,” as he joked in 2000, was that Miller’s magic had never worked, at least not to the degree he had hoped for. It did not seem to encourage him that he had a nearly two-decade career as a label-backed recording and touring musician; that he was beloved by a small yet raptly devoted audience and widely praised by critics and the media; and that he had the respect and even reverence of some of his era’s most admired musicians: not only Aimee Mann but also R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, and the Negro Problem’s Stew Stewart (who wrote liner notes for the Omnivore reissue of What If It Works?). Yet Miller considered himself a failure virtually from the start – certainly well before he had come close to running all of his career math.
“I’m not exactly the boy of my own dreams,” he had sung all the way back in 1987, and nearly his entire catalog is the self-unfulfillment, so to speak, of those dreams, from 1993’s “What I need is a life where I’ve won all the times that I’ve lost” to What If It Works?’ concluding restatement of the theme nearly 20 years later, in existential terms: “Faux pas is moi.” Failure was his great subject. Failure in love, in art, in the marketplace, and finally in survival. He was the poet laureate of failure. Failure is the injustice he wanted to prevail.
That, too, is an unjust claim to make, especially if you didn’t know him or anything about what he wanted, and particularly with regards to What If It Works?. On its own modest terms, it’s an LP that in fact works quite well – and it’s definitely an LP, not an EP padded with filler to satisfy Miller’s label/friend, its standalone sturdiness more or less proved by the Omnivore reissue’s bonus tracks not adding all that much to the 125 Records original. More to the point, it’s also half an Anton Barbeau record, and one of the greatest possible injustices to inflict on it – even though it’s a forgivable one, given the power that ghosts tend to have over us – is to overlook the collaboration that gives the album its essential energy.
It’s also to ignore so much more about the album’s legacy and origins: Barbeau, after all, is the rock ‘n’ roll survivor where Miller is the rock ‘n’ roll suicide (Miller was a huge Bowie fan); it’s Barbeau who has made over 30 albums – he released three others in 2006 alone, the year of What If It Works? – and just put out his new one on the very same day that Omnivore’s reissue hit the shelves in March; it was Barbeau’s live show in which Miller joined him for the cover of “Rocks Off” that led to What If It Works?; Barbeau wrote the song which ended up titling it; and Barbeau’s is the name that appears on the cover, not Miller’s.