THIS BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE: Game Theory

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In 1986, power pop auteur Scott Miller, along with his band Game Theory and producer Mitch Easter, submitted what many fans have come to feel is his greatest album. Above: The Big Shot Chronicles studio lineup of Shelley LaFreniere, Scott Miller, Suzi Ziegler, and Gil Ray.

BY JASON COHEN / PHOTOS BY ROBERT TOREN

And if I answer to a different hunger/ From the one I had when I was younger…  – “Crash Into June”

Some people pick a college based on academics. Others want to remain close to–or get as far away as possible from–family. Me, I just wanted to go somewhere that had a great radio station: Northwestern University, home of 89.3 FM, WNUR. The guidance counselor at my suburban Philadelphia high school didn’t think much of this priority, and thought it was especially silly that I wanted to be in a city, like Chicago, Boston or New York. “Once you get there, you won’t ever want to leave campus,” he said. The pull of college life, apparently, would be too much. Why in the world would I want to take a 40-minute El ride to see the Windbreakers open for Richard Lloyd at the West End when there were fraternities?

In high school, I was pretty much the only person who liked R.E.M., a notable enough distinction that, every once in awhile on Facebook, one particular former classmate gives me credit for this prescience. If memory serves–and believe me, it might not–I wore an R.E.M. t-shirt, he asked “What’s R.E.M.?,” and I gave him a copy of Murmur, just like the world had done for me. There were ‘zine writers (shout-out to The Bob and Bucketful of Brains) and DJs and the jangle-head clerks at the Record Cellar on Bustleton Ave (RIP) pointing me forward to new music, even as these new discoveries also took me backwards. I’m not ashamed to admit that R.E.M. were my gateway to the Velvets. I definitely heard the Windbreakers/Rain Parade version of “Glory” (to say nothing of Lloyd Cole’s) before I heard Television’s Adventure. And I almost want to say I knew Game Theory’s cover of “You Can’t Have Me” before the original, but there’s no way that The dB’s didn’t get me into Big Star first.

Obviously, if Mitch Easter or Don Dixon’s name was on a record, I was buying it. At WNUR, this didn’t necessarily make me cool. We had DJs who loved music that was unabashedly pop, but there were more of them who only wanted noise, volume, even the total absence of hooks. Scott Miller was someone that both aesthetic factions could embrace, at least in theory (sorry!): obscure but accessible, weird but catchy, complex but direct. And even more so than Real Nighttime, The Big Shot Chronicles was a dumbfounding rock’n’roll record as well as a dazzlingly clever pop record, with songs that did your head in, both hard (the melodically and verbally relentless “Here It Is Tomorrow,” the epic high-volume hooks of “I’ve Tried Subtlety”), and soft (the woozily gorgeous minimalism of “Regenisraen” and “Like A Girl Jesus”). [Below: Mitch Easter & Miller + Miller & Shelley LaFreniere in Winston-Salem during the making of the record, 1984]

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This is where I’m supposed to write about how Big Shot Chronicles changed my life, which is how it’s always felt, at least a little bit. But memories are also lies. My review of the record in the Daily Northwestern had little insight beyond asserting that, in comparison with other melodic indie music of the era, the record was “more than just chimes and rhymes.” I was also needlessly interested in trying to figure out just what Scott was on about lyrically in “Regenisraen,” which seems besides the point (even if we mostly know the answer now).

But if Game Theory itself didn’t change my life, the world that produced Game Theory certainly did: the music of my personal college radio and fake-ID heyday, made by bands forging their own collaborations, friendships and shared war stories (which is to say, great musical victories and even greater music business defeats). While we often wonder why our favorite bands aren’t bigger, part of us doesn’t really want them to be. Everybody wants to be heard and recognized, in art and life, but there’s also special power in the recognition of another person who speaks the same secret language. Had the same import 12” with two B-sides. Bought the same t-shirt. Music scenes are cliquey, but cliques are also a community.

And maybe my guidance counselor was onto something, because where I really fell for Game Theory was at a Northwestern fraternity house called Theta Xi, where the Big Shot Chronicles tour (with the Lolita Nation line-up) came in 1986. More of a psychedelic stoner frat than a punk rock house, “The Taxi” had nevertheless booked a campus show with Husker Du, while such artists as Die Kreuzen, Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller and Paul K and the Weathermen all played in its living room. Seeing the band live hooked me, and, as a then-19 year-old, the ambitions and indulgence of Lolita hooked me even more. [Below: The aforementioned ’86 Theta Xi gig, with Donnette Thayer and Gui Gassuan in the lineup]

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But here in 2016 I am prepared to say that The Big Shot Chronicles is Game Theory’s best album. It has everything Lolita had in fewer songs, and sometimes in a single song. On a certain level, Scott Miller agreed. During the Lolita Nation tour (which, in Chicago saw the band promoted from Theta Xi to Cabaret Metro), he told the local music mag Non-Stop Banter that while Lolita and Real Nighttime “were thrashing around in new territory,” The Big Shot Chronicles “was sort of summing up, an attempt to make a really good record, as opposed to being an experiment.” He added that the next record (which would turn out to be Two Steps From The Middle Ages) “will probably be more like The Big Shot Chronicles. You know, more trying to do some great songs instead of getting out there and making a statement.”

That you see the world just as I do… – “Where You Going Northern”

While Game Theory thrived during my WNUR years, Miller has suggested that the subsequent alt-rock revolution didn’t necessarily serve his particular rock’n’roll ecumenicism. “When college radio went grunge, and then Moby/Stereolabby, there sort of stopped being that community of a hundred thousand mildly-interested people that you need to have the records continue to have a just-decent-enough chance to sell,” he wrote in response to question on the “Ask Scott” section of the Loud Family website in 2003. “You could kind of play a Game Theory song after a Prince song, or maybe even a Cocteau Twins song, and people wouldn’t hate you, but after a Mudhoney song, or a Chemical Brothers song, that was starting to be more of a hanging offense.”

But even as Game Theory ended and The Loud Family began, Miller’s music laid in wait for future generations. When musician and writer Matt LeMay put together a tribute to Scott in New York City in 2013, I wondered how LeMay, who had only just been born when Game Theory started making records, came to the band. His answer was no different than my own about the Velvets, Television and Big Star 30 years before: the music he loved was made by people who loved Game Theory, including Ted Leo, Carl Newman, and Doug Gillard.

“Diving into Miller’s catalog, I felt as though some deeply rooted puzzle in my musical consciousness was finally being solved — like some invisible thread that ran through my favorite albums, songs, and artists had now been given a form and a name,” LeMay wrote in a 2014 essay for Wondering Sound.

LeMay also noted that “Erica’s Word,” the “hit” from Big Shot Chronicles, appeared to be the inspiration for Spoon’s 2002 song “You Gotta Feel It,”–a resemblance that was originally sleuthed out by another writer to “Ask Scott.” Miller responded to the suggestion that he might be entitled to a cut of Spoon’s publishing with his usual mix of humor and (self-described) Wittgensteinian logic.

“It would hard for me to work up an aggrieved feeling short of their copying “Erica’s Word” exactly and calling it ‘Erica’s Word, Not By Scott Miller,’’ he wrote. “Being a good writer of melodies is a matter of magic and blarney, stealing without getting caught.” He added that all he’d heard from that particular Spoon record (Kill the Moonlight) was “‘Jonathan Fisk,’ which I thought was one of the best tracks of 2002.”

What Scott didn’t mention (or forgot about) was Mr. Horner. Because, yes: Spoon’s Britt Daniel is indeed a Game Theory fan. And Mr. Horner is the ninth-grade history teacher in Temple, Texas who gave Daniel a “psychedelic music” compilation tape that included three or four songs each from Big Shot…, Lolita Nation, and Two Steps….

“I didn’t exactly get how Game Theory were psychedelic because to me, psychedelic music was Opal or Iron Butterfly,” Daniel remembers. “But I liked them anyway. I wanted to take drugs and listen to Game Theory. I was sure it would blow my mind, but I don’t believe I ever did.”

Instead, he got the all of the albums, which blew his mind in a different way. “The song forms were so intricate,” he says. “When I started getting into them I was in a band that played a lot of Ramones, the Clash, the Cure. To then go and try and learn one of Scott’s songs, it was a whole other level. I was impressed by how free-ranging the melodies and chords and forms were. And I liked that he referred to his own voice in his liner notes as “annoying whine” or something like that.  (Editor’s note: “miserable whine,” which appeared in place of Miller’s vocal credit on the original edition of The Big Shot Chronicles). I liked his voice myself.”

“Erica’s Word” and “You Gotta Feel It” (which is a mere 90 seconds long) have different melodies and sonic feel, but the songs do share the same chord progression, and no, it wasn’t a coincidence. “I couldn’t believe that someone would put the two together,” Daniel says. “The same chords are used in a lot of songs.”

The reason Scott might have actually remembered Mr. Horner is that, in 1998, Spoon was third on the bill with The Loud Family and Neilson Hubbard at Barrister’s in Memphis, in front of no more than a couple of dozen people. In a post on the old Loud-Fans.com message board, Miles Goosens wrote that the two men had watched each other’s bands, and that Daniel apparently requested “Like A Girl Jesus,” and then “SANG EVERY SINGLE WORD” (not that this would be too tough: part of the song’s spare beauty is that it’s all of six lines, three of which are variations on the title).

Daniel and Miller did hang out that night, and in addition to having his request for “Like A Girl Jesus” fulfilled, the Spoon frontman left with a memento. “I got his autograph for Mr. Horner,” Daniel says. “He wrote, ‘thanks for teaching the fundamentals… the Beatles and Game Theory!’”

[Below: TBSC line-up (Miller, Ray, LaFreniere, Ziegler), before opening for The Three O’Clock in L.A., 1985]

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What the hell do you know? –“Here It Is Tomorrow”

“Where were you when Scott Miller died?” is practically a rhetorical question, because, unless you were a close friend or family member, the answer is the same for everyone: Facebook, Twitter, or some other cubby of the Internet, clicking and commiserating while listening to Game Theory and the Loud Family for hours on end, unless you couldn’t bear to hear Scott’s voice at all.

The age of digital music and social media hasn’t necessarily been the greatest thing for art, or for bands trying to make money off of music, or for our sanity. But it did reconfigure and continue many a connection from the indie underground, with fans participating in the same way that they did with ‘zines, radio shows, and later, Listservs and message boards. Bands that were approachable at sound check were now approachable on Facebook. It was fun to reconnect, however tenuously, with musicians I loved, knew, and/or had interviewed, including Miller, Steve Wynn, the Windbreakers’ Tim Lee and the co-producer of these reissues, Pat Thomas of Absolute Grey (a band Lee produced) and Heyday Records. It was especially cool to see that people from the Paisley Underground and post-R.E.M. “college rock” scenes were still in touch with–or had been put back in touch with–each other.

Which is how and why, on May 26, 2013, 11 days after Scott died, I was in the Austin, Texas rock club Red 7 at 1:30 in the morning, giving Gil Ray, whom I’d never met, and didn’t even know on Facebook, a big hug.

Our connection was Lee, who’d known Scott and Gil since the Windbreakers and Game Theory toured together in 1985. One of those shows was in the basement of a dorm in Milwaukee, where Scott joined the Windbreakers for a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.” “With no rehearsal (or real forethought), he totally nailed the melodic Page solo,” says Lee.

In the fall of 2012, The Rain Parade announced that they’d be getting back together to join the Tim Lee 3 at an Atlanta benefit show for Lee’s Windbreakers compadre Bobby Sutliff, who’d been in a bad car accident. The Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci posted on Facebook that they needed a drummer, prompting both Lee and Dan Vallor (the other co-producer of these reissues) to send separate Facebook messages to Ray, who hadn’t played live in 12 years.

He got the gig. “It was one of the best things a 56 year-old guy could have dreamed of,” Ray says. “We were meant for each other. Some of the best shows I have ever been involved with were the Rain Parade shows. The fact that I was a former member of Game Theory made it even more special. Worlds collided in a fabulous way.”

I’d gotten to know Tim and and his wife, Susan Bauer Lee, both on the Internet and IRL, when they started playing in the Tim Lee 3 around 2001. When the Sutliff benefit was first announced, I tweeted that I wished the Dream Syndicate and the Rain Parade could follow that up by playing SXSW with the Windbreakers and Game Theory. When the Three O’Clock reunited to play Coachella 2013, I fantasized out loud on Twitter about Game Theory following suit (and more than once). So when the Lees heard from Gil about Scott’s death, Susan knew I’d be almost as heartbroken as she and Tim were, and sent me a Twitter DM.

Losing Scott in the social media era–balancing public virtual grief with private grief–was “one of the most messed up things I’ve had to deal with, ever,” says Ray. “I did not know how to process and handle my loss, his family’s loss, and his closest friends’ loss…on Facebook.” This was especially true in the days before Miller’s death became public knowledge. That ended up happening during the Three O’Clock’s April 17 show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, between the two Coachella weekends.

“I knew it was going to be a very emotional night,” says Ray. “Before the band went on, Matt showed me his phone. It was now public knowledge. We hugged each other and cried. I looked up and a large part of the audience were staring at their phones. I will never, ever forget that. It was the most emotionally charged moment of my adult life. This was the new world. This was social media. This was fucked up. But I made it through somehow.”

Then the Rain Parade came to Texas to play Austin Psych Fest. It’s a show I wouldn’t have missed in any case, but now it was also something of a wake. It was where I needed to be to feel Scott’s loss, but also to temporarily fill the void. And it was where Ray and his Rain Parade bandmates needed to be to expel their own grief at high volume. A show of strength. An offering to the rock’n’roll gods. One more for St. Michael.

“The audience knew,” Ray says. “They gave me great respect, and we played what Matt called ‘our most punk rock’ set ever. It was healing, for the moment.”

Three years after Scott’s death, that sense of community endures as strongly as Game Theory’s music. The Big Shot Chronicles is now 30 years old (!). It still sounds like it could have come out today. And here it is tomorrow.

[Below: Amerindie royalty circa 1986: Alex Chilton, Miller, Dan Vallor (GT road manager), LaFreniere, Chilton drummer Doug Garrison. Visible far right is Gil Ray.]

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A slightly different version of this article appeared in the liner notes of recent Omnivore Recordings expanded reissue for The Big Shot Chronicles. The album is reviewed HERE at Blurt.

Jason Cohen has written about music for Option, Details, Blender, RayGun, Sounds, The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock and the wrong version of CREEM. Robert Toren, a.k.a “Photo Robert,” took thousands of photographs of Scott Miller and his bands (Alternate Learning, Game Theory and The Loud Family) between 1979 and 2000. A huge BLURT thanks to everyone involved with Omnivore’s Game Theory back catalog reissue series. And to the late Scott Miller – here it is, tomorrow. We will always remember you.

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