Write Drunk, Edit Sober?Scott Miller on Life

Musician Scott Miller opines on this and other thingsWhen you get around as much as he does, you generate a few opinionsThe Music Issue Continued: Still the King




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by Leah E. Willis

"A lot of those â‘live' records in the '70s, they were faked. Like Frampton Live ?â"it ain't live. Disappointing when you find that out. Anything else I can ruin for you?â” Scott Miller's voice intensifies now, never absent humor and spirit. â“The public likes to buy live records, and as a consumer, I like 'em, but people in the [music] industry hate 'em.

â“First, they're a sign your career is in the toilet.â” For the record, Miller's put out not one, but two, live records: 2000's Are You With Me? and the recently released Reconstruction. â“And two, they're really difficult-as-shit to make. It's cheaper to make a live record [than a studio record], but labels won't even count 'em towards what you owe.â”

Sitting in a dimly-lit bar booth on a sunny afternoon, Miller's wearing a green ballcap, emblazoned with â“KNOXVILLEâ”   framed by a Tennessee-shaped border. He seems relaxed, albeit a bit jacked up from the previous night's shenanigans: â“I just can't get drunk like that anywhere else. This is home . These are my people, and I know they're looking out for me. Here, I'm just Miller.â”

What's to say about this arguably-local, living legend that's not already found its way to print? He grew up on a farm in Virginia, graduated from William & Mary in 1990, moved to Knoxville, got a weekly solo gig at Hawkeye's near UT's campus, and formed a band called the V-Roys, which split up in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Miller organized The Commonwealth, a four-piece southern rock outfit. He's moved back to Virginia with his wife, Thea.

Miller's currently mid-tour as a solo act (vox, guitar and harmonica), opening for the folk/rock/country songstress Patty Griffin. The two met through some friends in Nashville when she sang on his 2003 album Upside Downside . â“That's really when her career started taking off,â” he jokes.

â“Her audiences get me,â” Miller adds. â“They're smart, and easy to picture in their underwear. And they buy lots of merch, which is good, 'cause there's not a lot of money in opening.â” He continues: â“Seriously though, this is a good gig for me. I wish I could get this kind of gig all the time. It's great exposure for me. I think I'm introducing myself to the audiences as we go, but they clap like they know me.â”

Meanwhile, the rest of the Commonwealth line-up (Shawn McWilliams on drums, Jeremy Pennebaker on guitar and keyboard, and Willy Domann on bass) anticipate a full-band tour in the not-too-distant future: â“Here's the genius part of it,â” Miller explains: â“I got the idea of doing the live record with the band, booked a whole tour with it, and everything. Then I got these Patty Griffin dates, and I haven't done shit with the band. I've only done a few band shows; most everything's been solo this year. That's the juggernaut genius of Miller, Inc.

â“They like to work,â” says Miller of his band, for whom the Commonwealth performances are generally a full-time gig. â“They're supportive [of my solo work] as long as they get paid and the checks don't bounce.

â“I make more money playing solo, but I have more fun with the band. I play solo to support my band habit. I like playing both ways. They both have their cathartic value. It's a different style of performance, if you can call it that.â”

A Scott Miller show, whether solo or with the full band, never feels staged. It's more like watching an unusually charismatic countrified buddy of yours show off his God-given musical talent. â“Performing is work, but I like my job,â” Miller says, characteristically humble. â“When people are putting down their hard-earned money to see you, you should show them a good time. Especially East Tennessee fans: They expect you to earn their rock'n'roll dollar, to be entertained. And I think that's a good ethic for a performer to have. I've been raised well by East Tennessee fans.â”

Good thing, because Miller's got west coast Patty Griffin dates on both sides of his Bijou Theatre appearance: He'll perform in Oregon on Friday, July 20; Knoxville on the 21st; then it's on a plane to California at 5 a.m. for a show Sunday night.

Not that Miller's complaining. For him, this particular Knoxville show is something of a fantasy: â“I've dreamed of playing that room solo. I swear, it's probably the best sounding room in Tennessee.â”   And while the Commonwealth has rocked the venerable venue so hard that ceiling plaster fell, Miller's eager to test the waters alone: â“I have no idea what to expect from a solo show. I want it to be fun. You know: laugh, cry, see it again and again,â” he quips.

From a guy who used to play four-hour setsâ"without breaksâ"at Hawkeye's, you can expect to get your â“rock'n'roll dollar.â” â“It should be a good time,â” Miller reassures. â“I'm really looking forward to it. And if this town would show up and grace me, that'd be nice. I'd consider it a favor. Let Scotty have his dream, playing solo at the Bijou.â”

True to form, Miller expects a few friends to make cameo appearances, but he won't say much beyond the obvious: â“I'll have a few guests. I betchya R.B. Morris'll be there. I can't ever play without him sauntering on stage,â” he offers. â“That's all I'll say about that.â” Ever the tease, Miller near-promises new material: â“I better have some freakin' new songs. I should. I think I'll have at least a couple.â”

Miller rubs his eyes, and it's clear that the pressure to generate original music weighs on him. It's a place he's been in before: Both the 2006 studio album Citation and this year's live Reconstruction are the product of Miller getting â“caught flat-footedâ” when it came time to record.

It's a pressure that, for the most part, Miller puts on himself, to meet his goal of releasing a new album annually: â“I really want to get back to putting something out every year. Old school, you know? I've been trying to stay ahead of the curve this time. I want to get a new record out in '08.â”

Whether old or new, you can expect a sweep of Miller's greatest hits at the Bijou show: â“If I write a song that's good, I'll play it the rest of my life. I think you should be able to play a song just as good by yourself as you do with a band.â”

As a whole, the Commonwealth's working on translating its live performance energy to the studio. â“I think the drum sounds better on the live record,â” Miller says. â“I haven't made my best studio record yet. That's a hard thing to do, to make a great studio record, because you're invading such a sterile space, and you really gotta go in and shock it. And I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet. I'm much more comfortable on stage than in the studio.â”

Only a few years shy of 20 years writing and performing music, and Miller's still honing his creative process: â“There's no pattern. I keep little notebooks, little tapes for melodies when they come to me. Well, melodies don't come to me. I usually steal thoseâ”â"typical self-deprecating humorâ"â“but if I get a song idea, or if a line or a phrase catches me, I write it down in one of those little Picasso [Moleskin] books. Then I go through it and start mining stuff out.â”

There's no particular style emerging yet from Miller's most recent writing, but he's eager to see what finds its way to the page. It's a process that still mystifies him at times, as though melodies and lyrics will present themselves, rather than be written.

Miller's reminded of the old writers' adage: Write drunk, edit sober. He's drawn into that ethereal world of creative process, and his mind wanders: â“I heard an interview with Norman Mailer on NPR once, and they were talking about pot smoking. They asked him if he writes high, and he said, â‘No! I never write high! When I'm high and I try to write, it's like I'm trying to fit the whole world into one little word, or something. But editing high, I do that.'

â“And I thought about it, and that makes perfect sense! 'Cause, you know, when you're high and you write, it's like, â‘Oh, this is great !' But it never holds water. When you're high, you're really focused. So I guess the idea is write drunk and edit high.

â“We should make bumper stickers: Write Drunk, Edit High. There's your byline.â”

Who: Scott Miller w/ Chris Knight

When: Saturday, July 21, 8 p.m.

Where: Bijou Theatre

How Much: $19.75

On the News Sentinel 's parent company, Scripps-Howard, buying Metro Pulse :

I'd do whatever Jack Neely's doing. He's about as measured as a canary in a coal mine. If Jack takes flight, run.

On Elvis impersonators:

Why not try to be the best? Elvis impersonatorsâ"I got no problem with 'em, tryin' to be the Kingâ"hell yeah. He's better than Kenny Chesney.

On the local music scene:

I know so little about it. For one thing, I'm never home. And when I am, you know, the last thing I want to do is go listen to music. I'm closed, closed for business. That's the downside of doing this for a living: The last thing I want to do when I go home is go to a bar to listen to music. I've seen the man behind the curtain.

On his start in music:

I knew what I wanted to do, and I've never doubted it. But it took me a while to convince myself. I think I felt guilty about it, like I was letting my parents down. But I had a plan: I was going to be a postman like John Prine. Everything John Prine. I love John Prineâ

But anyway, a postman's got the perfect job: benefits, insurance, nice wage, walk around all day delivering mail and writing songs in my head. So I went into my career guidance counselor's office at William & Mary two weeks before I graduated and said, â‘Hey, I wanna get a job with the Post Office. How do I do that?' And they looked at me like I was from another planet. And one counselor was like, â‘Get in here and sit.' She really helped me; she explained to me, â‘You know what you want to do, so why don't you just go do it.'

And so I moved to Knoxville. I had a girlfriend at the time, and she started grad school down here. And I figured I could play here, as good a place to start as any. I could rationalize Knoxville: It's three hours from everythingâ"Atlanta, Cincinnati, Louisvilleâ.

On war protest music:

I like more of the John Foggarty way of doing itâ"you know â“Bad Moon Risingâ” is about Richard Nixon?â"because it's more subtle.

Certainly, politics influences me. I mean, shit, it's the body politic. Everybody took government [in school]. If you get together and watch football and drink beer, you're affecting the body politic. Everything's political, I think, but I try not to be overt about it: I don't like to be preached to either.

You know, Steve Earle put out a pretty political record against the war. He's the only one I can think of. Is there anyone else?

I don't think my music's protest music. Or, hell, I guess every song is a protest in some form or fashion because everything is political. Soâyes, in that sense.

On cussing:

I don't sell records (but at shows) and I don't get airplay. I cuss too much. I drive [label] Sugar Hill Records crazy, I'm sure. But they don't give a damn.

I went to [Sugar Hill founder who signed Miller & the Commonwealth] Barry Poss, and I said, â‘Barry, you got any problem with a song called â“Goddamn the Sunâ”?' And he reaches over behind his desk, and pulls this Terry Allen CD over, and there's this picture of Jesus on the cross, and it's called Salivation . Jesus has drool coming out of his mouth. That's the Sugar Hill way.

But they've been bought by Lawrence Welkâ.

With the internet today, I don't guess you really need a label; you can go right to the consumers on MySpace, or whatever is gonna be the next MySpaceâ"I'll have to ask my nieces.

I don't know, I'm old school. I use a typewriter. Not a word processorâ"a typewriter.

On his music collection:

I'm pretty bad about keeping up with music. Around Christmas there's always everybody's Top 10 Favorite Records of 2006 or whatever. And my manager will get emails from magazines asking, â‘Hey, can Scott give us his Top 10 records of 2006?' And he'll say, â‘Maybe from 1986. But I don't think he can name 10 records that came out in 2006.'

I've got Tony Rice's Native American album in my van right now. And I love live records. Is there any bad thing that came out of Carnegie Hall?

On his personality:

I don't meet people very well. I'm justâ I, uh,â I'm sortaâshy, I guess. It's stressful. I chose the wrong business. I didn't go to graduate school because I thought there was so much politicking. And I thought, â‘Man, I don't want this.' So I got into the music business.

Even now at 39, I'm just getting comfortable with it, with doing what I do. That's about the right age to figure shit out, I guess. At least I'm not buying a sports car or dating a teenager.

On Alaska:

They've got mammals up there that will kill you! What the hell would you go up there for? They don't play up there in Alaska.

I've never been. I'm sure it's beautiful. If the moose don't kill you.

On being offered a Miller High Life, on Sunday afternoon, after falling off a barstool the night before:

Nah, I'm goodâ eh, why not?... nah, I'm good. Alright, bring me one. Thankya, sir.

On college:

I majored in History and in Russian and Soviet Studies. And it really took me a long time to realize what it really was: a program for the NSA. Think about it: Cold War era, William & Mary's a state school, two to three hours from [Washington] D.C., where all the senators' sons and government elite go.

At any one time, they only graduated eight or nine people from the program. Every year, you'd come back in the fall, and there'd be a little note on the door that said, â‘Call Agent Brown,' or some shit. And guys from the NSA would come and interview you and ask you questions about the seniors before you: â‘Did you ever see Joe Tarr with, you know, somebody ? Now why's he talking to that guy?' It was really strange. I'd just tell them to tell the guy I said hello!

But, I'm sure the program's gone now. I graduated in '90, and that's when the wall fell. What a genius I was.

I really hated my time there [at W & M], but it was a good school. I hated a lot of the people there, but it was a good school.

On learning Russian:

Russian's pretty easy. It's a different alphabet, but they don't really have a pluperfect or past pluperfect or any of that crap, you know, â‘having been done'â"that kind of crap. Past, present, future. That's it.

On UT men's basketball:

I eat kosher on game days in honor of Bruce Pearl. I attribute our [NCAA Tournament] loss to Ohio State to a piece of bacon I ate.

On cancer and health insurance:

Cancer's touched everybody's lives. It's touched mine; my sister died from it. She had colon cancer; she was only 36. It's such a slow-growing cancer, she probably had it when she was 18â. I get checked every three years.

I really want to raise money for a hospice. My sister had hospice care. You know, those are the people who help you die; they're in the trenchesâ. I've been talking about a fundraiser for a couple years. I need to get off my ass and do itâ.

Fucking diseaseâ if people would realizeâ"even hardcore, dipshit Republicansâ"if they would realize how much money that costs, how much of a drain on the economy that isâ"the hospitals, how much work is missed, the families affectedâ"total all that up, and if they saw that bottom line, they'd get off their asses and cure it. And I don't know what families do that don't have insurance.

My parents are old school, WWII generation, so they've always beat into my head to have insurance. And I always have, except for one time for four months. And that was the time I broke my collar bone.


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