Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Fellow with a Gun

• An interview with one of Seattle's godfather's of rock, Scott McCaughey.

by Steve Stav, for Disheveled Magazine, Seattle, 2006.

As modest as he is, Scott McCaughey would be the first to tell you that he's nothing special. Certainly, it can be argued that there's tons of musicians around that can somehow re-create the melodies swirling around in their noggins well enough for other people to appreciate them, too.

But how many musicians do you know of serve as sidemen in one of the world's most popular bands almost as an afterthought to fronting three critically acclaimed groups of their own?

I know of just one.

For someone old enough to remember the Topsy Turvy days, it's sobering to think that McCaughey, utility infielder for Athens, GA/Seattle, WA barnstormers R.E.M. and an eternally Young Fresh Fellow, has been making brilliant records for almost 25 years now; even he would have trouble counting them all.

When McCaughey finally decides to sit a spell (in about 30 years), his new endeavor — the self-titled Yep Roc disc The Minus Five (aka The Gun Album) — will probably be near the top of the huge pile of discs at his feet. With R.E.M. on a year-long hiatus, McCaughey, Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin and John Ramberg have seized the opportunity to reassemble as the Five, with a fantastic, Beatles-meet-Buffalo Springfield-meet-the Byrds disc in tow that features a wet-dream team of guest contributors.

Just off the plane from a UK jaunt with Robyn Hitchcock, McCaughey recently rang me up to tell me all about it.

SS: The Minus Five has always seemed to me to be Seattle's version of the Golden Palominos.

McCaughey: It kind of started that way, for sure. I guess we've had less trade-off on the lead vocals than the Palominos, because I've mostly sung 'em. Though I do try to get other people to sing a song now and then, I succeed about once per album.

It started out with me recording with whomever — my friends, people I'd meet on the road — but it's more like a real band now, with other people added in here and there.

SS: How long did it take to get the new album together, with so many artists playing on the record?

McCaughey: It was basically recorded with three different lineups. I recorded a couple of songs in Chicago with Wilco; I did a couple of songs in Oregon with my old buddies from the Dharma Bums; and then I recorded the rest of it with Peter, Bill and John in Seattle over a period of about nine months.

I grabbed a few people here and there: John Wesley Harding and Kelly Hogan, when they were coming through Portland, put backing vocals on a song; I got Colin Meloy [the Decemberists] to sing "Cemetery Row" one day; I got Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger) to do some backing vocals; one day on tour with R.E.M. Bill and I went to Morgan Fisher's house in Tokyo, and he put some keyboards on a song.

SS: Now, Minus Five songs generally do not sound like Young Fresh Fellows material. Is this because the lineups are different, or do you have a slightly split personality?

McCaughey: The Minus Five definitely came out of my split personality, when it comes to writing. With the Fellows, I wrote more humorous, more 'rock' songs, but with the Minus Five I had these slow, sad, weird songs that I'd written that I figured would never make it on to Fellows records. 

So, that's sort of why I started the Minus Five, to get that side of my personality, songwriting-wise, to the fore.

Yet now, since the Fellows don't record or play that often anymore, sometimes the Minus Five ends up doing songs that would have likely appeared on Fellows records — 'Aw Shit Man,' could have been recorded with the Fellows, certainly.

SS: How did you come up with this recurring 'gun' theme for this record?

McCaughey: Well, I just sort of noticed it was happening with the songs, that's why it came to me at the last minute to put a gun on the cover. In individual songs, it came to crop up as some sort of symbol, but it's not the same symbol in each song.

I guess the closest song to being the 'theme' would be 'Rifle Called Goodbye' — it's sort of a symbol of change, disaster... [laughs]

SS: 'With A Gun' is almost a perfect pop song, what a great tune. How much did Wilco influence the sound of the finished song, compared to what you originally had in mind?

McCaughey: That song was just me strumming a guitar and singing...I wrote that about two years ago, right after the Down With Wilco record came out. 

I did about three shows with Wilco, they were playing as the Minus Five; we played material from that record. I thought, I have this new song...when we were rehearsing for those songs, I taught it to 'em and they immediately came up with this arrangement.  I just loved it, it just sounded so good — I had no idea what kind of arrangement to do for it.

I knew it was going to be on the next Minus Five record, somehow, and it had to be recorded with them.

SS: Your new song, 'My Life As A Creep' — pure Beatles. Did your obsession for the Fab Four begin when you were a kid, or was this something that developed over time?

McCaughey: No, I got into 'em when I was nine years old, they were the reason I got into music, really. When I first heard them, it was like somebody dropped an anvil on my head — and I've never been the same since. So, I came about this very honestly, it permeates everything I do. Now, that doesn't mean I've ever come up with a song that even deserves to be compared (to them), but (the influence) is always there.

SS: I've written more than once that you and Kurt Bloch are Seattle's current godfathers of rock. Are you comfortable with that tag?

McCaughey: [Laughing] Well... I would give Kurt more credit than I would take, that's for sure. He's got more fingers in more pies than I do, and he can do so many things so well. But, I'll be a godfather with him; any reason to hang out with Kurt is great.

SS: You're a remarkably humble guy. In one year, you can go from performing in small clubs to headlining arenas to playing beer-money gigs at the Sunset Tavern. Does your humility stem from being a Seattle musician for so long?

McCaughey: It's from not being very good (laughs). The thing is... Peter is a good example, he doesn't need to play another gig, as far as making a living goes. But he plays little club shows the minute he gets off a year-long R.E.M. tour; it's what he likes to do.

I feel great that I was able to play a pub in Bristol called the Fleece and Ferkin a couple of weeks ago; it was every bit as great as playing Budokan. It's a great night of playing music, either way.

SS: What is your most prized memento of your career?

McCaughey: Hmmm...I don't know. There's a framed picture that someone gave to me of me and Peter playing with Neil Young; that's gotta be way up there, about as good as it's ever gotten. I mean, backing Neil, playing "Ambulance Blues" for 15,000-20,000 people, that's as good as it gets.

SS: The Fellows toured quite a bit with the Replacements back in the day. Do you have a favorite 'Mats moment?'

McCaughey: [Laughing] Oh, man, I don't even know where to start... I have a 'most embarrassing' memory! There was this show we played in Portland where we threw a couch out of the second-story window of our dressing room.

Paul [Westerberg] wore every bit of clothing I had on tour with me onstage, and then threw my clothes into the audience — which I never got back.  I remember Paul doing a Tarzan swing on the chandelier, and the chandelier coming out of the ceiling.

I also remember playing saxophone during their set in San Francisco with no pants on, that probably isn't one of my fondest memories. I guess it was funny at the time.

SS: You both have calmed down a bit since then.

McCaughey: Yeah, I don't do that shit anymore. I'm all business now (laughs).

Originally published in Disheveled magazine, Seattle, 2006.
copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav