Jeff Tweedy and I are married to each other
An exclusive interview with Scott McCaughey

By Christophe Claessens
Source: The Site That Lost It's Groove Supply
 

The Minus 5 are back with their 3rd album in one year time, after last years 'Down With Wilco' and the limited release 'I Don't Know Who I Am'. The album titled 'In Rock', an album that was previously released on the small mysterious Book Records label and was only available at their live shows and limited to 1.000 copies. Now its time to bring the album to the big audience, updated with 4 newly recorded tunes, on February 24th trough YepRoc records. We got the chance to ask Scott McCaughey (leader of The Minus 5) some questions about the record, the band and what he currently is doing ...

 

Where did the band name 'The Minus 5' came from, and how and where did the band first start?

The Minus 5 was one of a couple hundred names the Young Fresh Fellows brainstormed one day on a long van ride on a tour very long ago. Our friend Charlie Chesterman was starting a new band after Scruffy The Cat and he asked for some suggestions in the name department. We cracked ourselves up all day thinking of stupid ones. For some reasons I always remembered "The Minus 5" (I think YFF drummer Tad may have come up with it...). Somewhere during recording Old Liquidator (had lots of un-YFF-like songs... playing with Peter(Buck) and Ken(Stringfellow) and Jon(Auer) and not knowing what it would or could be, just doing it) I decided I didn't want it to be a Scott McCaughey album, as that seemed extremely boring and narrow-minded to me. So I picked a moniker I could use for whatever happened, and The Minus 5 was there like an old discarded sock. I saved it from the rubbish heap.


Whose idea was it to re-release 'In Rock'? Why were there two songs (Myrna Loy, The Little Black Egg) left off and 4 new recorded songs put on?

Well, I suppose it was my idea. We only made 1000 copies of the first version, and sold them at shows. But I wanted the new one to be different, just updated a little bit to make it more exciting to me personally, not that the album wasn't perfect and exciting enough as we did it. You know, I'm very proud of that record, and I felt like Yep Roc could help me in getting it out to more people. I love "Myrna Loy" and "Little Black Egg" -- but I wanted the great fans who came to our shows and bought the original limited CD to still have something special, and with the new songs, to get something cool if they bought it all over again!

 


The 4 new songs, were those songs you wrote specially for this album, or was that stuff you had lying around?

"Forgotten Fridays" was a newer song that we'd played once or twice at M5 live shows -- I thought it would fit perfectly with In Rock if we decided to reissue it in expanded version. When we definitely decided to do it, I wrote "When The Wires Meet The Skies" specially for the album. And in the studio cutting the new tracks, I thought it'd be cool to have a real Link Wray-type instrumental to kick it off, so we came up with "Bambi Molester" on the spot. "Cosmic Jive" was a song I'd written a few years back in Stockholm (the same day as "Ghost Tarts") -- the Young Fresh Fellows had worked up a version but never got around to recording it. I bastardized my original demo with the YFF arrangement, and Bill Rieflin added drums while we were in the studio cutting the other new In Rock tracks. So that one is sort of a weird hybrid. It's a bit absurd, but I was trying to put my own stamp on a style of music I love, paying tribute to T-Rex, Gary Glitter, Roxy Music. Hope it worked!


The version of Myrna Loy on the 'I Don't Know Who I Am' album, is that from the same session as the one on the original 'In Rock' album?

No! The "I Don't Know Who I Am" version is actually the original version. Peter Buck wrote and recorded most of the music for that track on a fucked-up tape deck in Hawaii. He passed it on to me and I wrote words and sang over his demo, added vibes, Christy(McWilson, Scott's wife) singing, and a few other bits, then Barrett Martin overdubbed the crucially crunchy drums. I thought it'd be on the Let The War album but somehow it got left behind. We started playing it live in the M5 later and so we threw it down pretty live the day/night we recorded the In Rock album (featuring Chris Ballew's deep and lovely organ part). The backing vox on that one are by John Wesley Harding and me. We had drunk a bottle of whiskey one night in my basement, doing overdubs on the In Rock session. Myrna Loy was the last thing we did and we were starting to get too drunk to be productive or critical in any way. The first chorus was good, the second one questionable, and the third chorus downright awful! When I went to mix it I couldn't believe how much our performance deteriorated from the beginning of the song to the end. So we used ProTools to "fly in" the first chorus vocals to the second and third -- ah, the magic of modern recording... Anyway, I really love both versions. But I want to make clear, even though the In Rock version came out first, it's the second version; the other is the true incandescent original.


'In Rock' will be the first (if I am correct) album to be pressed on vinyl. Was that your idea, or one of the record company? Are you a fan of vinyl or do you prefer the CD?

It was my idea. We had one vinyl Minus 5 single in Spain, but yes, this is the first LP. I am a big fan of vinyl, and this album just seemed meant to be on vinyl. It's quite a "60s garage rock" kind of album in my mind, I guess, and I equate that genre with vinyl, because that's what I grew up on. Luckily the wonderful folks at Yep Roc thought it was a great idea and went for it, even though there is not a penny to be made on it.


The liner notes of the original 'In Rock' CD say you recorded the album in one day, does that mean you already rehearsed the songs with the band before you entered the studio or did you just go in without knowing the outcome of it?

In this case they were all songs we'd been playing at our live shows for a while, and we thought they were great, so we just went in the studio one day and banged them out, very quickly, pretty much like running through our live show in the studio. I guess that's why some people have misinterpreted it as being a live album.


What's your favourite song on this album?

Oh Jesus. What can I say? I really love them all and it's hard for me to choose. (Does every egocentric artist say the same thing every time this question comes up?) It's late at night right now so I'll just say "The Girl I Never Met"... there's something about that one that Peter and I wrote that I'm really proud of, although it could be seen as silly (is it a tribute to the early Beatles, or the Rutles?) -- it's not really silly to me. The lyrics make a profound sense to me in some nonsensical way or another that I wouldn't expect anyone to ever understand. Also it's a song that Peter and I always love playing, sitting around backstage before R.E.M. shows -- it feels really good, all the time.


One of the new songs is called 'Bambi Molester', which is some sort of tribute to the Croatian surf band 'The Bambi Molesters'. You have played on one of the bands albums, and last tour with R.E.M. you even played a song with them on stage. How did you meet them?

When R.E.M. played in Slovenia (in 1999 I think?) they were one of the opening bands on the bill. We knew nothing about them but Peter and I loved them, we talked and made friends, took photos, etc., and naturally enough volunteered our services if ever they might be needed. Eventually two of them came and visited in Seattle, brought us tapes of the album they were working on, and Peter and I did overdubs at his home studio and mine. It was a blast, and a great record! And we do have plans, ONE OF THESE DAYS, to go over and do a small tour of Croatia with the M5 and the Bambi Molesters.


Who did the artwork of this record?

Well, I did the actual "painting", or pastel chalk, or whatever the hell it is. I am a moron, completely incapable of creating visual art, but I scribbled something one day and liked it. Kurt Bloch did all the lay-out, graphics, etc., not to mention mastering, and recording/engineering/mixing the new tracks. He's a genius -- my great friend from years with the Fellows, and also one of the best songwriters and guitarists EVER, ANYWHERE, as witnessed by his 20+ years with the FASTBACKS, and his current new band SGT. MAJOR(www.sgtmajor.tv).


Did the record got remastered/re-mixed or did you just add the new tracks to the old album?

Definitely remastered. A couple edits. One slightly different mix. New sequence. And the vinyl has a different sequence than either CD.


Are you working on a new Minus 5 album already?

Barely. Recorded a few tracks in Chicago last September (on a day off on the R.E.M. tour). This session was great because we had Wilco plus Peter and Ken and me. We did "Lyrical Stance" which will appear on an EP of some kind, and two songs for the next proper M5 record: "With A Gun" and "Hotel Senator".


How did it come to the collaboration with Wilco?


That's too long of a story! Jeff Tweedy and I are quite literally married to each other, so we just decided to do a John & Yoko kind of thing. It worked out magnificently. Down With Wilco is our Two Virgins. The next record will be our Life With The Lions.


Do you rehearse a lot with 'The Minus 5' as the members seem to change from gig to gig, or do you keep it more spontaneous?

It's pretty spontaneous. We prefer to get in two rehearsals before a live show, but sometimes it's not possible. The gigs we did in December were with different line-ups and no rehearsals,
as we had two members coming in from out of town (Portland, Oregon).


Would you say the ever changing line-up is a blessing to the group, a setback or a mixture of both?

Both, but mostly a blessing. It's preferable now if we can use the "regular" line-up of me, Peter(Buck), Bill(Rieflin), John(Ramberg) and Ken(Stringfellow) if he's available. But since it's not always possible, it's great to have other friends who like to step in for a show here and there. Keeps it interesting, for sure!


Photo by Sam 'O' Rama

Which album you have done(Minus 5 or other) are you most proud off?

Too hard of a question! For now I'll say Down With Wilco, because it's the most recent!


What was the biggest singular influence on your musical career, and where do you draw inspiration from, for your lyrics?

I think the Beatles are really the reason I play music. They started my passion in life when I was ten years old and the music still influences me today. As for lyrics, I would certainly admit to being influenced, at different times, by Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Robyn Hitchcock, Ian Hunter/Mott The Hoople, Neil Young, Jonathan Richman, even Jackson Browne when I was first writing songs. Jeff Tweedy's lyrics are a huge inspiration these days, quite honestly!


In your career you have worked with a lot of artists on stage and in the studio (Neil Young, Yoko Ono, R.E.M., Wilco...), any particular artist or group you would wanna collaborate with in the future?

I'd like to try something with Death Cab For Cutie, maybe on the next Minus 5 album. We've discussed it before so maybe it'll happen eventually. I'd like to work with a really amazing pedal steel player sometime, like Rusty Young, Jay Dee Maness, Sneaky Pete... It'd be fun to record a song with Neko Case -- she's an old friend of mine and a great singer. There's millions more -- hopefully I'll keep getting the opportunity to actually work with more of my heroes! I've been very lucky so far.


Would you ever take the Minus 5 outside the USA (Europe, Australia, ...)?

Yes, I'm dying to! It's just that the timing is so difficult to work out. One of these days for sure.


You played some of the biggest venues in the world, but also the (most) darkest bars and smallest venues, is their much difference in playing in front of a big or small audience, and which do you prefer?

I really like both. I guess I prefer the face-to-face confrontational aspect of the smaller club, but it's definitely a big old blast to play to a huge crowd, especially if it's in a really cool spot, like an old Roman amphitheater or in front of Castle Schonbrunn or in the town square of Locarno.

Can we still expect a new Young Fresh Fellows album?

Well, it's possible. Right now it seems very difficult for us to get anything together. We didn't even play a show in 2003, the first time in 20 years we haven't played at all for an entire year. There is a Young Fresh Fellows tribute album coming out in April (www.bluedisguise.com for info), which is pretty crazy. I'm hoping we'll play at the record release show for that, but not all the guys have committed to it yet.


Photo by iJAMMING!

You are currently recording again with R.E.M. after a break of more than 6 months in which the band undertook a small world tour. How much of this live playing will influence the record? In other words, do you see change in the songs that were recorded before the tour and after the tour, or is that too early to tell?

I think that we might see a change. Just because we have played the material as a live band a lot now, I think we might be really comfortable and relaxed, and I think we just sound like a band, you know? We'll find out soon!


How did you become one of the R.E.M. side members, and did you have to do an audition for it?

I did indeed audition. Peter suggested me to the rest of the band, after asking me if I'd be interested. (Already at this point - summer 1994 - the Fellows were pretty inactive so it wasn't as if it would be taking me away from my "primary" band.) As pals that really enjoyed playing together, and hanging out together, I think Peter felt I'd be someone compatible to spend a year (now quite a lot more!) touring with. Also the fact that I was equally happy playing guitar, keyboards, bass, etc., was certainly a factor. R.E.M. is a group that appreciates a modicum of versatility.


Is the work you do for R.E.M. always the most important, i.e. do you schedule your other works around R.E.M.?

Uh, YES!

What are your current favourite albums? What live concerts did you recently enjoy?

I just saw the Thrills (a new band from Dublin) a few nights ago. They're great and I like the record a lot. I'd seen them at Glastonbury and been knocked out. I also dig the new Shins album. And the new Handsome Family album is fantastic -- I just saw them the other night when I opened for them. They were wonderful. I'm also revisiting a lot of older music lately that I hadn't listened to for ages -- early Sutherland Brothers, George Harrison's "Living In The Material World", the Paul Collins Beat...


And if put on a desert island what 3 records would you take and why?

This, of course, is impossible, so next time you'll get a different answer maybe...

1. The Beatles -- yeah, the white album. It's really long! It's got everything...
2. Neil Young - Tonight's the Night. When I want to feel blue.
3. Beach Boys - Friends. When I want to cheer up.


Any last words?

Be kind to each other! Love, Scott

* Big thanks goes out to Mr. Scott McCaughey for taking time out of his busy schedule and answer these questions. Further thanks to Dunja Wittwer and Lesley Gayner for help with the questions.

The Site That Lost Its Groove Supply 2004.