Harrowing! - A conversation with Scott McCaughey

By Carsten Wohlfeld
Source: lunakafe
You may not have heard of The Minus 5, but you definitely will know most of the contributors to this project, because mastermind Scott McCaughey (of Young Fresh Fellows fame and also a R.E.M. touring band member since 1994) always manages to persuade only the best of the best to work with him. Featuring on the long list of Minus 5s - past and present - are Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), Jason Finn (Presidents Of The USA), Robyn Hitchcock, Jon Auer (The Posies) plus various members of The Walkabouts, Pearl Jam and NRBQ. And only a few months ago, all four members of Wilco joined the core group of McCaughey, Peter Puck (R.E.M.) and The Posies' Ken Stringfellow for the aptly titled Down With Wilco. Now The Minus 5 are back with another album, I Don't Know Who I Am (Let The War Against Music Begin Volume 2), released in the well-known German mailorder series Return To Sender (exclusive distributed through Glitterhouse).

As the album titles suggests, this record is the second part of the Let The War Against Music Begin Volume 1, which appeared in 2001. Unlike the first part however, the most songs on the new album are pretty dark, almost depressing (in a good way, of course). Recently, Scott took the time to explain to us why and how it happened.

To start at the start: There are more glasses of wine in the cover picture than members of the band. Is that an indication of the atmosphere in which the recordings took place as well?
Scott McCaughey: "Well not really. This album was made fairly 'intimately' -- what I mean is that, while many of the songs were recorded with "liquid accompaniment", it was often a lonely bottle of whiskey and me in my basement studio. Perhaps some wine at Peter's house, or beers in the studio. But, overall, I guess this is less a Party Album than Music For Lonely Losers. If that answers your question!"

You told me before that the orginal concept of the album (Volume 1, that is) was a collection of almost depressing, weird songs - hence the title. Does that mean that the songs on the Return To Sender record were actually recorded before a lot of the pop stuff that ended up on Volume 1?
Scott McCaughey: "Yes, I think that's partly true. "Shut Up" was the earliest song recorded. And "The Reason I Quit" too, which wasn't so much meant to be a final version, more a demo, but I always liked the creepiness of that first take, with the radio interference at the end. When the folks at Mammoth heard a lot of the pop stuff we'd done, it was pretty hard to convince them some of those songs should be left off in favor of dirges like "There Is No Music". And I finally realized that was o.k. -- because I rationalized that keep the rest of the stuff together and one day release it as a Volume 2."

In the liner notes you say about the album: "I hope you find it suitably harrowing". So listening to (this) Minus 5 album is supposed to be kinda pleasure and pain at the same time?
Scott McCaughey: "It is for me. It's got a sort of claustrophobic feel, maybe because I associate so much of it being me and one or two others in the Dungeon of Horror, as I used to call my old moldy basement studio. Some of the songs I guess could be labeled misanthropic -- none of them were ever judged by "hit potential", that's for sure!"

Also, cause just cause I'm a big fan of lists, would you be willing and able to name three or five records to which the term "harrowing" would apply (as it doesn't seem to be the most common term associated with pop music)?
Scott McCaughey: "Hmmm, how about these, off the top of my head: Tonight's The Night - Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Big Star 3rd / Sister Lovers - Big Star, Berlin - Lou Reed, Oar - Skip "Alexander" Spence, any Jandek record!"

Would you agree when I say that "I Don't Know Who I Am" is probably closer to Down With Wilco than Volume 1 as far as the tone of the album and the overall pleasant weirdness is concerned?
Scott McCaughey: "Actually I think Down With Wilco fits comfortably in between the two."

What's the story behind the alternate version of "Dear Employer" (which after only a couple of listens, I seem to prefer over the Down With Wilco version)?
Scott McCaughey: "That recording is basically me writing the song. I think I picked up a guitar, had the mic and recorder set up in the basement, and played it. I didn't know what I was doing really. I had bought an old 1950s Kaye Reverb unit at a pawn shop in Chicago that Jeff Tweedy took me too. At home I plugged a mic into it, and sang and played acoustic through the reverb tank live. Then I did it again on top of the first take. That's what you here. The reverb unit picked up some crazy talk show at the end of one of the takes -- you gotta go with that kinda shit when it happens."

Is that how you usually write songs?
Scott McCaughey: "I usually write a song on acoustic guitar or piano, then when I start recording it, haphazardly try various instruments/effects that are lying around, always trying to find something a little unusual or different. Peter often has more specific ideas of what will sound good when he hears a song, like the e-bow guitars on "There Is No Music" or the organ part on "Saturn Is A Place On Earth"."

On the surface there doesn't seem to be much of Peter (or at least not his trademark sound) - do I just need to listen to the album more often or what (how?) does he play on the album?
Scott McCaughey: "See above. There really isn't much of the "trademark Buck sound" -- whereas on Volume One you'll hear lots of 12-string and such. I guess he plays on a little more than half these cuts -- most notably "Myrna Loy" and "Submachine Girl", both of which he wrote the music and played most of the instruments."

A lot of people on various R.E.M. message boards have commented on how happy you look on stage with R.E.M., jumping around and all that. So after almost ten years of playing with them - do you still get such a kick out of it, or do you just enjoy the freedom of doing whatever you like, because you don't have to cling to a microphone and sing almost every song like you'd have to do at a Minus 5 show?
Scott McCaughey: "Oh, I still just get a kick out of playing amazing songs with my friends in front of appreciative audiences. It is very different than playing a show where I am the singer, like with the Minus 5 or the Young Fresh Fellows, but not because it's liberating or easier. It's mainly just different because I am not going to be blathering away between songs!"

Especially since I've just seen you play a bunch of different instruments with R.E.M. - what is your favourite instrument and are there certain instruments you just play because they are necessary for a song (both with R.E.M. live and the M5 in the studio?)
Scott McCaughey: "I love playing everything. But I guess my favorite has to be acoustic guitar -- because that's where I end up writing the most songs. Although playing live I prefer electric guitar -- it's louder, and harder to break!"

I guess R.E.M. will be pretty busy for the next 12 months or so - have you made up your mind about future records, shows etc, with the M5 and the YFF already?
Scott McCaughey: "There are many possible concepts for the next Minus 5 record(s). I am going to pursue all of them, in any spare minutes I can find. Peter and I have been talking about a concept album called The Drunkard's Progress; also I'm working on an album teaming the Minus 5 and the Mendoza Line, celebrating the life and work of my late great songwriter friend Jimmy Silva. The Fellows have tracked some new material, but we are scattered and hard-pressed to find time to really work on a new record. Though I would really like to. Time is tight, as Booker T & the MGs would say..."

Any famous last words?
Scott McCaughey: "I love the Polyphonic Spree!!!" (I love you, Scott! - editor's note)