Scott McCaughey and the New Math
An interview with the leader of the Minus 5

By Brett Hickman
Source: Static Film Gear Media Music
Scott McCaughey, the founder and sole recurring member of the Minus 5, is a jovial man with a wide smile who has a warm, ingratiating personality. His motto seems to be to live life to its fullest. Onstage, he is a flippant, often aggravating front man, known to prattle on with a self-deprecating and sly sense of humor, filled with in-jokes, sarcastic barbs, and literary references. McCaughey had the support of Wilco for this engagement at the Abbey Pub in Chicago on April 17th, as well as the previous evening, and both nights sold out. McCaughey is a shaggy-haired lunatic hell bent on having fun, a vibrantly alive performer who plays with a sense of joy and awe that is not just endearing, but infectious - it is hard to imagine how anyone could not appreciate a line as humorous as the one he used to introduce himself onstage. ("I'm a rock star. My name is Johnny Awkward.") If you weren't hooting and hollering along with McCaughey, then you simply missed out.

With immensely talented violinist Jessy Green offering additional onstage support (she was also the night's opening act) McCaughey and Wilco stormed through an often spastic, yet always rocking set of Minus 5 songs and selected covers. By the end of the evening, after Wilco had performed a mini-set of mostly newer material and McCaughey had flown a few numbers solo, McCaughey took hold of the microphone and the band blasted out a second, grittier version of Down With Wilco's "Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit)." The night reaching its climax, McCaughey lathered the crowd in ale and belted out a passionately messy vocal turn on the track, a disturbing tune the lyrics of which speak of "escalators that tear the skin," which stands polar-opposite to the pleasing, orchestral-pop soundscape that envelops the album version.

Down With Wilco is an album of delightful ear candy that pleases over continuous listens, but its greatest strength, the one that keeps this album on repeat, is its lyrics. Consider this lyric from "Retrieval of You": "I am driving by airports/practicing retrieval of you." Or the James Joyce influenced "The Family Gardener," which manages to tell a complete, comprehensive tale of a man's life as gardener for a family in under four minutes. Combined with the enchanting music that envelops them, these lyrics lay the foundation to a definite contender for best album of the year.

Before this opulent evening of ribald revelry, McCaughey regaled me with stories that ranged from the current tour ("The thing with the Minus 5 is that everybody is doing other projects. You kinda have to hit and run") to the evolution of his musical relationship with Jeff Tweedy. "We did a Minus 5 show in1995 in Chicago where I had a night off from the R.E.M. tour," McCaughey says. "So I booked a show at Lounge Ax and Jeff was the bass player and we sang and had a great, great time. Ever since then I think we've been thinking about doing music together." This led to the recording of Down With Wilco, which was nearly lost forever due to the shutdown of the group's former record label, Mammoth Records. ("Disney just pulled the plug on it.")

Brett Hickman: How has touring been going?

Scott McCaughey: Well we haven't really toured exactly. The thing with the Minus 5 is that everybody is doing other projects. So, it's kinda hard to mount an actual Minus 5 tour. You kinda have to do a hit and run. So that's what this is. I fly to Chicago, I play two shows with Wilco, and two weeks from now we're gonna play in New York also. We did a couple weeks of dates in March with sort of the regular Minus 5, as regular as the Minus 5 can be, which is not very regular, with Peter Buck, Ken Stringfellow, Bill Rieflin and Jon Ranberg. [Bill's] kinda been our main drummer for the last three years. But the last two little tours we did last year, like when we toured with Wilco, he couldn't do it, so John Worster from Superchunk did it, which was fantastic, he was amazing. And then in the summer, we did a tour where Barrett Martin played drums.

BH: Because you were touring as Tuatara as well.

SM: Right. So we kinda used what we had...and Barrett has been the Minus 5 drummer at times anyway, so that worked out well. But Bill's been the regular guy for the last three years or so. He's got, of course, his Chicago connections, being the Ministry guy for ten years or whatever. And now he's actually playing with R.E.M. So we did a little two-week thing where we played a lot in the Northwest and we played SXSW. We did a little Texas...Texas and the Northwest, you know, classic Minus 5 tour. And it was great. It was really good. Otherwise, we're doing these three shows with Wilco and that's about it. 'Cause R.E.M. is like really super busy, and of course Wilco's always busy. So I'm just squeezing in little fun things whenever possible. The shows we've been playing have been fantastic. Like SXSW was just incredible. Peter and I played...we figured out that we played thirteen times in two days. And I think that six of those were Minus 5 shows, but then we sat in with a lot of other people. Tuatara, Leona Naess, Angela McClusky and we did all that stuff. It was great and the shows in the Northwest were fantastic and I think last night was great I had a really good time. I always know when I make a Minus 5 record that's what it's going to be like. It's not necessarily going to be the typical thing, where you make a record, you go on tour for three to six months, it just doesn't happen with the Minus 5.

BH: The songs on Down With Wilco are cinematic in the way that they tell stories with vibrant imagery and have very defined characters, such as on "The Family Gardener". That song plays out in the way a film by Merchant/Ivory might. Which in turn conjures thoughts of James Joyce a writer you are a fan of, correct?

SM: I'm a huge Joyce fan; he's my favorite author of all time. What you're talking about is exactly what I was thinking of when "The Family Gardener" came into existence. I was definitely thinking of that weird British...like you said, like Merchant/Ivory, I was thinking about the Kinks with songs like "House In The Country" and "Most Exclusive Residence For Sale", they're kinda of about this fading aristocracy that they have in Britain. I was thinking about doing a song, like a Ray Davies song, basically from a British angle, which is totally Merchant/Ivory as well. You totally picked up on that, which no one else has said anything to me about. I wrote the three verses of lyrics and I didn't really have music. I wrote it like the night before when we were on tour; R.E.M. and Wilco were on tour [in 1999]. So I was at the Toronto sound check and afterwards I said, "Jeff, I got these lyrics I came up with last night, it's real cool, and it's kind of a Kinks thing." He basically took up a guitar and started playing chords and I kinda started singing and we got to the place where the bridge was going to be and Jeff totally sang the bridge, made it up, totally wrote the lyrics and the music at the same time. All of a sudden we had a song. And a week later we had a day off, in Raleigh or something and we recorded a version of it in Jeff's hotel room. And that's the version that's on the record pretty much. Well, we redid some of the stuff in Chicago, but we used that basic track of the acoustic guitar that he had done in the hotel room in Raleigh. And I really love the song, it's like you said, it's a little portrait, a cinematic portrait.

BH: It's a great story, a whole story of this person in four minutes. I hate to...well you wrote it...but I hate to point out a song that you didn't sing on and I do like the whole album, but that song...

SM: I think it's a great song. I insisted that it had to be on the record. I really did. We had some extra songs, so we had to leave some songs off, but that one for me was not going to be one of them. It may be my favorite song on the record. I just really love it. Of course I love the fact that Jeff sang it, too, 'cause I'd rather listen to him sing than me sing at any time.

BH: The song I'm most curious about is "Retrieval Of You." What is that song about? I have an idea…

SM: Jeff kind of inspired that song when we decided we were going to do this record finally. We'd been talking about this for years. We finally decided, hey I could do it; I can come out next week. You guys [Wilco] have time off, 'cause their record had been pushed back. And Jeff called everybody and everybody could do it and everybody wanted to do it. He wrote me an e-mail...he wrote this poem. Part of it was, "I am driving by airports, practicing retrieval of you". And he was basically saying he was ready to come and get me at the airport. And I said, "retrieval of you" that sounds cool. So I got this idea for the song. I started writing it based on some of the stuff he sent to me in this poem. Of course I took it to a whole different thing, where it was about two people who used to be in a band together, one of 'em went on to great success and fame and the other one, a total loser, working in the mini-mart, okay? The loser who's working in the mini-mart hears that the big pop star is coming to town and hatches this plot to kidnap the person from the airport, basically. I don't want to say exactly how I think it ends up. But believe me, it's a film in my mind. I think it should be a movie. The guy successfully kidnaps his former bandmate.

BH: There's the whole part with "keep your head down."

SM: Right, exactly. It's kinda like a Twin Peaks thing, takes him to a boxcar in the middle of the woods, abandoned railroad yard, has the person tied up there. To me it sets the stage for the whole album, which is basically what he does after he kidnaps this person. He basically subjects this person to the entire story of how his life has gone down the toilet. To me most of the record is him describing passages in his life, and all of the horrible things that happened to him, relationships falling apart, marriage, blah blah blah. How everything went to hell. And at the end of the record...it's open to interpretation. I'm not going to spell anything out.

BH: There is sort of a loose concept, then?

SM: There is. It wasn't meant to be that way, though. When we recorded the songs Jeff said, "I'm almost hearing a storyline." I started thinking about it and I said I know what you mean and I know what it is. That's kinda why I ordered the record a little bit that way. I had a sequence for the record that was totally based on that story, but it didn't flow song to song as well, so I had to break that up a little bit. Because it's more important to have the record flow well, than to try and convince people that you have a story line that's going on.

BH: What's really interesting is the sound of the album. Maybe it's in the mastering; maybe it's the mixing.

SM: It's all of that. I hope what you're trying to say is that it sounds like a cohesive record, which is what I wanted it to sound like. I mixed two songs at a different place and a different time, so there was a little bit of a difficult trick to blend those in right but I think we did a good job. Otherwise I wanted it to sound like...pretty much like how it sounded when we recorded it in Chicago, before the overdubs and all that. That had a really unified, organic feel and I wanted to try and keep that. I didn't want to fuck with it too much.

BH: Yeah it's nice and airy -- and I don't mean this in a negative way -- with a pleasant tone about it.

SM: I made a real conscious decision to make it not sound like a record that was recorded in 2001. Like I didn't want it to have any kind of modern drum sounds. I just wanted it to sound like it was recorded in 1973 or something. It really sounded kind of organic, just like people playing music together.

BH: When did you first meet the members of Wilco? And how did that in turn grow into deciding to collaborate with the band on the new record?

SM: I met Jeff originally...probably both barely remember...it's when Uncle Tupelo and Young Fresh Fellows played together in like '88...

BH: At Off-Broadway in St. Louis, right?

SM: Yeah. And I thought that they were a really great band. I went to see them when they came around. But like in the 90s, I started seeing Jeff a lot because his wife Sue Miller is a really good friend of mine, and I always stayed with her whenever I come to town and sometimes Jeff would be staying with her. We'd just hang out and listen to music together. And then we did a Minus 5 show in 1995 in Chicago where I had a night off from the R.E.M. tour, so I booked a show at Lounge Ax [the now deceased club co-owned by Miller] and Jeff was the bass player and I played guitar and we sang and had a great, great time. Ever since then I think we've been thinking about doing music together.

And then finally we got to spend a lot of time on the '99 tour with R.E.M. We started writing some songs. From then on we were like, we're gonna do a record together some time. And I didn't know if it was going to be with Wilco or just Jeff or whatever. But I met [Wilco bassist] John Stirratt in like 1989 when [his previous band] the Hilltops opened for Young Fresh Fellows also. I met him a pretty long time ago, too. When it came down to it, I said, "You know Jeff, I'm totally into coming out there and doing the record. If John wants to play great..." A few weeks before that, it was if Jay [former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett] wants to play great...six months before that [it was] if Ken [former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer] wants to play great. And it kept changing and changing and changing. He was like, "Oh our drummer Glenn [current Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche] wants to do it, he's great and you'll love him, he's like Barrett he can play all these marimbas and stuff like that." And he said, "Well if John and Glenn are gonna play, then I'd kinda like Leroy [Leroy Bach, Bennett's replacement in Wilco] to play, too." And I was like, hey, I'm totally into it. If everyone wants to do it, I would love it. I don't want to drag anybody into it, but God if they want to do it, I'm thrilled to be playing with Wilco. So, it just worked out that way.

After that, it was like we have to make a record together. Of course we ended up making a record that didn't have anything to do with that stuff that we played that night [at the Lounge Ax]. We literally did a couple of those songs, then like every song was a rock and roll song and we ended up making a totally different kind of record. It is more an ornate, orchestrated kind of record, but that's what we felt like at the time.

BH: What role did they play in the actual shaping of the album?

SM: I can't even begin to tell you how much - 90% of it. Because I deliberately did not do demos -- I wanted to play them the songs really stripped down and see what they would come up with. So the songs turned out completely different than what I might have thought they would be. So I gave 'em really bare bones, like I played a song on piano, I played a song on guitar; do you guys think that this one would be good? They'd get fired up about one and we'd go and play it. But they'd have ideas, and they'd do total different arrangement kind of thing to it. I think that their influence on it is just immeasurable. Typical Minus 5 thing is, I'll record a lot of the record by myself in my house and then have people overdub on it at the end. So the song is already pretty much arranged and formatted and everything. But I did not do that with this record. I made a conscious decision to show them a real basic idea for a song and then see what would happen to it. So these guys totally arranged the record. Jeff and I would kinda come up with a basic plan beforehand for some of the songs, but some of 'em I just played for them at the time and then we'd go in and just start doing in.

BH: Some people play with the same three guys their whole lives, yet you tend to use the Minus 5 as... `

SM: It's the opposite. It's the anti-Fellows. There is something so great with playing with the same people all the time, like a hundred times a year or whatever. There's something about that you can't replicate in any other way, it's just fantastic. There's also the urge to do something that has no boundaries, no rules, no democracy, whatever happens kind of thing. That's what the Minus 5 is to me. That's why I did the Minus 5. Whatever happens, happens. Whoever walks by the studio, you drag 'em in to play. I kinda have the best of both worlds with that. Because I love playing with the Fellows whom I've played with forever and I love having the Minus 5 for anything can happen and I can get anyone to play. And then there's R.E.M. I played at Tower for like twenty people and I love that. I love flying first class and I love driving four hundred miles in a van everyday to the next gig with other stinky people. It's all great.

BH: How do your tours with Peter and Ken as the Minus 5 come about?

SM: We just do a van. We don't have a tech usually, or a crew. We move the gear ourselves. You'll see Peter Buck out there humping gear. And I'll tell you what else you'll see him doing; he's the merchandise thing. After the show, you cannot get out of there without him selling you a Minus 5 CD. He's amazing. We often busk in front of the venue before and after the show. Ask the Wilco guys about that, because when we toured with them in September and we did the west coast opening for Wilco, we played in San Francisco and after the show was over, people were coming out and the Minus 5 were playing in the lobby, busking. We did that about four times.

BH: Coming off of the roller coaster ride that was that summer for Wilco, where they had a lot of problems with their record label and with Jay Bennett leaving, what were your thoughts on working with them as a band as far as how they were doing? Emotionally, musically or however?

SM: Actually it couldn't have been better, because they felt renewed and that the four of them were the band and they were really excited about that. I don't think I could've had a better time to play with them. They were totally inspired, totally unified, and obviously they had come off of this thing, but I have been through it before where the guitarist in the Fellows quit, and I've thought, well we're gonna break up then because we can't be the same without him. But you don't want to stop playing you want to keep playing. And then you bring somebody else in who ends up being this breath of fresh air and excitement, so you have a whole new lease on life and you're more inspired than ever. Nobody was bummed out. I think that they were just fired up to play.

BH: What happened with Mammoth Records?

SM: Disney just pulled the plug on it. Mammoth, Hollywood, Disney - it goes up the ladder. When the guy who puts Mickey Mouse on the paychecks decided not to put 'em on anymore we were just fucked. It was too bad because they had a great, great label together there and it was starting to be really good. We were going to have my record, John Wesley Harding and Los Lobos all come out at the same time. My friend Rob, who worked for Hollywood, said, "Let me do Mammoth and I'll get some real cool bands," and so he started building this really great thing. Before he even had it for six months they pulled the plug. It wasn't because of anything he had done; it was just because they thought: "Where could we cut a couple of million out of our budget? Well, what's this crap they're putting out on this label? None of that's gonna sell a million copies." It was too bad, could've been great.

BH: But it's now on Yep Roc...

SM: And that's great, too. I'm loving them. They're awesome.

BH: What are your thoughts now that it's out? Listening to it and the fact that it's finally out?

SM: Well you know what I did? When it got delayed for so long because of the record company shit, I stopped listening to it and I wouldn't let myself listen to it for six months. And then right when I finally knew it was going to come out, I listened to it again and I just loved it. I thought, "God this is such a great record," and I was really happy. I didn't want to get sick of it and I didn't want to question all of my decisions about it, so I just let it go for about six months. It's so different when you don't listen to something for a long time, especially when you had to listen to it a hundred times when you're mixing it and all of that stuff. And I'm just so happy with it. I'm just really proud of it. I think it's a great, great record. I don't have any regrets about it at all. Considering all of the shit that happened while it was going down, I think it's a beautiful record, I really do. I'm really thankful that I got to make it with Wilco and Peter and Ken and all of my friends and Jessy [Green] and everybody. I feel really lucky that I got to make a record like this. I really do.