Swizzle Stick zine interview with Scott

By James Baumann
Source: Swizzle Stick zine
When we caught up with Scott McCaughey by phone from New York City the Windy City he insisted on calling it he was in the middle of a mini-tour with the Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows. Being the front man for these two groups, who just happened to release a joint album a few weeks earlier on Mammoth Records, put him in the unique situation of handling interviews for two bands.

He was also a day away from the Minus 5 appearing on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, a stage he would be taking for the third time, each one with a different band. When told that he might begin to get a reputation as someone who can't hold a job he replied, "they'd probably be right," and then laughed, which he does often. "I'll be nervous, I'm sure. Hopefully we will pull it off." The next night, playing his guitar that's had a photograph of his daughter, Nadine, taped to it for the last five or six years, they did.

Late night talk shows, double albums, tours with the Soft Boys, and more are just the beginning of a full year for Scott McCaughey. He's also been in the studio with REM, with whom he has expanded his role of touring musician to include session player as well. Perhaps he and his Minus 5 cohort Peter Buck will be taking that band on the road later this year.

But right now his focus is on the double-disc set that puts the Minus 5's Let the War Against Music Begin back-to-back with the Young Fresh Fellows' Because We Hate You. Inside the packaging there is a boxing-style score card in case you want to actually pit the two bands against each other, but you'd really do fine to just call it a draw. They are both great examples of, as the song is called, Good Times Rock and Roll. Totally unpretentious and completely catchy, it's the type of collection that reminds you how much fun music can be.

Possibly the most exhaustive and hilarious press release band biography traces McCaughey from 1980 when he and Chuck Carroll first started recording their songs in moldy basements so they could make cassette for friends. Through the '80s the Young Fresh Fellows slowly built their reputation along the West Coast and certainly throughout their hometown of Seattle. In 1991 they recorded Electric Bird Digest. It was produced by Butch Vig, the history explains, "on his ten days off between producing Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Gish.

In 1994 McCaughey began touring with REM and also started work with Buck on the first Minus 5 album. The Minus 5 would eventually grow to be a sort of rock and roll halfway house. The latest record alone lists 19 players, including Barrett Martin, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Dennis Diken, Morgan Fisher, Robyn Hitchcock, and more. Past members have included Bob Pollard, Mike McCready, and Chris Ballew. And for one night in January 2000, to mark the closing of the Lounge Ax club in Chicago, the Minus 5 was McCaughey with Wilco and assorted guests backing him. Frankly, it's almost easier to find people who have played with McCaughey than to find those who haven't.

Through phone and e-mail we got the low down on the benefits of DIY recording, how to handle a wedding gig, and what exactly makes Krispy Kreme the best.

Are you indeed the hardest working man in rock and roll?

Nah. I keep busy and I do work a lot. But you think of these bands that tour 300 days a year -- I don't know if anyone does that anymore -- there's gotta be people that do that I could never touch. But I keep busy, but I love it so why wouldn't I.

If not the hardest working man, then you must have the most friends in rock and roll.

You know, that is probably close to true (laughs). I have a lot of friends and it's all about making music with your friends.

Between you and Josh Freese, that whole "six degrees of separation" thing could be narrowed down to three.

Easily. Although I've never played with him before. I have seen him play many times. I've probably even met him, but never played. We've even been in the same room and played on the same stage but at different times.

If you two ever were in the same band it would upset some sort of cosmic balance.

That's true. You know what? He's a great drummer. The first time I ever saw him he was in a band called -- what were they called? They put out a record. But the Fellows were headlining a show at Berkeley Square and his band was like the first of four. They were a pretty shitty group but I stood out there and watched because I was going "wow, that drummer's great." And then a year later he was playing with all these other people, and particular with Westerberg, which was great.

So, how do you get all these friends to appear on the record. Is it organized or do people just pass through your house and you say "oh, I'm recording now, would you like to join in?"

That's some of it. But lots of times I just ask them. If I know they are coming through town, even if I don't know them that well, I'll just ask. Most of them are people I've gotten to be friendly with so it's not much of a stretch to say "do you want to play on a song?" Some people, like the guys from the High Llamas, I don't know them very well. But Charlie Francis, who worked with REM on the UP record, he's recorded a couple of their records. So when I had him in doing some stuff with the Minus 5 it was easy for him to bring those guys in. I just find that, usually, if you ask people if they want to play they're like "yeah, that will be fun." But, of course, a lot of them are just my friends in Seattle who I play with all the time anyway.

So, it's one thing to get your friends to come and play, but how do you convince Mammoth Records which I believe is now a subsidiary of Disney to put out a double disc album from two different bands that aren't exactly household names? Is Michael Eisner an old Young Fresh Fellows fan from way back?

Maybe my good friend Rob Seidenberg who runs Mammoth, this could be his downfall (laughs) putting out these records. I didn't really have to convince him. It was mostly his idea. He liked the Fellows and he liked the Minus 5 and he had this crazy idea that if people hear it they will like it too. Sure it's a long shot, but pretty much any record is these days.

How long have you been writing the songs that appear on these albums?

Some of them are pretty old, actually. I know for a fact that "Good Times Rock and Roll" was written in 1996. Most of the songs were written by 1998 or '99. And then "For the Love Of A Girl" is probably ten years old come to think of it. I write a lot of songs and some of them get skipped over and I go back to them. There's never really a shortage. Actually, both of those records were probably done and finished with 20 songs each so we had to go back and leave some of them off.

How many songs are sitting around now looking for a home?

I probably only have four or five that I've written in the last year that I'm really into. I sort of slowed down because, while you're waiting for a record to come out, you sort of think "why should I write a song?" But most of the time I write because I can't help it. The Minus 5 actually put out a CD that we just sell out at shows that we recorded after "let the War Against Music Begin" was done.

Is this the In Rock disc?

Exactly. That was an outlet for seven or eight new songs that I figured, if we waited for the next record that would be like two years. So we said, screw it, and decided to record them in a day.

When you played the Minus 5 show with Wilco in Chicago and there were all new songs debuted, I just assumed those were going to be the ones on the Mammoth release. But then I got the disc and there were none of them.

A lot of those songs I wrote just for that show. I knew I was going to go out there and I didn't want to say "learn all these songs off my records." I'll just write some fun, easy rockin' songs and we'll learn them at soundcheck. And that's what we did (laughs). Maybe four or five of those are on the Minus 5 In Rock disc.

Now that's the sign of a prolific songwriter when you are writing songs just for one specific gig.

Right, right. I know (laughs). I usually try to do that. When the Minus 5 is going to play I try to learn one new song for it. The same for the Fellows. We probably only played three times last year in Seattle and each time we learn something new.

I mean, there are songs around. The Fellows have probably played five or six new songs that we haven't recorded. And the Minus 5 is doing a song each night called "Twilight Distillery" that is going to be super great, but we haven't recorded it yet. We keep moving forward.

Obviously the Young Fresh Fellows have existed longer than the Minus 5 so it always seemed as though the Minus 5 were the side project. But now, I don't know if it's just the presence of Peter Buck, but with this disc is seems sort of like they're getting a little bit of the top billing.

Well, the disc came out with something they call an "O" card that is reversible so whatever way you turn it either one of them can be the "front" of the disc. It's interesting, some of the interviews I've done really focus on the Fellows and others focus on the Minus 5. There are long time Fellows fans that don't care about the Minus 5 that much. But I do have to say that with this record, Fellows fans are starting to like the Minus 5 better because it's more pop. The other Minus 5 records are more, I don't know, less poppy. More slow songs.

A perfect segue into my next question. The previous Minus 5 records were more jazzy or more country and generally more dischorant, and had a different feel. This one is a lot more smooth, poppy. You know, it's Fellows-ish.

It really wasn't meant to turn out that way. It just did.

Which begs the question, when you are writing songs, how do you decide which band gets it?

It used to be really easy. But if you hear the Minus 5 in Rock, any of those songs could be Fellows songs. Certainly songs like "Ghost Tarts of Stockholm" could have been a Fellows song, but I wrote it when I was in Sweden with REM and Peter and Ken [Stringfellow] and I started playing it backstage. Well, they're in the Minus 5 so it became a Minus 5 song. Sometimes it hinges on who has the next song. If I write something and feel like playing it, whoever is playing out next will get the song.

The people in the Mammoth marketing department will love to hear about the intricate decision making process that you put into this. But it's like I once read where Peter said if he writes something that sounds more Beatles-ish he'll bring it to you and not REM.

Well, of course anything Peter and I write together will be for the Minus 5 right from the get go. Peter writes a lot of music and he doesn't write lyrics so it's been a good partnership. It's something that I had never done before meeting with Peter, to write the lyrics to someone else's music. It's very different from writing the whole song by yourself and it's really hard in a way but I've enjoyed learning how to do it and I think I'm getting better at it.

Has there ever been an occasion where the Minus 5 covered a Young Fresh Fellows song or vice versa?

The only time that ever happened was with the song "Find A Finger." It was a Minus 5 song and for some reason the Fellows started playing it and actually recorded it for a record that came out in Spain. But that's the only time that's ever happened and I think I'd like to keep it that way. (laughs)

It's confusing enough as it is. So, out on tour are you declaring an official winner of the Battle of the Bands? You could have ring girls go around between bands.

We're not going to take it that far. (laughs) It was only three shows in California where we had both bands on the bill and I don't think there's going to be any more. Seeing me in one band a night is enough for anybody.

Is it just the logistics of getting so many people together?

Yeah, particularly with the Minus 5 where everyone is in another band. On the tour we've had slightly different line-ups. Last week we had Ward Dotson playing and we didn't have Ken. And tonight and tomorrow and the next night we have Ken and we added Dennis Diken from the Smithereens to play percussion and stuff because he's a friend of mine and we're out here.

He was going to be at the show anyway, he might as well play, right?

And last night John Wesley Harding got up and did some songs with us and his keyboard player, Robert Lloyd. That's kind of typical.

I read a review of one of those California shows and it sounded like a 3 hour marathon. Do you even take a break?

Well, I wanted to work it out where we didn't have to, but the two drummers just really couldn't play with the drums set up the exact same way. They needed like five minutes to move them around. But I had the idea to segue from one band to the next.

You could have had a brief acoustic set in there.

I could have done that, but it was nice to take ten minutes off.

One of the things I love about the album is that you're perfectly happy to sing about what happened on tour that week or the waitress down at the Krispy Kreme, or taking Steve Winwood to task and arguing that John Barleycorn actually must live. It gives the impression that as you go about your day, anything you see could possibly spur a song idea.

There's no doubt about that. And that Mamie Dunn song literally came form me walking in Athens, Georgia and there was a song in front of a fast food place, it wasn't a Krispy Kreme actually, that said "Mamie Dunn, employee of the month." And I just started singing it in my head and then went to my hotel room and wrote that song and I'm thinking "this is a ridiculous song."

So how do you edit yourself? That one worked out, but there must be ten a day that start off but don't go anywhere.

Certainly. My house is filled with scraps of paper. Sometimes I'll find a completed song that I don't even remember writing. There will be lyrics and chords written down, but I'll have no idea how it actually goes. And every once in awhile I'll find one of those lying around that are pretty good, but most of them are pretty crappy (laughs). In my mind I edited myself without even trying.

That's part of being in a band, you have other people to edit you. I'll bring songs to the Fellows and, for one reason or another, they won't be into it. And if even one person isn't excited about it, I'll just abandon it or do it my own way by myself. There were some songs on the first Minus 5 record that I had started off with the Fellows that were rejected. But I liked them. That's sort of how the Minus 5 got started really.

But even the songs that apparently aren't about anything, there's still some level that makes them not about nothing. For example, there's a certain poignancy to Mamie Dunn. Sure, on the surface he's just singing about a waitress that, now I know, he's never even met. But when it's done you start thinking that you've probably come across hundreds of Mamie Dunns in your life.

That's what I was thinking of. I was thinking about these people when you go to a Burger King or something and there are these people who obviously were housewives or something and now there kids have grown up and they need to go get a job or something. You can still get a job a fast food place and they'll take you when you're older.

So what do you think about bands like Radiohead who are singing about huge lofty things like cloning or whatever Kid A is supposed to be. Or the Smashing Pumpkins and all those Seattle bands that were supposed to be voicing all this teenage alienation and whatnot.

I can't really generalize too much. I take each band on its own. I don't always know what Radiohead is singing about, but I like their songs. I don't have to know what a song's about to really like it. That even goes for ones I've written. I have songs that I don't really know what they are about and maybe years later I'll think, I bet I was thinking about this.. Sometimes the best songs are the ones that just pop out of you.

I know people that get absorbed in the lyrics and interpret everything. I've always been one grabbed by, say, the turn of a phrase. That's why I've always loved Westerberg's songwriting because, along with the sentiment of something like Sixteen Blue or Answering Machine just his ability to manipulate words. And you do it well also.

Well, thank you very much. I think I am affected by lyrics in a similar way.

That's why it's difficult to sing along to a Guided By Voices song because there's no real rhyme or reason to what words are going to come next.

(laughs) But what great turn of phrases. The lyrics that Pollard wrote for "Boeing Spacearium" on the second Minus 5 record; what the hell were those about? But they were absolutely perfect and what I was looking for. They guy's amazing.

And from a musical point of view, there have been plenty of records released in the last few years that get compared to Pet Sounds sometimes thanks to stretching on the part of the reviewer there are plenty of times on these two discs from Good Time Rock and Roll and Great News Around You, where you went full-on into it. You're obviously a big fan. And didn't you just write the liner-notes for a re-released disc?

Yes I did. I wrote the notes for Carl and the Passions and Holland, the two-fer set. That was an amazing thing for me, to get a Beach Boys disc and have it have my liner notes in it. It was so awesome. And Peter Buck did the Beach Boys Love You disc in that series and Dennis Diken did 15 Big Ones. So it's kind of great that three people in the Minus 5 just wrote liner notes for the Beach Boys. But that kind of makes sense.

There was so much of the instrumentation and sounds that were dead-on recreations of Beach Boys.

Well, I didn't do research it scientifically. I didn't listen to the songs and try to figure out what they used. But I've listened to those records so much they've soaked into my psyche. There were certain things that are real specific and unusual like a bass harmonica. No one uses that the only time you hear that sound in pop music is on a Beach Boys record unless your parents had a lot of Harmonicats albums. So that is the real giveaway. You put that on a song people are likely going to think of Pet Sounds, even if they don't know why.

A lot of the other things were me just deciding to go hog wild arranging things. Things like the sleigh bells and stuff, I'm just addicted to that. And I got a lot of that from Brian Wilson. There's no doubt about that.

After the first couple of listens to the record it was tempting to just sum it up as fun pop music that can be cranked out in the basement studio. But with each additional spin you pick up a lot more subtle things such as segues between songs and such. You know, the first time I heard My Drum Set it was just "Wipe Out" with people chanting over top of it.

Yeah, that's right.

But listen to it again and you hear these Middle Eastern sounds and an awful lot going on in it. When do all those subtle things come into the writing and recording process?

That's what is so much fun about making a record, having the time to do any weird little thing you want to try. I'm more able to do that now because we did most of the overdubs for the records in my basement or, in the Minus 5's case, Peter's attic. You can really experiment and mess around as long as you want, as long as you can take it. There's no clock ticking in terms of money. When you get into a studio you have to know exactly what you want to do, at least somebody on my level. I can't go into a studio for three months at $1,000 a day. It's not going to happen. REM can do that so we do our experimenting in the studio, which is really fun. But in my case, if I'm in a studio I need to know exactly what I want to do and knock it out. But for both of these records I did all the backing vocals and keyboards and percussion, all those type of things, in my basement. I could take a lot of time to work on the vocals, which, to me, was the biggest thing. I'm not really happy with my singing on the older Fellows and I know I didn't have a lot of time and I know I'm not a very good singer anyway (laughs) and I don't mind saying that. But I know I can be better when I have the time to really get what I want instead of just getting three passes to sing the song and then moving on to the next one, which is how it has been when making Fellows records in the past.

On the Minus 5 record I had a lot of help from Charlie Francis. He brought the High Llamas guys and him and he did those great backing vocals on "Great News Around You" and "Your Day Will Come." And he's a total Beach Boys fanatic too, so I knew that those were the songs I wanted him to work on. And he did a great job with them.

Even messing with the song structure themselves, but the sound of the Fellows' "Your Truth, Our Lives" it sounds like a live recording.

It was, except for the applause. It was live in the studio for sure.

But it sounded like live in a concert hall and then it drops right into "The Ballad of Only You and the Can Prevent Forest Fires". And earlier when you go from the punk rock of "She's A Book" swoops down into the bliss of "Good Times Rock and Roll."

It's jarring. I love that.

Tell me a little how it was decided to cover "What She's Doing Tonight." That's one of those songs that I've heard who knows how many times, but probably would never remember.

I always loved that song and have the original album. But I give credit for YFF doing it to Rob Seidenberg and Julian Raymond at Hollywood/Mammoth, as it was they who brought it up. I jumped at the idea. Bobby Hart came into the studio in LA as I was recording the vocal. Crazy! Great guy, too.

You also went back in time a bit to cover "Little Black Egg" on the Minus 5 disc. And I know that covers usually play a big part of the live performance both older songs like Johnny Cash and Mott the Hoople and newer ones from Neutral Milk Hotel. Is there any science in choosing a song to cover, or is it simply the one that moves you right then?

More the latter. There are so many millions of songs that I love, it is just a matter of grabbing one when the time is right! Sometimes you find out it is well suited to you. Sometimes you find that you can't really pull it off. Sometimes that doesn't stop you from trying!

Try to explain a little bit of the process when you are directing your friends in the studio. How much direction do you give, and is there ever any difficulty in doing that with friends? And, specifically, when you have Robyn Hitchcock deliver a monologue do you just let him go -- maybe give him three talking points to hit ("Try to mention God's intestines if you can.") -- or how did that come about?

In the Minus 5 I tend to give as little or as much direction as is needed. For instance, with Peter I might ask him to try a 12-string part, but then I'd rather see what he comes up with on his first impulse, as opposed to tell him what MY idea of the part should be. Pleasant surprises that way! With Robyn, I didn't even let him hear the song until he actually was standing in front of the mic ready to sermonize. I told him in advance I just wanted him to do what he does so well! I knew he would come through. And he did! If on the other hand, someone seems initially uninspired or lost, I will make suggestions to try to get them going. But I find with most Minus Fivers this isn't often needed.

The idea of you leading all these different bands and then being a hired-hand of sorts with REM, how do those two things balance out?

I like it actually. It's really different for me. I never thought I would be a hired-hand like that because I really consider myself a songwriter. That's my main thing. I don't consider myself much of an instrumentalist but I can play a lot of instruments a little bit. Enough to get by, which is why I work well with REM because they like to switch around and play different instruments. It's really fun because they are great people and the music is great. It's still super inspiring and a completely different thing than when I'm standing up front and singing all the songs. That's obviously a more personal thing. But I feel so great when I'm standing up there with REM and the sound we're making is so big and beautiful. It's still really emotional and fulfilling.

On a different note, of course the Young Fresh Fellows are famous for being the band that Paul Westerberg hired to play for his wedding. And I'm assuming you were also at Peter Buck's wedding where Grant Lee Buffalo served as the band. I figure you have a unique insight into these matters. So, I ask, what is the secret to being the house band for a rock and roll wedding? You know, is it considered bad form to cover a song from either the bride or groom's band?

Well, Grant Lee Buffalo did play "The One I Love" at Peter's wedding and it was great. But as for being the wedding band, the trick is that you usually have to play a lot of quieter standards that aren't going to offend the old people there. You know, at a wedding you're going to have people from age four to 80. You can't just play for the hipsters who are there. That why, I think, Westerberg hired us. He figured we were one of the only bands he knew who could pull off a Sinatra song or "The Girl From Iponema," stuff that would be okay for the first set. And we sorta did. It degenerated pretty quickly, through. After that it was full on everyone playing smashed and jamming with the Replacements. The minister was playing harmonica.

That's great. Finally, who would you like to see become a member of the Minus 5 in the future?

Oh boy. I think Neil Young really needs to cut loose and play guitar on a Minus 5 song. I think that's an obvious one.

And who is least likely to ever join the Minus 5?

Least likely? (sneering) That guy in Limp Bizkit. He ain't coming near us.