Two Sides of Scott McCaughey

Source: Rolling Stone Magazine
-15 may 2001
Seattle needs a Scott McCaughey. Amid a decade-long subculture of buzzsaw guitar-based gloom rock, McCaughey's dual pursuits, the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5 have provided a pop-savvy and experimental rock set of sibs, respectively, that added some much needed range to the city's occasionally homogenous musical output.
With the release of the Fellows' Because We Hate You and the Minus 5's Let the War Against Music Begin as a two-disc set, McCaughey has pulled the two collectives closer together, with each unit now speaking different dialects within a common pop language. The Fellows dress their pop in garage rock attire, while the Minus 5 has transformed from a revolving collective of McCaughey's picking pals, into a Sixties-sounding pop band, including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, the Posie's Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, and Barrett Martin. Let the War benefits from the extended care, as the set of musicians had the time to craft a pop gem with instrumental embellishments, hooks aplenty and a sunshiny skip to the set of songs that don't always smile lyrically.

As if promoting two releases isn't work enough, this month McCaughey will complete a recording hat trick when he packs up again to promote R.E.M.'s Reveal, as he's been recording and touring with their unit since New Adventures in Hi-Fi five years ago.

Your two new album titles seem kinda cranky. Did you have a bone to pick with someone?

We're trying to draw a little rougher crowd to our shows [laughs]. For the Fellows we just thought it was a really funny title, because everybody thinks of us as a good time band. The Minus 5 title has been a rallying cry for the last four or five years because we like to do stuff that's really noisy and really bizarre sounding. Then this record ended up being really poppy, so the title didn't fit anymore, but its been the working title for three years and we still liked the title so we kept it.

So it's been set up as a boxing match. Have you been getting feedback that leads you to believe one is winning?

There's definitely people focusing on the Minus 5, and then you get these total longtime Fellows fans who just want to talk about that record. I'm fine with that but I don't think there's a clear winner or loser right now . . . either way I win . . . or either way I lose [laughs]. It was a last minute thing to put them together, but I'm glad we did because otherwise one would have had to wait another six months or so and both records are fairly old as is.

Did you worry that the dual package might dilute the attention for one or the other?

Not really. I mean, sure it's a lot of me in one package. But that's OK. Its not like I'm gonna force anybody to buy it. That's Peter's job.

Did you ever think about touring both simultaneously?

We did three shows in Los Angeles with both bands, but I'm pretty sure that was about enough. It would have been pretty murderous for me to do that for a month I think.

You could wear a different hat for each band.

I had that idea. I was gonna wear a suit for the Minus 5, and wear ripped up jeans and a black t-shirt for the Fellows, but that was just too much work. So I just played.

Do the bands represent separate moods?

Sometimes. A lot of it now has to do with who's playing the next show. I like to play new songs, and if I've heard some new songs and I get the opportunity to rehearse them ahead of time, then I'll often put songs now in a Minus 5 show that would have been more likely to end up as Fellows song. If the Fellows don't have a show coming up I get a little antsy. It's a little bit of a mess now. There's a few songs I feel a little guilty about . . . I think, "This should've been a Young Fresh Fellows song." But what can you do. The fact is that the Minus 5 plays live now as much or more than the Fellows. It's not fun to do a bunch of slow quiet songs, which is what the Minus 5 started out doing. We're actually sort of a rock band now.

Will they continue as a rotating collective?

That's what its' supposed to be, it's still that way to a degree, but over the last year we've had a more solid core.

Does that format make learning the songs tougher?

There's been shows when we're backstage literally five minutes beforehand and I go here's the first song, and next . . . And sometimes those shows are really shabby and sometimes they're really good.

Do you feel the two bands still exist separately, or have they bled together?

I do because, the Minus 5 is more my thing, where I have to organize it and supply the impetus. Whereas the Fellows is a band, it's a democracy. And like all democracies, it's probably less efficient than the dictatorship [laughs]. But I think of them as different things even now when the songs could go either way.

Both albums exude pop-ness. Would you describe them as such? And do you have a working definition of pop in an age of teen pop?

It is pop. And people can think of pop as being any sugar sweet radio confection. When I think of pop I think of Sixties radio pop. And that's what influences me. I think of it in the classic sense as opposed to Britney Spears, who I actually . . . kind of like. That's pop music and I can kind of relate to that. One song, "Lucky," is sort of like the boy band sound of a girl group song. And I'm a big fan of girl groups, so I like that song. You could do a pretty cool old style cover of that.

Think we'll hear that from you one day?

It's not out of the question. I've done a Debbie Gibson song when she was big. The Fellows did "Shake Your Love." I like that song, I wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Are there other elements that you think define pop?

My thing lately has been more getting the kind of Brian Wilson kind of pop thing into it. So I like having a whole bunch of acoustic guitars and sleigh bells and tambourines. I like tambourine on everything. And sleigh bells on almost everything. And lots of backing vocals. And I was able to do that more on these two records than I had ever before because we had so much more time. And a lot of stuff was recorded in home studios and places where we weren't spending money, so I could spend lots of time indulging myself.

So the home studio is the way for you?

Yeah, I have a sixteen-track in my basement and Peter has an eight-track that's compatible in his attic so we can take tapes back and forth.

And you don't have anyone looking over shoulder?

Yeah, but we both have families, so its like, "Shut up, you're making too much noise." [Laughs]. And his house, with the twins running in, "Hey daddy!" We get them on tape every once in awhile. My house I try to be really quiet or do it when my wife isn't around so it doesn't bug her because she's a songwriter too and it drives her crazy when she hears a guy in the basement banging on a cowbell for an hour where she can't hear the music, because I do all of this on headphones. It can be pretty annoying. And I won't sing if she's around. Because you don't hear any music there's just a guy down there warbling by himself. Its really awful, especially with my lyrics, you don't want to hear those without any accompaniment.

Have you always felt the need to save John Barleycorn?

I do my part to keep him alive, I'm sad to say [laughs]. I read Jack London's John Barleycorn and then I thought of the Traffic song and just wanted to write a song called "John Barleycorn Must Live" and took it from there. In my own little blurry way, it's my way of discussing my problems [laughs].

It's quite peppy though.

That's what I like about the Minus 5, is a lot of the lyrics are kind of soul baring and dismal, but they sound really nice because the music's really poppy. I like the juxtaposition. That's kind of a sad song, but it sounds really up.

Do you ever see yourself doing the pair of albums again?

No, next time, I'd like to go in and make an album. These albums were recorded over such a long period of time in such a helter-skelter-whenever-we-had-time way. With the Minus 5, it's good to do it that way, because no one is in the same town. But with the Fellows, I'd like to have two weeks in the studio to work on songs.

So have you reached a point where you can chip a song into an R.E.M. album? Or is it still a three-man show?

No, they've got so many songs between Peter and Mike, it's all that Michael can do to write enough lyrics to get an album put together. They don't need any writing assistance, but they let us add things in the arrangements, we all feel like we're pretty much part of the band.