The Minus 5 (not only) Down with Wilco

By Carsten Wohlfeld; translated to English by Dunja Wittwer
Source: German Rolling Stone
Scott McCaughey has a simple rule to look out for new band members: Everyone who played once with the band, is included forever.

"The rule is: Whoever did anything with The Minus 5, no matter if live or in the studio, is a band member. Forever. No matter if they want or not." Says Scott McCaughey, the man behind the loose musician collective from Seattle, almost cracking up. His great humour is well-founded. Although only few in Europe know him as head of the cult band Young Fresh Fellows - active for 20 years now - or as mastermind of Minus 5 - which musician can tell that he is playing in a band like the Minus 5, who've been joined in the past by legends like Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, Soft-Boys-Mastermind Robyn Hitchcock, Lee Ronaldo, Mary Lou Lord, Jon Auer of the Posies or Jason Finn (The Presidents Of The USA), as well as various musicians of NRBQ, the Walkabouts and the High Llamas?

Who else could also claim - without being called a liar - that in the current main cast of his band guitarist John Ramberg (chief of the highly-praised insider tip The Model Rockets and part-time co-author of the great Neko Case), is the least-known musician, because Bill Rieflin - drummer on all important Ministry-records - plays drums, Posies-founder and Big-Star-part-time-bassist Ken Stringfellow plays organ, and Peter Buck - the soul of R.E.M. - plays bass and the Rickenbacker like before John Lennon?! Right - NOBODY. Besides Scott McCaughey.

That he apart from all this also is active with the instrumental-combo Tuatara, accompanies R.E.M. on all of their gigs since the middle of the 90s and has been a co-worker on various R.E.M.-records, is just noted here.

Much more important is that Scott McCaughey added four more top-class names to his remarkable collection of combatants: Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, John Stirratt and Leroy Bach, collectively known as Wilco! Nobody should wonder that the result was a hilariously old-fashioned, but in no way frumpy record, appropriately titled "Down With Wilco". An album that does McCaughey's addiction to psychedelic 60's sounds justice as well as Peter Buck's dead-sure pop-sensitiveness and the country-eske lateral-thinker mentality of Wilco. The record also documents the long way the Minus 5 have been going since their debut album "Old Liquidator" almost 8 years ago.

"It's right, the band was never meant to be a rock band in its very own meaning. Time just told that we just played most of the shows with certain people and were always having a good time", recollects McCaughey. "This just happened, not to say it was an accident. To collaborate with Wilco for the new record was a conscious decision."

It was everything else than a problem that McCaughey's usual co-workers had less work this time because of the appearance of Wilco. After all, all band members have enough other projects to spend their time with. "The Minus 5 are Scott's thing, and I am happy to be involved, and I think that I will most likely always be involved somehow. "says Ken Stringfellow. "Despite of this, Scott must do exactly what he considers to be right on his records. It doesn't matter who else is involved. On the first record, Scott and I almost played everything on our own, on the second I play a lot of bass, but from that point on it got a bit blurred. I've played all kinds of instruments on Minus 5 records, and it is absolutely fine with me that I just left some musical splashes on this one, especially because that might very well change again in future."

We can say Thank You for "Down With Wilco", the 4th regular Minus 5 work, also to the narrow-minded bosses of "Reprise Records", as it was the fact that Wilco had been kicked by their label short before the release of their last year's masterpiece "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", that made the collaboration between Scott McCaughey and Tweedy possible, without a label being entitled to interfere.

"I know Scott for years now, and he is one of the most gorgeous people I have ever met. We've been discussing for ages now to do something together, but due to various reasons it didn't happen until now", says Jeff Tweedy. "At last, we recorded 17 songs in 8 or 9 days, and I am very happy with the result."

There are very good reasons for some quite dark songs that have made it to the record, despite of the positive atmosphere that surrounded the project. "Very simple", says Tweedy, "the day we started with the sessions was September 10th, 2001." And Scott McCaughey adds: "Of course the 9/11 disaster had a big influence on the record. How could it not? We all have been devastated. On the 1st day in studio, we already recorded 2 or 3 songs, everyone had so much fun, and we couldn't wait to continue. And the next morning, hell broke out. Like all other people, we have been completely helpless and just totally desperate. We haven't even been sure first if we should go on with the recordings. After having spent the whole day in front of the TV and still being broken-hearted, Glenn called and said 'I have to distract myself somehow, let's just go into the studio and record something! Let us do at least something positive today!' That evening, we recorded 'I'm not bitter' and a rather fast Rock 'n' Roll version of 'The Days of Wine and Booze' which didn't make it to the record at last. The reason for that is that Jeff came to me on the last day of the recordings and said: 'you have to record the song again, play it very slowly on the piano!' So I sat down at the piano and played the song that way for the very 1st time. Later we added a few overdubs. I am very grateful for Jeff's idea because the song sounds so much better this way!"

This kind of reveals a totally new way of working on a Minus 5 record, because so far Scott McCaughey - who btw claims that he played shows in front of 8 but also 125.000 people - always had been the autocrat.

"As the boss of the Minus 5, I am in first line organizer and pathfinder, as I do everything on my own without a manager or a booking agent. Thus, I am sitting in my office with my computer and my small recording studio and all my records and kind of get started. And this is going to be very interesting this year, as not only the record is being released, but we also want to go on tour, and it is not that simple to find a timeline where Wilco and R.E.M. and all bands where the Minus 5 musicians are active in, aren't busy with other things. Concerning the recording itself: Usually they happen step by step. I record a part at home. Then I would invite people and they play their parts, or I go into a studio, and somebody adds drums, or I send the tapes to Japan and Morgan Fisher plays an organ part without me being actually present. The new album is a real co-production, that's why Jeff and the other guys are mentioned as co-producers on the album cover. I often just played the songs once or twice on piano or guitar, and then they did the arrangement. And that was often much more powerful than everything that could've come to my mind. 'The Old Plantation' for example simply was a drone-guitar-song with two chords, and Wilco almost made an Al-Green-vibe out of it. That was another song where Jeff told me to not play guitar but piano."

That sounds interesting, because Scott McCaughey started The Minus 5 ten years ago mostly because he was searching for a project where HE ALONE would be responsible. And now he just gives it away without complaining?

"I respect the Wilco guys so very much that I didn't mind at all. I had so much fun working together with them so closely, and after all I am used to that for 20 years now with the Young Fresh Fellows" tells Scott McCaughey. "Albeit, it is right that I founded The Minus 5 to be able to do all the things that would have been neglected by the Fellows. The incredible creativity from Wilco made it so very easy for me to agree to the collaboration."

And exactly this is what makes the album a winner. "Down With Wilco" is a record whose sources of inspiration certainly lay back in the past, but with lots of feeling and much more competence the protagonists succeed in making the sound of today, oh what do I say, the sound of TOMORROW out of the sound of yesterday. Pop with fantasy at its best!