Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5

By Scott McCaughey
Source: Go Metric
In issue #9, Go Metric brought you the world’s first Young Fresh Fellows email interview. Now we bring you the world’s first interactive YFF interview. And we couple that with a Minus 5 chat to boot. How is such efficiency pulled off? By talking with Scott McCaughey, the gent at the helm of both bands. For the soon-to-be-converted, let us back up. Mr. McCaughey has fronted the Young Fresh Fellows since their inception in 1984 (or 1983 or 1980, depending upon whom you trust). Though active since that time, the Fellows last released a cd in the U.S. in the fall of 1992. This once hyper-prolific band has slowed considerably, causing rumors to fly and vultures to circle. In the meantime, Scott started a new band, The Minus 5. They made their debut in 1994 and their revolving door line up has included members of R.E.M., the Posies, Guided By Voices, Smithereens, Wilco, Los Lobos, and Robyn Hitchcock (a member of his own band). Somewhere along the way Scott began touring and recording with R.E.M. too. In the aforementioned GM! interview, Scott promised a new YFF record by the end of ‘98. Two someodd years later, that promise has come true. But it’s not that simple. It never is with any YFF or M5 project. This time the bands’ new cds are being released simultaneously...and together. One package, two cds, two bands. All from the mind of one of pop’s true geniuses. I contacted Scott in order to gain a better understanding of this magical and perplexing cultural event. That conversation yielded the following interview. Is the release of Young Fresh Fellows vs.The Minus 5 (aka Because We Hate You and Let the War Against Music Begin, respectively) the battle for one man’s psyche or merely a thinly veiled and egregiously misguided marketing ploy. Read and ascertain for yourself! (Interview by Mike Faloon)

GM: The other day I was reading the interview we did a couple years ago. You mention songs from an upcoming album, swearing it’ll be sometime in ‘98...

SM: God, that’s just pathetic, wasn’t even close. A lot of it wasn’t even my fault.

GM: Were a lot of the songs on Because recorded around that time and it was just a matter of record company stuff?

SM: Some of it’s newer but there’s stuff that we had recorded back then. I bet there’s stuff that goes back to when it was started, ‘97 or something. We were just doing stuff to keep going. When it finally seemed to shape up that I could do this Malt thing through Hollywood or now Mammoth, then we started focusing on it. We still didn’t have a solid plan. Then when we did and we finished it, that was like in December ‘99, then the whole record label stuff was all fucked up and the record had to sit for another year.

GM: Comparing it to the last two (domestic) records, Electric Bird Digest is the cohesive, all-from-one-session record...

SM: That’s the only record we’ve ever done that’s like that. It was all recorded in one place, in one time, from start to finish. Even Topsy Turvey, the second record we did, was done in a lot of different sessions and spread out over like nine months. We’re the kind of band that, when we have a few new songs, we like to record them. Whenever we learn two or three new songs we’re pretty anxious to put them on tape. We usually have records in progress. And even if we might re-do them, we usually end up liking the first version. Like this version of “Barky’s” on the new record, that’s the third one we’ve done. They’re all from different times. The one that’s on the Spanish record (A Tribute to Music, 1997) was done in the middle of the night when we were driving from Seattle to Minneapolis. We stopped at a friend’s house and he had a studio in his basement. Then the one that you put out (Day Dreaming in an Empty Station Wagon, 1999) was done in our basement, so we probably did that one when we were starting to record stuff, some of which ended up on this record. Somewhere along the line we decided, well, Let’s go into a real studio and record a bunch of new ones and a few other ones we’d already tried and we thought, Let’s try another version. We recorded nine songs one night, we just did basics. We did all of the overdubs at my house or Jim’s basement. It was stuff we could work on whenever we had time.

GM: It comes together real well, I wouldn’t have guessed that.

SM: Yeah, I mean, lots of times with our records, like with Low Beat and Topsy Turvey, that was part of the concept of the record, to have them be real scatterbrained and not necessarily sound all like one band or one session. With this one, we recorded a lot more songs that what’s on there. We tried to pick the ones that made it a really rocking pop album. There are certain ones you can tell are completely different sounding, like “My Drum Set.” That was Tad (YFF’s drummer) and Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America). None of the rest of us even play on it but we thought it was really great and should be on our record. Sometimes we want to lessen the fact that stuff’s recorded all haphazardly and other times we want to show it off.

GM: Are there plans for other songs?

SM: Yeah, we always end up releasing everything. We don’t do singles much anymore, that’s where a lot of our extra songs would end up, but now we’ll give stuff to people who ask for songs for compilations. We’ve always got the Gag Fah idea (Gag Fah is a self-released cassette of out-takes), maybe Gag Fah: Volume 2 will show up sometime.

GM: It seems like the volume of YFF releases comes and goes in waves.

SM: Yeah, that’s true.

GM: Do you think this sparks another upswing?

SM: It’s really hard to say. I have to say that we’re less of a band then we were ten years ago. Everybody does other things and I’ve got a daughter and the R.E.M. thing. Jim’s got a six-month old baby. We always have big ideas, we’re just less likely to carry through with them.

GM: So how did it come to be that the records came out not only at the same time but together, literally?

SM: I think Rob Seidenberg, who runs Mammoth, was the one to come up with the idea. I think he might have been joking but then I thought, That’d be really cool. Nobody’s done that and it’d be like a battle of the bands and either way, I lose.

GM: Taking the glass is half empty approach, of course.

SM: Exactly. As long as it’s a low list price, doesn’t cost as much as double album, that seems really, really cool. There are a lot of people who are Fellows fans who haven’t really gotten into the Minus 5 and there’s a lot of people who are really into the Minus 5 who have never checked out the Fellows. Well, when I say, “a lot of people,” I’m speaking figuratively. At the same time it could be really irritating and that could be really good.

GM: What’s with the antagonistic titles?

SM: Those were picked not knowing the records were going to come out together. Let the War Against Music Begin, we had that title before we recorded anything.

GM: Because We Hate You, is that directed at the world that hasn’t embraced the Fellows or is it directed at the part of the world that has and keeps pestering the band for new stuff?

SM: It’s directed everywhere and nowhere. It’s directed exactly where that finger on the cover is pointing to. We just thought it was funny, so it’s directed at everyone and no one.

GM: You touched on this earlier but I’m curious to how Malt’s affiliation switched from Hollywood to Mammoth.

SM: He (Rob) didn’t really change, Mammoth is owned by Disney. (Malt’s previous affiliation had been with Hollywood Records, also owned by Disney). They had Mammoth and they didn’t know what to do with it. Rob said, Let me run it and see what I can do. So it’s a different label and it’s not.

GM: Right now I have only promo versions of the new cds, there are no songwriting credits. Is “Your Truth Our Lies” a cover?

SM: I think in the liner notes it says it’s a cover, but it’s not.

GM: I thought maybe Kurt got you to record another UK Subs song.

SM: That’s definitely what we were going for, UK Subs, Sham 69. A guy I talked to earlier today said it reminded him of Tom Robinson.

GM: That one line “They practice racial purity in the name of national security” really had me thinking it was a cover.

SM: We had this concept album where we were going to use a different name, The Gun Sharp’ners, which we used on a single before (“Dancing in the Moonlight” b/w “Do You Care Theme,” 1990). We wanted to do a whole album of 1978 political, UK punk. That’s where that song is from. We only ended up writing two or three songs for it.

GM: Turning to the Minus 5 record, with so much talent on the roster, how do you decide which people are going to play on which songs?

SM: A lot of it’s just timing. It used to be really different. The Minus 5 was meant to be slow, quiet downer songs that the Fellows wouldn’t do that many of. Now it’s become less concrete as to how they (the Minus 5 and the Fellows) are divided. What’s happened lately is that the Minus 5 plays live more than the Fellows. Sometimes if there’s a Minus 5 show coming up and I have a new song, I’ll go, Let’s play it. There are certain songs where I go, This is a Fellows song, I’m writing for the Fellows. There’s other ones where this is a Minus 5 song but maybe the Fellows will end up doing one of those. I still write rock’n’roll songs and some of them are kind of funny and if the Fellows aren’t playing, every once in awhile one of them ended up squeaking into Minus 5 territory. Like “Ghost Tarts of Stockholm,” that could have been a Fellows song. But I happen to write it on an R.E.M. tour and was playing it backstage with Peter and Ken, and they’re in the Minus 5, and they both came up with cool parts for it so I started thinking of it as a Minus 5 song. If I have new songs, I just want to play them.

GM: From a fan’s standpoint, the line between the two bands is a lot blurrier. Not only because the new records are coming out together...

SM: A lot of it is because the Minus 5 has changed, has become more of a pop band and more of a rock band. The concept of the Minus 5 and the reality of it have gotten further apart. Let the War Against Music Begin was all going to be super weird, noisy feedback songs that were really slow and quiet, really demented. We recorded 20 something songs and in the end the poppier ones ended up getting picked for the record. Partly because of what people at the record label said.

GM: Did you give them a batch of songs and say, This is my “A” group, so to speak?

SM: Yeah, I played everything for Rob and when I came up with my track listing for what I’d put on the record, he said, It’d be a shame if “You Don’t Mean It” wasn’t on there or “Thirsty Bird” wasn’t on there. Then when I came to terms with the fact that I was going to have to take off some of my favorite real miserable songs, I thought, That’s cool, it’ll be a really poppy record, that’ll be great. And really, I’m probably the only one in the world who cares about the miserable songs.

GM: The latest discography lists a couple of M5 records that caught my attention. One of them being a release on Book Records called Minus 5 in Rock.

SM: That’s where the line is completely blurred. Those are the songs I’ve been playing with Peter (Buck) on bass, John Ramberg on guitar and Bill Reiflin on drums. There’s 10 songs on that record and six or seven of them could easily have been Fellows songs. We put that out to sell at shows because we’re tired of waiting for these records (new YFF and M5) to come out. It’s a cool record, we did it in one day and then I did overdubs at home. Lots of times I’ll do the vocals and keyboards here (at home) where I can take my time. The lion’s share of both records were done like that, doing A LOT of it at home.

GM: Do you get someone else to engineer those sorts of things?

SM: No, I do them. If I’m just recording me or one other person I do it. Like lots of stuff that Peter would record, I’d go over there and record. I help him do his R.E.M. demos and things like that too.

GM: There’s also a Let the War Against Music Begin: Volume 2 listed. Is that in the works or...

SM: That’s kind of a fantasy. I wanted to put all the other songs, the songs that were left off, I wanted to keep them together. I sort of put together a rough version of it but I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Mammoth’s not going to want me to make it available. The only possibility is that maybe if I get a label in Japan to put out the Minus 5 record I could have that be a free bonus cd.

GM: Or maybe someone like Munster Records in Spain.

SM: Yeah, I’m already working on that. There’s a label that wants to do the Minus 5 and a label that wants to do the Fellows, so they’d come out separately. Which I think would be cool. I only want them to be packaged together here (in the US).

GM: If your goal was to come up with the most complicated discography in the history of music I don’t think you could have done as well as you’ve done.

SM: That’s not our goal but we do enjoy that. Although now Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices have really put us to shame.

GM: Book Records, I’ve got one record that’s on Book...

SM: You do?

GM: Yeah, after the last interview you sent a copy of the Evenings in Edenbrook Forest compilation.

SM: Oh yeah, that was on Book. Kurt and I do it (Book), it’s just a total whim, stuff that we think is funny. There’s another one (CD) that came out at the same time as the Minus 5 in Rock, called the New Original Sonic Sound. It’s me and the guys in Mudhoney doing all Sonics songs. We put both those out in October (2000) and we played together and sold them at the show. I mean, the address listed is Book Records, 17 Library Lane, Binding, USA. We’re not even really trying to sell them, we’re throwing money away. But they’re really good.

GM: There are people, myself included, who are interested in this stuff. And try as I may, I’m not going to find Binding, USA.

SM: It’s been left off a lot of maps. I’ll send you info. (See end of interview for more!) I’m not really supposed to hype them too much. Mammoth didn’t want In Rock to compete with the new record. We can sell it at shows and that’s good.

GM: I don’t mean to downplay the influence of Go Metric but we probably won’t be the one to throw the sales curve off.

SM: It’s perfectly actually, the Book Records mail order department can only handle a trickle of orders. If one comes in every three days, that’s just about perfect.

GM: Go Metric is kind of the Book Records of fanzines.

SM: Yeah, you know what it’s all about.

GM: Going back to the YFF/M5 records, were you listening to a lot of Beach Boys. There a couple of points on each record that remind me of the Smile out-takes that I’ve heard. Like the backing vocals during the verses of “Great News Around You,” and some of the closing of “Mamie Dunn.”

SM: There’s no doubt about it. I’m a total Beach Boys fanatic and I like trying to capture some of that late 60s era. There’s no way that anybody can do it really like Brian Wilson but people like to try, and I’ve been one of them. Some it’s, like on the last R.E.M. record, Up, Charlie Francis was the engineer, and the reason Peter, especially, wanted to get him to work with R.E.M. was because he recorded those two High Llamas records which are both super Brian Wilson-influenced records. I knew there were going to be a couple of totally Beach Boys damaged songs on the Minus 5 record and I wanted him to help me with them. I sent “Great News Around You,” “Your Day Will Come” and one other song that’s not on the record to him in London. I’d recorded the keyboards and lead vocals and a bunch of other weird stuff. He basically got Rob Allum and Sean O’Hagan from the High Llamas, they put on all the bass and drums and backing vocals. He knew exactly what I wanted. He did an amazing job, all of those guys did. We were obviously going to the Beach Boys influence thing and, like you said, the weird, spacey Smile kind of stuff.

GM: To me what makes those songs work so well is that you focused on a couple of elements to pull from those records or those eras into songs that you already had going.

SM: Exactly. I didn’t write the songs to be those kind of songs. They were my songs that I felt would lend themselves to that kind of treatment. And yet at the same time, “Great News Around You” also has a bunch of stuff that’s completely off the wall. There’s even a Neil Young guitar solo at the end. I’m never really a purist when it comes to stuff like that.

GM: I think the purist approach tends to yield songs that are less interesting, they’re more like specimens.

SM: Right, I totally agree with that.

GM: The drumming on “Great News” sounds like Hal Blaine was right there.

SM: It’s amazing. I never could have come up with that, that was totally Charlie and Rob. They came up with that whole scheme, that floored me.

GM: It’s totally swimming upstream to do the drums last.

SM: Almost all of the M5 record was done that way. There’s only three songs that I recorded with drums, all the rest were overdubbed.

GM: Usually that would lead to a real stiff record, one of those Steve Winwood, “I did everything myself” affairs.

SM: It didn’t come out like that, you have to worry about that.

GM: Couple of questions regarding lyrics, “The Rifleman,” from the M5 record has some chilling lines. To what extent, if any, is it based on the tv show?

SM: That song is like most of my songs, it might have started with one idea and then I grabbed ideas from all over the place. There’s elements that refer to the tv show, there’s elements that refer to Charles Whitman, the sniper guy at the University of Texas in 1968 or ‘69. The bit about the rabbits, I think that came from a short story I read, it may be a Eudora Welty story.

GM: How about “Barky’s Spiritual Store.”

SM: That is a real place. I walking around Richmond (VA) on a day off on the R.E.M. tour and I walked by this place. That’s pretty literal, it’s the kind of place that sells the things I mentioned in the song.

GM: I think it’s a great opener.

SM: Oh good, we had the hardest time picking an opener. I wanted to open it with “She’s a Book” into “Good Times Rock’n’Roll.” Kurt wanted to open it with “Lonely Spartanburg Flower Stall.” “Barky’s” was the one we could all agree on. Thus, a democracy!