By Dan DeLuca - Inquirer Music Critic
AUSTIN, Texas - Scott McCaughey is feeling sinister.
Taking to an outdoor stage on a sunny afternoon at the South by Southwest Music Festival, the leader of the Minus 5 is dressed in black, from cowboy hat down. The frizzy-haired, 51-year-old rocker smiles from behind dark shades and a devilish Van Dyke. The words emblazoned on his guitar strap - Doctor of Evil - suggest he's up to no good.
McCaughey (pronounced McCoy) will bring the Minus 5, including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on bass, to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
In Texas, he performed before a multigenerational crowd in the backyard of the Austin roadhouse Threadgill's, at the Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social, held to honor the leader of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, who, McCaughey proudly says, once autographed his Les Paul.
He steps to the microphone to introduce a song from the 5's seventh and newest CD, The Minus 5 (Yep Roc ***½), which is also known as the Gun Album because of the firearm pictured on its cover.
"I know there are a lot of kids here, so I'm trying to avoid profanity," says the songwriter. When he's not playing with the 5 or his first band, the Young Fresh Fellows, he tours as the second guitarist in R.E.M. "But in this next one, it's part of the song. It's about the trials and tribulations of life as an adult."
He's speaking of a vise-tight blast of self-directed fury that's the one wholly autobiographical song on The Minus 5. It's a mea culpa about bad midlife male behavior called "Aw S- Man," with the phrase interjected between lyrics such as, "I'm gonna be [a jerk] for the rest of my life" and "I'll never be forgiven by my daughter and wife."
And while it's by far the hardest-rocking salvo on The Minus 5, the record is full of delightfully catchy songs like "Rifle Called Goodbye" and "Out There on the Maroon" - songs that marry the beguiling British Invasion-inspired melodies that have been McCaughey's trademark with creepy tales of emotional and physical violence.
So, Scott McCaughey, have you been in a dark, twisted mood of late?
"Somewhat, yeah," he says, still high from watching the bristling performance by Erickson that followed the 5's own set. "A lot of things happened to me in the last couple of years. I split up with my wife" - Christy McWilson, of Seattle country-rock band the Picketts - "and it was my fault. I'm estranged from my daughter," who's 17.
Which brings him back to that song about bad behavior.
It's "not the kind of song I normally write," he says. "I disguise them in poetic lyrics, usually. But that one came out, and it was like: 'Well, I guess I could record this.' Maybe against my better judgment.
"It's funny, though: Everybody seems to think it's a funny song. People come up to me and say: 'That's a really funny song. You must have been laughing your head off when you wrote that one.' It's the same with another song on the record, 'Cigarettes, Coffee and Booze.' People seem to think it's an anthem or something. But I wasn't laughing: I was crying my head off when I wrote them. I was in a bad, bad, bad space."
McCaughey, who now lives in Portland, Ore., formed the Young Fresh Fellows in 1981 with Chuck Carroll. As a hungry-to-hear-everything record-store clerk, McCaughey loved everything from the Kinks to Generation X to Jackson Browne. "Those first four Jackson Browne album were great records, and they really made me want to write songs. I was writing horrible songs, it was a little embarrassing. But they inspired me to write."
The Fellows' Beatles-to-jazz-to-country approach earned them "the punk-rock NRBQ" label from frequent touring partner Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. "We were also shambolic like they were; touring was pretty disastrous, actually, but fun." The Fellows received some radio play for their 1987 single "Amy Grant," and when Rolling Stone called them "a cross between the Buzzcocks and the Lovin' Spoonful," they thought they'd made it big.
They hadn't. But McCaughey kept on, and in 1993 he formed the Minus 5 with Buck as the "slow, dark, psychedelic cousin" of the Fellows. The 5 were not conceived as a band, but as more of a free-floating enterprise with guests, like Colin Meloy of the Decembrists, who stops by to sing "Cemetery Row" on the new album.
Over the years, the line between the two bands has blurred. In 2001, when the 5's Because We Hate You and the Fellows' Let the War Against Music Begin were issued together as a double CD, their aggressive pop songs with wicked lyrics were virtually indistinguishable.
McCaughey is never short of side projects: He has a Nick Lowe cover band called the Lowe Beats that he convenes every year at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival, and he plays in Buck's experimental ensemble, Tuatara.
And then there's his R.E.M. gig - he's been on every tour since 1995 - which keeps him in the black. That doesn't make him a rich guy, McCaughey says: "They pay me very, very generously, but I don't get royalties or anything. But it's allowed me to continue to be a professional musician. I haven't needed another job."
Seems like he's always looking for one, though. The 5 served as Robyn Hitchcock's backing band on a new album by the eccentric English songwriter that's due out this year. They'll tour the Far East and America with him, as well. And while R.E.M. takes the year off, McCaughey and Buck plan to back up John Wesley Harding on an album and tour.
When not on the road, McCaughey's in Portland with his new girlfriend. "My ex-wife and I are pretty friendly, but my daughter's very angry with me. It's a tough situation," he says.
"But I'm having some sort of new life in Portland, and it's great, and a lot of good things have happened to me, too. I feel bad about a lot of stuff, and I feel guilty about a lot of stuff... . But being guilty doesn't do a lot of good. This record was about having to get this stuff out. And now I feel I can move on a little."