Alan Sculley - Flagpole Magazine
The Minus 5 that rolls into Athens for a show this week at the Georgia Theatre may not resemble the group that would have played in town a decade ago. Back then, the Minus 5 was a true side project for frontman Scott McCaughey, who spent most of his time in the critically acclaimed band the Young Fresh Fellows. The Minus 5 gave singer/ multi-instrumentalist McCaughey a vehicle for songs that were too introspective and restrained to fit alongside the exuberant power pop of the Young Fresh Fellows.
In recent years, the Young Fresh Fellows have gotten together only for occasional live shows (although McCaughey says there is talk of making a new Fellows album). As a result, the Minus 5 has undergone a personality makeover that McCaughey says has blurred the once clear musical distinction between the two bands.
“It has [changed] in the way that we play live and we totally rock out,” says McCaughey, noting that most of his songs now go to the Minus 5. “It doesn’t mean there’s still not a place for the Fellows, I mean, when the time is right. There are certain things about the Fellows that just can’t be recreated elsewhere. That’s kind of this camaraderie we have on-stage.”
A Heightened Sense of Definition
These days, the Minus 5 is essentially a full-fledged band - something that was certainly not the case when McCaughey released the debut called The Hello EP in 1994. Back then it was designed to be a shifting collective of musician friends that would come in and out of the Minus 5 lineup as schedules and projects dictated. Today, a regular lineup has solidified both in the studio and on tour - not that McCaughey is complaining.
After all, today’s Minus 5 often gets called a supergroup, an understandable term for a lineup that includes the likes of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Rieflin (who has worked with Ministry and R.E.M.) and guitarist John Ramberg.
“It’s nice,” McCaughey (pronounced “McCoy”) says of the stability of the Minus 5 lineup. “It’s kind of like the best of both worlds. It’s kind of like we’re a real group, but we can still bring in all of our friends and other people we like and respect and want to work with. It’s kind of cool.”
Of course, in 1994, McCaughey had no idea he would one day call Minus 5 an actual band. “It was a bit of a lark at first, just kind of thinking I’m just going to record all of these other songs that I have, and do them with my friends and people who are passing through town and whatever,” he says. “I don’t really want to call it a solo record, so I’ll just stick a little name on it and we’ll put out this record. I never really meant for it to be a band at all. But the fact that I went to the trouble of picking a name for the project, I guess, means that I thought it would continue on and it would continue to be a vehicle for me to release songs that I have written.”
The original lineup included Buck, as well as Ken Stringfellow and Jon Aur, the founding members of the Posies who also play in the reborn edition of Big Star. Stringfellow, McCaughey and Rieflin are also auxiliary members of R.E.M., playing on that band’s most recent albums and touring with the group.
The activities in R.E.M. - welcome as they are - in fact, keep the Minus 5 from being more of an active band. But a decision by R.E.M. to take a year off after its European tour last summer opened the door for the Minus 5 to swing back into action.
Bring Your Guns To Town
First came the recording of the newly released Minus 5 album. Although it’s technically a self-titled release, it’s nicknamed “The Gun Album,” the result of a number of lyrical references to firearms and cover art that features a pistol. The CD was pieced together over the course of several months and came to involve a number of additional musicians, including the rock innovators in Wilco, who collaborated with McCaughey on the 2003 Minus 5 release Down With Wilco.
“Almost every Minus 5 record is made in a somewhat sporadic fashion, because we’re always working around peoples’ schedules,” says McCaughey. “It’s not like we go, ’We’ve set aside this month, we’ve booked a studio and we’re going to go make a record.’ It really almost just doesn’t really happen with the Minus 5. So we recorded the Buck/ Ramberg/ Rieflin/ McCaughey lineup, which did about two-thirds of the record. We did those in three different sessions, like a December  session when R.E.M. had a month off, a May session when R.E.M. had a month off and then in August when the R.E.M. tour got over.”
A day off on the R.E.M. tour allowed Wilco to play on two songs, “With A Gun” and “Hotel Senator,” and other mini-sessions brought contributions from several other musicians, including Colin Meloy and John Moen of the Decemberists, former Mott The Hoople keyboardist Morgan Fisher and singer Kelly Hogan.
The sporadic recording process never diminished the quality of the six previous Minus 5 albums, and The Minus 5 - a consistently tuneful and well-rounded effort – carries on that tradition. Several songs show an appealing folk-rock influence, including the “Out There on the Maroon” and “With A Gun,” which have a distinct Byrds influence. There’s also Beatles-esque pop on the piano-laced “Rifle Called Goodbye,” raucous rock on “Aw Shit Man” and a bit of mid-tempo organ-fueled pop on “Twilight Distillery.”
Expectations of the Future
McCaughey says audiences can expect the Minus 5 material in the group’s live set to display more juice than the songs do on CD. “When we play live, we’re pretty much a rock band,” he says. “We play quite different from the records in a lot of ways. We’ve introduced more of a rock and roll element to it than I had originally intended.”
After this run of dates, the Minus 5 will remain busy, first working on a second recording session for Robyn Hitchcock’s next CD.
“Well Robyn, in September we did a session,” says McCaughey. “Bill, Peter and I played with Robyn, so it was quite similar to what we had just been doing for the Minus 5 record. We tracked about eight songs. I’m not sure which ones he’ll be using. But we got pretty inspired by that and Robin pretty much said I want my next record to pretty much be this group and have it be an electric record.”
Then this summer, time has been set aside to be John Wesley Harding’s backing band on his next album. “I think he’s ready to do a real pop record again,” says McCaughey. “My vision of it, and the stuff we’ve recorded with Wes in the past, is real electric folk rock. So I’m kind of hoping he’s coming up with that kind of stuff, where we get Peter playing a lot of 12-string and put on some good harmonies and let our Byrds freak flag fly.”