by John Kenyon - PopMatters
It was 1989, and the Replacements seemed poised for stardom. The band's second major label disc, Don't Tell a Soul, was slick and radio ready. They were on MTV, occasionally on the radio. Finally, the only band that mattered was about to break through.
With that in mind, it seemed unbelievably cool that, in the liner notes for the disc, in small type at the very bottom, were the letters "LLYFF." Newcomers who liked the cut of Tommy Stinson's jib in the video for "I'll Be You" probably thought it was some sort of record company code. But for longtime fans it was a code of another sort: "Long Live Young Fresh Fellows." That band of Seattle goof-rock misfits had accompanied the 'Mats on a recent tour, following the ultimate endorsement issued by Paul Westerberg two years earlier, telling Creem: "If you think we're good, they're the best band in the world."
It was a nice shout out to the little band from the big band. My how things change.
The Replacements flamed out soon after that big disc as fans figured out that production gloss couldn't cover for weak songs, and the mainstream seemed to think even the few remaining edges were too much. Two years before the grunge kids who worshipped at Westerberg's altar made dissonance and unwashed hair marketably hip, the 'Mats were giving it their last best shot and failing.
Head Fellow Scott McCaughey, in comparison, was just starting to take steps that would lead to a career renaissance a decade later. He issued his first solo record in 1989. My Chartreuse Opinion was a real departure. Gone were the Fellows' garage-stomping joke rock fun times, replaced by a more dour, serious sound that used McCaughey's keen sense of lyrical wordplay in new and more enlightened ways.
He formed the Minus 5 four years later, following the same template from that solo disc, but this time was augmented in the studio by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Jon Auer from the Posies, and Ken Stringfellow of both groups. It seemed that McCaughey had found a way to indulge both sides of his songwriting artistry: The Young Fresh Fellows equaled fun, the Minus 5 equaled serious.
While his champion, Westerberg, embarked on a solo career that seemed to make all the wrong moves, McCaughey kept cranking out discs with both combos. As the Fellows receded into the background, the Minus 5 took on more prominence. By the time of 2001's double disc set featuring the Fellows' Because We Hate You, packaged with the Minus 5's Let the War Against Music Begin, it was getting harder to tell the two apart. Since then, the Fellows' haven't entered a studio and McCaughey is again left with one songwriting outlet. As such, the three most-recent Minus 5 discs have been his best, mixing downbeat quiet and quick, bright pop. It's a blend that has made McCaughey a critical darling. Now it's Westerberg who is in the basement cranking out little-heard lo-fi masterpieces, and McCaughey who has a slick, well-promoted stab at stardom in the racks.
McCaughey said there is a certain drive that propels both musicians, the waxing and waning of careers be damned.
"What else could we do? Even when [Westerberg] changed his own scene and quit being the rock 'n' roll mad man and started making records in his basement and hanging out with his little son, he still had to make records," McCaughey said. "I think I would do that too if I had to stop touring, which I don't want to do. I probably will tour until I'm 70 years old, as long as they can prop me up there."
He's touring now behind what many critics are rightly calling the Minus 5's strongest disc to date, a self-titled album that McCaughey refers to as "The Gun Album" because of the handgun that graces the cover and the many lyrical references to guns within. The disc is the band's most straightforward musically; McCaughey said it is his most straightforward lyrically as well, though he said this about a disc whose first song begins with the line "The quartermaster baked a radio" and piles humorous lyrical absurdities atop one another until the end.
"I actually felt like I tried to make this album more direct and more accessible," he said. "I'm trying to be pretty direct in a lot of ways. I realize a lot of it is stuff that can be interpreted anyway you want to interpret it."
He said his songwriting process is such that he tries to trust what comes out as opposed to trying to do something specific. In this case, the songs on the new album are straightforward, at least to McCaughey, because that's what came out.
"And I was able to keep myself from disguising stuff too much," he said. "These are some really intense feelings. If people take them as autobiographical, they can, or they can say, 'McCaughey is writing another weird song.' I have a consciousness to let that be, to let a straightforward song just be straightforward. I do rewrite and do edit, but the final criteria is that it flows off the tongue."
As for all of those guns -- which populate songs like "With a Gun" and "Rifle Called Goodbye" -- McCaughey said he's not sure where they came from.
"A lot of the album is foreboding," he said. "They sort of came up for different reasons, then there are a few that I probably threw in when I felt the theme coming on. It's a weird record, but I feel somehow conceptually it holds together."
The Minus 5 started as a sort of revolving indie supergroup, but in the past few years has settled into a fairly consistent lineup featuring R.E.M.'s Buck, former Ministry (and current R.E.M.) drummer Bill Rieflin, and John Ramberg. McCaughey said that his songs are completely written when he enters the studio, but the arrangements and instrument choices are highly collaborative.
The revolving cast has evolved to become a stable of guest stars who pinch hit on several tracks. Familiar names like Auer and Stringfellow are joined by newcomers like the Decemberists' Colin Meloy. Wilco, who backed McCaughey on 2003's aptly titled disc Down With Wilco, also is featured here.
McCaughey said he does pick certain people for certain parts, having reserved high harmonies for Stringfellow, for example. His fellow R.E.M. sideman was busy during these sessions, however, so Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson stepped in.
Bringing new people into the project - "new blood", as he calls it - is nice, he said. A fringe benefit of using Meloy on the track "Cemetery Row" is that the legions of loyal Decemberists fans are checking out the Minus 5.
"I didn't really think of it at the time; I didn't really know they were that popular," he said. At a recent show, he said, Tthe indie kids were out there. They were probably saying, 'Who are those old fuckers up there?' But I think we won them over."
The track is among the best on the record, achieving more with a great melody and Meloy's decidedly more supple pipes than McCaughey could have accomplished on his own. He said experiences like that make him contemplate a project like Stephin Merritt's 6ths, which finds the Magnetic Fields songwriter penning tracks sung by various alternative heroes.
"I loved the 6ths. I think about it a lot, think about it every record," he said. "On Down with Wilco I wanted Jeff [Tweedy] and John Stirratt to do lead vocals on a couple of songs. They were a little hesitant to do it."
Despite the energy injected into the band by the various guest stars, McCaughey said he increasingly enjoys playing with what has become a solid working band.
"I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages," he said. "It's great to play shows where you're with three or four guys who know 50 songs. It feels like a band, it's a great thing. When it comes to recording, I can record with other people. But we've been playing together so much, it felt right."
Of course, McCaughey already has a solid working band; or rather, a solid resting band. the Young Fresh Fellows haven't recorded since 2001, but they do still get together occasionally to play. He said the group played an "awesome" show earlier this year, and he's trying to get it together to play another when the current Minus 5 tour ends.
If the Fellows do record again, McCaughey said it will be a "tricky situation". The Minus 5 has become his sole songwriting outlet, so there is no longer a clear delineation between a Fellows song and a Minus 5 song.
"It used to be more like, 'This will be a Fellows song,'" he said. "The Minus 5 ones were the slowed down ones and the Fellows ones were the fun rockers. It was along those lines, and then it got really blurry. The Minus 5 is now a rock band, which it never really was."
No matter what he writes and no matter the name or makeup of the band that records it, McCaughey plans to keep writing and playing music. Reminiscing about the late 1980s again, McCaughey said he isn't sure he would have foreseen his current career if asked to predict the future.
"Maybe if you'd asked me back then when [Fellows album] The Men Who Loved Music came out if I was going to be doing it 20 years from now, I'd have said yes, but thinking I'd probably still have a job. I don't really have a job now."
Still, McCaughey seems leery of sounding cocky, minimizing his band's status and again drawing comparisons to Westerberg.
"Westerberg is a genius; I don't think he ever needs to do anything more than write songs and sing them," he said. "My living is a little more tenuous. I don't get those movie offers and stuff like that, and I'd like to do that sometime."
"The business side of things is a little more supportive of the living now," he added. "It's a little easier now to get your music out there and get a little return for it."