By Barbara Mitchell
The Portland Tribune, Jan 11, 2008
If you’ve been to a local show by the Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie or Wilco over the past four years – or if you’ve witnessed on stage Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding or KMRIA, the Pogues cover band featuring members of the Decemberists, during that same time period, you’ve probably wondered who the cool-looking guy is with the unruly hair, huge grin and sunglasses.
If you’ve seen the Minus 5, a Northwest supergroup of sorts that typically includes R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, you already know that the individual in question is Scott McCaughey – one of the hardest-working and most beloved members of the Northwest music community.
Although he moved to Portland from Seattle in 2004, McCaughey’s busy schedule has kept him away for much of that time: playing shows and recording with the Young Fresh Fellows, the Seattle garage-pop band he started in 1982; recording and touring with Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3; touring and recording with the Minus 5; and being involved in the recording of a wide variety of other albums, including the upcoming R.E.M. record.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to know a bunch of great musicians since I’ve been here and made a lot of friends,” the gregarious McCaughey says, “but then I leave and I don’t see anyone for six months.”
That hasn’t prevented him from assembling a local version of the Minus 5, the band he started in 1993 as an alternate outlet for his prolific songwriting.
In addition to McCaughey and Buck, this weekend’s show at the Doug Fir features longtime friend and ex-Dharma Bums/Maroons member Jim Talstra on bass and Dr. Theopolis’ Ezra Holbrook on drums.
Although the standard lineup over the past seven years has been McCaughey, Buck, guitarist John Ramberg and ex-Ministry/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin, McCaughey explains that “the very original concept of the Minus 5 was that it could be revolving with a lot of different people in it.
“And once you’re in, you’re always in,” he says, laughing. “Once you’ve played a note on a record or gotten onstage, you’re in forever – like it or not!”
To date, the Minus 5 roster has included the band Wilco, which collaborated with McCaughey on 2003’s “Down With Wilco” album; Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones; Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard; Colin Meloy from the Decemberists; Chris Ballew and Jason Finn from the Presidents of the United States of America; Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies; Grant-Lee Phillips; Nick Lowe; John Wesley Harding; Robyn Hitchcock; and more.
While part of what has attracted that kind of star power is proximity (McCaughey is a longtime pillar in the Seattle music community and has served as an auxiliary member of R.E.M. since 1994), most of what attracts other musicians is his upbeat and remarkably uncompetitive, supportive personality.
He was one of the earliest supporters of bands like the Posies and Death Cab for Cutie and is unfailing in his championing of new and upcoming artists.
“With Death Cab, I was totally fired up to do something with them, do anything I could to help them, because I knew they were a great band,” he says. “Some people view attention as a limited resource, but you refract it into an unlimited resource.
“I’m really happy for people who do well in music. I really am. I’m lucky, and I love it when bands get successful. It’s just awesome. It makes me happy. You want the good guys to be successful and do great.”
“If Scott wouldn’t have moved to Portland, I think he might have been able to transition his influential position in Seattle’s music community to a legitimate run for the mayor’s office,” Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard says, laughing.
“Since I met Scott 10 years ago, he has been both a source of inspiration and a reminder that music should never cease to be fun. Seattle misses him very much.”
With an upcoming schedule that includes the recording of a new Minus 5 album (using a wide variety of Portland musicians) putting the finishing touches on new Young Fresh Fellows and Robyn Hitchcock albums, completing the recording of a baseball-themed album with Steve Wynn, playing two shows in his Nick Lowe cover band to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of Lowe’s first album, and hitting the road with R.E.M. in March – not to mention potentially touring with Hitchcock in the fall – tonight is one of your last opportunities for a while to see this talented musician on a local stage.
Soon, Portland will miss him, too.