LIVIN’ LA VIDA ROCKA Scott McCaughey

The multitasking musician on the Minus 5,
Young Fresh Fellows, Robyn Hitchcock, the Baseball Project and, oh yeah, R.E.M.

 

BY JUD COST

 

The judge who
married my wife and me many years ago warned us that if I were to join a third
weekly bowling league, it might cause problems. The learned barrister couldn’t
have begun to envision a life as full to the brim as that of Scott McCaughey, a
man who must have to pinch himself when he wakes up in the morning to see if
he’s hallucinating.

 

McCaughey is
living the musician’s dream: the vida
loca
, a widescreen, full-color extravaganza of sold-out shows with a giant
revolving-door cast of bands that ranges from the legendary (Hall of Fame
members R.E.M.) to the obscure (the Baseball Project, with Steve Wynn) and
somewhere in-between (the Young Fresh Fellows; Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus
Three; the Minus 5). Two of them, in fact, the Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows,
have albums out this month: Killingsworth and I Think This Is, respectively,
both issued by Yep Roc.

 

As though he
didn’t already have enough on his plate, I’ve been hounding McCaughey for
months to record a couple of tracks with the Young Fresh Fellows that would
finish off a tribute album to brilliant songwriter Jimmy Silva, who died in
1994 from a catastrophic reaction to the chicken pox. “Nag away all you
like, professor,” McCaughey emailed me back in typically good-humored
fashion. I finally pinned McCaughey down at his Portland, Ore.
home to update his frenzied lifestyle for BLURT after he’d returned from a bout
of serious exercise….

 

***

 

MCCAUGHEY: I
just got back from taking a bike ride and got some lunch. Since then, I’ve been
working on the fucking computer, doin’ lotsa shit. Typically, I’d be
multi-tasking now, too, but not this time. And I’ll know if you’re watching a
soap opera.

 

BLURT: I’ll be checking out the Food
Network but with the sound off, I promise. Moving to Portland must have been a shock to the old
nervous system.

 

It was total
upheaval, for sure. But I’ve liked it since I’ve been here. I feel quite at
home. I like the music scene a lot. It’s probably a little cheaper, like Seattle was a long time
ago. There’s still more dive bars and taco wagons, the stuff I love. I miss Seattle, but I go up
there a lot. And Peter [Buck] comes down here a lot. I don’t talk about it
much. Everybody knows I got divorced and moved down here.

 

Yeah, we’ll leave that for the paparazzi.
Both new albums-and the last Minus 5 record, too-till a lot of new ground.
There are some familiar but a lot of unfamiliar, middle-aged elements popping
up, like anger, nostalgia, murder, suicide-crazy, unhinged things that didn’t
appear in old Young Fresh Fellows albums. Tell me why this is happening?

 

Wow, I don’t
know. That’s a good question. Lots of Fellows and Minus 5 albums have been
thematically unified. I wouldn’t say concept albums, but they usually have some
kind of theme going through them. But not this time with the Fellows. It’s just
a bunch of great songs.

 

Thematically, you have to admit it’s a
long, long way from “Taco Wagon” to lyrics like “I could never
be your friend after suicide.”

 

Yeah, I guess
so. But I didn’t really think about it that way. I just thought about songs
that would be really fun to play, that would be really rocking and would make a
classic Fellows record. Songs that I thought the guys would like. It’s that
simple. I probably sent them a few songs that didn’t get used, but they
probably wound up on the Minus 5 record. That’s how it often works (laughs). The
Fellows hadn’t done a record for eight years, but we play a couple of shows
every year, and we’d been playing “Your Mexican Restaurant” for some
time. That “After Suicide” song we did five or six years ago, and I
didn’t even remember it until somebody sent me a CD of us playing it live at
the Sunset. I could tell that I wrote it, and we’d obviously rehearsed it,
because it has a bunch of parts, and we played it good.

 

With your busy dance card these days, how
does it feel when you get back together with Fellows Jim [Sangster], Tadd [Hutchinson] and Kurt
[Bloch]?

 

Oh, it’s always
awesome. Every time we get together it’s like we’ve never been apart. We have
our own language and sense of humor that probably isn’t even funny to anyone
else. It’s just hilarious. It’s really, really easy to get back together and
play with those guys. We’re about to do ten days in Spain. That’s as close as we’ll get
to a tour.

 

I’m coming up to your neck of the woods
with Matt Piucci’s new band, boatclub, along with Jeff Kelly and the Green
Pajamas for shows in Portland and Seattle on October 9 and
10. I’m driving the bus, kinda like at low-rent Ken Kesey. I bet you haven’t
seen the Pajamas play since that basement show at Joe Ross’ house in West Seattle more than 12 years ago.

 

I’m sure that’s
the last time I saw those guys. I think they came to Portland once when I wasn’t home, but their
gigs are definitely pretty rare.

 

As rare as a live show by the Fellows.
What’s the current personnel of the Minus 5?

 

It’s typically
me and Peter and John Ramberg (Model Rockets) and usually now it’s Ezra
Holbrook who lives here in Portland,
as the drummer. He used to be in the Decemberists, and he plays with me in a
Pogues tribute band called KMRIA, which stands for Kiss My Royal Irish Ass.

 

Which is also a tribute to the original
name of the Pogues: Pogue Mahone, which means “kiss my ass” in
Gaelic, I believe.

 

Exactly, yeah.
I’ve been doing that for the last two or three years. We just play St.
Patrick’s Day and on Christmas. It’s really fun. So, we’re doing the four Minus
5 record release parties with Ezra, John, me and Peter and Little Sue who sings
a lot of the harmonies on the record. But a lot of the female vocals are by
this group called the She Bee Gees, an all-girl Bee Gees tribute band. I used
them a lot, them and Little Sue. She doesn’t tour much, but she’s an awesome
singer/songwriter with a bunch of records out. I’m totally into her records.
And Tucker Jackson, who played pedal steel on the album, too. At least we’ll
have some representation of the pedal steel and female vocals on the local
shows.

 

But not on the Minus 5 tour with Steve
Wynn in late August?

 

That’s gonna be
totally different. That’s with the Steve Wynn Four and the Baseball Project,
which will be me, Peter, Steve and Linda Pitmon.

 

You told me recently, after you grew the
beard, that some street person in San
Francisco yelled out at you, “Hey, it’s Jerry
Garcia!” When I first heard the new Minus 5 record with all the pedal
steel and female backing vocals-and some of your vocals too-it took me back to
those two Grateful Dead albums, American
Beauty
and Workingman’s Dead.

 

Well, that’s
cool. I love those records. That’s funny, because this guy who plays in the M.
Ward band, Mike Coykendall-I did a lot of this record at his place-while we
were doing that one song, “Favorite Thing,” he tells me, “I hope
you don’t mind me saying this, but on the choruses, your voice really kinda
sounds like Jerry.” And I was like, “Wow!” because I’d never
heard that before, but when I listened to it, I could really hear what he was
talking about. I don’t consider the Dead a big influence, even though I saw
them in the early days and loved ’em. But I’ve been a pedal steel fanatic for
so long, I finally decided to put pedal steel on every song. For me, when I
think of pedal steel, I don’t think of the Dead, even though Jerry did play it.
I think of the Burrito Bros and Poco and then the real thing, the country
stuff. But I first heard a lot of pedal steel from Rusty Young and Sneaky Pete and
Red Rhodes from Mike Nesmith’s First National Band. It’s a great sound and I
still love it.

 

Have you ever tried it, yourself?

 

I’ve attempted
to be a pedal steel player, yeah, but it’s too hard (laughs). It’s hard enough
for me to do one thing with one hand, but both hands, your feet and your knees!
I have played pedal steel on some records, but that’s through the miracles of
modern recording.

 

How did the Baseball Project album come
about? Have you known Steve Wynn for a long time? I know he was once a sports
reporter for the U.C. Davis campus newspaper.

 

I can’t remember
when I first met him. I know I met him through Peter, because they’ve been
friends forever. The first time I saw R.E.M., Dream Syndicate was the opening
band, in 1984. But I didn’t really meet Steve until later. We started running
into each other, and we’d always talk baseball. And we both said, basically at
the same time, “I always wanted to write a song about baseball.” And
he was like, “I’ve wanted to do it, too. Let’s do it together.” OK,
great. Once I had a collaborator I couldn’t just slough it off and forget about
it. He was really fired up and we started sending songs back and forth to each
other, which started getting us more and more excited. Suddenly, we set a date,
and Steve said, “Linda and I will come out to Portland.” I booked a recording studio,
so there was no turning back.

 

Did you write the stuff together?

 

He’s actually
really good at collaborating on songwriting, and I’m not. I kinda clam up when
I’m with somebody else, writing a song. To me, it’s way easier to do it by
myself.

 

Like taking a dump, you’d rather do it by
yourself.

 

[Laughs] Yeah,
exactly! I’m not really good at just sitting there and throwing things out, so
we wrote most of the songs separately. Maybe one or two that we kinda co-wrote.
But then we worked on ’em together and arranged ’em together. He’d say,
“What if we changed this line to this?” We’d edit each other on
lyrics. And Linda was in on a lot of that, too. We tracked it all really fast,
then Peter came down to Portland for one day, and we basically sat him down and
made him play on the whole fuckin’ record. He did it really quickly and
wonderfully. He’s not like a big baseball fan like the rest of us, but he wants
to do the tour because we’ll be playing Minus 5 songs and Baseball Project
songs and Steve Wynn songs and Dream Syndicate songs. It’s gonna be fun, it’s
gonna be a workout.

 

If you had the Fellows onboard we could
all shoot ourselves afterwards.

 

Yeah, I would.

 

Tell me about playing as the Venus Three
backing Robyn Hitchcock.

 

It’s just
awesome. I never would have thought! 
I’ve been such a big fan of his for … God, it’s getting close to 30
years since I first heard [the Soft Boys’ album] A Can Of Bees when I was working at Cellophane Square in Seattle. I
immediately followed all Robyn’s solo things. The Fellows opened for him at Berkeley Square and
the I-Beam, a huge thrill for me, and I actually got to meet him for the first
time. We also saw him do an in-store at that place Denise Sullivan used to have
[Hall of Records]. I’ve got their autographs. Then, over the years, I’d run
into Robyn, and Peter was friends with him. We started collaborating a little.
We started doing these surprise shows at the Crocodile when he’d come to Seattle. Then he came out
to record with Bill [Rieflin], Peter and me, and it just felt so good we just
kept on with it. We’ve made three complete albums, one of ’em still unreleased
and done tons of touring in the past three years.

 

Hope you don’t think I’ve been a pain in
the ass about the Fellows contributions to the Silva tribute album we’ve been
putting together over the past two years. It was great to hear that you guys
cut two tracks at Conrad Uno’s Egg studio.

 

I’ve put tribute
albums together, myself, and it’s just a fucking bitch. You don’t have any
control over it. If people don’t give you a recording, there’s nothing you can
do about it.

 

Just about all we need now to finish it
off would be Roy Loney cutting Silva’s “Big House.” I think he’s going
up to Seattle
to record with the Sangsters and maybe Tadd at Egg. If you’re in town, that
would be perfect.

 

The classic
Longshots! We cut our tracks at Egg last week, but Jim has to go in and overdub
some acoustic guitar.

 

Jed [Bill Jedrzejewski] and Uno just
finished recording an unreleased Jimmy song called “I’ll Never Go To Sea
Again” at Egg.

 

Yeah, Uno played
it for me. It’s awesome.

 

OK, let’s talk about that other band.
What’s happening with R.E.M. these days?

 

Well, we’re
basically on a year off. The tour ended around Thanksgiving. As it happens,
we’ve gotten together to do a little recording, just throwing down instrumental
tracks. We got together in Athens for a few
days, then Mike and Peter came to Portland
and Bill came down and we got a studio for a week and banged out twelve or
thirteen instrumental tracks. They sounded really great. There are no plans to
get into the studio again until the end of this year. I could see by January we
might start recording. But the next record won’t come out, I’m guessing, until
2011. They were just demos, but the stuff we recorded sounded fantastic, so
we’ll have to see what Michael comes up with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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