Hold Down The Fort:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
The Minus 5’s
The Minus 5’s
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
If his immense back catalog and 30+ years in the music business is any indication, Scott McCaughey is a man that still has a passion for making music. McCaughey has certainly kept himself busy over the years and it’s hard to remember a time in the past three decades where he hasn’t been creating some kind of melodic noise. He’s been making records since 1983, beginning with The Young Fresh Fellows, and continues to defy expectations with a myriad of bands he’s involved with: R.E.M. (as touring guitarist and studio hand from 1994 to 2011), The Baseball Project (with The Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck), Tuatara (with The Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin and Peter Buck), Tired Pony (with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Belle & Sebastian’s Richard Colburn and that Buck fella again). And, of course, there is The Minus 5 – his most high-profile musical project, which is a collective of like-minded musicians who come and go as they please. At various times throughout their 22 year career, The Minus 5 has included Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies), Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Ben Vaughn, Dennis Diken (The Smithereens) and dozens more. Oh, and that pesky Peter Buck has shown up more often than anyone involved apart from Scott McCaughey himself! The Minus 5 may be Scott’s baby, but he manages to wring the best out of every musician that plays with him, creating a body of work that stands the test of time.
The Minus 5 has created a stunning back catalog of albums that are influenced by everything from Bubblegum to Psyche, Americana to Garage Rock. Their most ambitious project yet was Scott The Hoople In The Dungeon Of Horror, the 2014 Record Store Day-only vinyl LP box that contained five individual albums, all of which were exclusive to this set. Recorded in McCaughey’s studio, The Dungeon Of Horror (where he also stores his record collection), the box contained some of their most exciting work yet. Keeping with the Record Store Day theme, none of the five albums were available in any other format – not even a digital download. Those who were lucky enough to secure a copy have been able to enjoy an incredible assortment of gems, while the rest of us awaited news of an official CD release of that material. Dungeon Golds is the answer to our prayers…sort of. The twelve tracks that make up this release are songs that were lifted from the box set, yet Dungeon Golds is not a ‘best of’ in the truest sense of the word. McCaughey has gone back and enhanced, remixed and upgraded a few of the recordings, making this essential for those that own Scott The Hoople…and those that don’t.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Scott McCaughey about the Dungeon Golds release, the box set and much more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Dungeon Golds is now available. How are you feeling about this release and the reaction to it so far?
SCOTT McCAUGHEY: I think it’s really strong and I think it’s a good way to present some of that stuff. Of course, I’d love everybody to have the entire five-record set, but we knew it wasn’t going to be that kind of situation, so we made a really limited amount of them. People who got it really enjoyed it, but at the same time, it wasn’t like a real promoted release, so I wanted to put something out that the label could do something with. I tried to make it still as cohesive a record that sounded good together, which I think really worked. I spruced up a few songs and did some remixes, so it feels pretty fresh to me still. I only took songs from three of the records on the boxset, because two of the other records, I still think we might want to do a more general release of.
SPAZ: How did you come to choose these particular songs? Was there a temptation to just load it up as much as you could, or did you try to limit yourself?
SCOTT: Yeah, I definitely tried to limit myself. I wanted it to be more or less like a regular record that I would put out and not cram as much stuff from the boxset on it as I could. The way I was able to handle that was by limiting it to (songs from) three of the records. One of the records on the boxset is called Of Monkees and Men and one whole side is about the Monkees, the band, and the other side is about people I knew or other actual real people. If I was doing an absolute best of the boxset I would’ve put songs from that album, but I wanted to leave those and keep them together. One of the other records is called Hellbent For Heaven and it’s all really slow, quiet, dismal weird stuff. I thought, “You know, I’m gonna leave that stuff off too cause maybe I’ll do something with that record as a separate thing at some point.” Dungeon Golds is kind of the poppier stuff off the records – I picked songs that I figured we would probably play live. It’s pretty upbeat. Listening to it, it really sounds cohesive to me. I was really happy with that.
SPAZ: Which of the songs did you go back to and tinker with?
SCOTT: Well, “In The Ground” I did quite a bit to. I added some backing vocals and a guitar and I had Peter re-do his 12-string track and add something else, and then I totally remixed it. That one’s probably the one that I did the most on. Some of them I remixed and edited, so they’re shorter than the versions on the boxset. Like “Chinese Saucer Magnolia” is shorter and I think “Zero Clowns” is shorter. “My Generation” might be a little bit shorter. And then there were a couple songs that I just sort of remixed. With “Remain In Lifeboat” on the boxset, Jeff Tweedy is playing the guitar solos on that song and on the tracks that he had sent me, on the second guitar solo, the one at the end, he had done two different passes of it, and so on this one I decided I’m just going to use the other guitar solo. So, it’s a completely different guitar solo on the end.
SPAZ: The album feels like an ode to Rock music’s vast history, but it also remains uniquely original. Do you find it easy to sort of balance the two?
SCOTT: I hope so. I think part of it is – I hate to use this word – ineptness. People hear The Minus 5 and they refer to The Beach Boys, The Beatles and stuff like that, which is just ingrained in me – I can’t get away from it because that’s just the music that I grew up loving. I also love Ornette Coleman, but I can’t really work that into my music that much (chuckles). Like if I actually tried to do something and I think, “Oh, this would be really cool if it sounded like Genesis or The Beatles or whatever.” I’m not really that good at copying something, so whenever I have something in mind, it never ends up sounding like the thing I had in mind. I don’t feel like I’m slavishly bringing back the ‘60s or the ‘70s or the ‘80s. I love a lot of music from all those periods and a lot of recent music too – it all kind of gets in there. You know, if it’s obvious that I love Phil Spector, I’m okay with that (laughs).
SPAZ: What is your songwriting process like? I’ve noticed that not every song fits into a standard Minus 5 formula.
SCOTT: Well, that’s cool. I like that. You know, I never think about any influences when I’m writing a song. I write the song and then when I start playing it, recording it, or arranging it then that’s when the other stuff comes in. I don’t think of anybody when I’m writing the song. I just have some words and get some guitar chords or piano chords and it’s real, real basic and then it can kind of go anywhere from there. I really don’t know where they’re coming from, but they usually turn out best that way. Once I start recording it or playing it live with other people, I let it go wherever it gets taken because I don’t usually have a real preconceived notion of what I want it to sound like. I love when stuff happens that I wouldn’t expect.
SPAZ: So you do allow creative input from a revolving cast of characters?
SCOTT: Absolutely. Definitely.
SPAZ: Are you the type of artist who feels comfortable at a certain point to let these songs out into the world or if you had time, would you spend years tinkering with them?
SCOTT: That’s a really good question. I worked on the songs from the box set for about two years, but they were just song ideas I had. I would start recording them at my house, not really knowing whether they were going to be demos or if they were going to be finished recordings. Then when I got the idea for the box set, I really got to work the last three or four months and really worked on all the songs and tried to finish them, and get them to a place that I really liked them. Once the idea was firmed up that we’ll do this on Record Store Day, then I had a deadline. So then I thought, “Shit, all this stuff has to be done by November!” Then after that, I couldn’t really think about tinkering anymore. It helped me having the deadline for sure because if I hadn’t come up with the concept, a lot of the songs would be still sitting around and I would still be tinkering with them probably.
SPAZ: Everything on the album was recorded in your studio, The Dungeon Of Horror, right?
SCOTT: There’s four songs that I recorded at a local professional recording studio that I use a lot – Peter Buck and I and all our various bands record quite often at this place called Type Foundry near my house. We went in and we tracked four of those songs: “Adios Half Soldier,” “It’s Magenta, Man!” “Hold Down The Fort,” and “Zero Clowns.” We went in with Peter and I playing guitar, and John Moen and Nate Query from The Decemberists on the drums and bass. We tracked those in the studio and then I did overdubs at home. But all the rest of it was done here in my little basement with the drums set up next to the washer and dryer, and recording stuff in the middle of walls of records that surround me.
SPAZ: You’re surrounded by records in the recording studio?
SCOTT: Yeah. Our basement is just a big open space. There’s no walls in it so I kind of walled off one corner with records and that’s where I work.
SPAZ: Remind me to never become an artist and form a band and record at that studio because I’ll just spend all my time going through your records and go, “Oh wow, you’ve got The Monkees’ Headquarters in mono…”
SCOTT: Yeah, I do! I’m pretty sure actually, because that was my favorite Monkees record when I was a kid. (Short pause) I have the mono Headquarters in my hand right now! (Laughs).
SPAZ: You’ve been a part of the independent Alt-Rock/Americana scene for over three decades now. There was The Young Fresh Fellows, you were the fifth Beatle in R.E.M., there is The Baseball Project and others. Does The Minus Five offer you the most creative freedom out of all of your projects?
SCOTT: It totally does because it’s more my thing. It’s less reliant on other people, although of course those people make incredible contributions to it, and it wouldn’t be the same if it was just me doing everything. But I kind of have the final say on everything with Minus Five. It always comes back to me to make the final decisions, whereas in The Baseball Project and the Young Fresh Fellows – those are democracies. I won’t say that limits creativity, but you do have to sometimes compromise with what other people want. Luckily, we’re mostly on the same page because we like the same Rock ‘n’ Roll and we like to have fun, so the fact that Fresh Fellows is still a band means that we get along pretty well. Even though we don’t hang out all the time now, we still all get along and love each other and love to make music together. But it is a different process when it’s a band that’s a full on democracy. The Minus Five will never be just my solo project at all because I meant it to be a collaboration with people, but if I don’t do anything as far as book a Minus Five show or record a Minus Five song, there won’t be any. Nothing will happen. So I’m definitely the one who has to push that one forward. I wanted Minus Five to be a thing where I could be as creative as I wanted and just have anything goes. That was kind of the whole idea of it because with the Fellows – you want to rock out. I didn’t want Minus Five to even think about rocking out. I wanted Minus Five to just be whatever kind of songs that I wrote – an avenue to record them. As it turned out, Minus Five turned into a Rock band, but that wasn’t ever the intention. It was just supposed to be an outlet for weird and fun recording ideas. But things happen and we started playing live, and once you play live you kind of want to have fun and rock out, so Minus Five became a Rock band.
SPAZ: What’s next for Scott McCaughey and The Minus Five?
SCOTT: We’re going on the road opening the whole tour for Tweedy – Jeff’s band with his son – which will be really, really fun and exciting. Then I go straight from the last show in Denver and fly to Florida, and do a week with The Baseball Project. And then we got a couple of weeks with The Baseball Project in May and I fly straight from that to Spain to do a solo tour, which I’ve never done before. That’s going to be real scary and weird. But it’ll be fun because I can play any songs I want from whatever bands, so it’ll be interesting. I’m gonna play solo shows in April around the Northwest just to kind of get my feet wet to see how I do.
Thanks to Scott McCaughey
Special thanks to Steve Dixon, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky