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Subtract two from R.E.M. and you get The Minus 5

Scott McCaughey is involved in so many music projects, it's amazing he has time to finish them all.

The Seattle singer and multi-instrumentalist formed acclaimed alt-rock band Young Fresh Fellows in 1983. A friendship with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck led them to start up The Minus Five (initially a loose collective), in 1993. Buck invited McCaughey to tour with R.E.M. a year later; he's been an adjunct member ever since.

The pair are also regulars in experimental group Tuatara - which just put out "East of the Sun" (Fast Horse) - and Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3.

On 2006's stellar "The Gun Album," The Minus 5 has crafted its strongest effort yet with guest appearances from Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Colin Meloy (the Decemberists), Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger), Ken Stringfellow (the Posies), John Wesley Harding and others.

I caught up with the jovial McCaughey (pronounced "McCoy") at his home in Portland last week.
Q: This is your first Inland Empire appearance. I was surprised to see The Minus 5 on the bill.
A: From looking at the concert program, they seem to book mostly tribute bands and we do mostly originals, but we're a class act and hopefully people enjoy it. We'll try to keep my obscene stage patter to a minimum (laughs).
Q: For the most part, the latest CD is more accessible than previous efforts. Was that a conscious decision?
A: Not really...It was all about stuff that was going on my life. I split up with my wife. Most of the songs have to do with that and aren't far from the usual themes of Minus 5 records, which are booze and death (laughs). Drinkin' and dyin' - that's what the Minus 5 is all about.
Q: Did the gun references in the lyrics happen naturally?
A: It came out over a two-year period when a lot of turmoil was happening. I realized which ones were thematically linked and I knew (those) would go on the record.
Q: Although the core Minus 5 lineup now consists of you, Buck, R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin and John Ramberg, there's usually a bunch of high profile guests in the studio. When you're recording, do you call up friends up and say, "I have the perfect vocal part, come on down?"
A: On "Cemetery Row," I wasn't happy with my ability to sing it. With every Minus 5 record, I try to get other people to sing a lot because I get tired of my voice (laughs). For "Cemetery," I thought I'd ask Colin (Meloy) if he wanted to do it. He just lives right down the road from me. Within a week, he came over, sang it and it turned out great.
Q: What can you tell me about the next R.E.M. album, due out in spring '08?
A: We were in Ireland last month and played five shows at (the Olympia in Dublin), a small venue where we basically did all our new songs, like working rehearsals...Then we went to the Irish countryside and recorded for three weeks. It was an old farmhouse converted to a studio. No distractions. There wasn't even a town or village. The record is sounding fantastic.
Q: Early word is it's more rock-oriented than "Around the Sun." True?
A: Yeah, it still sounds like R.E.M. I'm basically playing loud electric guitar, which is great.

Q: Do you do a broad range of Minus 5 material in the live set?

A: We do things from pretty much all our records, with more of a focus on the last few. We know a fair amount of covers and we might throw in a Young Fresh Fellows song, you never know.

Q: Last time I caught you play was with the Venus 3 and Robyn Hitchcock at the Coach House. You seemed to have a lot of fun up there.

A: We do. We love playing with Robyn. He’s a guy I’ve been a huge fan of over the years and got to know him and be in a band with him. It’s always entertaining with Robyn and the music’s just incredible. He’s such a great songwriter. Obviously, every night it’s a little different onstage. You never know what he’s going to say. We made the one record with him and did like another 20 songs for a new one. So we’re hopefully going to keep doing stuff with him. It’s like another band now.

Q: Good to hear. Do you get as much of a charge playing live now as when you started in the early ‘80s?

A: I do, actually. It’s different every time. There are times when you don’t get a huge crowd and wonder ‘why are we doing this?’ That happens. But once you start playing, it’s great. And you know why you’re doing it because you love to play music.

Q: A couple weeks ago you did a Young Fresh Fellows gig at a Seattle festival. How’d that go?

A: SeaFair is a big thing. Everybody goes out to the lake and watches the hydroplanes race and the Blue Angels fly overhead. They wanted to make it a music happening as well and booked a bunch of bands. We played for an hour at noon until the Angels did their air show. We were kind of opening for an air show. It was pretty Spinal Tap, but we had a blast playing. We hadn’t played in about 11 months... We had a gas. We’re all kind of excited about playing. I think we’re actually going to record in November.

Q: I'd read once that you were into doing a new YFF CD and the others were not.

A: If we could all set aside the time, I think everybody would be into it, but we haven’t…I’m probably the biggest stickler because I’m gone on tour so much. I’m not even around for six months out of the year; maybe more. Plus I live in Portland now and they all live in Seattle. We seem excited to do stuff now. We’re going to play club shows in Portland and Seattle in November and Robyn is going to come out and produce our record. That’ll be interesting.

Q: Oh yeah. Have you started the new Steve Wynn album?

A: It's still in the planning stages. We’re throwing songs around and working on writing a record. We were planning on doing it in Oct.-Nov., but the schedules are getting convoluted. Hopefully we’ll still get it recorded this year and put it out in the spring because it has a baseball theme.

Q: I still have to get the new Tuatara CD, which just came out.

A: It’s totally different because it was vocals [this time]. It’s not an instrumental record. For us, it’s an experiment to have vocals. Peter, Kevin Larson and I did a lot of backing tracks, sent it out to people and said, ‘write lyrics and sing on it.’ We had Gary Louris, Mark Eitzel, John Wesley Harding, Dean Wareham from Luna and I did some. It’s really cool. There’s actually a second volume coming out in the fall. We did so many songs. Barrett wanted to divide it up thematically. The second one will probably be more ethnically-oriented like a lot of Tuatara stuff has been. The first one is almost regular songs with a spaghetti western vibe and stuff.

Q: Now that you’ve had a chance to live with “The Gun Album,” are you satisfied with how it turned out and how it has been perceived?

A: Oh yeah. I think it came out fantastic and have loved playing the songs off it live. I wish we could’ve toured a little more on it, but that’s the way it goes. We’re busy…it got great reviews; they usually do. I’m not ever thinking they’re going to sell a whole bunch. It’s fine. It’s a limited thing. We do a month or so of gigs when we can. Then it’s hit or miss. I’m really pleased with the record. I’ve been writing another one. But it’s the timing thing. I’m going to be so busy with R.E.M., there’s no point of putting out another Minus 5 record until next fall. That’s probably going to happen with the Robyn Hitchcock record too because Bill, Peter and I are going to be busy with the R.E.M. record. So we wouldn’t be able to tour any Minus 5 or Robyn Hitchcock shows. We’ll see.
Posted on 02 Sep 2007 by Stoffel
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