Scott McCaughey – The new math
The genesis of the Minus 5 is somewhat intertwined with Buck’s relocation to Seattle shortly after R.E.M. recorded its Automatic For The People album there in the summer of 1992. The Fellows had recently released It’s Low Beat Time, a scattershot collection combining sessions with renowned alt-rock producers Butch Vig and Doug Easley, longtime Seattle compadre Conrad Uno, and Memphis funk/soul legend Willie Mitchell.
At the time, guitarist Kurt Bloch’s other band, the Fastbacks, was enjoying a career upswing with a series of well-received Sub Pop releases, while bassist Jim Sangster had become a fixture in country-rock band the Picketts (fronted by McCaughey’s wife, Christy McWilson). McCaughey, meanwhile, found himself writing a lot of “strange, folky, downer songs,” as he puts it, which weren’t particularly characteristic of the Fellows’ reputation as a generally upbeat rock band.
“I just wanted to go in and make a record like that, kind of more inspired by stuff like Big Star’s Third,” he says, adding with a smirk: “And I wanted to do it exactly how I wanted to, without it being a democracy. And so, that’s kind of how Old Liquidator came about.”
Old Liquidator primarily featured Buck and the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer backing McCaughey, with NRBQ’s Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino and the Walkabouts’ Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson guesting on a couple tracks. It came out in 1995 on East Side Digital but barely registered a blip on the radar, partly because McCaughey was largely unable to support the record with a tour. He spent almost all of ’95 on the road with R.E.M., who had just released their Monster album and were touring for the first time in six years.
Buck recruited McCaughey for the R.E.M. sideman spot after having observed firsthand his versatility as a musician. “I’d done records with him where he had played keyboards and bass and other stuff,” Buck said. “He also wasn’t prone to Eddie Van Halen-isms. He’s very knowledgeable about the way arrangements work.”
McCaughey pulled off a minor coup in acquiring major-label distribution for the next Minus 5 record, allying his own new imprint, Malt, with Hollywood Records for 1997’s The Lonesome Death Of Buck McCoy. As its title suggests, the album was more of a collaboration with Buck than a McCaughey-helmed vehicle.
“I was just like, well, I’ve got all these songs that aren’t really appropriate for my band, and Scott just liked them,” Buck recalls, explaining that he mainly wrote the music, with McCaughey subsequently adding lyrics. “I would make a tape of a couple songs and give them to him, and he’d come back a month later and have finished them, and then we’d go on to the next one.”
Lonesome Death also marked the beginning of a practice that is “becoming a pretty normal thing with the Minus 5 — tape shipping,” McCaughey laughs. “Peter recorded some of that with Todd Rundgren in Hawaii, and Robert Pollard recorded his bit in Ohio….I had to transfer stuff to ADAT; it’s this constant hassle with the Minus 5, using all these different formats and then trying to sync them back up. Something always goes wrong, but eventually we get it right.”
Even more (and farther) long-distance recording was done for Let The War Against Music Begin. “On this one, Morgan Fisher [former Mott The Hoople keyboardist] recorded his stuff in Japan,” McCaughey says. “And a lot of the stuff was done in London. And Dennis Diken [of the Smithereens] did his drums in New Jersey.”
Diken is a longtime friend who played on McCaughey’s one and only solo record, My Chartreuse Opinion (originally released in 1989 on PopLlama, it was reissued under the Minus 5 moniker by Malt/Hollywood in 1997). But Fisher, who appears on two tracks, is a more unlikely suspect to surface within McCaughey’s realm.
“I’d met him in ’95 in Japan when R.E.M. was playing there,” McCaughey explains. “He came to the show, and he didn’t know anybody, but he somehow came backstage and told our tour manager that he was there, and our tour manager came in and said, ‘Well, there’s this guy Morgan Fisher here, does anybody wanna meet him?’ And Peter and I were like, ‘YEAH!’
“So we ran out there and met him, and that was really exciting and really fun, and then we ended up getting together with him the next night, going to a bar with him and his wife. He and I just kept in touch since then, writing each other and sending each other music and stuff. So I’d mentioned, would he ever wanna play on something, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, in a second.’
“To have someone from Mott The Hoople play on a Minus 5 record is a pretty big thrill for me for sure,” McCaughey admits — which begs the question of whether there are other specific ringers he’d love to recruit for a future Minus 5 album.
“Well, you know, Neil Young; I’d really like him to join up for at least one guitar solo sometime,” he says after a moment of contemplation — and maybe only half in jest. “I actually kind of fantasized, since I actually met him a couple times last year, that I wanted there to be this big Neil Young guitar solo at the end of ‘Great News Around You’, the first song on the record. And there kind of is — but it’s not Neil. But the guy who did it, he did a great job, and I was super-thrilled to have him on the record, he’s from the Revillos, this guy Kid Krupa. I’m a huge Revillos fan, so that was really exciting too.”