R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Jeff Tweedy and the Decemberists know this secret

Scott McCaughey's one of our very best songwriters. We discuss his new CD and steal news of Peter Buck's next album

Published March 25, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey      (Yep Roc Records/Michael E Anderson)
Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey (Yep Roc Records/Michael E Anderson)

The ever-affable Scott McCaughey has worn many hats: leader of Seattle indie-pop flagbearers Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock sideman, resident San Francisco Giants fan in the Baseball Project. But since 1993, he’s also led the Minus 5, a ragtag rock 'n' roll collective with a rotating lineup of musicians and collaborators, including most notably (and most consistently) R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck.

Over the years, the Minus 5 have released a slew of records and EPs. However, in 2014, McCaughey unveiled perhaps his most ambitious project yet with the band: a limited-edition, five-LP boxed set dubbed “Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror.” Much like other Minus 5 releases, these records included contributions from an all-star cast of musicians: R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. the Smithereens’ Dennis Diken, and Decemberists members Jenny Conlee, John Moen and Nate Query.

A few weeks ago, McCaughey and co. released “Dungeon Golds,” which contains a selection of songs from “Scott the Hoople.” The collection is a loving homage to fuzzed-out garage, psych-rock, ‘70s classic rock and quirky pop songwriting. Ever the tinkerer, however, McCaughey buffed up, edited or changed several of the “Scott the Hoople” songs before they appeared on “Dungeon Golds”--including the jangle-pop delicacy “In the Ground,” a strangely uplifting song about what happens after someone dies. In a bittersweet twist, this particular song features contributions from McLagan, who passed away suddenly in December 2014.

Salon recently caught up with McCaughey about “Dungeon Golds,” his experiences with McLagan and his latest musical endeavors, including details on a new Peter Buck solo LP. In the meantime, McCaughey says he was fresh off a few days spent with Alejandro Escovedo; the pair had just wrapped up writing some songs together “for [Alejandro’s] next record, hopefully a record that we’re going to do together,” he says. “We wrote six or eight in a few days and they run the gamut. Some really garage-y rockers and some really pretty ballad-y type stuff. But it’s hard to know what they’ll end up sounding like because it just depends on what kind of album we want to make and what kind of treatments we do to them.”

How on earth did you choose which of the songs from the massive “Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror” boxed set made it on “Dungeon Golds”?

It wasn’t easy, because I like all the songs on the boxed set. First of all, I thought, “I’m not going to release all these records separately,” because one, that would make the boxed set less cool and two, there’s just no record label in the world that would want to do that. But I wanted more people to hear it other than just the 750 people who got the boxed set, so I came up with the idea of doing a compilation.

The way I dealt with it was I talked to Yep Roc and said, “Do you think that maybe we could also release the ‘Of Monkees and Men’ record by itself?” Because a lot of people seem to really, really like that record, and it holds together really well. So they were cool with that, so I figured I can release that by itself, just as it is, sometime. I won’t take any songs from there. And then I thought I wanted to do a different version of the “Hell Bent for Heaven” record, which is the really quiet, dismal album. [Laughs.] I wanted to do a revamped version of that, and I had a lot of ideas for how I could do that sometime in the future, so I eliminated all those songs, too.

So I narrowed it down to just three records that I was culling from. It was still really hard, but I basically went with stuff that I’ve found myself playing live in The Minus 5 over the last year. I wanted it to be a record that if we went out and played, that those would be likely songs that we’d play.

And yet you even remixed and added things and buffed up some of those songs even further.

I did; I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. But also I wanted the record to be different for people who maybe have the boxed set; they would at least get some new treats out of it. I was satisfied with all the versions already, but certain ones I thought, “Oh I could make this a little better.”

I think “In the Ground” was the one that benefited the most, even though the version on the boxed set is awesome. I just did little things that probably a lot of people wouldn’t notice, but it made it a lot nicer for me, like I had Peter [Buck] redo his 12 string, because he had done it on the live track and it was kind of fuzzed-out, and I thought it would be really nice to have it be really that classic, chime-y, Peter Buck sound. So he redid that, which was very nice of him.

Then I added a guitar line that I’d played it live, and then somebody had come up with something that sounded cool, and I thought, “I’ll put a little guitar line in there.” Then I did further backing vocals, and by the time I did all that I thought I should totally change the mix and--not to get too geeky--but change the whole stereo spectrum, like where you put a guitar that might have been in the middle all the way to one side and that kind of thing. So I changed the whole mix and I thought it came out really great. I was really happy about that.

The new version of “In the Ground” really stood out to me as being really poignant. Especially because Ian McLagan’s on there.

I had redone the new mix and all that before Ian passed, and I was really, really happy with it. A lot of people have said to me, “I think this is one of the best songs you’ve written,” and all that, so that was really cool. But then when the thing with Mac happened, I was just like, “Oh my God. This is just too weird, too weird.” It is really intense, I know now when I play it live it’s going to be really intense, because I’m going to be thinking of him. Even though it’s a song about death, for me, it’s a relatively positive song.

What was it like working with him?

I wasn’t even there when he recorded that stuff. I sent him the songs, and he recorded at his studio in his house where he had his Wurlitzer electric piano and his Hammond organ and all that stuff, so I can’t say that I took part in it. But we talked about it a lot, and we hung out a lot and I was like, “Hey, would you ever consider playing on one of my records?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, for sure.” He’d always made jokes about it before, like, “Nobody ever asks me to play on their records” and “I’m very reasonable,” and all this stuff. “My rates are quite good!” So I finally got up the courage to ask him and he was like, “Yeah, of course! It would be great.”

It took a while to get it done, because he had other things going on, but it was fantastic. I said, “Just be Mac. I could hear electric piano on this, I could hear Hammond on this, whatever,” and he knocked them out. I was really thrilled with them. And I did see him a few times after that as well, so I was really, really happy.

In fact, last SXSW we were doing a show--it was a live recording thing, and it’s actually coming out as a Record Store Day live release this April. But we were doing The Minus 5 and the Baseball Project, like three songs each on this thing, and he wandered in while we were playing “In the Ground.” Josh Kantor was playing keyboards--he’s the organ player at Fenway Park for the Red Sox, and he plays with the Baseball Project a lot, but he was playing with the Minus 5. He’s playing Mac’s part, and Mac walks in and he was just like, “Oh my God!” [Josh] was like, “I feel so weird that you walked in while we were playing it.” And Mac’s like, “Aw, it was great, mate! You sounded fantastic!”

When you put together “Dungeon Golds,” did any overarching themes stand out to you?

On the boxed set, the songs were grouped more thematically. On [“Dungeon Golds”], you get a little bit of a hodgepodge. But it’s all me, and it’s all my point of view, pretty much. It’s probably not quite as unified as they were on the individual records on the boxed set, but I grouped them more as a musical thing than as a lyrical thing, I would say. It’s pretty poppy and it’s pretty straightforward for me. There’s not a bunch of really weird stuff on there or anything. I picked poppier songs from the psychedelic record, and the more straightforward stuff from the other two records, too; from [the] “Without a Gun” [LP], I left off some of the more downer lyrical moments, perhaps. So in a way, for me, it’s a pretty uplifting record, if that’s possible considering half the songs are about death. Totally uplifting.

But it’s uplifting in the way Robyn Hitchcock writes about death. He’s weirdly optimistic.

Yeah, we’re all going to die; I don’t know why I bother writing about it so much. I don’t feel like it’s because I’m getting older, because I think I’ve always done that. But I don’t know, it’s a good topic because it’s always there. It’s everywhere, so it doesn’t make sense not to think about it. And I don’t think about it in a really morbid way, I don’t think, either. In a way, maybe like you said with Robyn, it’s just in a more accepting way.

You always have so many different people playing on every Minus 5 record, but especially with this one. And yet it is actually remarkably cohesive for all the different people on there. How does an album like this come together for you?

When I did that boxed set where there were 57 songs, I did four songs that I tracked live with a band in a studio, only four out of the 57. All the rest of them I built from scratch in my basement. So those songs, not surprisingly, I think all four of them are on “Dungeon Golds,” because they really sound of a piece, and they fit cohesively even though I had different people overdub on them.

Then a lot of the rest of it, at least the guys playing drums, were people who I play with a lot in Portland or Linda [Pitmon] from the Baseball Project. I play with Linda so much. So if you think a basic track is me playing guitar and somebody playing drums, which is kind of how a lot of them happened, they’re people that I’m really familiar with. And then the other stuff you throw on top, you always hope for surprises from what people are going to put on. Even though it’s people I know, so I kind of have an idea of what they’ll do and I think, “Oh, this will be the right person to play on that,” you don’t mind being surprised.

Like Jeff Tweedy, all the lead guitar stuff he put on--he did, like, six songs. I wasn’t there when he did them; he did them in Chicago. I sent him the songs I thought would be cool and mentioned my ideas. He went completely contra to everything I suggested. [Laughs.] So when I first heard the guitar parts that he put on, I just was shaking my head and laughing, because they were so original and bizarre and not what I expected. It made me so happy, [because] they’re amazing.

It’s so interesting to send this music off to your friends, and then it comes back and you think you know what it might be, but it might be surprising.

It is, it’s a weird way to do things. It’s going to be the way things go from here on in, there’s going to be so much long-distance recording, because it’s just so easy to do now. It just made perfect sense with Jeff and Mac. So I’m getting pretty used to it, I’ve done it a lot. And I do it the other direction all the time, like Peter [Buck] and I have our little sound factory in my basement where whenever somebody wants him or I or both of us to play on a record, they just send us the tracks, we bang them out, and send them back to them. So we’ve played on tons of records that we weren’t there for, believe me.

It’s like you’re a phantom musician on those.

It is really odd, but it’s just the way things are going, too. It would have been great to be there to watch Jeff on his guitar parts or Mac to play his things, but then at the same time I probably would have gotten involved and would have made suggestions and stuff. It’s better this way that he was able to do exactly what he wanted without any input from me. That’s a really cool thing. Ask me again when I ask somebody who I really worship to add something to one of my songs and they send me back something that I hate. Luckily, that has never happened yet.

You have played with Peter Buck for so long, in many different bands and configurations, including with R.E.M. For you, is there any difference now playing with him on his solo work and doing his solo live shows?

It’s totally different, because he’s invented this whole new guy, this whole new persona, this crazy blues man who writes and sings his own songs, which Peter never did. He wrote some of the music with R.E.M., but he’d never written lyrics or sung before, so it’s a really strange thing for him. He never seemed to have any desire to do it, and now he’s created this guy who does that and it’s really amazing to watch.

I saw the tour that you guys did with Alejandro Escovedo last year. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because I saw R.E.M. so many times, but I really enjoyed it. It was so different.

It is nothing like R.E.M., believe me. There’s very few songs on his solo records where he even plays at all in a similar style that he plays in R.E.M. It’s a completely different style. Actually just this week we pretty much finished his third album, we got 11 songs mixed. It’s going to be the first one, I think, where he wrote all the songs by himself and sings lead on all of them. On the first couple records I would help him finish a few lyrics here and there, maybe sing on a song or get Corin Tucker to sing or somebody else. But this one I think is going to be all, 100 percent songs by Peter Buck, sung by Peter Buck. It’s with the same band and everything, so it still sounds of a piece with the other ones, but it’s going to be really awesome. It’s really good.

Is that coming out some time this year?

Again, usually with Peter, he likes to do everything really fast, so as soon as the record’s finished, he puts it in motion and it comes out in a couple months. It doesn’t matter to him, he’s not doing it like typical people do: “We’ve got to set up a tour and we’ve got to send out promos three months in advance.” He doesn’t send out any promos, he doesn’t do it around live shows or TV shows or anything like that; he just does it because he wants to do it. But the problem with this one, we realized, is [drummer] Bill [Rieflin’s] going to be busy, there’s not really any time that he can play any shows, and he’d like to at least play a couple shows when the record comes out, even if it’s just around here.

I still don’t expect him to sit on it, just because he’s not the kind of guy to sit on something when it’s finished. So I’m hoping it will come out in the next three or four months, and then hopefully we can figure out some way to do a few shows if Bill has any downtime at all.

You were also part of the Super-Earth project last year [with Peter Buck, Corin Tucker, Krist Novoselic and others], what happened with that music? Did you guys finish something? 

Well, the record’s done, except we didn’t mix it, because we knew that there was no way we could release it for at least a year and a half, because we knew Sleater-Kinney was going to happen and Corin was very adamant about she didn’t want it to come out while that was going on or have anything distracting from them coming back. So that is one case where Peter knew we made this record, but we can’t do anything with it until the time comes. He’s already got that one sitting in the can, and it’s awesome. It’s a really cool record; we’re all really excited about it. We just had to put it completely on the back burner and not have to think about it. I think we’re going to mix it this summer, just so we have it completely finished and it’ll be ready when Corin thinks it’s time that she can do something.

When the Minus 5 started all those years ago, did you expect here in 2015 you guys would still be such a busy, ongoing concern?

Probably not. Seriously, when I started the Minus 5, I didn’t even really consider it a band. To me, it was just going to be a recording project where Peter and I could do whatever we wanted and make really weird music and do it for fun and hopefully a few people would buy the records. But I never even thought that it would be a band or a live thing at all. It’s completely turned into a different animal than what we had originally envisioned it as, for sure. It was just going to be a studio side project where we could get our friends and trip out and have a good time and hopefully a few people would be interested in listening to it. All of the sudden we became a rock band. I don’t really know how that happened.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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