By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
"I didn't really think I was starting a band."
Call these the famous last words of Scott McCaughey: founding frontman of the dead-but-not-buried Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M. sideman-extraordinaire for more than a decade, supporting cast member of Tuatara and backing musician for Robyn Hitchcock in short, a busy, busy man who has somewhat accidentally led a rotating cast of musical characters through seven full-length albums, a handful of EPs and countless tour dates under the catch-all moniker of the Minus 5.
"I thought I was starting a new persona," McCaughey says about the Minus 5's somewhat uncertain beginnings, "where I could use a lot of songs that I had written that I didn't think the Fellows would use, and where I could create sort of a different identity with a different kind of sound not so much the fun-loving rock & roll of the Fellows, but more morose, disturbing kind of songs, which I mostly write."
He laughs. Do not think this is unusual, because McCaughey laughs a lot. If a 1980s indie-rock yearbook were published, the well-connected McCaughey would be a "Most Popular" finalist (and the hands-down winner for "Class Clown"). After all, he led the legendarily "fun-loving" Young Fresh Fellows, a band whose record company once printed promotional T-shirts for the single "Love Is a Beautiful Thing." While the front of the shirt brandished the saccharine sentiment implicit in the song's title, the reverse effectively exterminated any warm feeling that dared approach: Written on the back was the strikingly pretense-free plea, "Fuck You. Drink Brew."
McCaughey's rock & roll raucousness does not stop there. The Minus 5's In Rock led off with the McCaughey-penned instrumental "Bambi Molester." Further down the disc resides the theme song for McCaughey's alter ego, "Dr. Evil: Doctor of Evil." The band's limited edition I Don't Know Who I Am album includes cuts such as "Shut Up," "Tunnel of Lungs" and "Rooting for the Plague" while the not-so-inside joke of The 5's 2003 album, Down with Wilco, is that McCaughey was ably backed by all four then-members of Wilco.
But McCaughey's constant musical activity (this year alone he's recorded with Hitchcock, Tuatara, Grant-Lee Phillips and John Wesley Harding and toured with the Minus 5, Hitchcock and the Fellows through England, the States, Spain, Sweden and Norway) leads to questions about possible obsessive-compulsive disorders.
"You know, it's funny," he says, "because you would think that might be my problem, but I'm not really. I actually feel like I'm kind of lazy, and I just really want to run around and have fun and have drinks with people. But I do manage to get a fair amount done."
It's telling that McCaughey thinks of himself as "kind of lazy." Of course, anorexics think they're fat.
"Good point," he says. "Well, I'm definitely not anorexic. Maybe that should be the headline of the article: 'Scott McCaughey: Not Anorexic.'"
And yet again, McCaughey laughs.
"You know," he says, "people think that a lot of Minus 5 songs, because they're poppy, are kind of fun-type songs as well, regardless of what the lyrics are saying."
Case in point: "Aw Shit Man," track two of The 5's latest and eponymous release, better known as (The Gun Album).
"That song's gotten such different reactions," McCaughey says. "There were a couple reviews that said, 'This is a fantastic record, except "Aw Shit Man" is just a throwaway.' And, of course, to me it's not a throwaway. It's one of the most painful songs I've ever written."
Absolutely. Astride the barely mature, one-minute-and-forty-second riff that is "Aw Shit Man" stands the most nakedly autobiographical lines of the recently separated writer's long and productive career.
As in, "I found another girl that I had to love, aw shit man/She's the kind of woman I've been scared of, aw shit man."
As in, "I'm gonna be an asshole for the rest of my life, aw shit man/I'll never be forgiven by my daughter and wife, aw shit man."
Or as they say on the practice field: Ouch!
"Usually I disguise them and I change things around," McCaughey says of his lyrics. "I make it so that maybe I can understand it, but nobody else can really necessarily figure out exactly what's going on, you know. But that one I just...that's a pretty unusual, really straightforward song for me.
"And I'm OK with a song having those different levels. I mean, if I wanted everybody to just hear the misery in 'Aw Shit Man,' I wouldn't have made it sound the way that it does, because it blows by you pretty fast and it sounds like you're having a revved-up, rock & roll good time. I could've made it a slow blues, but I didn't, so I'm OK with that."
Cue Billy Preston's "Will It Go 'Round In Circles" because McCaughey's need to write "more morose, disturbing" songs, the same need that caused him to stray from the Fellows and start the Minus 5 in the first place, is replaying like a movie on Turner Network Television.
Yes, McCaughey's comic/tragic conflict has been there since the beginning. And despite years of tour travels, the juxtaposition has never been further away than the nearest mirror.