FOREWORD: More of a biography of longstanding Seattle DIY artist, Scott Mc Caughey, than anything else, the following piece goes through the busybody’s rambling career fronting indie rockers Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 and his stint in REM. He became the bassist in Robyn Hitchcock’s band, Venus 3, and on occasion, puts out Minus 5 albums for his cult audience.
About a decade before grunge sprouted wings in Seattle, there were two terrific bands hopping around the West Coast displaying their homebred DIY skills: the Fastbacks, led by confectionery pop genius Kurt Bloch, and the Young Fresh Fellows, fronted by frolicking marvel Scott Mc Caughey. Reliant on good time rock and roll and insouciant revelry rather than the clinically depressed lyrics and sonic noise pandemonium of serious-minded grunge pupils the Melvins, Mother Love Bone, and Nirvana, the Fastbacks and Fellows were party troopers sharing beers with migrating Tucson-bred hillbilly-bent country-rock jesters the Supersuckers.
Despite differing social outlooks and life experiences, a common regional bond and two renowned producers – Conrad Uno and Butch Vig – united these thriving disparate artists. Ironically, Scott and Kurt’s feel good bands outlasted downtrodden financially successful proteges Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Hole (though Vedder’s Pearl Jam and Buzzo’s Melvins still stand). Meanwhile, Mc Caughey’s side project with REM’s Peter Buck, the Minus 5, are making rounds with some pretty cool sounds themselves.
“Seattle has a self-deprecating beer drinking attitude,” Mc Caughey insists. “It’s not that they don’t take music seriously, but it’s not a big city. It’s a modest atmosphere. No one takes success for granted.”
Growing up a San Franciscan Beach Boys-Beatles fan and now proudly part of REM when not busy with the latest Fellows lineup and the increasingly popular Minus 5, Scott Mc Caughey began 4-tracking reel-to-reels at home by the early ‘80s.
“Back then, you’d get by if you were in a cover band playing taverns. Original bands were in the punk scene and they’d have to hand out flyers to play the Odd Fellows Hall,” Mc Caughey remembers. “You’d play for an hour, then the police would shut you down. At Roscoe Louie Art Gallery, there’d be punk shows in Pioneer Square downtown.”
Worthy early recordings such as ‘85s ludicrously amusing Topsy Turvy, ‘87s more melodically assured The Men Who Loved Music (featuring the kitschy motorific slingshot “I Got My Mojo Working”) and its collateral Refreshments EP (with the ridiculously juvenile “Beer Money” and unjust leftovers) gave Young Fresh Fellows a core audience. Mc Caughey, balking stylish image and teen idolatry, managed to survive those lean years by recording spontaneously and touring moderately.
“It was DIY by necessity then,” he explains. “People got good at making their own records. We made a record with Conrad Uno and stations played it. We rented a van, drove cross-country, and played before there was an (underground) circuit.”
‘89s fabulously nerve-wracked This One’s For the Ladies achieved an embryonic apex, gathering the horn-rasped ska rip-up “TV Dream” and a spunky cheery-eyed spoof on white gospel singer “Amy Grant.”
“This One’s For the Ladies was the first Fellows record with Kurt Bloch. We were all revitalized (after ‘88s lesser Totally Lost). We were inspired and prolific, recording 35 songs, keeping 16. Kurt’s one of my best friends, one of the best guitarists, and a great songwriter with the Fastbacks. It was great how he added three to four songs to forthcoming Fellows records for extra flavor,” Mc Caughey offers.
Following ‘91s flimsy Electric Bird Digest, the Fellows got to work on several tracks with famed Memphis-based Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell and legendary local lo-fi Sonics engineer Kearney Barton for ‘92s livelier It’s Low Beat Time.
Mc Caughey recollects, “We were really into‘60s instrumentals Willie did, like “30-60-90,” and his work with Al Green. He warned, ‘You don’t wanna do instrumentals. No one listens to them anymore.’ But once he saw we were sincere, he agreed to work with us. We told him we weren’t looking for a hit record. He thought we were nuts.”
But Barton understood the Fellows no-hit predicament and glass-ceiling dilemma first-hand. Though the Sonics had a great provincial following and now qualify as garage-rock progenitors, their notoriety grew subsequent to minor national ‘60s missives.
“We’re huge fans of Barton’s records. He operated a studio a few blocks from Conrad Uno. We recorded straight to 2-track. He mixed everything on the fly. I took Teengenerate and the Smugglers there for sessions,” Mc Caughey interjects.
Concurrently, Mc Caughey and REM’s Peter Buck assembled revolving unit Minus 5 with indie pop wunderkinds the Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow), setting the stage for an initial self-titled ’93 EP and ‘95s capricious Old Liquidator.
“Peter had just moved to Seattle and I had all these downer quiet songs that were different – forming a psychedelic folk core,” Mc Caughey recalls. “Bizarrely, a friend of mine working Hollywood Records A & R signed us for (‘97s) Lonesome Death of Buck Mc Coy. When he switched to Mammoth, he eventually brought the Fellows along. But I started working with REM and couldn’t promote the records well. Schedules conflicted, but we had modest expectations and a small budget.”
Along the way, Mc Caughey became a pivotal figure in deserving underground outfits such as singer Ernest Anyway’s loopy Squirrels and Barrett Martin’s Jazz-tweaked troupe Tuatara. During ’97, he spent one weekend hooking up with Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken for ‘99s solid solo set, My Chartreuse Opinion.
From there, ‘01s uniquely fascinating twin split discs, Let The War Against Music Begin (Minus 5 with a boatload of collaborators) sidled by Because We Hate You (Young Fresh Fellows with Presidents Of USA’s Chris Ballew in tow), reached an effective dual peak. The former favors moodier retreats such as sensitively optimistic “John Barleycorn Must Live” and karmic Beach Boys-spiked “Great News Around You.” The latter recreates exuberant ‘60s AM radio pop with spiffy Boyce-Hart remake “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight,” terse punk expulsion “She’s A Book,” and sly psych-garage reinvention “My Drum Set.”
“I try to have a thread running through records. Because We Hate You was gonna be a return to Men Who Loved Music with references to bands and the music scene. “The Ballad Of You & The Can’t Prevent Forest Fires” concerned a fictional ‘60s band I made a song about. “Fuselage” was about my basement studio and (the self-congratulatory Pet Sounds knockoff) “Good Time Rock And Roll” is about touring with the Presidents. “Your Truth Our Lies” we tried to make sound like early punks Sham 69,” he shares.
As for Let the War, Mc Caughey avows, “I wanted it to be pretty, poppy, and upbeat, though the lyrics are sad and horrible. I wanted that dichotomy. Originally, it was gonna be a weird downer record where things fell apart. But I saved those songs for (‘03s German mail order-only) I Don’t Know How I Am.”
Arguably Minus 5’s finest album, ‘03s illuminating Down With Wilco flips the script as a rootsy therapeutic low-key retreat. Given free reign to mold faultless acoustic adaptations, the subtly complex laid-back digressions and serendipitous neuroticism of nimble alt-country Wilco luminaries Jeff Tweedy (guitar-keys) and John Stirratt (bass) fit the extended combo’s oeuvre without alienating pop-minded supporters.
Released in limited quantity during 2000, Minus 5’s vigorous In Rock (Yep Roc) received proper distribution in ’04 (with the addition of four new tunes). Starting with the fuzz-toned neo-psych 87-second blazer, “Bambi Molester” (honoring same-named Croatian surf instrumentalists), a skewered titular horror theme ensues. There’s the grave “In A Lonely Coffin,” cynically perplexed organ-deepened “The Night Chicago Died Again,” accusatory “Lies Of The Living Dead,” and demented Doors-draped diatribe “Dr. Evil.”
For festive relief, the bouncy glam-rock ascension “Cosmic Jive” befits nouveau Seattle garage denizens Visqueen while “The Forgotten Fridays” glides through Byrdsian choral harmonies and Tommy–era Pete Townshend guitar chords before drifting into the ether.
‘60s prodding aside, Mc Caughey deduces, “It’s like the Rutles. They made fun of the Beatles but captured their early innocence. You may say “The Girl I Never Met” summons softer Beatles fare like “Norwegian Wood” or “Michele.” In Rock’s vinyl version includes “Little Black Egg” by the Nightcrawlers.”
Making cameos alongside Minus 5 mainstays Mc Caughey, Buck, and Bloch on In Rock are Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, and old pal Ballew. Veterans Bill Rieflin and John Ramberg furnish a sturdy rhythmic foundation.
But touring is out of the question since Mc Caughey’s recording a new REM album in the Bahamas.
“I’m proud to be part of REM,” he humbly admits. “I met Peter after he got our ’84 record (the Young Fresh Fellows developmental debut, The Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest). While in Seattle, he mentioned us in a college interview. I saw REM play, then gradually over the years I’d give him records and we’d become friends. In ’91, I stayed at his house after an Athens show. In ’92, REM did Automatic For the People in Seattle. We hung out and he moved here. So it made sense when they toured to ask me to join since we got along well.”
Though Mc Caughey’s retro-minded eclecticism and carefree bohemian idealism may preclude a distinct persona, his alert compositional skills and uncanny ability to emulate re-fried tasty riffs make him an unsung working class hero perched below today’s tacky trendsetters and tomorrow’s flossy pop pabulum. So pump up the volume, relax, and let the real Mc Caughey take you on an unending journey to some distant past existing outside yesterday’s marketing scheme.
One Sub Pop employee maintains, “You can’t heckle a band in Seattle without pissing him off.” -John Fortunato