Scott McCaughey

Scott McCaughey : Q&A

QRO started off 2013 by talking with the multi-band multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey, as he headed down Mexico way for Peter Buck’s Todos Santos Festival.  While down on the tip of Baja California, McCaughey – who fronts his own Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5, in The Posies and Tired Pony, backs up Robyn Hitchcock as part of Venus 3, plays in the national pastime-themed Baseball Project with Buck, Steve Wynn, and Linda Pitmon, and has also worked with Buck on his self-titled solo record last year, plus in Buck’s famed R.E.M. for over a decade – talked about all those bands, all those roles, & more, the Todos Santos Music Festival (where seemingly all of his bands are playing…), doing Baseball Project songs in non-baseball playing foreign places, Todos Santos naming their local team ‘The Baseball Project’, and much more…

 

QRO: How’s Mexico?

Scott McCaughey: It’s beautiful – it’s not too hot, and lovely.

QRO: Were you coming from Portland?

SM: Yeah, where it’s been shitty for about two months. [laughs] Cold and rainy…

QRO: [laughs] What – Pacific Northwest, cold and rainy?…

SM: [laughs] Yeah, how about that?…

QRO: What is the usual audience breakdown at Todos Santos, between locals and Americans?

SM: The town itself is probably, I’m guessing maybe 80% Mexican, and 20% gringo or something?  There’s definitely a gringo populace that’s been down here for quite a while.  It’s sort of a haven for artists, and dropouts, and surfers – all kinds of interesting people.

For the festival, we get a lot of people coming down from the States.  There’s people from Japan, and Belgium, and Germany, and England – so we get people from all over, actually, for the festival.

But the festival is designed to include the locals.  Last year, it was basically free admission, unless you wanted to reserve yourself a table.  And this year, you can reserve a table by putting in money, which is all donations for the Palapa Society, or for the just general, to come in, standing room, it’s like two dollars. There’s a lot of last minute learning of songs, and rehearsing of songs, and then soundchecks – it’s pretty much a constant scramble. But we’re all people who like sitting around playing guitars with each other. We wanted to make it so it’s easy for the locals to get in.

There’s a lot of last minute learning of songs, and rehearsing of songs, and then soundchecks – it’s pretty much a constant scramble. But we’re all people who like sitting around playing guitars with each other.

QRO: For the first weekend, you’re playing in both The Minus 5 and Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3…

SM: Also the Peter Buck solo band will play all three nights as well.  I play in that too.  He’s not listed on the program, but we just made a record last year, that he put out as a vinyl only, so we’re playing much of that record, sort of half-hour opener each night.  I’ll be in three bands.

QRO: What’s it like playing that much on a night?

SM: Oh, you know, I’ve done this kinda stuff lots of times.  We just did a couple of shows at the end of October in Portland and Seattle that were the Peter Buck Band and The Young Fresh Fellows and Robyn Hitchcock, so I was triple-duty for those three.  It’s a good evening of work – and it’s a lot of fun…

QRO: Most of the shows at Todos Santos, you’re playing multiple nights.  How much will you vary the set lists?

SM: I plan on varying The Minus 5 set lists pretty radically every night, and Robyn’s usually good about there being some different stuff each night for sure – and probably something that happens spontaneously.

Peter’s set, you know, is a short set.  Don’t have that many songs, so we won’t be able to vary that too much, but I think The Minus 5 and Robyn’s sets will be really different each night.  And when it’s The Baseball Project and The Posies – both of those bands have enough material as well, that I’m sure it’ll change night-to-night.

Basically, you are playing mostly to the same people – at least the people who came from out of town.  The locals will probably vary, but I think we’ll wanna mix it up quite a bit.

I think there’s only three days the entire three weeks where there’s nothing, no kind of performance planned.

QRO: Is it hard remembering all the material?

SM: It’s a handful, yeah. [laughs] There’s a lot of last minute learning of songs, and rehearsing of songs, and then soundchecks – it’s pretty much a constant scramble.  But we’re all people who like sitting around playing guitars with each other.

It is kind of, for me, on occasion, I probably get a little bit of the mind overload, because I got to the age where I just can’t retain anything infinitely, apparently… [laughs]

QRO: Will you be there the final weekend?

SM: I’m gonna be here the entire time.  The final weekend, I’ll be playing a little bit.  I’m not in any of the actual bands that are scheduled, but I believe that there’s going to be a few things – Peter will probably play some of Peter’s songs, we have some other people coming down who aren’t listed on the program, that Peter and I will play with. I think there’s only three days the entire three weeks where there’s nothing, no kind of performance planned.

QRO: What do you do between the weekends?

SM: Honestly, we barely have any time off, the entire three weeks.  You’ve got a little time in the afternoon to sit by the pool, or for me, I take a hike to the beach or something.

Honestly, there’s stuff planned almost every day.  We’re doing a lot of acoustic shows in a lot of little bars and stuff in the area, on the nights off.  On [the first] Sunday, The Minus 5 is playing in a bar in Todos Santos that’s acoustic – we’ll just show up with acoustic guitars and a couple microphones.  We played [a] sponsor party – so basically, I’m playing the first five nights; Tuesday we’re going to the Palapa Society in the afternoon to play, also acoustic, so then I guess Wednesday might be the day where’s nothing.  Thursday night through Saturday, Sunday, I’m playing again [laughs] – so basically playing pretty much every day.

I think there’s only three days the entire three weeks where there’s nothing, no kind of performance planned. [laughs]

QRO: Do you need a vacation after this?…

SM: Yeah – it’s possible; it’s definitely possible… [laughs]

 

I probably work harder at being the back-up guy – bands like R.E.M., and Robyn, I’m huge fan of the music, so I want it to be really, really good, so I probably put a little more pressure on myself to be good in that situation.

QRO: Is it hard to maintain your hand in so many acts – are you stretched for time?

SM: Yes, sometimes.  I mean, the last six weeks I’ve been mostly recording Minus 5 stuff on my own, at home.  So sometimes you get a stretch where there’s not much going on – then you get stretches where it’s just one thing after another; it gets really crazy.

I’ll leave home for a month – I’ll be playing The Young Fresh Fellows tour in Spain, then playing with Tired Pony in England, then recording with The Baseball Project in New York; it all gets tied together one long trip, and that gets pretty crazy, when that happens.

But, you know, I’m lucky – there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.  I’m really very fortunate.

QRO: You do everything from fronting (The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows) to part of a collective (Baseball Project) to backing someone else up (Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3) to contributing to another act (R.E.M.) – how do the different situations compare?

SM: I really love both of them for different reasons.

You’d probably think that there’s less pressure when I’m being a backing musician, like with R.E.M. or Robyn or something, but I don’t really feel it that way – I feel a little more of a responsibility to be good in those situations than when I’m in the Fellows or Minus 5, where I’m one of the frontpeople.  I guess those, I don’t really worry about it – they come really naturally to me.  So I probably work harder at being the back-up guy – bands like R.E.M., and Robyn, I’m huge fan of the music, so I want it to be really, really good, so I probably put a little more pressure on myself to be good in that situation. I probably work harder at being the back-up guy – bands like R.E.M., and Robyn, I’m huge fan of the music, so I want it to be really, really good, so I probably put a little more pressure on myself to be good in that situation. Either way, you’re playing a show in front of people – and it’s fun… [laughs]

We try to cover as many different kinds of music and different sort of aspects of the game as possible.

QRO: What about in recording situations?

SM: I would say a similar thing – I feel more pressure when I’m recording other people’s things than I do when I’m doing my own.

I mean, I want it all to be great, obviously… [laughs]  But I think I’m a little freewheeling when it comes to my stuff.

QRO: Do you think playing in so many different situations makes it easier for you to understand others musicians in bands – say, when you’re doing a Minus 5 thing, when someone’s backing you, you can kind of understand it, because you’ve been in that situation as well, and vice-verse?

SM: Definitely, definitely.  It all helps.  The more you do something, hopefully the more you learn and pick up from other people.  Experience for next time – I definitely learned so much from playing with all these different people and being in bands; it all seems fairly natural to me now.

QRO: Do you play more guitar on your stuff, and more diverse/rarer instruments for others?

SM: Yeah.  With Robyn, I primarily play bass and do backing vocals.  With R.E.M., part of the reason they got me to be in the group in the first place was that I can play lots of different instruments – none of them as a ‘virtuoso pioneer’, which I don’t think… they also didn’t want that.  They’re not about virtuosity; they wanted somebody who could be very flexible, who could play lots of different instruments.

You know, Peter’s pretty good at some of the more exotic instruments.  He’s playing like dulcimer, or mandolin or something, then I can play guitar or bass or keyboards, whatever.  I played accordion on the last R.E.M. record (QRO review) – Mike [Mills, R.E.M. bassist]’s probably better at accordion than I am, but with the song we were doing (“Oh My Heart”, written by R.E.M. & McCaughey), it just worked out that way.

It’s fun with bands like Tired Pony, Tuatara, other projects that Peter and I have done – it’s really all about everybody switching around and coming up with different instruments, with different flavors, combinations of sounds.  That’s something I do really enjoy, too.

With the Fellows, and Minus 5, when we’re playing live, I play guitar and sing… [laughs]

Some of them I know are Minus 5 songs, a couple I know are Fellows songs, but then there’s ones that could go either way. What’s usually ended up happening is that they go in the direction of whoever’s recording first…

QRO: How was making that record with Peter last year?

SM: Oh, it was great.  He had a very definite concept of how he wanted it to go, and we followed it to the letter.

His plan was he only got five days in the studio, and he wanted the record to be completely finished and mixed by the end of those five days – and we did it! We try to cover as many different kinds of music and different sort of aspects of the game as possible. Some songs, he had a plan for the first day, the second day, the third day, and then we executed everything, and still had time to go out for a nice dinner. [laughs]

And then we mixed everything the last couple days, as we were still doing some overdubs.  A lot of the stuff is very live.  It was a really great experience – it was really fun to do a record that quickly.

QRO: You didn’t feel even more pressure in that the set-up, that you couldn’t mess up – that would throw off the schedule?

SM: He wasn’t looking to make a record that sounded like every note was worried about.  He wanted to make a record that sounded like guys bashing out songs in a room, coming up with weird, fucked up shit.  Have it sound really spontaneous and natural, and not labored over.  And we definitely did that.

 

QRO: Is Todos Santos a baseball town or a soccer (football) town?

SM: They do have a baseball stadium and a baseball team here.  They were called ‘Los Cañeros’, which means “The Cane Cutters”.  They’ve since decided to change their name to ‘The Baseball Project’…

We tried to kinda talk them out of it, because we thought ‘Cañeros’ was a way cooler name, but they stood on it.  They got jerseys that say ‘The Baseball Project’ – they’re awesome.

They’re definitely into baseball here.  I assume they have to be soccer fans as well, but I haven’t seen any kids kicking a ball around in the street.  They definitely have a baseball team.  I haven’t unfortunately been here ever when the teams are playing, but they have a long history of baseball here.  I’ve seen people down in the orchard, playing pick-up games – it’s cool.

QRO: What is it like playing Baseball Project songs in front of foreign audiences?  You’ve played as far afield as Croatia…

SM: It’s true – and in Spain, we’ve done shows in Europe where they must just not have a clue what the hell we’re singing about… [laughs]

I guess the music’s good enough that it doesn’t really matter that much.  And I’ve also talked to fans, people in Norway, and Germany, and such – “Well, we’re trying to learn and understand what you’re singing about, and how baseball works.”  So maybe we’re inspiring a few people to look into, to get a little bit of an education about it…

QRO: Which came first – the idea of a Baseball Project group, or did a bunch of baseball songs bring about the idea of a separate act?

SM: I had tried to write some, over the years, for The Fellows, but none of them ever really came out good enough that I was happy with them.  It was really after Steve and I came up with the concept that we really knuckled down and started really working on songs, and coming up with stuff that I was happy with.  I’d say it’s the concept that drove the songwriting.

QRO: Are you a [Seattle] Mariners fan?

SM: I am, but I grew up in the Bay Area, so I’m sort of a [San Francisco] Giants fan first, and then a Mariners fan.

QRO: You’re NL team and you’re AL team…

SM: Unfortunately, the Mariners and the [Oakland] As are in the same division…

I’m not one of those guys – I’m a die-hard fan, but some people only like one team, they hate all the other teams… [laughs]

QRO: Do you & the rest of the Baseball Project try to be relatively diverse in terms of the teams covered?

SM: Yeah, definitely.  We try to cover as many different kinds of music and different sort of aspects of the game as possible.  We don’t really write ‘rah-rah’ baseball songs – we could, and maybe we will at some point, but we sometimes lean towards the darker side, the quirkier stories, just because that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to Steve & I, probably.

QRO: I’ve noticed that you don’t write about one period.  You write about today’s baseball, and then you’ve got a song about Carl Mays.

SM: We’ve written about a lot of dead people… [laughs]

But, you know, we’ve written some current things, too.  I’ve got songs for the next record that are about Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron, and Lenny Dykstra… I’ve been working on one about Miguel Cabrera.  We’re trying to span the entire breadth of baseball experience, as usual.

QRO: Do you think you’ll make a new Baseball Project record this year?

SM: We’ll definitely record it this year, but it won’t come out until next year, unfortunately.  Just the timing – we haven’t been able to get around to it.  All the other stuff to do…

QRO: Oh, and what do you think of no players being elected to the Hall of Fame this year?

SM: I think [Craig] Biggio should have gotten in on the first ballot, probably, but I can understand it wasn’t an overwhelming class of people coming up.  Next year, there’s gonna be three or four or five people who are going to get in on the first ballot – which is kind of unfortunate that Biggio didn’t make it this time, because he might not make it next year, because of all the others – [Greg] Maddux and [Tom] Glavine, all these people who are coming in who are going to make it for sure.

 

QRO: When you’re writing material, when do you know what act it’s for?

SM: Sometimes I know for sure, like with The Baseball Project, it’s obvious.  But with The Fellows and The Minus 5, it can get a little tricky.  Like, I got a million songs now – there’s probably at least fifteen of them that could go either way.  Some of them I know are Minus 5 songs, a couple I know are Fellows songs, but then there’s ones that could go either way.  What’s usually ended up happening is that they go in the direction of whoever’s recording first… [laughs]

QRO: Do you write lyrics the same time as you’re writing the music?

SM: Sometimes.  Sometimes I write the lyrics first, but it’s usually better when I do ‘em together.  But I’m always scribbling down lyrics, so sometimes I have a stockpile of lyrics, so I write the music later.

I’m always writing lyrics – like on the plane, or when I’m walking around.  Lots of time I don’t have an instrument, I’m coming up with lyrics.

QRO: How have you been able to get such great guest artists for your Minus 5 releases?

SM: I just ask people, you know?  I’ve just made a lot of friends over the years, touring around in bands, being a fan of other bands, just make friends with people, and most of them, the people that are really nice, they often are very generous with their time to appear on a Minus 5 record – most of the time without getting paid, I have to say.  It’s just really, very nice. I approach The Minus 5 live very differently from their records.

If there’s somebody I really think would be good for a song, I ask them – if it’s not a big hassle, they usually say yes, which is great…

I approach The Minus 5 live very differently from their records.

QRO: Does having such pseudo-turnover make it harder to do a Minus 5 set live – i.e., that whoever’s with you has to learn stuff that other people wrote?

SM: It’s a pain in the ass sometimes, especially when the band is changing all the time.  I approach The Minus 5 live very differently from their records.  I’m happy to just have two guitars, bass, and drums, and bash stuff out, and even if the songs sound completely different than they do on the record, which is often the case, I’m okay with that, ‘cause I think it’s cool when you see a band where the songs are different live.

I can’t get hung up on reproducing the record – I would just never play… [laughs]

 

QRO: Are their specific songs in each act that you particularly like playing live?

SM: There’s millions of ‘em – I couldn’t really…

I mean, a lot of ‘em are songs that I didn’t write.  Like, I love playing “Strychnine” by The Sonics – that’s one of my favorite songs, ever; I play that with The Fellows and in The Minus 5.  There’s certain songs like that, that are a just gas to play.  We started playing “I Can’t Explain” by The Who in The Minus 5 just for fun.  Those are mostly kind of getting the biggest kick out of.

[The Minus 5’s] “Ah Shit Man”, that’s a standard that we play constantly.  I love doing that one.  But I like all of ‘em – I won’t play ‘em if I don’t like them.

QRO: Is it almost easier to carry over from one act to another when it’s a cover?

SM: Yeah, sometimes.  Sometimes it can be a little complicated, if bands get used to playing it in different keys.  But yeah, there’s a lot of cover songs, like [The Beatles’] “The Ballad of John & Yoko”, where we’ve played it with Robyn, we’ve played it with The Fellows, we’ve played it with The Minus 5 [laughs] – stuff that just kinda becomes part of the DNA.  If you’re a longtime musician, you can hopefully pull those things out when the time is write.

At the Todos Festival, a lot of time, people are dancing, and having a good time, so it’s fun to pull out some covers…

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