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Minus Five: Booze, Betrayal, Bibles and Guns

Scott McCaughey has always had to squeeze Minus Five — a band that also includes Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin and John Ramberg — into the cracks of busy schedules. Never one to wait through endless hours for lonely inspiration, McCaughey is more likely to lay down the first chords of a song at a grand piano while R.E.M. are overdubbing next door or to sandwich in a low-profile show between European jaunts with Robyn Hitchcock. He'll spend a couple of days in Chicago with Wilco, and pencil in a single West Coast session with the Decemberists' Colin Meloy. John Wesley Harding might drop by and offer a chord or two of improvement on whatever McCaughey is thrashing out at the moment, or McCaughey may be gearing up for a giant-venue tour with R.E.M. Yet out of this overscheduled and amiable chaos, McCaughey has managed to elicit 12 albums of stellar, Beatle-esque pop with Minus Five, culminating in his most recent, The Gun Album, just out on Yep Roc.

"I wish I had a routine," McCaughey said in a recent phone conversation. "I'm always telling myself that I ought to be like Randy Newman. I should have a little office with a piano in it, and I should go there five hours a day. But there's just no way I can ever do that. I have too much to do and unfortunately, songwriting is something that I do when I actually have a little spare time, which is almost never."

He added, "A lot of these songs were fit into little pockets of time... I'm usually writing lyrics all the time. I'll jot stuff down when I take a walk or when I'm sitting down on the train or... anywhere."

McCaughey started the Minus Five in 1993, as an outlet for his pop-oriented songs that didn't fit his other harder-rocking band, the Young Fresh Fellows. This loosely organized collective — which also included Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Ken Stringfellow and John Auer of The Posies — released an EP, Hello, in 1994, and its first full-length, Old Liquidator, in 1995, followed by The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy two years later. The discography is somewhat complicated, encompassing McCaughey's solo work, reissues and compilations, but a few highlights stand out. In 1997, the somewhat schizophrenic but ultimately wonderful Let the War Against Music Begin came out, pitting McCaughey's two bands against each other in a double-disc set packaged with a scorecard. Down With Wilco, McCaughey's collaboration with Jeff Tweedy, was released in 2003, followed by In Rock a year later, and The Gun Album early this year.

Along the way, the Minus Five have evolved from an occasional pick-up game to more of an established organization for the four core members. "It's definitely more of a band now than it has been, because Bill Rieflen and John Ramberg and Peter Buck and I have been pretty much the regular lineup, with some exceptions, for the last five years or so," McCaughey said. "We can always bring other people up and obviously in the studio anything goes, but I actually wanted to make this record with just those guys because I felt like they'd earned it. They've been playing so many shows for the last five years, and we've really kind of turned into something of a band."

The 13 songs on The Gun Album, which is technically untitled but goes by the name of its cover image, were written in fits and starts beginning in about 2002. Studded with dark lyrical images — guns, betrayal, alcohol and Bibles — these songs are more stripped-down than past Minus Five albums, aiming for the guitar/bass/drums simplicity of Lennon's work with Plastic Ono Band, rather than the more baroque late-Beatles sound. Yet there's an undeniable pop buoyancy to the melodies, from the foul-mouthed stomp of "Aw Shit Man" through the Nuggets-era swagger of "Out There on the Maroon" to the surreal swirl of "Hotel Senator," that works in contrast to their sardonic lyrics.

"I like it because then the song works on several levels," McCaughey said, adding that he has been known to "bathe really depressing songs in the honey of pop arrangements." He said it's OK with him if listeners miss the darker undertones, since this record, like all the Minus Five's CDs, was intended to be a pop album. "If you think it's Britney Spears, this is probably not a pop record," he admitted. "But if a pop record is something that's fun to listen to and has melodies and cool chord progressions and sometimes reminds you of other stuff, then I guess I made one of those records, and always do."

A songwriter's songwriter, McCaughey gets respect from some of the biggest names in the business. Longtime friend and sometime collaborator John Wesley Harding explained by email that "Scott's songwriting completely transcends genre: he manages to be both extremely stupid and extremely smart at the same time; the lyrics can make you scratch your head, laugh, get it and cry."

Asked how McCaughey's songwriting compares to his own, Harding added, "As for whether it's similar: I wish. But the great thing is that even if all my favorite songwriters were given the same chords, the same guitar, the same subject matter and the same pencil, they'd all write a completely different song. Our approaches certainly are similar — which is why we keep working together, but then we only keep working together because we like hanging out."

With alt.country diva Kelly Hogan, Harding sings the response part on "Twilight Distillery," a radiant concoction of jangling guitars and softly harmonized vocals that might remind you a little of The Band. McCaughey recalled that Harding made one very subtle change to the song that perhaps illustrates how two talented songwriters can help each other. Rehearsing the song, Harding told McCaughey that, while he liked the song, there was one spot where he, personally, would change an F chord to a D minor. That's a small change, replacing only one of three notes in the chord, but according to McCaughey, "Changing one note a little bit made a big difference, and it was really cool."

Later McCaughey got to repay the favor when Harding was recording "Sussex Ghost Story" at his home studio. "I heard that song and I thought, that's a really fantastic song, but I would leave off the last line, just leave off the last lyrical line, because it spelled out too much for the listener," said McCaughey. "He did it, and it really made a big difference in the song, I think, the omission more than anything."

It takes a fair amount of self-confidence to bring songs in to Peter Buck and Jeff Tweedy, but McCaughey said the people he collaborates with usually make only minor changes. "Peter might have an idea as far as the arrangement goes. He might say, 'Oh, you should repeat the chord change there.' But I think he trusts my songwriting," he said. "Jeff definitely, he probably messes around with my songs the most. A lot of the songs I brought in were three-quarters finished, or I thought they were finished but I wasn't sure. That's why he got co-writing credit on a lot of them, because he really either finished them for me or said it would be better if you did this. He was the most hands-on of all those people."

The songs on The Gun Album have the rock-oriented complexity of late-period Beatles, a band McCaughey admitted had been a touchstone for him since preadolescence. "I wouldn't be doing any of this if it wasn't for The Beatles," he said. "I heard them when I was 9 years old and that was pretty much it for me. It's been straight downhill ever since. They more than influenced my music. They pretty much completely informed it."

Yet though he discovered rock early on — drawn in by Monster Mash as a small boy and captivated by The Beatles, McCaughey didn't start playing guitar until he was 17. "I was just kind of having fun with my friends. We always fantasized about being in a real band, but never did anything really ambitious to try to realize our dream," he recalled.

Still, The Gun Album draws more on Plastic Ono Band. "I've done so many things on my records that were definitely directly influenced by The Beatles, but this record, actually, when we were recording a lot of it, a lot of the songs were piano and bass and drums. And Peter was saying, you should keep it really simple, like John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band," he said. "So I kind of tried to lean a little bit more in that direction, as opposed to Let the War Against Music Begin and somewhat with Down With Wilco, there's a lot of crazy instruments going on in all the songs, a lot of really weird noises and layers of stuff. We tried to keep this one a little more direct and a little simpler."

Yet there are at least a few covert references to White Album-era Beatles in the album's first song, the string-embellished "Rifle Called Goodbye." "I wanted to point out or pay tribute somehow to 'Happiness Is a Warm Gun,'" he said. "You'll notice that there are a lot of bits — a lot of the words — that are also used in that song, but used in completely different ways. It's kind of a tip of the hat."

Why "Happiness Is a Warm Gun"? McCaughey admitted that it was one of his absolute favorite songs. "I like the fact that the lyrics are really mysterious, and I like the way the song changes as it goes along. It's almost like three little songs put together. And so much happens in the tune in the two minutes and 50 seconds. It starts off as this mysterious, spooky song and by the end it's almost a doo wop song. I also think the guitar solo is one of the most amazing things I've ever heard," he said.

McCaughey is heading out on West Coast tour with Robyn Hitchcock next, then joining up with the Silos for March performances in the South and on the East Coast. For a complete list of venues and dates, visit the Yep Roc Web Site. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, February 13, 2006]

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