The Minus 5 Get Down With Wilco
What rock 'n' roll needs now is some good old-fashioned teamwork. While hip-hop and dance artists thrive on endless collaborations and guest appearances, rock bands rarely look to each other for a little help nowadays. And with so many great bands sprouting up all over the rock landscape, that's a damn shame. It's a good thing Scott McCaughey, onetime frontman for Seattle pop-rockers the Young Fresh Fellows, unofficial current member of R.E.M., and leader of the collabo-friendly pop collective the Minus 5, is around to prove that two heads can indeed be better than one. "There are always people out there that I would love to do things with," said the jovial singer, whose latest Minus 5 release prominently features one of the best rock bands going: Wilco.
Over the course of the Minus 5's four albums, McCaughey has teamed up with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, the Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, and Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard. It's an ongoing effort to make original, catchy, thought-provoking pop music (that would be "pop music" in the tradition of The Beatles, the Beach Boys and Big Star, not Mariah Carey).
The collective's newest album, lovingly titled Down With Wilco, sees the Chicago-based critical darlings lending stellar instrumental accompaniment and backing vocals throughout the album's 13 tracks. Although McCaughey wrote nearly all of the record's biting lyrics and basic song structures, Down With Wilco is still a true meeting of the musical minds.
"[Wilco frontman] Jeff [Tweedy] and I went over the songs before we started to record and we'd get a pretty mapped-out arrangement, but we didn't know what everyone else would play and add to it," McCaughey said. "I would play the song on guitar, and everyone would have ideas. The arrangements were pretty spontaneous we'd do four or five takes and that was it. They are such great musicians that they came up with great ideas right on the spot."
Old School Pop With A Twist
The album is an unabashed old-school pop delicacy, ripe with "ba-ba-ba" choruses and bouncing keyboards. "The Beatles really turned me on to music and charted my course in life," McCaughey said. "Anything else that comes out of my being influenced by The Beatles and the Beach Boys is just ingrained in me after listening to it for the last 30-something years."
But McCaughey's often sardonic or depressed lyrics and Wilco's inventive instrumentation make Down With Wilco more than just a pleasant trip down memory lane and add a subversive punk attitude to the album. On first listen, the song "Retrieval of You" sounds like a toe-tapping, harmony-soaked gem, intoxicated on its own giddiness. If you weren't paying attention to the lyrics, you'd figure they were about bumblebees and marigolds. But, upon further examination, the song's vengeful words begin to take hold as McCaughey sings about a spiteful "fumbled record star" who blames a now-famous friend for all of his own failures. Then, right as the breezy, eternally smiling chorus hits, McCaughey's maniacal "DJ Mini Mart" croons, "Everybody knows I fell afoul of fame/ And you're to blame that I'm 'what's-his-name'/ I'm setting an example, you're the one I choose/ For page two news it's my retrieval of you."
"I love doing poppy-sounding songs with lyrics that don't really fit a pop song," the singer said. "My lyrics are never going to be an 'I love her, she loves me' type of thing. I can't really write that way. Although I appreciate pop songs, I kind of demand a little bit more from somebody who's listening to the songs."
The adulterous lyrics to the lackadaisical, wistful-sounding "View From Below" are at once surreal, disturbing and just a little bit creepy, with the chorus of "You'll never win the way you won again." McCaughey, now singing as an intoxicated, jealous husband, sings "You, the bastard, and vodka/ Me and the floor/ Another perfect marriage/ Another perfect war."
"'View From Below' was just a picture in my head," the singer said, recalling the initial spark that led to the song's haunting imagery. "With some of my lyrics, I just think, 'What is wrong with me?', but I go with my instincts. While I was singing that song and we were listening to it in playback, Jeff said 'I'm really worried about the guy who wrote this song.'"
Although the hymn-like "Life Left Him There" sounds like something Brian Wilson would have concocted back in the '60s, instead of bestowing the joys of love and life, the song describes the cruel demise of a "kind and gentle soul" trapped in a burning house. McCaughey narrates the poor fellow's plight, singing, "And when he moaned the timbers shook the floor beneath him too/ And plaster fell on his bare head, the fire was bright and blue," while Byrds-esque guitars chime in the background.
"I tend to have a slight obsession with death and decay and I'm not sure why. There is something that keeps pulling me back to that subject matter," McCaughey said. "'Life Left Him There' has a religious bent, but instead of a really happy song about your savior it is about a guy who's getting killed who may or may not be a saintly martyr. Maybe he's just some poor fucker who somebody strapped to a chair and lit his house on fire. That's pretty uplifting, isn't it?"
The Wilco Connection
McCaughey had been planning on doing an album with Tweedy & Co. since 2000, but it wasn't until Wilco's much-publicized label problems that the two musical powers found time to meet up. "I've known Jeff for a long time, and we've been talking about doing some recording for ages," he said. "Unfortunately for them, because [Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] got delayed, they had some downtime, and I was able to get a few weeks where I could go to Chicago and work on the record."
The Wilco-fied Minus 5 started to record Down With Wilco in Chicago on Sept. 10, 2001; the tragic events of the following day nearly forced the sessions to a halt. "We could have crumbled and just said screw it and let's go home although the fact was that I couldn't get home because I couldn't fly," McCaughey said. "We didn't know if we were going to keep going, but on the night of the 11th we were just sick of watching TV and feeling terrible, so we just hoped that something good would come out of something horrible. While we were inspired and into making the music, we had heavy hearts, and a lot of the songs were pretty apropos, because it's not really an uplifting record lyrically."
After the nine-day recording stint in Chicago and a few overdubbing session with frequent Minus 5 contributors Buck and Stringfellow, McCaughey met another set of unfortunate circumstances when he flew to England in November to mix the album. He was considered as a witness in defense of his friend Buck, who was being tried on assault charges stemming from an incident on a flight the R.E.M. guitarist took to London the previous April. "The trial was going to be really nerve-racking, so I just wanted to work the whole time I was in England," McCaughey said. "In the end, I didn't have to testify and I was thrilled that he was acquitted, but it was a nightmare. But that was my way of dealing with it, just to work."
And then, right before Down With Wilco was to be released, its Disney-owned label, Mammoth Records, went under, leaving the album in limbo. The powers that be pulled the plug on Mammoth Records, a small label that was part of Disney's Hollywood Records, because, according to McCaughey, "They figured they could save a couple million dollars a year without it." Considering the analogous label bumbling associated with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's not surprising that "there were a lot of jokes going around about a curse on Jeff," McCaughey said.
The album was finally released earlier this year on the North Carolina-based indie Yep Roc, home of famed Elvis Costello producer and solo artist Nick Lowe. "I talked to a bunch of great labels and ended up with Yep Roc because they were really excited about the record and it's kind of a big deal for them," McCaughey said. "I sent them the record in the first place because I found out Nick Lowe was on the label and I figured it must be cool. His sense of humor appeals to me and his songs are really heartfelt and beautiful in a way and also sometimes really sarcastic and snotty."
Considering all of the label troubles McCaughey and Wilco went through recently, it's easy to read the lyrics of the last song on Down With Wilco, the somber "Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit)," as a snide kiss-off to the lumbering, stumbling major-label music industry. Against a backdrop of raindrop piano and unsettling feedback, McCaughey sings, "Dear employer/ You commanded me/ Your commendations now/ Don't mean as much/ 'Cause I'm a lost cause/ Causing a problem/ And I promise to be way out of touch."
"I feel that the major labels are getting more and more narrow-minded and unadventurous, but there's a resurgence of good indie labels going on now," said the music-industry veteran. "[Indie labels] consider selling 50,000 copies of a record an awesome thing. Major labels wouldn't even think about dealing with a band that sold 50,000 or even 100,000 albums, which seems so stupid to me."
With the abundance of bulletproof pop songs spawned by the Wilco/McCaughey pairing, it's disappointing to think of the record as a one-off project, although Mr. Minus 5 is not ruling out the possibility of future work with Tweedy & Co. "I would love if we could do some more rocking songs together and if Jeff and [bassist] John Stirratt and [keyboardist] Leroy Bach did more lead vocals, because on this album they thought I should sing the songs in general."
As far as dream music-mates, Nick Lowe is unsurprisingly at the top of McCaughey's list, but, even with such a glowing pop résumé, the singer cautiously added, "I would be intimidated by that." Ryan Dombal [Monday, Aug. 4, 2003]