At the end of our talk, Scott McCaughey -- founder of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, once-upon-a-time sideman in R.E.M. and veteran clutch hitter with the Baseball Project -- expresses some disappointment that this interview is even happening at all. "Hey, it's opening day in St. Louis," he says. "Why aren't you at the game?"
McCaughey is nothing if not committed to his passions: rock & roll, songwriting, producing, collaborating and, of course, baseball. When his band the Young Fresh Fellows first came to national attention, Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg called them "the best band in the world" and even name-checked the Fellows with an obscure note on the Don't Tell a Soul album. Over the years, McCaughey has become a songwriter's songwriter, a witty and deft crafter of metaphors who has never lost his abiding sense of the fun that truly makes rock & roll matter.
This week McCaughey's band the Minus 5 returns to St. Louis for a sold-out house concert and a performance for Record Store Day at Euclid Records, where the band will be releasing a five LP box set including 57 (yes, 57) new songs. The group will also appear at Off Broadway, where McCaughey hasn't played since splitting a bill between the Young Fresh Fellows and a nascent Uncle Tupelo in 1988.
"I was really impressed with them," McCaughey recalls. "They didn't even have a record out, and they were really young, but they knew all this cool music. I've been a fan since and got the records from day one."
Jeff Tweedy and the band Wilco have passed through the revolving door that is the Minus 5 (anchoring the album Down with Wilco in 2003), as have members of R.E.M. (specifically cofounder Peter Buck), the Decemberists and the Posies. For the St. Louis shows, McCaughey has assembled a coast-to-coast cast of John Ramberg (of Seattle band the Tripwires and long-time member of the Minus 5), Joe Adragna (of New Orleans' the Junior League) and Mike Giblin (who works with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, band the Split Squad, which McCaughey has produced). Keeping the various incarnations of the Minus 5 straight is like following the box scores of the whole of AAA baseball, but somehow the absence of a starting rotation has been the key to the group's longevity.
"I was striving for instability and have wildly succeeded beyond all hope in that," McCaughey laughs. "I already had a great band, and I wanted to do some stuff that was quieter and weirder. It wasn't really meant to be a band. It was meant to be a recording project. Somehow Peter [Buck] and I would play acoustic shows and then someone would join in on bass and drums. The Fellows weren't playing much in the later '90s, so the Minus 5 started becoming a band, and then a rock band, which was never the intent."
Supergroups rarely last more than a few years, but the various lineups of the Minus 5 have yielded some of the most purely enjoyable rock, folk, pop and semi-psychedelic music of the last two decades. If there is a secret to the band's success, it lies in just trusting your friends.
"I never tell anybody what to play in the Minus 5," McCaughey says. "I want them to have fun and come up with whatever they come up with. I figure if they're friends or in bands that I like that they're going to do something cool. I've never been disappointed. Peter, for one, is a really able and willing sideman. He doesn't feel the need to push his ego out front. People take the Minus 5 for what it is. It's a chance to have fun and do something cool that they don't get to do in their own bands, maybe. I'm lucky that way. I have a lot of good friends who are willing to jump in and wing it."
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That spirit of spontaneity also informs McCaughey's other principal band, the Baseball Project, a collaboration with Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate and the Miracle 3), Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon (long-time drummer with Wynn's Miracle 3). This spring, McCaughey and company released their third collection, simply titled 3rd. It's proof of how far a genuinely collaborative endeavor can go, and it's a testament to the inexhaustible resource of stories, characters, humor and conflicts that is our national pastime.
"The sport goes back 150 years as well," McCaughey says. "Every day for six months out of the year, there are more stories coming out that can be inspiring and make us want to write about them. There's that huge expanse of baseball past that we've mined greatly, and there's the baseball future that's thrown things at us every year. In the past, we've done more obscure players and events, but on this record I thought it would be OK to write a song about Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron. They're icons. But then you have Steve [Wynn] writing about Larry Yount, who appeared in one major league game and never even threw a pitch. So there's a pretty broad spectrum there. I've been into baseball my whole life, but now I've gotten even more geeky and even more into it than I ever was before."
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