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[whitespace] The Minus 5 Numbers Game: The Minus 5 (from top, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and Barrett Martin) transmute and transform regularly, creating a 'virtual supergroup.'


Ghost Tarts And Dolphin Boys

Saratoga native Scott McCaughey of R.E.M. sums up his projects Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows

By Gina Arnold

WHEN YOU SEE the words "Battle of the Bands, Tonight!" on a marquee, it invariably denotes crappy hard-rock acts in dark suburban nightclubs, both bearing names with umlauts placed dumbly over the consonants. My normal reaction is to flee the vicinity.

But the battle between the Minus Five and the Young Fresh Fellows is one fight worth listening to--if "fight" can be used to describe something so tuneful, so jolly and so chaotic. One phase of the battle will be enacted Saturday and Sunday nights (March 3-4) at the Ninth Annual Noise Pop Festival at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, and although there won't be any actual bloodshed, things might get a little fevered.

The Minus Five are more of a supergroup--perhaps "virtual supergroup" is a better term--containing members of R.E.M., the Posies, the High Llamas and Mott the Hoople. The Young Fresh Fellows are a raucous Seattle outfit that has, in the course of a 20-year career, been called the best band in America by people in a position to know.

Both bands are led by Saratoga native Scott McCaughey, who is currently the spare guitar player in R.E.M. Under his benevolent (if slightly crazed) auspices, the two bands have just released a double-CD package titled The Minus 5 vs. The Young Fresh Fellows (UNI/Mammoth).

One CD is the Fellows' latest offering, Because We Hate You. The other is the Minus 5's third LP, Let the War Against Music Begin. Both discs are brilliantly, if misleadingly, titled, since neither hate nor war is part of the paradigm here. Indeed, the meanest statement on the entire set is "Typing all these whiny words is really pretty sick."

Any way you look at it, the package (which can be purchased for the price of a single CD) is a great buy. The fact that both discs are fantastic is just a bonus. Although both CDs feature songs penned by McCaughey, their sounds are entirely different.

The Fellows play sloppy, lo-fi, three-chord garage rock that sounds as if the Sonics met the Banana Splits for a rousing round of Kinks and MC5 covers. The Minus Five play bubbly, orchestral, mellow-toned pop, deeply influenced (this time around) by the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

They are the end result of a career--or noncareer--that has taken McCaughey from a garage band called Hannibal's Chorus Boys at West Valley Junior College all the way to the heights of stardom with R.E.M. Indeed, few people have followed such a varied artistic path, especially when you consider that the variations have taken place simultaneously, rather than in the more normal upward, or downward, trajectory.

That is to say, most bands start small and get big, and then get small again. McCaughey just belongs to a number of bands, some as big as you can get, like R.E.M., some medium-sized, like the Young Fresh Fellows, and some--like the Minus Five and his other project, Tuatara--that practically exist only in McCaughey's imagination, becoming flesh and blood once every few years, then fading out until the next time he can get the money and talent together to do another CD.

ONE WOULD THINK that having so many rock bands would take a lot of energy or organization, but McCaughey claims he possesses neither quality--just a lot of time and patience. The Minus Five, McCaughey explains, "is what I do when I'm not doing something that pays money or is a priority. And to some extent, the Young Fresh Fellows are like that, too, now. We don't even practice now, we just record and play gigs every six months or so."

Both records, he points out, have been finished for more than 15 months and contain songs that are four or five years old. According to the jacket, the project involves 22 different members and six recording studios in four different cities. Such is the magic of modern times, however, that McCaughey himself never left his own basement. He just mailed tapes of his music to people he was interested in working with--"usually just [on] guitar and vocals"--and then listened with interest to what they sent back.

It seems to me like a dangerous way to work. What if he didn't like the results? Think of the awkward conversation that would result.

"Yeah, I worry about that," he admits, "but the people I ask--I'm pretty confident they'll do something I like. Luckily, I have been absolutely thrilled with everything I've gotten."

A case in point was the keyboard work of Morgan Fisher, a former member of Mott the Hoople who currently lives in Japan and plays with a Japanese band called Heat Wave. "He made a solo record called Miniatures that was all these one-minute long songs by different artists. He did one in 1980 and one in 2000, with 60 different artists on it, and I was a big fan of it," says McCaughey, who is something of a rock & roll historian.

"Peter [Buck] and I did a track for it, and we hung out with him when we were over in Japan with R.E.M. I sent him a bare bones of a song with noises on it, and he sent back great synth and keyboard stuff for the songs 'Ghost Tarts of Stockholm' and 'Dolphin Boy.' "

In a similar trade-off, McCaughey sent singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock the finished version of the song "Your Day Will Come" and told him to rent studio time for four hours and "just rant" over the last few minutes of feedback. "It came out exactly how I wanted it to," McCaughey says.

Such a method ought to result in a haphazard melee of different sounds and styles, but McCaughey says not. "I have a pretty good idea of what I want before I send it off. I knew I wanted that Pet Sounds aura, which is why I asked the High Llamas [Sean O'Hagan and Rob Allum] to work with me on two tracks that I sent to London. They just really took it to the hoop. And the one thing I always do is mix the songs all together at the same time and in the same studio, and that makes everything sound cohesive."

Live, however, the Minus Five can sound radically different than on record--and radically different from night to night, since the band members change from gig to gig. Remember the old punk-rock adage about everyone ending up in the Mekons? Now, anyone worth their salt in the indie-rock world has done time in the Minus Five. The current lineup contains McCaughey and Peter Buck--playing bass, rather than the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar he's known for in his day job with R.E.M.--with Ministry's Bill Rieflin on drums and the Model Rockets' John Ramberg.

For the Noise Pop Festival gig, former Gun Club/Pontiac Brother/Liquor Giant Ward Dotson will be along for the ride. (The five have never played together and won't until they meet at the Bottom of the Hill.) And on next month's Conan O'Brien Show appearance on March 13 in New York, they will have Posie Ken Stringfellow.

Those appearances represent the full extent of the Minus Five's U.S. tour, since McCaughey will be getting busy with R.E.M., which has a new album coming out in May. Alas, McCaughey says R.E.M. won't be doing a full tour this summer, just a few dates plus TV and promotional appearances.

So come April, McCaughey says, the "battle"--such as it is--will be over, with the clear winner being all of us who were lucky enough to be in the audience at one of the band's rare gigs. But we should count ourselves lucky that we are getting the chance at all, since after 20 years in the Fellows, this record marks the first time one of McCaughey's projects, Fellows or Five, has been on a major label.

All the others have been on small indies, like Frontier or Scott's own label, Popllama. McCaughey, for one, is not bothered by the long-time coming aspect of things. The difference, he says, between being on Mammoth and being on an indie, is merely one of tour support.

THIS SPRING, the Fellows will finally be staying in a hotel between gigs, or "sixing it up," as McCaughey calls it, meaning staying at the Motel Six. "I'd actually be happy to stay on people's floors still," says the indefatigable McCaughey, who now normally stays in the finest hotels when he's touring the globe with R.E.M. "But it wouldn't be fair to the others."

It's hard to believe it's taken this long in his career to get a label to cough up some dough. "But I don't think of what I do as 'a career,' " he says. "It's just a twist, or something. I make records, and I get them out ... somehow. And I play shows."

That's a bit of an understatement. He plays shows all right, shows ranging from a gig at Parent's Night at his daughter's elementary school to a show in front of 120,000 people at last month's Rock In Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro, considered one of the largest and most crazed of the world's big festivals.

The latter was, he admits reluctantly, an amazing gig, "but it doesn't really affect you that much. It's more like a concept than a reality, really. I didn't ever get face to face with the mayhem, although Michael [Stipe] did."

He smiles. "I don't know, things like that are cool, but it's not like the first time the Fellows played Madrid." That time, in 1992, he recalls, the small but rabid fan base in the tiny cellar nightclub went so insane that at one point they reached up to the stage, untied his shoelaces while he was playing guitar, tripped him up and pulled off his shoes as souvenirs. "And my socks. That was the weird thing. I'd been in a smelly van for two days--whoever wanted my awful socks was welcome to them."

That gig, says McCaughey, was maybe one of the best of his life--and this writer, who was lucky enough to be there, concurs. But the thing about the Young Fresh Fellows is that a night like that can happen anywhere and anytime, which is why this year's Noise Pop is a must-see event.

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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