For well over a decade, Scott McCaughey has led the multifaceted Seattle band Young Fresh Fellows to considerable underground acclaim, despite an almost universal lack of radio airplay. McCaughey's other band, The Minus 5, has taken up more of his time in recent years, but it, too, hasn't broken through in a big commercial way. Come to think of it, neither has Tuatara, the critically acclaimed side project to which McCaughey occasionally belongs, along with stars like Screaming Trees' Barrett Martin and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. But despite his inherently peripheral nature, McCaughey recently signed a distribution deal with Hollywood Records for his new Malt label, and he gets to enjoy big-time attention when he periodically tours as a guitarist for R.E.M. A simple "Justify Your Existence" talk with McCaughey recently turned into a full-blown interview, in which the singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer went on about his bands, the state of today's radio stations, and why he'll probably never be famous.
The Onion: How many bands are you in, anyway?
Scott McCaughey: Well, let's see… Mainly The Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows. I toured with R.E.M. and probably will again, I think. I'm certainly not in R.E.M. Then there's The Lowe Beats, my Nick Lowe cover band. [Laughs.] We actually play; there's this big festival in Seattle called Bumbershoot, and the Fellows have played it, like, practically every year for 12 years. This year, they called want-ing The Lowe Beats to play. They didn't ask for the Fellows or The Minus 5; they wanted The Lowe Beats. I play in Tuatara; I just played in one song on the record [Breaking The Ethers], but I seem to be playing with them now, pretty much. I played all through this tour with them, and played with [Mark] Eitzel's band also. I played on the record [West] with them, too. I keep busy. [Laughs.]
O: Why should anyone buy your record?
SM: Well, I have to admit, I feel kind of guilty about starting a label and having at least two bands that are putting out records, because it's just absurd. Every time I look at a magazine, there are 500 labels I've never even heard of and 50 million bands I've never heard of. There's way too many, and half of them should be blown up. [Laughs.] But how can I say that I'm not part of that? The Minus 5 is bound to be pretty prolific, because I've already got three other Minus 5 records in the works. There's really no reason anybody should buy mine, except that, you know, they're masterpieces. [Laughs.] But I don't expect anyone to know that or to just go out and buy something on faith. And I certainly don't think you should necessarily buy something because it's got well-known musicians on it, because that doesn't necessarily tell you that much—although I might look at a record and see that if the guys from The Posies and maybe somebody from NRBQ and somebody from R.E.M. and somebody from Guided By Voices and somebody from Screaming Trees played on it [as is the case with the new Minus 5 record, The Lonesome Death Of Buck McCoy], I might think, "Well, this is bound to be pretty cool." But, you know, the fact is, it's me singing my songs, basically. So if you like that kind of thing—if you like Scott McCaughey—you're bound to like The Minus 5. That's not to ignore everybody's contributions, especially on this latest record, because Peter [Buck] wrote the music, so it's a little poppier than the last record. It's not as totally fucked-up as the first Minus 5 record [Old Liquidator]. That could be either a selling point, or it could go against it. [Laughs.] I feel a little dubious about justifying my existence, to tell the truth. But regardless of that, I have to keep making records, because it's all I can do. That's how I justify it myself. I just don't have a choice. If I don't make records, then I'm just totally screwed. I'll just be a bum, an alcoholic. I'll lose my family. [Laughs.]
O: How do you balance everything?
SM: It's not very easy, but part of it is that when I'm home, I can be pretty normal. I can sit in my basement and hang out with my daughter when she gets out of school, and get up in the morning and get her off to school, and that kind of stuff. And then when I go on tour, I just go completely ape. [Laughs.] I make myself sick with abuse and staying up and drinking my head off and being a complete and utter fool. So then when I get home, I'm like, "Oh, God, why did I do that?" Then I kind of feel like I can be normal again, sort of. [Laughs.] Then, after three months of being normal, I'm dying to go out and murder myself again on tour. It's a really precarious balance, but that's how I do it. It's kind of insane.
O: You're well-known in certain circles, and you've played with some famous people, but you've always been sort of a peripheral figure. I don't think I've ever heard a Young Fresh Fellows song on commercial radio.
SM: Yeah, that's pretty unlikely. There was a time when "Amy Grant" was getting played on, like, 30 commercial stations, and that was probably about as close as we got. That was 1987, so what does that tell you? [Laughs.] And it's the dumbest song we ever recorded. I mean, it was one of those things that just popped into my head when I was going to practice. It was literally, like, "What do you guys think of this?" I hadn't even played it on guitar, and I just started playing it. And we all thought, "Yeah, that's pretty funny. Okay, it's done." [Laughs.] It was a total fluke, and it was such an embarrassing song that if we'd even thought about it for a second, we would have probably never done anything with it. I think even at the last minute, we were thinking of not putting it on the record, but it just sounded so great with the girls singing that we had to go for it.
O: Some musicians have that sort of tragic existence where they toss off some two-minute thing that meant nothing to them, and then, 10 years later, people come up to them and are like, "You're the guys who did that 'Amy Grant' song, and it was hilarious!"
SM: Oh yeah, we still get that. I think it's a great record, Men Who Loved Music, so I don't have a problem with that, but the songs off that are the ones people still yell for. You know, we like playing some of them—and we don't play that often now, so it doesn't really matter—but when we do play, I like to play different stuff. What's really great is that we play in Spain all the time, and they don't give a shit about "Amy Grant." They don't know that song or care about it; they just like all these blazing punk-rock songs, and stuff like that. And it's so great when we go there, because no one ever asks for that song. They probably just didn't get it, and besides, they're just not into, like, really poor excuses for funk songs. [Laughs.] They're like, "Rock and roll!" So that's a good thing. I don't really have a problem with being peripheral: I kind of know that we're doomed to that, just because of the way our records are so all-over-the-place. The Fellows have never been able to stick to one thing for very long. Even from one song to the next in a show, it's hard for us to do that. So I kind of figure we doomed ourselves to being peripheral, and that's the way it goes. I couldn't see us doing it any differently.
O: It's got to be kind of liberating, too, to be able to do whatever you want without some big label breathing down your neck.
SM: Yeah, definitely. And I'm not saying we haven't agonized over it over the years, when we weren't making any money and we were trying to decide if we could quit our day jobs—or after quitting our day jobs, if we should get day jobs. We've had years and years of going back and forth with that kind of crap. When it comes down to it, we're sort of purists about, "Well, this is what we do," and when I write songs, I bring 'em in, and there isn't really necessarily a certain style. And that's just the way it goes: I just like too many different kinds of music. Even with the Fellows, even though we do so many different kinds of music, it was still a necessity for me to do The Minus 5. I wanted to do a whole bunch of quiet downer songs, and the Fellows can't do that many of those. We can do a few, but we can't really fill a whole record with downer songs.
O: You're not really a downer band.
SM: No, no. As much as we've tried. [Laughs.] It just doesn't work, because we have too much fun while we're playing, and that's what we kind of ended up being known for. Our fans, as few as they are, that's what they go for. Even now, when I'm doing the Minus 5 songs—like on the last tour we did with Tuatara and Mark Eitzel—The Minus 5 ended up being the fun rock 'n' roll part of the show. [Laughs.] Just because when I get up on stage, that's what I like to do: have fun, and goof around, and say stupid things, and fall over. So The Minus 5 didn't end up being the big downer portion of the show that it should have been. But when half the show is Mark Eitzel, the downer portion of the show is pretty much taken care of. [Laughs.] And enjoyably so, believe me.
O: It seemed like, for a while in the early '90s, we might be heading into this pop-music renaissance where The Posies would be really big, and The Fastbacks might finally be really big, and bands that played really fun, cool pop music might really be in. And then we seemed to just get a lot of Seven Mary Three.
SM: Right. [Laughs.] Yeah, but now, you've kind of got bands in the power-pop vein—Fountains Of Wayne, The Rembrandts—that are actually kind of popular, which is pretty funny. But it totally passed us by, and The Posies… You certainly thought they were going to bust through, and that didn't happen. Now their drummer is in Fountains Of Wayne.
O: Do you think you'll ever capitalize on it?
SM: Oh, I doubt it. [Laughs.] I don't know. It's like, The Presidents [Of The United States Of America] came through with the big hits and stuff, just doing really fun, punky pop and stuff, but now, there's like a million groups that do that kind of power-pop/punk-pop. I like 'em, and I've always loved that kind of music, but even I'm kind of bored with it. So I don't see the Fellows doing that kind of music. I mean, we'll always have a few songs like that, because we grew up on Buzzcocks and Generation X and The Jam and stuff like that, but I couldn't say that our next record will be full-on like that. It'll just be scattered all over the place, as usual. It's just more fun that way. But I'm glad to hear a really rockin' Foo Fighters song on the radio instead of the doom-and-gloom stuff, for sure. I'm super-bored with the bands that are trying to sound like Pearl Jam and stuff. It's just really embarrassing in my mind. Radio is just fucking unbelievable right now. It is so sucky, I can't even believe it. We went to a lot of commercial stations on this tour—we had like three different labels working it, so they'd get us to appear on "The Edge," "The End," whatever the fucking stupid thing they decide to call these stations. So we'd get up there and the people would just be fucking geeks. They'd be, like, "Hey, all right, well, what's happening with Mad Season, Barrett?" And it's like, shut up. God, it was just so fucking embarrassing, and none of them were playing any of the three records. None of those stations would play Eitzel, or Tuatara, or The Minus 5. "And now, here's Bush! Again!" And we're like, "What are we doing here?" We'd rather be at a college station where they might be trying to be hip, too, but at least they're interested and playing a bunch of weird stuff. I don't know, that was really frustrating, because on this last tour, me and Mark Eitzel and Barrett Martin and Peter Buck went to, like, 400 radio stations. So many of the ones we went to just didn't have a clue. Every once in a while, you'd find one that's really cool.
O: What music is giving you hope right now?
SM: Well, I'm still hugely into Guided By Voices, and I like the fact that they can travel around the country and still sell out shows—even though they're probably never going to get played on commercial radio. I'm a big fan of theirs, to be sure. I'm trying to think… Oh, the band that's giving me the most hope right now is Wilco. They made a really uncompromising record [Being There], and they've gotten more and more popular. They play totally uncompromising live shows that sound like a band at its peak. You go see 'em, and two times out of three, they just rock like crazy, then play some quiet country songs, then play feedback for five minutes, then do a Ramones song or a Replacements song or a Bowie song. They're just all over the place, and it totally reminds me of when you'd catch the Replacements on a really good night. Wilco does that maybe 75 percent of the time, whereas with The Replacements, it was maybe one out of five if you were lucky. [Laughs.] They're really giving me hope, because people are going to see 'em. And all the people who are going to see them who got into them because they're this country-rock band, well, they're not. They play some country music, but they're just a fucking rock 'n' roll band that kicks butt over everybody right now. They put out a really weird, fucked-up record, but the songs are brilliant, and they play amazingly well together, and people are kind of going for it. And that's really encouraging to me, because to me, they're a band that's kind of like the Fellows have always been, and it's nice to see that they can play to a thousand people in a night or whatever, instead of a couple hundred. So when they're really huge pop stars about a year from now, they'll take the Fellows on tour with them. And everybody'll hate us. [Laughs.] Oh, man, we toured last year with the Presidents, for like three weeks, when their first record was really happening. We actually did pretty good, but man, we had to reach into every little bag of tricks that we had: We were playing to all these 14- and 15-year-olds who were, like, "Who are these fucking old weirdos? They're all drunk and falling over, and we've never heard of 'em before, and we want the Presidents! We want the snappy pop music!" We're like, "Well, this is snappy pop music!" We just had to do everything we could to win 'em over, and occasionally we failed, but most of the time we won. There was a time in Birmingham, Alabama, when I decided it was a good time to do a slow, depressing country song, and to ask the crowd not to throw quarters at us while we were doing it. So, of course, you know what that meant: We got bombarded with quarters getting winged at us the entire song, banging off my guitar and stuff. It was kind of scary.