He's the frizzy-haired old dude who stands in front of the indie kids at Death Cab for Cutie shows. He's one of the crazy young guys onstage treating cheering old-timers to rockin' Sonics covers. He wears sunglasses at night. He has functioned as a relative unknown and a regional hero. He's never had a public battle with an illicit substance, a scandalous run-in with the law, or even a hit song. But he is our resident garage rock expert, our most accomplished pop musician, our own eccentric anomaly.
In the last few years Scott McCaughey (rhymes with "ahoy") has acted the role of Seattle music's elder statesman, presiding humbly and happily over all things rock and roll while cultivating a comfortable living as a full-time touring member of the hugely influential and commercially successful supergroup R.E.M. But because he's also such a tenacious character and prolific songwriter, the story is far from over. In a nearly unprecedented turn of events, Scott somehow managed to get major label-backed Mammoth Records to release a delightfully poppy, artfully preposterous double CD featuring one disc each by his two revered bands, the Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows.
The individually titled collections, Let the War Against Music Begin (by the Minus 5) and Because We Hate You (by the Fellows), are steadily gaining national attention. This past Tuesday night, Scott and the ever-evolving team of rogue musicians in the Minus 5 appeared in front of millions of late night television junkies on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Now in his 40s, Scott may not be the most likely candidate for the Next Big Thing, but he's certainly pulled off a neat trick: making a living as a musician, having his albums released with wide distribution, and, at the end of the proverbial day, coming home to a city filled with people glad to call him a friend. How ever does he do it?
Never travel far without a little Big Star
In the '80s, the Replacements' Paul Westerberg turned a legion of post-punks on to the Young Fresh Fellows. Westerberg touted the Fellows in nearly every interview he did in support of his band's Pleased to Meet Me. In those days, the Replacements were a big deal, but there was nary a music fan east of the mountains who knew Seattle from sciatica.
"Nobody came to Seattle. Labels didn't come here; bands didn't come here," Scott tells me over beers at the Lava Lounge.
Spurred on by youthful, dogged energy, the Fellows faithfully put out their own records—with the help of Conrad Uno's Pop Llama label—and they soon became this area's do- it-yourself role models.
"We did kind of encourage a lot of bands because we'd say, 'We're going on tour.' And we'd come back six months later and say, 'It was great. We had so much fun.' And they were all like, 'Well, we can do it if those guys can do it,'" Scott remembers.
"We set a good example by just not caring whether anyone liked us or whether we were gonna get signed to a big label: 'We're a band, we're great, we're making records. We're writing songs, we're gonna go record them, and then we're gonna go play.' It was a good time. But that was something that really came out of being in Seattle. Bands like the Fastbacks, the Cheaters, and the U-Men would make 45s and put them out themselves, and we were like, 'That's cool.'"
And when the Fellows returned a favor and played Paul Westerberg's wedding, that was pretty cool too.
But your love don't pay the bills
The most amazing thing about Scott is that for the past 20 years he has subsisted, in one way or another, on rock and roll. And aside from the rubberized fools that MTV hawks, the list of those who can say the same is pretty small.
"Well, I did my eight years at Cellophane Square," he tells me with a smile, and divulges, with a careful measure of irony and pride, that they eventually made him a manager.
Relentless touring machines, the Fellows adhered to a strict DIY model and eventually made money out on the road. But rock and roll can be a fickle bitch. Once his daughter was born and the Fellows decided to disband in the late '80s, Scott's optimism about relying on pop music to pay his bills began to wane.
"I started booking the Crocodile," he says with a hint of resignation. Any struggling musician who has done time delivering the mail or washing dishes would have a pretty hard time feeling sorry for him on that one.
"Yeah, but that's not a good job for a musician. It was really hard for me to be the guy bartering with the bands. I just wanted to give them money so they could go on tour."
Pretty early on, Scott learned his lesson about making promises he wasn't sure he could keep. But what he learned was not that he couldn't take the risks, just that he should be damn sure what he was betting on.
He booked the then-unknown Ohio indie band Guided by Voices around the time that their album Bee Thousand came out in the early '90s. The Crocodile took a big loss on the show, and Scott felt bad.
"But you know, it was the greatest show," he says. "And I also knew that the next time they came, there would be like 400 people there, and that's what happened. I was totally vindicated.
"I knew that's how it worked because that's how it worked with the Fellows. We'd go places and there would be 20 people there. But we'd go back six months later and there'd be like a hundred people there. You had to go and play a really great show. And the people that would be there would be really hard-core people, and they'd tell everyone about it."
Scott's ubiquitous smile, upbeat pop stylings, and remarkable longevity suggest that nothing gets this guy down. But that isn't the case.
"Obviously, when people I knew were kinda junked out, that was bad because they were all music people," Scott says, recalling the darker days of Seattle's music scene.
He also tells me a story about one night when he went berserk on stage and smashed a bunch of mike stands. He laughs as he recalls going backstage and dumping a giant bowl of salad on his head—but it's the laughter of a guy who hates to remember how he lost his cool.
"When I lose it, it does pack a punch because I don't do it very often."
I ask him what pissed him off. "I don't know. The show didn't go quite as far as I wanted it to go. It wasn't quite as good as I wanted it to be. I didn't feel like everyone was trying as hard as I was."
Scott McCaughey wants every show and every song and every riff to be amazing.
"Oh, yeah. I totally go for it. You have to," he says, vigorously nodding his head.
Maintaining his cool
A true Fellows fan could follow the fine line between the Kinks' Ray Davies' nostalgically witty and bittersweet British pop and Scott's equally narrative yet nonsensical Americana pop. Once, while in London with R.E.M., Scott found himself in the company of Hootie and the Blowfish, a college band of a decidedly different background. One of the Blowfish told Scott that he was a huge Fellows fan and noted that he particularly liked the song "Picture Book"—which is actually a Kinks song that Scott and friends often covered and included on their 1989 disc This One's for the Ladies. Scott's not one to judge. He says that he just thought it was really cool that the guy liked the song, no matter who wrote it.
He's perhaps more forgiving because he's been in the other guy's shoes. As a member of one of the world's most famous rock bands, Scott's shared the stage, the recording studio, and a few beers with some of his biggest influences.
"Through R.E.M. I've gotten to meet a lot of my idols: Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Jimmy Page. I do feel really lucky."
Be true to your school
"My favorite places that I've played have always been the Crocodile and Lounge Ax in Chicago," he says. "And that's because those places are run by great people. To me, the Crocodile is home. I could play other places, but I feel so comfortable there. I just go there to hang out. But if it's someone I really wanna see, I'll go to the other places. You see me at the Showbox or the Tractor or Graceland—whatever it takes."
He grins with his whole face when he says this, and I almost believe that this motto is tattooed somewhere on his brain, or at least on the back side of his guitar.
Whatever it takes: Supporting younger bands like Death Cab for Cutie, doling out friendly encouragement, standing dead center in the audience and cheering, even bringing the enigmatic one-man band/ local oddity Richard Peterson up on stage with him.
"I'm just a fan, that's all. I'm a music fan," he says.