The consummate sideman, Scott McCaughey found himself busy in other projects that by the time he got to move forward with an album for the Minus 5, he had enough songs for a five-record set.
McCaughey, whose career began in the early 1980s with Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows and has continued on stage and in the studio with (among many others) R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock, kept writing songs even as he kept getting called away from his own band.
An enthusiastically collaborative musician, McCaughey says he doesn’t mind pushing the Minus 5 to the back burner a bit—“I don’t really make my living on the Minus 5, sad but true,” he says—to have fun playing music with friends.
“I never really had a plan, about anything, about becoming a musician or when I became a musician about making a career out of it or anything like that,” he says. “I just go with the flow. What I discovered is that I gravitated toward friends who all love rock ‘n’ roll and we found that making music was very fun. It would tend to happen that we would be in more than one group at the same time. Even when I first started I was in two bands at the same time and since then it’s been whatever I have time for.
“I tend to do a lot of stuff where I’m a sideman, so I basically take whatever comes along first. If I’m not booked and it’s something I want to do, I say yeah,” he says. “That keeps on happening and the whole time that’s going on, I’m always writing songs. I started recording them myself as they went along. I knew pretty soon which ones I liked. At one point I decided to finish them and I didn’t know what kind record I wanted to make. I thought it would be kind of wild to put them all out as a thing.”
The result of McCaughey’s sporadic, songwriting effort was the first Minus 5 record in five years: "Scott The Hoople In the Dungeon Of Horror," a 57-song, 211-minute vinyl-only box set.
“I approached Yep Roc and asked what they’d think if I put out a triple album and they gave me a sort of reluctant but supportive answer,” McCaughey says. “As I started finishing I told them I think it’s a four-record set, and then I think it’s a five-record set. We came up with the idea of doing it for Record Store Day and doing it as a really limited thing.”
With only 750 copies made, neither McCaughey nor his label promoted the box set, but the songs were strong enough to warrant a wider release, so McCaughey conceived "Dungeon Golds," a compilation of songs from three of the LPs.
“I felt so excited about making the box set,” he says. “There was a kind of a psychedelic record and kind of a poppy record and kind of a rock record, so I picked songs I think work together well. It feels like a fresh record to me.”
A tight 12-song record that has the sustained quality of a greatest hits compilation, "Dungeon Golds" opens with “My Generation,” a kind of response to the Who classic, written from the other side of middle age, with a chorus of “Not ready to die, die, die / Not ready to fold.”
Death weighs on McCaughey’s mind plenty on the album, peppering the lyrics on several songs, including “Unforeseen” and “Adios Half Soldier.”
“I don’t feel I’m morbid, but death is such an overwhelming presence in our life, it’s weird not to write about it. It’s really ever present to me. It pops up in my songs all the time,” he says. “Sadly as you get older it hits you more and more every day, not because you’re getting older but the people around you are.”
"Dungeon Golds" features one of the last recorded performances from Ian McLagan, the late Faces keyboardist and longtime friend of McCaughey’s who passed away in December at 69.
“Whatever I was and whatever I’ll be / The world will get on without me,” sings McCaughey on “In The Ground,” with backing from McLagan and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck (a longtime Minus 5er).
Other guests include Jeff Tweedy, whose Wilco bandmates joined with The Minus 5 on 2003’s "Down With Wilco."
McCaughey also contributed to last year’s Tweedy album "Sukierae" and enjoys being in tour with his father-and-son friends Jeff and Spencer Tweedy.
“We’re having a great time. They’re shows are so much fun,” McCaughey says. “We tracked one or two songs on the Tweedy record with me piano and Spencer on drums and Jeff on guitar. I remember watching Spencer play when he was 10, Jeff and him jamming in the basement playing Led Zeppelin songs. But he’s got such a style now of his own and his a really unique player and has incredible feel.”
Before "Dungeon Golds" and playing on the Tweedy record, McCaughey enjoyed a three-album (so far) run with Buck, Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon as the Baseball Project.
“I’m pretty obsessed with baseball,” he says. “Baseball has such great history and such great stories, we approached it from the folk tradition of just telling stories. The Baseball Project is a fun thing for us to do, an interesting and slightly different exercise as far as songwriting goes.”
The Tweedy/Minus 5 tour brings McCaughey back again to Tucson, where he spent part of his childhood and saw his first Major League game, watching Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and the San Francisco Giants play the Cleveland Indians at Hi Corbett field.
So whether it’s songs like “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays” or “In The Ground,” McCaughey will keep writing songs about what matters in his life, and in between lending his skills to a host of other musical projects, he’ll even find more time to record them.
The Minus 5 open for Tweedy on Wednesday, March 25 at the Rialto Theatre.