In the early 1980s, Scott McCaughey caught Alejandro Escovedo’s trailblazing cowpunk band, Rank and File, at the Rainbow Tavern in Seattle.
Four years later, his fledgling alt rock band, Young Fresh Fellows, opened for Los Lobos and True Believers, another Alejandro Escovedo project, and then hung out all night with them.
“That’s the way it works out,” McCaughey says in a phone interview. “You start to be friends with people. You love their music. You see each other and gradually you might get a chance to make music together. I don’t know how I fell into it (making music). I could have been sitting around working in a record store buying everybody’s records. Somehow, I got to be on them.”
Rather than buy everybody’s records, it seems McCaughey plays on everybody’s records.
Everybody from REM, where he was a band member for 18 years, to The Minus 5, his project with Peter Buck of REM and members of The Posies, to Baseball Project, his sporty jaunt with Buck and Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, to Tweedy, where he played with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. Then there is his work with M Ward, the Venus 3 with Robyn Hitchcock, Tired Pony with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, and Filthy Friends with Buck and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Bill Rieflin (REM, Swans, King Crimson) and Kurt Bloch, an old Fresh Fellows fellow.
What makes him slip so easily into bands whether as a sideman or a front man? “I just love music and I love being the guy who sings his own songs — or shouts them,” he says. “I love being that guy in a band with Young Fresh Fellows. I love doing my own thing in Minus 5. I love being in other bands and playing great music.”
He runs through a list of performers he admires who are also friends and collaborators from Hitchcock to Tweedy to Buck to Mike Mills, another REM mate. “That’s just a dream come true for a rock and roll geek like I am. It’s never an ego thing with me. I feel so lucky that I have a life where I get to play music.”
One of his latest projects — and with McCaughey there is never just one latest project — brings him to Shaka’s Live in Virginia Beach on Jan. 17 backing Alejandro Escovedo and his new album. “Burn Something Beautiful.”
It promises to be another memorable night following Escovedo’s stunning sold-out house concert in Norfolk last November, his 2013 duo show at the Sandler Performing Arts Center, and his withering band rock show at the old Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach a few years earlier.
McCaughey and Buck will open the night with The Minus 5, then back up Escovedo as his band. That’s not unusual. McCaughey cracks that there have been nights he’s played with three bands, all with the same members, who played three sets of different songs under the names of three different projects.
McCaughey and Escovedo crossed paths notably playing eight shows on a run of the Midwest with Buck a few years ago Escovedo originally was going to play as a duo, but booked rehearsal space before the tour’s opener so both bands could work up a couple of songs for the encore. They ended up working up an entire set. “The very first night Al was like , ‘Why don’t you guys just play the whole set with me?’ “
But then at a sold-out show in Portland, Escovedo had a sort of attack or seizure and couldn’t take the stage. The rest of the tour was canceled — at the insistence of Buck, who had watched REM drummer Bill Berry fall into his arms onstage suffering a stroke — and the performers went on to other projects.
Escovedo recovered and cured the hepatitis C that nearly killed him with the new treatment following his last appearance in Norfolk. “He’s feeling better than he has in 20 years,” McCaughey says, “and he’s out there ready to play.”
On the day we talk, McCaughey is fresh from a taping of Austin City Limits with Escovedo and the band, which also includes Buck, Bloch, and John Moen of The Decemberists on drums.
While they played together, it wasn’t until the last year or so that they sat down to write together. Writing with others is not new for Escovedo. After decades doing little collaboration, he’s worked with partners in the last decade. His two previous albums were collaborations with Chuck Prophet.
But then Escovedo always has been something of a musical chameleon, successfully modeling one new skin after another. In liner notes to his 1993 album, “Gravity,” Joe Nick Patoski described him as cast in a number of roles: “wayward son of America’s first family of rhythm, nihilist San Francisco neo-bohemian, leather-clad New York punk rocker, denim-clad L.A. neo-cowboy, tough but sensitive captain of a guitar army from Texas, and, most recently, conductor of an ensemble large enough, eclectic enough, and professional enough to call itself an orchestra.”
When Buck, Escovedo, and McCaughey first got together to write, McCaughey wondered if it would work because he often writes alone. “I’m not really at that (writing together),” he says. “But I’m certainly willing to give it a try. I’m more of the guy who sits in the basement and comes up with depressing songs. I kind of clam up around other people in the creative process, but he really wanted to do it, so I said, ok, I’ll give it a try.”
They did the lion’s work of the writing in Buck’s basement on the dozen cuts for the disc. “Every song was a little different,” McCaughey says. “There were some that just came out of nowhere. Al started playing a riff. Peter and I have notebooks lying around and we start singing something. There were some Al had completely shaped and we sort of helped tweak. And on a few songs Peter or I had something going already. All were in various shapes of creation or dishevelment. Some we each brought to the table. Others we created out of thin air. “
One song, originally titled “Who Am I” started with a riff and a few words from Escovedo before Buck and McCaughey added lines, a new verse and different chords. When Escovedo mentioned the line “suit of lights,” McCaughey said they had to get it on the song and the song took another turn. They continued writing right up until the recording when Hogan stepped in to sing the second verse for what became “Suit of Lights” on “Burn Something Beautiful.”
“I felt it was a real great three-way collaboration,” McCaughey says, “one of the first ones.”
A Buck tune, “I Don’t Ever Want to Play Guitar Again” had the music changed and lyrics added by McCaughey and Escovedo. “Redemption Blues” was something Escovedo had worked up in McCaughey’s basement. They wanted Mavis Staples to sing on it, but there wasn’t time.
“I think we got a good variety of sounds and types of songs on the record,” McCaughey says. “At first, I thought it was going to be a blazing rock album. It is to a degree, but a few more ballad-y type songs round it out pretty well.”
They booked studio time for ten days in April at Type Foundry, the Portland studio that McCaughey uses for band work. Moen joined them.
Hogan had been on tour with The Decemberists in Australia and heard about the project. “I love Al,” she told Moen. “If you need anybody to do vocals I’ll come on my own time.” They thought she’d be great on two or three songs. She sang on ten.
Tucker stopped by to play on a few songs. And Steve Berlin of Los Lobos scratched out time from his busy schedule to contribute to a couple. The guys who hung out together back that night in the mid-80s when Fresh Fellows played with True Believers and Los Lobos were making music together in the studio three decades later. As McCaughey says, you start a fan, become friends, and maybe one day make music together.
After his three-week run of dates with Escovedo, McCaughey will go on to play more shows with friends. He’ll join Buck, Wynn, and Wynn’s wife, Linda Pitmon, the drummer, in Japan for shows with the Baseball Project, the Minus 5 and with Buck and Mike Mills. Then it’s on to Norway. “We’re really lucky to have this whole community of people. We’re all best friends. It’s an amazing thing,” he says. “There’s never a shortage of ideas and projects we want to do next.”
When he writes, obviously the Baseball Project songs center around one subject. But what about the others? Does he begin with a band or collaborators in mind?
“Sometimes I do. For some, I know this is a Fellows song,” he says. “But lots of time I just write songs, a whole bunch of them.”
He pauses. Depending on the next project, he says he may steer some tunes to one group or another. The Minus 5 tends to get the rockers. The slow, dismal psychedelic folk songs find other homes. “Only one one every (Minus 5) record,” he says. “We like to rock.”
“The short answer,” he concludes, “is I write them and I don’t know where they’re going to to until I figure it out later.”
He confesses to being thrilled one of his co-writes, “Taste the Ceiling,” ended up on Wilco’s “Star Wars” disc. “Jeff (Tweedy) is one of my favorite people, one of my best friends. I’m a huge fan of his music as well. I love hanging out with Jeff and spending time in The Loft (Tweedy’s Chicago base). There’s everything there a guy like me could want. A recording studio. Every kind of guitar you could want. Every kind of keyboard. Cool books. It’s just such a fun place.”
He recalls playing in the area, but says it’s been a long time. “I played in Norfolk. I’ve been there a few times with the Fellows. I think we played…is it the Kings Head?”
He’s told the legendary club is long gone. But the memory remains, static in a concert shot he covets.
“I’ve got a poster we made,” he says, “a live shot of us playing at the Kings Head.”