Monday, March 27, 2006

Forever A Fan

On July 9, 2002, I first met Jim DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, in a darkened parking lot outside one of the most beloved radio institutions in Chicago, WXRT. I could never have imagined that four years later I would call this gentleman from New Jersey a mentor and friend.

The introduction was simple: I was allowed to visit “Sound Opinions,” hosted by DeRogatis and Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, to offer my thanks for an autographed copy of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that I won in a contest sponsored by the WXRT show. The day I actually got the call from the show’s webmaster, Jason Saldanha, I was suffering from food poisoning. I was probably the least excited sounding winner over the telephone that he’s ever had to call.

On the previous week, before my first visit to the studio, I had called the show to defend the latest Oasis album Heathen Chemistry. Both Jim and Greg took the album to town, trashing it as a waste of time. I’d like to think I held my own by defending the album, even refreshing Jim’s memory about the final track on the band’s debut album Definitely Maybe. So, when I arrived to the WXRT studio, Jason was the first to greet me. It felt like a few seconds later when I met Jim. I shook his hand and mentioned the Wilco album I won in the contest. To put a voice with a face, I state I was the caller from last week who defended Oasis. “Well, somebody has to,” says Jim. That was the first remark he ever said to me; it wasn’t “Nice to meet you,” or “Thanks for listening to the show.”

My impression of Jim, notwithstanding the Oasis comment, was slightly shaped by a review of an R.E.M. concert in August 1999 at the New World Music Theatre (now some other god awful corporate name). I still remember reading the review in my kitchen and slamming my fist on the dining room table, exclaiming, “What fucking show did this guy see?” I still have the article in my closet. I’ve been meaning to have Jim autograph it for me…one day.

Meeting Jim face to face took me back a little. I was just starting out as a writer for my college newspaper at DePaul, and here I was meeting this seasoned veteran of journalism that’s already put down one of my favorite bands. It was intimidating to say the least.

Well, the evening with Jim and Greg turned out better than expected. I was invited to stay during the two-hour show and sit with them in the actual studio. Having been a listener to WXRT since I was probably seven years old I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Based on the fact I didn’t freak out Jim and Greg during the show, I was given the OK by executive producer Matt Spiegel to come back and visit anytime. Since that time I’ve become part of their worlds just as they became part of mine.

It was probably because I showed up so much—sometimes with Rice Krispy Treats or bootleg CDs—that after a year I was offered the title of production associate with “Sound Opinions" (Jim’s original title for me was Chief Aide de Camp) and given a spot on the moderating team for the show’s online message board. Greg honored me with a research assistant credit in his very first book called Wilco - Learning How To Die, a story about the Chicago-based rock band. Following the release of Greg’s book, Jim e-mailed me about a special project he wanted to involve me with. I printed out his e-mail and kept it folded in one of my textbooks as I went about my day of classes at DePaul. When it came time to finally call Jim and learn what this project he had in mind for me, I was cooking ham at my then-girlfriend’s apartment. “How are ya, Chris?” asked Jim over the phone. “I’m just cooking some ham,” I replied. “Well, you’re in college. You gotta eat something,” said Jim.

It was then when Jim asked me to be part of his book about the Flaming Lips, to transcribe interviews and fact check material. It wasn’t work I felt was beneath me. My work with Greg consisted of gathering specific Wilco bootlegs for his research. Here, I would be more involved in the writing process by working with Jim’s interviews with band members (past and present) and various associates of the band.

Working with Jim was always interesting. I probably learned more about him and from him while chatting with him as I sorted his mail bins of press kits. The first time I actually rode my bike from my home on the south side to Jim’s home near Wrigley Field continues to be a moment that doesn’t go away as a joke (“Hey Chris, did you ride your bike here?”).

Jim always seized the moment to educate me about a band or artist that he loved and that I needed in my collection. One such instance was when he went into complete shock that I wasn’t very familiar with John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground. “You call yourself a R.E.M. fan and don’t know John Cale?” exclaimed Jim from his desk. I was filing CDs into his vast library of a music collection when this discussion about John Cale came up. He proceeded to change the CD that was playing to Cale’s live album Fragments Of A Rainy Season within a split second. Suddenly this beautiful song filled the basement office area and my ears perked up. It was a song I once heard on an episode of The West Wing, a song performed by the late Jeff Buckley called “Hallelujah.” I learned that the song originated from Leonard Cohen and that, according to Jim, the Cale cover is far superior to Buckley’s version. Naturally, Jim made a copy of the CD for the simple reason I needed it in my life. Being the former record store employee, I could relate completely to what he must have been thinking the second I admitted to having never heard the Cale CD, “This is a great album that needs to be heard and you should have a copy.”

If I had to choose one lesson to take from my time spent with Jim, it would be that honesty is not always popular, and to say that Jim is blunt with his opinions would be sugarcoating things a little bit. The disagreements readers may have with his opinions stems from the fact that he’s being honest about what he thought about an album or a concert. You’re not doing your job as a critic if people are always agreeing with you 100% of the time. I’m sure Jim has his share of hate mail to prove to that point.

On the night of his Flaming Lips book party at the Abbey Pub, Jim showed yet another side of himself that I never really experienced. I showed up in support of the book I had a hand in and to offer Jim my congratulations for achieving his dream. I have to tip my hat to him; Jim’s had the opportunity to write about his rock critic hero, Lester Bangs, and one of his favorite bands in the Flaming Lips. If that’s not living the dream, then I don’t know what is.

Upon my arrival I discovered from another a fellow DeRo intern, Jenny Grandy, that Jim would be performing with a Lips tribute band called the Satellite Hearts. The band was selecting songs from the '80s and '90s era of the Flaming Lips that are never performed anymore. I was also brought onboard to handle a balloon drop that Jim would signal during one of the songs. Balloons aside, I was simply transfixed by the thought of Jim fronting a band instead of sitting behind the drums. For Jim, this is how he wanted to celebrate the book, through music instead of chapter excerpts.

But when Jim finally took to the stage with the band a little after midnight I readied myself from my side of the balcony. He transformed into exactly what he wrote about in the book; he became a fearless freak.

The microphone was gripped tightly in his hands as he launched into the first song. His voice was bellowing throughout the club, not containing a single care if he was singing out of key. It was like watching Jim pretend to be Wayne Coyne for a night. Whether it was screaming through a bullhorn or firing off confetti into the air, Jim proved he had strong notes when it came to recreating Coyne’s showmanship. I could tell from the crowd’s reaction to each song that Jim was going for the deep cuts that they’ve longed for the Lips to perform again. “Kim’s Watermelon Gun,” “Hit Me Like You Did The First Time,” “Turn It On,” and the show’s closer “She Don’t Use Jelly” were just some of the moments that caused a celebratory frenzy in the crowd.

I smiled as I watched Jim lean down from the stage and pitch the microphone to a fan standing directly in front. He had been singing word for word along with Jim the whole show. That gesture revealed the true spirit of the Flaming Lips that Jim tapped in to—that the band has remained an equal to their fans.

Jim is a constant reminder that no matter who—whether it's the band just a week old or the million-dollar band with private jets—there’s no such thing as free passes. If you speak with conviction and are honest with the facts, the readers will decide on their own whether the music is good or bad. Question his opinions, but what can never be questioned is his passion for the music. And for that I stand and applaud him wholeheartedly.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda (Taken At The Abbey Pub, 3/25/2006)
Concert Artwork By: Chris Martiniano

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Minus 5 @ The Abbey Pub (3/22/2006)

Elbowroom was tight inside the Abbey Pub for the return of the Minus 5. Touring in support of the band’s latest, a self-titled album being referred to as The Gun Album, the Minus 5 delivered a set that celebrated all the band’s strong points after ten years together, from catchy lyrics to sweltering guitars.

For Scott McCaughey, the band’s mastermind and resident mad scientist of rock, it was his first time back to the Abbey Pub since Wilco supported McCaughey as the Minus 5 for two shows in April 2003 promoting Down With Wilco. McCaughey's return with the band also fell on a special day. Not only was it the birthday of McCaughey’s daughter, Nadine, but also the birthday of the one and only William Shatner…Captain Kirk! It was surely a sign that the stars were aligned to make the evening with the Minus 5 a good one.

Over the years, the Minus 5 lineup has included several notable musicians such as Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding, Wilco, and Robert Pollard. But Peter Buck of R.E.M. has remained the senior member of the band next to McCaughey. Along with guitarist John Ramberg and drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, R.E.M.), this current incarnation of the Minus 5 had plenty of muscle to flex at the Abbey Pub.

The band appeared loose on stage; hoots and hollers from the crowd would only fuel the band more. The celebratory air of “Twilight Distillery” later gave way to the somber “Where Will You Go?” McCaughey’s stage banter kept things lively in between songs. Before “Retrieval Of You,” he discussed the origin of the song, recalling that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco came up with the lyrical hook from a local store supposedly called DJ Mini Mart. “Is this true?” asked McCaughey. Someone from the crowd yells out in response, “He’s a liar!” Laughing, McCaughey seizes the moment by saying, “This song’s called ‘Jeff Tweedy Is A Liar!’”

The band’s newest material was given the rock ‘n’ roll treatment on stage. Songs like “Out There On The Maroon” and “With A Gun” became under-three-minute pop rockers. On record, Jeff Tweedy handled the guitar solo to “With A Gun.” McCaughey picked his sunburst Les Paul with ease as he played Tweedy’s part and made it his own.

“I finally got to show off my chops on lead guitar,” said McCaughey after the song. “There was an article when we played in Portland a couple of weeks ago that said I had ‘chops.’ Never has an article been so wrong.”

If they weren’t blasting on all cylinders on songs like “You Don’t Mean It” and “Ghost Tarts Of Stockholm,” the Minus 5 would detour with covers by the Undertones (“Teenage Kicks”), Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”), and Bob Seger (“Mary Lou”). Ramberg and McCaughey would push each other on guitar, striking up manic solos; Rieflin would sound like a pack of elephants stampeding the African terrain while Buck played it cool and calm on the bass (a completely different side from his role in R.E.M.).

What was undeniable throughout the show was how much fun the band was having on stage. After the speeding “Aw Shit Man,” the Minus 5 made the encore their last stand. Kicking off with “Circle Sky” by the Monkees, the Minus 5 smoked through “Over The Sea” before going utterly insane with the 60s garage classic “Strychnine” by the Sonics.

On a Wednesday night, the audience was loud, the drinks were flowing, and the Minus 5 simply rocked. As McCaughey put it in song, “I never want to lose the days of wine and booze.” Cheers!

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, March 20, 2006

In The Crowd

Peter Buck
The Minus 5 @ Mercy Lounge
Nashville, TN

Photo By: Chris Castaneda

Saturday, March 18, 2006

In The Crowd

Wilco @ Ryman Auditorium (3/17/2006) Nashville, TN

Photo By: Chris Castaneda

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins @ Park West (3/14/2006)

It took seventeen years, but I finally stood in the same room with Jenny Lewis.

Surrounded by mostly young women at the Park West, I had to set aside the boyhood crush I had on Lewis back when I was eight years old, watching her co-star with Fred Savage in the Nintendo inspired movie The Wizard (1989). I was now the critic, and she was the seasoned musician on stage.

As the front woman for the L.A. group Rilo Kiley, Lewis has steadily gained respect in and around the indie music scene as being the real deal, not just another former Hollywood star trying to be the rock star. And on her first solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis has proven herself capable of standing on her own two feet. She has removed herself from her Rilo Kiley songwriting partner, Blake Sennett, and has written a collection of songs that not only play to her vocal talents but also shed more light on her strengths as her own songwriter.

Strolling out under the lights inside Park West, Lewis resembled a young Loretta Lynn from head to toe, decked out in a dress straight out of Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek. Following behind Lewis were Chandra and Leigh, the Watson twins. In matching black v-neck dresses, the Watson twins took their positions behind their microphones almost as if they were levitating on air. The response by the capacity crowd brought a look of modest surprise to Lewis' face. It was as if her recent success going solo was still sinking in. As soon as she opened her mouth and that voice filled the room, the crowd was in her hands.

Drawing on much of her solo album, Lewis and her band performed with such high intensity that any thoughts they might slip into old routines from previous shows were erased.

“The Big Guns” caused the dance floor to suddenly erupt with stomping feet; the coy wink of “The Charging Sky” flooded the crowd with random thoughts ranging from the “sure fire bet” of death to a father “growing Bob Dylan’s beard.” The backing vocals by the Watson twins were by no means a gimmick; they could have easily been the showcase equivalent of the dancing entourage that follows Gwen Stefani. The twins brought out different colors to the songs and gave them a dreamy atmosphere that provided Lewis with plenty of room to stretch the music.

One such moment where Lewis really let loose was during a new song, described by Lewis as a “love story,” called “Jack Killed Mom” (the woman certainly has some wit). Lewis sat behind a keyboard and took this soulful tune for a ride with the band, transforming it into a powerhouse song that was textbook Ray Charles.

Jenny Lewis didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to transform herself into a pop-country artist backed by twins; this was music already inside her soul. What she accomplished at the Park West was introduce a brand new facet to her creativity that may not have been given an open road in Rilo Kiley to freely roam. She’s not asking the listening audience to take sides. She’s merely saying, “Hey, I can do this, too.” With a beer in one hand and an acoustic guitar in the other, Jenny Lewis took one step closer to becoming the complete artist that she’s working to be.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The March issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

I have contributed a feature article on The Minus Five:

Check out my complete interview with Scott McCaughey of The Minus Five in the previous post here on Getting In Tune.

The Thirsty Bird Of The Pacific Northwest Speaks: Q & A With Scott McCaughey Of The Minus 5

It has been three years since Scott McCaughey and I chatted over the phone for an interview. The last time was a month prior to his appearance at the Abbey Pub in April 2003 to perform with Wilco as the latest version of McCaughey's band The Minus 5, a band which he and Peter Buck of R.E.M. started.

The album he was promoting at the time was going to be called Down With Wilco as a joke referring to all the trouble Wilco went through privately and publicly the previous two years; the band's problems were a laundry list filled with major label rejection, band members fired, and a finished album called Yankee Hotel Foxtrot waiting for an official release.

Now, three years later, McCaughey returns this month with The Minus 5 for a show at the Abbey Pub. The band's new album The Minus Five (aka The Gun Album) was recently released on February 7 by Yep Roc Records. In an interview for the March issue of Chicago Innerview (now available), McCaughey and I chatted on a grey Sunday (2/12) afternoon about the new album, his partnership with Peter Buck, and the true value of his autograph.

Chris Castaneda: Of all the songs on the album, "Cemetery Row" is my absolute favorite. It's a song that's as good as anything R.E.M. has written. How did Colin Meloy of The Decemberists become involved with that song?

Scott McCaughey: I was lucky he was able to sing it. It would have been okay if I sang it, but I wasn’t really happy with my vocal on it; it was a difficult song for me to sing because I was a co-writer. I wrote the words to it but didn’t write the melody. It was a little challenging for my limited vocal capabilities. Then I thought, “Colin’s voice would sound great on this.” He was happy to come over and do it the day before he was leaving on a tour with The Decemberists. It came out great.

CC: How did the album come together?

SM: It’s kind of a typical Minus 5 story, sit-in sessions in between other stuff. The first tracks that were recorded were “With A Gun” and “Hotel Senator,” which I did in Chicago with Wilco on a day off from the R.E.M. tour (Fall 2004). “Original Luke” and “Bought A Rope” I recorded with my buddies in Oregon. John Moen played drums--he’s the drummer in The Decemberists now and Stephen Malkmus and The Jinks. I’ve known him for a long time. His old band The Dharma Bums were really good friends with The Young Fresh Fellows; we toured a lot together. I basically used three of those guys, and we did some songs in a living room on an 8-track.

The rest of them were Bill (Rieflin), Peter (Buck), John (Ramberg), and I whenever we had a couple of weeks off from R.E.M. stuff. We would do a session in Seattle where we would do four or five songs and pick the best out of those; the songs I really wanted on the record that went together conceptually and lyrically. These were the ones I felt really had to be on the record. It’s kind of the typical piecemeal approach of The Minus 5, but I think it sounds really cohesive.

Kurt (Bloch) and I mixed it all together at the same time. I think the songs flow pretty well together. The sound is compatible, even the ones that were done in different studios. With Minus 5 stuff—especially the last couple of years when R.E.M. has been so busy—we have to pick out spots when we can work on a record. It all came together pretty quickly once the R.E.M. tour was over.

CC: Has there ever been a time when The Minus 5 had the time to sit down and make an album on some kind of schedule?

SM: Not really. [Laughs] The closest would be In Rock (re-released in 2004 by Yep Roc); we basically recorded that in a day, and then I added some overdubs at home, later, and mixed really, really quickly. That’s not a scheduled one where you record the whole album in a day. Down With Wilco was probably as close to that where I had five straight days in the studio and another four a couple months later. We’ve never really had that…it would be pretty amazing if we had a couple of weeks or a month to go do a record from start to finish. That would be pretty amazing, but we never really had that opportunity.

CC: Basically you take the time you can get. Right?

SM: Yeah. It’s funny because I’ve probably spent more time in the studio on the last couple R.E.M. records than I have all The Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 records put together. It’s kind of ridiculous but that’s just the way it works. I wouldn’t want to take as long as it takes to do an R.E.M. record though. I don’t think I could do that, to get myself to operate on that time schedule.

CC: What was the earliest song written?

SM: “Twilight Distillery” is definitely the earliest. We’ve actually been playing that song live for four or five years. I remember not wanting to put it on Down With Wilco because I’d been playing it already with the band, with Peter, Bill, and John. I thought we should record that one together. We actually ended up recording two versions of it. The first session we did, last December, with Bill, John, and Peter for this record, we did “Twilight Distillery” and banged it out. But we had been playing it for so long that it had gotten really revved up, really rocking. It was really good; we did it in one take. We had time to reassess because we went back on the road with R.E.M. for four months until the next session.

I might have played it for Wes (John Wesley Harding). He did some backing vocals on the early versions. He talked about how it got rocked out and was really fast. When we first starting doing it with Wes, it was more Dylan-y and a little more folk rock. We thought the version was really cool, but we thought it would be cool to slow it back down again. So, we ended up re-cutting it at the last session for this record and decided that was the version to go with. I’ll definitely release the other version, the rocker, because it’s really cool. But this version, the folk one, was the right one for the record.

CC: You toured with John Wesley Harding and Dag Juhlin of Poi Dog Pondering as the All-Male Threesome in the summer of 2004. Some of the new album appeared in your sets. The sweetness and simplicity that came across in your solo performances from that tour really carried over to the album.

SM: The performances are a lot simpler, a lot more direct; there’s less going on in a way. This record has a lot more songs that are just kind of, “We just played this song, and now it’s done” [Laughs], whereas with Down With Wilco there’s a lot of crazy shit on there. We didn’t really go into it thinking it was going to be that way. Jeff (Tweedy) really encouraged me to keep that record simple, but I probably ended up ladling on some extra things just ‘cause I had time. I think it came out fantastic; I love the way it came out.

We made more of a conscious decision to keep this one pretty straightforward just as far as being songs you perform and sing and people can just hear them as songs. I didn’t blend all the songs together like I tend to do lots of times on records where I run one into each other and they overlap and make little sweeps. The songs all go together. To me, they sort of tell a story, but I tried to keep it just a little more direct. It’s kind of an old-fashioned record for me.

CC: What songs on this album really pleased you in terms of traveling from the demo stage to final mix?

SM: That’s hard to say. I guess “Out There On the Maroon” is one that came out kind of exactly like I envisioned it to come out. That’s sort of rare; that doesn’t happen very often. I felt like that one was played the way I hoped we would play it; we did a mix of it that sounded like just how I wanted it to sound. That’s one that came out really, really nicely. Lots of times you envision a song a certain way and it comes out completely different, and that can be great! But that one came out just as I thought it should. That’s a good feeling.

I think “Bought A Rope” came out really good. That was one where I really didn’t know what it would sound like. I wasn’t sure about the arrangement; even the chords got simplified when I ended up recording with John, Eric (Lovre) and Jim Talstra. We did it on an 8-track, and somehow it still ended up sounding really amazing. It might have sounded amazing because of that. I really had no idea how that one would turn out. I’m happy with all of them.

CC: Does the album come out in March?

SM: It came out on Tuesday. I’ll be getting those big SoundScan figures in a few days. [Laughs]

CC: Now, John Wesley Harding has already worked within The Minus 5 world. Chicago's own Kelly Hogan makes her first appearance on a Minus 5 album. What track did you use them on?

SM: “Twilight Distillery.” They’re doing the backing vocals on there, which were great. I recorded them when Kelly was on tour with Wes for the Love Hall Tryst tour. When they played in Portland I went down, took my laptop and a microphone to the Econo Lodge they were staying at and recorded them doing backing vocals in about a half hour to an hour. Kelly (Hogan) never heard the song before, but she’s so damn good; she just nailed it. She’s the greatest.

CC: How was it working with Wilco this time around? They appear notably on "With A Gun."

SM: It was awesome. Back when Wilco played as the Minus 5 after Down With Wilco came out I had just written that song; we learned it and played it at those shows. So, I just knew I had to record it with them. When we recorded we hadn’t played for six months, but everyone remembered what they were doing on it. It’s all live, even the vocals. The only overdubs on it are Jeff’s multiple lead guitars. It was on a day off on the R.E.M. tour. Peter came down and played; he played 12-string. So, it was Wilco with Peter and me; it’s just a live performance.

The only thing that I always intended to add was Jesse Greene because she played violin on it. Leroy (Bach) had quit the band since we last played together. He wasn’t around. He did this cool thing when we would play it live where he would start the song with these handclaps. It was really cool. I could have put it on, but I wasn’t going to put it on unless Leroy does it. We were never able to get that together. I just left it the way it was; I didn’t want to have someone else playing violin or doing the handclaps. I think it came out great. That’s a really rare thing for me to use a live vocal in the studio because I usually think they kind of suck ‘cause I’m not that good of a singer. For some reason, we really captured it.

CC: After all these years you're still really self-conscious about your voice?

SM: Well, I’m pretty used to it. I don’t mean to be denigrating my vocal talents so much. I just know they’re fairly limited. I’ve come to work with that. With The Minus 5, I’ve always kind of been interested in having other people sing the songs. Whenever I try to do it I am usually met with resistance. The guys I play with seem to think I should just sing it. When I said I was thinking of getting someone else to sing “Cemetery Row,” I don’t think Peter and Bill really liked the idea. But when they heard it they thought it was probably the right idea since Colin did such a great job. They weren’t really into it at first.

On Down With Wilco, I wanted John Stirratt to sing lead on a couple of songs; I wanted Jeff to sing lead on some. Jeff did “Family Gardener,” but he wasn’t for spreading the vocals around that much; he thought I should sing the songs. Usually, I’m lucky to get one other person per record to sing a song. I got Ken Stringfellow to sing one on Let The War Against Music Begin (2001), he sang “A Thousand Years Away.” I’d like to do more of that. I like singing them, too. [Laughs] But I think it’s fun to get other voices on there.

CC: You must have loved it when Tweedy began to incorporate “Dear Employer” early on into his solo shows. He sort of debuted the song in Chicago at his solo shows at the Vic Theatre in January '03.

SM: That was thrilling! It was amazing when I heard him playing it in Chicago and the whole crowd singing along with him at the end.

CC: Was this album easy to record compared to Down With Wilco? Wilco seemed like the black sheep of albums at that time. You and the band had a session in Chicago the day before the World Trade Center attack on September 11, and then later on the album faced a delayed release.

SM: That was pretty fucked up, that’s for sure. I couldn’t say this was an easy one. I guess compared to that we didn’t go through any of the traumas with the record company. I was kind of going through a lot of shit. The R.E.M. touring was pretty grueling in a way; it was super fun, the music was amazing, but it was really, really long. I think for Bill, Peter, and I it was a difficult time in a lot of ways. When it came down to the actual recording of it, yes, it was easy. Kurt did a fantastic job in the studio. Everything just sounded good.

CC: One of the new songs is called "All Worn Out." Is that the best description of how you must have felt after the R.E.M. tour?

SM: Ummm…yeah. [Laughs] I really liked the way it came out, too. We played it once or twice and it sounded really cool. Peter said, “All you need to put on this is to get someone to play pedal steel on the chorus.” Ok! [Laughs] That’s what I did, and it was great. I love how it sounds.

CC: The Minus 5 has been around for ten years now. Is my math right?

SM: The first record came out in ’95, Old Liquidator. I think it came out in Germany first in ’95, and then maybe it was January ’96 when it came out in the U.S. Peter and I probably started working on it in ’93. That was recorded very piecemeal as well in typical Minus 5 fashion; we set the template up right there—recording with people whenever certain people were in town in between tours. [Laughs]

CC: I certainly don't know the story, and I don't remember asking you the last time we chatted. But how did you and Peter Buck meet?

SM: I probably met him in ’85 or ’86. I can’t remember if I met him at an R.E.M. show or if it was Peter coming to a Young Fresh Fellows show in Athens. I’m not really sure where the initial thing started. We started seeing each other at shows. I knew he bought our records. I think I met him outside an R.E.M. show and gave him The Squirrels record we had just released. Then he would come to our shows in Athens. We didn’t really start hanging out until ’92 when R.E.M. was recording Automatic For The People in Seattle.

CC: How's the relationship grown musically?

SM: It’s been awesome. He and I just love playing music together. We’ve played in so many bands together now, not just R.E.M., but The Minus 5 and Tuatara. We’ve done records with a lot of other people. We did the Mark Eitzel. We’re doing a Robyn Hitchcock record right now, and we’re going to do the next John Wesley Harding record, it’s going to be as The Minus 5. We just love doing that; we love backing other people. He and I also almost always demo his stuff for R.E.M. together. Whenever he’s got new music for a song he and I usually record it together, and that’s really exciting. He’s just a great guy to play music with. He plays bass in The Minus 5 all the time, but it’s funny when we back up someone else and he’ll play 12-string and I’ll play bass. We’re pretty versatile with each other. It’s a cool thing.

We did that whole record where he wrote the music and I wrote the words, The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy (1997), and that was a really good experience for me because I had never really done that before. It was really difficult for me, but it was a good experience. I probably got a little better at doing that through that. For instance, “Cemetery Row” was a song where someone gave me the music and I really had no problem writing the right words for it. Probably a lot of that was because of learning how to do that with Peter.

He comes up with way more stuff than R.E.M. could possibly use. There’s usually 15 or 20 that he gives to R.E.M. with every record that end up not used. There are tons of great tracks with no vocals on them from the last three R.E.M. albums. Oh my god, there’s some amazing stuff from Up (1998), stuff that I think is so fucking great. We had tons and tons of material for that record. Some of them Michael (Stipe) just didn’t quite finish, but we recorded so much stuff. There are some really cool instrumentals from that record.

CC: How else has Peter broadened your horizons?

SM: Peter almost has this sense of duty to do something good. He just has certain standards to live up to; he’s very conscious about putting out something good. I won’t say that’s necessarily a new thing for me; I wouldn’t set out only to put out crappy stuff. His kind of attitude is that he’s a musician and he works. I find that really inspiring because I’ve always thought I was a musician by luck, by chance. I feel like I don’t have to apologize for being a musician. This is what I do; I like to work, we want to work hard, and we want to make good music. I get a lot of that from Peter.

His guitar playing is so precise and so melodic. I could say the same thing about Mike Mills from playing with him. He’s really taught me a lot about keyboard playing. I’ve probably changed how I play the organ, especially, from Mills teaching me stuff he had put on record.

CC: The band is keeping it simple as just the four-piece with you, Peter, Bill Rieflin on drums, and John Ramberg on guitar. What can we expect from this upcoming Minus 5 tour?

SM: Rock ‘n’ Roll with The Minus 5. [Laughs] Lots of times Peter and I go out and sign stuff afterwards, which is great, not that anybody cares if I sign it, but people seem to like to get his autograph. [Laughs]

Photo Taken July 10, 2004 At The Club Cafe, Pittsburgh, PA