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Professional Amateurs

Photo by Bootsy Holler

Funny how fate plays its cards. The Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows mainstay Scott McCaughey and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy first discussed recording together in 1999, but dueling schedules left little to show for it but a couple of co-writes. Then, in 2001, Warner Bros. made the asinine decision to abandon the release of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, leaving the cult-beloved group in suspended animation while they sought another suitor (absurdly, it would be the Warner-affiliated Nonesuch). With sudden free time on their hands, McCaughey joined Tweedy and his mates in the group’s Chicago studio in September 2001 to record what would become the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco, a frisky, moody collection of pop-rock and McCaughey’s most impressive work in years.

Only, by this time Wilco was on a considerably different plane. Their vision had moved beyond the pop kaleidoscope of their 1999 release, Summerteeth — itself a departure from the country-rock of the band’s earliest efforts — to the more fractured sonics of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Meanwhile, longtime members Ken Coomer and guitarist Jay Bennett were gone. “It seemed like every time I called Jeff, some other disaster had happened,” McCaughey recalls. “He’d be like, ‘Ken’s not in the band anymore.’ And he says, ‘I’m playing with this guy Glenn [Kotche], and he’s really great.’ And then about two weeks before the sessions, he was like, ‘I think everybody but one of the current Wilco wants to play on your record. Jay is not in the band anymore.’ I was like, ‘Well, okay, whatever works for you, man.’”

It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to McCaughey. Working with modern-day Wilco afforded a wholly new process for the veteran artist, whose past Minus 5 efforts were usually built alone in his Seattle studio and further colored by fellow 5-er Peter Buck (McCaughey is a sideman in Buck’s band, R.E.M.) and other local semi-luminaries. But here McCaughey took a blank-slate approach, introducing Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, keyboardist/guitarist Leroy Bach and drummer Kotche to skeletal versions of his songs and then getting the hell out of the way.

“The [songs] would come out completely different once those guys started playing them,” McCaughey says. “They took them in directions that I never would have thought of, and that was fantastic.” McCaughey hadn’t even met the wildly creative Kotche before the sessions’ first day. Says McCaughey, “I would strum through a song and he’d go, ‘Okay, I have three ideas.’ And he’d go out and play three completely different drum theories. Some of them were really crazy.”

Tweedy calls it “inspired amateurism,” an approach Wilco took while making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “We know how to work together. We try to work fast and instinctively, and try not to dismiss an idea without hearing it. Scott didn’t have to learn how to get performances out of us.” Tweedy cites another source of motivation as well — it was the group’s “first chance to work together away from the weighty environment that had led to the personnel changes.”

Back home, McCaughey hooked up with his Seattle pals, the first being Buck, whose schedule had been too hectic to travel to Chicago. The guitarist ripped through parts for every song in two days at his own attic studio, adhering to a time-honored edict between the two friends to “do this stuff in an hour or not at all.” He also marveled at Wilco’s input, calling them an “ideal backing band for that type of material.”

“They’re really willing to break out of a normal song structure,” Buck says. “If Scott has something that repeats, Jeff would say, ‘Why don’t we just chop this up and put something else in here?’ It keeps the record kind of fresh.”

 

While the Minus 5’s past efforts were perfectly likable workouts in offbeat guitar pop, the collective has always seemed more a curiosity for its pedigree than a group that really mattered. But Down With Wilco matters, crackling with immediacy and invention, pitting McCaughey’s perpetually skewed view of ’60s pop classicism against Wilco’s now-patented knack for skronk and pop subversion. The tone is set with the opening track, “Days of Wine and Booze,” a dirge-y piano lament propelled by Kotche’s fuzzy drum groove and strings that sound like they were recorded underwater. And throughout, happy-sad pop collides with the unexpected — songs wither away in discord, others turn from weird to graceful. Parts pop in and out in hide-and-seek fashion. Listen for crotales, Rocksichords, ocarinas, electronic tampuras, yakboxes, fake strings and something called a “Virus synth.”

“I knew I had to make a great record,” McCaughey says. “At one point, Jeff said, ‘I think this is gonna be the best record you’ve ever made.’ And I said, ‘Well, it better be, if I’m making a record with Wilco.’”

Tweedy simply sounds relieved. “I’m glad we didn’t fuck something up that I’m a fan of.”

THE MINUS 5 | Down With Wilco | (Yep Roc)


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