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The unstoppable man of music

Scott McCaughey, endlessly involved musician

By Todd Leopold

Scott McCaughey

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(CNN) -- Somebody stop Scott McCaughey before he writes another song. Better yet, don't.

Need a tribute song to a Croatian surf band? McCaughey's written one ("Bambi Molester").

A never-used theme song for the "Austin Powers" movies? McCaughey's got one right here ("Dr. Evil").

A song that, by turns, manages to describe a phony catastrophe, mention the members of the band Chicago ("Among the casualties/Daniel Seraphine/Cetera, Lamm and Pankow/Not Terry Kath but the guy who replaced him") and recount a dismal Minus 5 show in the tradition of "Smoke on the Water," with the nifty title "The Night Chicago Died Again"?

It's been done.

Not only has McCaughey written and performed all of those songs -- all very catchy, too -- they're all on the same album, "The Minus 5 In Rock" (Yep Roc), a re-release of a limited-edition album the ad hoc band recorded in 2000.

McCaughey is the peripatetic sort. He co-founded college radio faves the Young Fresh Fellows in the '80s and formed the Minus 5 -- a revolving unit that has included R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, John Wesley Harding, the Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow and several others -- in 1993.

He's also an adjunct member of R.E.M., with whom he's played for several years, and has performed with Wilco, Tuatara and a Nick Lowe cover band called the Lowe Beats.

And he's always got a song to sing. As some biographical material for the Minus 5 notes, the "Minus 5 started when McCaughey realized he had a dumptruckload of songs that the Young Fresh Fellows would either never get around to, or wisely chose not to."

So the question becomes, How does he do it? Where does all this music come from? McCaughey, reached by phone in the Bahamas -- where he's recording the new R.E.M. album -- is modest.

"I like weird turns of phrase," he says.

Funny vs. not funny

Minus 5
The mysterious murky men of the Minus 5.

"The Minus 5 In Rock" began as a side project, one of many McCaughey has going. He has a recording studio in his house and, whenever there would be a critical mass of material, he'd put out a record.

"We made up this little label [Book Records] whenever we wanted to do 1,000 copies of something to sell at shows," he says. "In Rock" originally consisted of 10 songs, of which two originals were dropped and four new ones added for the recent re-release.

Why release it now? McCaughey was pleased with the job Yep Roc did with "Down with Wilco," Minus 5's previous work (a collaboration with, of course, Wilco) and thought they should handle "In Rock."

The songs showcase McCaughey's ever-present sense of humor, but McCaughey says he's struggled with the "novelty band" rap that other bands, such as They Might Be Giants, have been saddled with. A little.

"It irritated me for a brief period in 1987," he says cheekily, "but I got past it. I decided [the Young Fresh Fellows] are funny, so if people think we're funny, that's OK. We wanted people to come to shows and have a good time.

"But I don't think the Minus 5 is funny," he adds. "Though our shows can be."

'I never thought this would happen to me'

minus 5 cover
The cover of "The Minus 5 In Rock."

Naturally, McCaughey's plate is full for the time being. R.E.M.'s record is due in the fall, and he expects to work on another Tuatara record, a Minus 5 record and perhaps some more work with Wilco.

And when he's not playing, he's listening: to the Kinks, Guided by Voices, the Beach Boys, Neil Young, the Handsome Family and the Mendoza Line.

Sometimes, he says, he can't believe his good fortune.

"I never thought this would happen to me," he says, marveling at the idea of being a full-time professional musician. "I had a job when Young Fresh Fellows came along, working in a record store."

There may be a live show or two in the coming months, but McCaughey says he'll probably be hanging out at home or in the studio until R.E.M. hits the road, perhaps late this year.

But he won't be quiet.

"I'm going to keep playing music until somebody shoots me," he says.

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