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In the music spotlight: Minus 5

The songs on new Minus 5 album “Stroke Manor” document an altered mental state and trace a jagged line back to functionality.

Minus 5: Peter Buck (from left), Kurt Bloch, Linda Pitmon and Scott McCaughey.
Minus 5: Peter Buck (from left), Kurt Bloch, Linda Pitmon and Scott McCaughey.
Courtesy Yep Roc Records

Beloved Portland-based indie-rocker Scott McCaughey has friends from coast to coast among fellow musicians and fans alike. According to collaborators ranging from Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn, West Coast punk groundbreaker Alejandro Escovedo, Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills (to name only a few), McCaughey’s esteem has been earned through relentless hard work and equally relentless good cheer.

It’s no wonder that McCaughey had so many rally around him during a turbulent time. In November 2017 while touring with Escovedo, McCaughey suffered a serious stroke. The initial prognosis was particularly alarming considering that McCaughey bleeds music.

“The first doctor told my wife, ‘He’ll probably never play music again, but he’ll just get used to it,’” says McCaughey, incredulously. Twenty months later, McCaughey is fresh from touring as bassist for Filthy Friends and preparing for dates with the Minus 5.

Initially, McCaughey had trouble communicating. As soon as he could, the modest musician made his wishes clear. “One of the first things I said to [spouse] Mary [Winzig] and Peter [Buck] when I could talk a couple days later was, ‘No f——-g GoFundMe and no benefit concerts,” says McCaughey with a laugh. “They were like, ‘Sorry, it’s too late.’”

McCaughey attended the concerts, and even participated. “I played bass on three songs with Filthy Friends, which was insane because that was maybe six weeks since the stroke,” he says. “I felt like my head was going to explode afterwards.”

The outpouring of love was like a living wake. “They’re all totally off the hook when I die,” says McCaughey. “I was like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’”

In the hospital, McCaughey fashioned his own form of therapy by writing his fragmented thoughts. The songs on new Minus 5 album “Stroke Manor” document an altered mental state and trace a jagged line back to functionality. McCaughey sang directly from his notebook. There’s grim irony in the notion that the psych-pop fan had to suffer a life-threatening brain injury to make his most psychedelic record.

Scott McCaughey
Scott McCaughey
Courtesy Yep Roc Records

Buzzing garage-rocker “Scar Crow” careens though impressionistic images before concluding with the ominous line, “There’s no place like hope here or anywhere else.” “That song was written when watching Wizard of Oz in the hospital,” says McCaughey. “I was pretty tripped out, and it was like I’d never seen it before. There are little things you can recognize, but it’s so distorted because my mind was distorted. The last line must have been a play on ‘There’s no place like home.’”

Chicago’s Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and son Spencer showed support by recording a sweet song naming McCaughey as a beacon of inspiration. An updated version became recent Tweedy single “Let’s Go Rain.” “[Jeff] was the first person I talked to on the phone [from the hospital], although I couldn’t really say much,” says McCaughey. “He and Spencer sent that song a couple days after the stroke. It was such a moving thing to do. It was overwhelming and beautiful.”

* The Minus 5, with Yo La Tengo, 7 p.m. June 23, Temperance Beer Company, 2000 Dempster, Evanston, $28; eventbrite.com.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.