Interview: Scott McCaughey on Neil Young

Interview: Scott McCaughey on Neil Young

It took three locations changes before Scott McCaughey and I settled on a place for our interview. There were simply too many people at Amnesia Brewing and a band setting up in the Mississippi Pizza Pub meant that place was out. So it was to be the Liberty Glass, the scene of our interview last year. We sat at the same table and drank the same type of beer, but this interview would be a different sort of animal. While it would be tempting to ask McCaughey about his myriad of new projects or the demise of R.E.M., we had something much different to discuss that afternoon…

Okay, Scott. We have only one parameter for this interview: Neil Young-only related questions. Why don’t you start things off by describing this little show you’ll be doing.

This is the third time these three bands each present a Neil Young album. The first time we did the Doom Trilogy, which was the Minus 5 doing Time Fades Away, Lewi Longmire Band doing On the Beach and the Don of Division Street doing Tonight’s the Tonight. Last year, we did another show and it was the Minus 5 doing Zuma, Lewi doing After the Gold Rush and the Don doing Ragged Glory. This time, it’s the Minus 5 doing Re-ac-tor, Lewi doing Everbody Knows this is Nowhere and the Don is revisiting Tonight’s the Night. Lewi and I play in that band with the Don so we’re doing double duty. It’s a cool thing. You get three bands and we each do a whole Neil record in its entirety and we play it through. People seem to really enjoy it. It’s the third time we’ve done it and I’m sure we’ll do another one too.

So why Neil Young and not Dylan or Springsteen?

Those would be great too but Neil’s my guy (laughs). I love Dylan and I love Springsteen but Neil’s up above them in godhead status for me. I also know his records so well and Lewi and the Don are like-minded Neil fans. They actually came up with the idea. I think Lewi did, maybe. They knew I was a huge fan so they got me in on it. Neil’s right up there with the Beatles and the Kinks. My favorite acts of all time. You would have to say he’s my favorite solo artist of all time.

I understand why people would pick Everybody Knows this is Nowhere and Tonight’s the Night, but you chose one of the strange ducklings with Re-ac-tor.

I didn’t want to repeat one of the records I had already done just to make my life more difficult. I picked a record that isn’t one of Neil’s most popular records. But to me, it’s actually an overlooked great Crazy Horse record. Next time maybe I will do Broken Arrow which is an even more overlooked Crazy Horse record that nobody knows. I think it’s fantastic.

Are you going to be able to replicate that shitty sound on the last song?

(Laughs) I could easily do that, yeah! That song didn’t need to be on there, but what the hell?

I’ve heard that’s his “fuck you” to the bootlegging community.

Yeah, I love that record.

It has “Big Time” on there.

Yeah, which is great. And “Music Arcade.” That’s a great song. But yeah, people don’t know Re-ac-tor that well but I think a lot of Neil fans like that record a lot. It probably won’t be as popular as the other two, but the Minus 5 is playing first. We’re doing Re-ac-tor first because we’re not going to build up to that. Everybody Knows this is Nowhere and Tonight’s the Night are little more crowd pleasers. But, I wanted to do something different and I’ve always loved this record. Of course, I never realized how hard it is to sing, but you run into that on every Neil Young album pretty much. It’s going to be a vocal cord shredder (laughs).

What incarnation of the Minus 5 are we going to see?

Well, it’s the Portland version but with Peter Buck playing guitar, which he almost never does in the Minus 5. So that’s kind of cool. Jim Talstra on bass and Ezra Holbrook on drums. We’re actually playing a Minus 5 show earlier that day as part of the Rose Festival. Peter’s going to play guitar for that one too and we’re actually going to play some songs off his solo record.

He has a solo record?

We just recorded it.

Does he sing?

He sings, yeah. Not all the songs, but some of them. If everything goes right, he will actually sing some songs at the Waterfront Park show.

Not during the Neil show?

No, but I might be able to get him to do some of the back-ups on “Op-er-a Star.” I will try to get him to do that.

I know that when we talked last time that you don’t collect a lot of memorabilia, but what was that one Neil-related thing at your house that you showed me?

The picture on the wall? That’s not even memorabilia, that’s history! (laughs) That was me and the R.E.M. guys backing Neil on “Ambulance Blues” at the Bridge benefit concert. We’ve done it twice but that time we backed him on “Ambulance Blues.” That was Peter’s and my idea. We submitted a list of songs we thought would be cool to do with him. We actually rehearsed “Ambulance Blues” and “On the Beach” but he liked “Ambulance Blues” better. He started playing it after that but he hadn’t really done it live since ’74, since it came out. I feel like we maybe got him back into the song a bit. I’ve seen him play it again since then. That was pretty amazing. I’ve got some other weird Neil stuff lying around. I’ve got the matchbooks from the ’78 Boarding House shows that say, “Neil Young World Tour 1978” and it was five nights at the Boarding House, which I think were the only shows he did that year. This is when he debuted a lot of the Rust Never Sleeps stuff before it came out. I’ve got a weird Re-ac-tor where it’s the vinyl with the labels on it but it never got pressed. So it’s like this big hockey puck of vinyl with the Re-ac-tor labels on it. It’s really cool. I’ve got tons of other stuff too. Yeah, I’m pretty ridiculous when it comes to Neil.

Did Neil ever interact with you at all?

Yeah, totally.

Was he friendly?

Yeah, we got to hang out with him a number of times. They have a big party at his house the night before the Bridge benefit shows and everybody’s invited up there. They have a huge barbecue and food spread and beer and wine and festivities. He’s a very good host, as is his wife Pegi. Peter and I have hung out with him after shows as well. He’s a great guy. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with him.

Have you invited him to one of these tribute nights?

No, no, no (laughs). I think it would be interesting though. He would probably be okay with it because we don’t get too precious about it. Especially the Minus 5, I just do the songs as well as I can do them and don’t worry about them being exactly like the records. With Tonight’s the Night we’re kind of doing the same thing too. It’s more about the spirit of the thing rather than being all reverent. We’re just paying tribute to the feeling that his music has evoked.

Like most Dylan fans, I feel like most Neil fans have the one “shitty” record that they stand by. I am wondering what yours would be.

I see what you mean. I like all of Neil’s records pretty much. I probably like some of them more than I should (laughs). Like, I know Landing on Water is a ridiculous record but I like the songs on it. I don’t like the production very much, but I really like the songs. It could have been a record of two guitars, bass and drums and didn’t have the loudest ‘80s snare in the world and all the synthesizers. I really love Trans. I think Trans is fantastic. I like Everybody’s Rockin’. You know, it’s a minor Neil record as is Hawks and Doves. I love Hawks and Doves.

That has one of his best songs ever on it.

Which one?

“Captain Kennedy.”

“Captain Kennedy” is awesome. You’re right. It has that whole great acoustic side. Which ones do I love that most people wouldn’t like? Broken Arrow is one of them but that’s not one that people don’t like. It’s just that nobody knows it at all. I like Life, for instance. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad record.

You once told me that you heard them before he put them down on record and that he completely ruined them with production.

Well, I don’t think he ruined them but I thought they were better when it was just Crazy Horse playing them live. They added a bunch of stuff to basically live tracks from what I think is the show I heard. I guess I’m not giving you a definitive answer on that. I am trying to think of one that everyone hates that I would champion. I think they all have merit.

Are there any that are flat out not good?

I have to admit that I never really listen to Are You Passionate? very much. I remember listening to it once and going, “Eh.” That one didn’t really do anything for me. Maybe at some point I will give it another chance. I didn’t really pay attention to it much.

I never listen to Old Ways ever.

I love that album. I’ve actually been getting into some lately that I hadn’t listened to much like Silver & Gold. I started really getting into that record. I listened to it a little bit when it came out and then kind of forgot about it. I listened to it a bunch lately and really got into it.

That one Blue Notes album is kind of unfortunate because the bootleg stuff from that era sounds so better.

That happens a lot. You can say the same thing about Dylan too. Lots of times you wonder what makes an artist decide to release what they release.

Yeah, Broken Arrow is strange because it came at the end of a period of rejuvenated popularity for Neil. It started with Freedom and then Ragged Glory was considered a return to form for him. Sleeps with Angels was really revered by some and then Mirror Ball was the height of it. When Broken Arrow came out, I see it as the point he started to recede again.

Yeah, he’s always been good at that, at receding from the landscape (laughs). He’s one of the only artists where you can say he put out his least popular record immediately following his most popular record.

Are you talking about Time Fades Away?

After Harvest, yeah. I mean you put out this live record of all new songs that is really raw and really ragged. He found life a lot more interesting in the ditch.

It’s like Self Portrait after Blonde on Blonde.

Right, right.

I haven’t been as interested myself in the past few releases. I mean, I really liked Le Noise, but Fork in the Road, Chrome Dreams II and Are You Passionate?…I liked Living with War.

I like Living with War too but again he did the thing where he put out two versions of it.

There were two versions of it?

Yeah, there’s the one with the choir and all that stuff, then he put out the one that was just the bare bones thing, which was really cool. Yeah, Fork in the Road I didn’t really pay too much attention to, although the video is really funny.

The earbuds and the apple?

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s awesome. What was the other one you mentioned? Chrome Dreams II. See, I love that. I love every song on that record. I think that record is absolutely amazing. I think it’s a crazy good record. I saw him on that tour too. It was a fantastic show.

I haven’t seen him since Greendale because I can’t afford to see him anymore.

I know, we were lucky because we got in because that Chrome Dreams show was at the Schnitz and it was like $250 or something crazy for the tickets. But, it was amazing.

Well, there is a video of Neil Young saying, “Fuck the fans” on the Archives thing. I’ve seen it. How do you feel about that as a musician?

I think it’s a fine line. I think Neil wouldn’t be as great as he is if he took things into consideration besides doing what he thinks is right for him. He’s left a lot of people in the dust. He’s done a lot of that where he gets a feeling it seems, he knows what direction he needs to go in and sometimes it leaves people behind and it probably leaves people upset but he wouldn’t be Neil Young if he was overly concerned about what anybody else thought.

It’s interesting that Geffen sued him for not sounding like Neil Young.

Go back and listen to those records. They are all Neil. Just because he wasn’t remaking his popular records, but he never did that really.

Well, there is Harvest Moon.

Yeah, he made Harvest Moon, which I actually think is slightly overrated for a Neil record. I really love all the songs on it, but I really don’t like the production all that much. It’s got a lot of great songs on it.

I think it’s more uniformly great than Harvest. There are a few songs on Harvest I really don’t like.

Like what? “There’s a World?”

Yeah, that is one of my least favorite Neil Young songs.

That’s a weird one. That’s an anomaly in Neil’s canon, for sure. That’s a very strange song for him. It doesn’t sound like anything else he’s ever done.

So, can we expect an encore where you guys bust out some of Neil’s hits at your show?

I doubt it. We’ll see. It’s probably not out of the question as we do know some other songs.

I challenge you to do “Broken Arrow.” I saw Wilco do it. I think you were there at that show.

Yeah, “Broken Arrow” is amazing. I’ve played it by myself before. I used to know how to play to it. But yeah, that was so amazing when Wilco actually played it and did all the in-between stuff. That was crazy! That was so cool. But yeah, that’s a good idea. We should try to come up with some kind of encore thing. Usually when we play the three albums it’s enough for everybody, especially last time when Ragged Glory was the last record. It’s a very lengthy album.

The last song is long, isn’t it?

There are three or four 10 minute songs on that record. That is a typically weird Neil thing too with Ragged Glory. That record came out in like ’92? The first two songs on there I saw him play in a bar in 1975. Then he puts them as the first two songs on a record 17 years later (laughs). He just knows when it’s time, I guess.

Or maybe he needs to pad out a record.

You wouldn’t put them as the first two songs though if you were worried about that. They are great songs! The Young Fresh Fellows wanted to do “White Line” on our first record because he never put it out. I actually didn’t know how this stuff worked but I wrote to Silver Fiddle publishing and they wrote me back and said, “No, you can’t,” because the artist has the right for the first refusal for the first recording. Once you record it, then anybody can record it and you just pay royalties but if it hasn’t been released yet then the artist can say, “No, we don’t want you to record it.”

He’s got a bunch of unreleased songs that show up on bootlegs.

Yeah, he’s got a lot of them out there. Not that many of which were on Archives. There were some.

Yeah, I don’t want to talk about that.

(Laughs) I thought there would be more of that kind of stuff.

I reviewed that when it came out. Who is it for? It’s not for the fans because there’s not enough rare stuff and it’s too expensive for the casual listener.

But it’s a typical thing where he completely changed his mind. When he was first doing the Archives the plan was…of course it came out 10 years after it was supposed to or whatever…but originally it was all unreleased stuff. Somewhere along the line he decided to put most of a lot of classic records on there. Remastered and all that, but still.

It was too much money. Do you own it?

I actually don’t.

I just can’t justify paying $150 for stuff I already own.

That’s another thing about it that didn’t really make sense which was he put the Live at the Fillmore East on it, which would have been a really cool thing if they didn’t release it beforehand.

There’s a couple of them.

Was the Massey Hall in the Archives too?

Yeah, it was.

I love him releasing these records as part of the classic Neil Young series. Both the Fillmore East and the Massey Hall are fantastic. But then why were they in the Archives? That’s the thing.

Okay, time to wind this down.

Don’t you want to spend the rest of your week transcribing this (laughs)?

Right! Can you tell me about some great Neil Young songs that you think most people don’t know, but they should?

I guess “Don’t Be Denied” would be one. All the hardcore, longtime Neil Young fans know it but since Time Fades Away has never been out on CD it might be a little less known. To me, that’s just one of his greatest songs ever. Being all autobiographical and the performance of it is so incredible. It’s amongst my favorites. That’s one that probably not as many people know and should. “Music Arcade” is one off of Broken Arrow. I absolutely love that song. I think it’s genius. Well, “Captain Kennedy” is a good one, for sure.

What do you think that song is about?

I don’t know. “Shots” was just finally making sense to me. That’s a really amazing Neil Young song that a lot of people don’t know probably. I was really getting into the lyrics today as I was trying to learn it. It’s definitely about war, but he also brings it into this whole interpersonal world to wives being in their houses and the same kind of the tension that goes on there between women and men as the whole thing of men trying to change borders and do ridiculous things like that. That’s a really amazing song. The one that is probably one of my favorites that nobody knows is “Pushed it Over the End” which has never been on a record. They did it on the CSNY tour in 1974 and it’s this crazy 11 minute long song with weird time signature. It’s just amazing. Lewi has always talked about doing a rarities set one of these nights as opposed to doing an album and he said he would do that song. That’s a really major one there.

Which Neil Young songs have been important to you throughout your life and why?

There are so many. I like “Last Trip to Tulsa.” I bought his first record right when it came out and I thought that it was a bold thing to have this nine minute, surrealistic song. I guess you can say Dylan had already done such a thing. Then he did the live version of it later on the B-side of a single from the Time Fades Away tour where it sounds like the only time they ever played it and it’s an amazing performance. I love that. “Don’t Be Denied.” I keep going back to that, but that’s just a huge song for me. “Tonight’s the Night” – that song and the whole record really turned my head around because I thought his commitment to putting out material with emotional resonance was just so strong. I was like, “This guy is not fucking around, man. He’s not in the pop music biz.” He was taking it to such a more important place it seemed like to me. That one is huge. “Cortez the Killer” is just incredible. That’s a tough question. I am trying to think of ones that personally influenced me. I can’t really narrow it down to songs because he is so inbred in me like in the way I play music. Even though, I don’t really think I’ve ever done anything that sounds like Neil but it’s always in there for me. I haven’t done too many things that were a pastiche where I was trying to sound like Neil but I would like to (laughs). I would like to make a record that sounded like Crazy Horse. His catalog is filled with so many twists and turns. It’s always interesting being a Neil fan. Whatever he does, he stays true to himself. That’s for sure.

Catch McCaughey and friends play three Neil Young albums in their entirety at Dante’s (6/8 in Portland) and the Tractor (6/9 in Seattle).

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