The Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey on the Monkees and What Makes Men Into Myths

It feels like Scott McCaughey has been part of every notable band in the past 20 years. He was a member of Young Fresh Fellows and played consistently with R.E.M, Tired Pony, and Robin Hitchcock, among others. His latest project is Of Monkees And Men: an album with the entire first half devoted to songs about our favorite Pre-Fab Four and the other half dedicated to songs about other friends, musicians, and actors who inspired him.

Of Monkees And Men is a record by The Minus 5, McCaughey’s ever-changing collective of musicians. This time around, he’s got members of The Smithereens, R.E.M., and singer-songwriter Laura Gibson on the album. The record is definitely worth a listen, especially for anyone who loves the Monkees or even just melodic, modern songwriting with country-tinged arrangements. Michael Nesmith fans will appreciate the album’s sprawling first track, appropriately titled “Michael Nesmith,” an epic narrative that elevates the storied musician to a mythic place.

We recently chatted with McCaughey about the Minus 5’s latest album and, mostly, geeked out about the Monkees.

REBEAT: Who is your favorite Monkee?
SCOTT McCAUGHEY: [Laughs] Well, I’d have to go with Nesmith. He’s got a huge body of solo work and a lot of it is really, really fantastic. When I was watching the show as a kid, I think I liked Micky the best. For some reason, I really thought he was hilarious, and he was kind of the main singer.

But I grew appreciative of Nesmith early on knowing that he wrote and sang some of the songs the other guys did. I’m a huge fan of the First National Band [ed. note: Nesmith’s post-Monkees project] and his solo records [like] The Prison. I went to see him live solo. He’s got a lot goin’ for him. He’s a really cool guy, so that kinda puts him up there in the top ranks for me.

Any favorite solo Nesmith songs?
Well, my favorite album is And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. I just love the sound of it with the acoustic guitar and the pedal steel. And it’s a great collection of his songs. “Propinquity” and, of course, the version of “Different Drum” [are] awesome.

minus5_monkees_cover-350x350

What made you want to work on this project in the first place? There’s a lot of musicians who cite the Monkees as an influence, but to devote half and album to them and Boyce & Hart, it’s definitely a labor of love.
Well, I didn’t necessarily plan it as such — it sort of came together in that way. A friend of mine in Texas, Bucks Burnett, sent me a long poem he had written about Nesmith. And he was saying, “Well I’m gonna write a poem about each of the Monkees,” which he did. But even at that point, it didn’t even coalesce in my mind what I wanted to do with it.

The Nesmith poem he wrote really struck a chord with me. Partly because it was so surreal and it seemed so outlandish that someone would write a 16-verse poem called “Michael Nesmith.” I thought, “This is so ridiculous that I should make it even more ridiculous and I should write more stanzas to it.” So I made it even longer and reworked much of what he had written, keeping a lot of it because it was pretty brilliant. I said, “I’m going to turn this into a song and record it.”

So that was the genesis, and then I thought, “I should do songs about the other guys, too.” Then I thought, “I wanna write something about Boyce & Hart, too,” because I’m a big fan of theirs.

I came up with the concept of Of Monkees & Men because I had these other songs that were written about people who had inspired me and were real people. So when I did the five-record boxed set, I grouped those songs together as one collection and I thought that it worked out really well.

Years later, we’re getting ready to talk about releasing it as a stand-alone thing, and I thought, “That would be a good idea, because obviously not a lot of people had heard it.” And you know, the 50th anniversary and all that tied in. I thought, “Yeah! This would be cool to put it out.”

The timing is good for it, for sure. I found the sprawling Michael Nesmith tune a really interesting statement to open the album in that way. It feels like an epic poem, like a hero’s journey-style narrative. Almost like a modern version of The Odyssey.
Yeah! I’m a huge fan of Homer and The Odyssey, and I was probably thinking a little in those terms when I realized, “You know, it’s long, but it should be even longer! It should be even more like this, ya know?” [laughs]

It’s a weird choice to put as the first song because a lot of people said it should probably be the last song on the side, but to me, it was the most important statement to hit with. It’s challenging to put a nine- or 10-minute song as the first song on a record and for people to get through it. But I was like, “Ya know, if people are into it, they’ll listen!”

1363973443-leadphoto
Michael Nesmith – man or epic myth?

It shows your love for the four of them, but definitely for Nesmith in a very specific way in a way that I think that other fans will appreciate.
Right. The other songs are definitely a little more literal, obviously. But for Nesmith, I felt like this sort of epic description of a life, sort of a flight of fancy, [was appropriate]. But there are references to the Monkees people will understand.

Somebody asked [Nesmith] about the song, and he said, “I’m not sure if it’s about me, but it’s a pretty good story!” And obviously, it’s not a literal story about his life [it’s] like a mystical hero’s journey, as you said.

Did the title Of Monkees and Men and the distinction between the actors and musicians who played the Monkees and their personas contribute to the work you did on the other songs on the album?
Yeah, definitely that’s true. Because, unlike a lot of musicians, people see the Monkees as these characters because of how they first got to know them, these characters on the screen. So it’s probably been harder for them than for most bands to separate themselves from what the image is that people consider when they think of them.

In a lot of ways, [as] the years have gone by, they’ve sort of embraced their legacy as the Monkees, and I think that’s really good. For a while, I’m sure they really wanted to remove themselves from that. And I can understand that, too, but I’m glad that in hindsight they’ve sort of come around and gone, “You know, we’ve done a lot of great work! And people really really love our music and the show inspired people, so why shouldn’t we celebrate it?” I think that’s a great thing!

I’m wondering if you took a different approach when writing songs for each Monkee? Did some of the songs come more easily than others?
Well, in a way they all came fairly easily. The Nesmith one really lit the spark and I couldn’t stop working on it even after I’d recorded the track.

The Peter Tork one I just kinda ran with, because I actually did have this experience [the song was based on]. It was in the mid-Seventies or whenever, and I was driving back to the little town where I lived, and I there was a bar there. I was coming back from going to see a show in Berkeley or San Francisco, and I saw the sign that said, “Tonight, Peter Tork of the Monkees,” and I was like, “What?”

It was two in the morning. And I was like, “Stop! Let’s see if the show’s still going!” We went in, and he was there packing his stuff up. And we went and started talking to him. There was nobody there when I got there. And he was packing his stuff up. That was basically the sketch I took off from [for] that song, because I had this whole experience.

I liked the fact that he still plays in a blues band. He likes blues and rock ‘n’ roll and he goes out there and plays it. I’m sure he’s not really doing it for the money; he just likes playing it.

The Davy song, I just thought, “I just want to do something really poppy and really romantic,” because that’s the image of him. There were a lot of episodes where he gets the girl, and then I thought about his life I did a little studying up and realized some things about him, like he had four daughters. And they all seemed to love him a lot. I just thought, “I’ll just go off on that whole thing.”

The Micky song was always about my friend Joe Adragna who played drums on that whole side of the record. He’s a huge Monkees freak; I collaborated with him on a lot of these. I’d play a basic track for him and he’d play the drums, or he’d play the drums, and I’d play to it — that kinda deal. He’s always going on and on about what a great drummer Micky is, [saying], “And nobody knows that he’s a cool drummer! Everybody just thinks that other guys played the drums and he didn’t really know how to play the drums. He had to learn for the show,” which is true.

He sent me the 1968 Live in Japan [album], saying, “Listen to the drums! They’re really awesome!” I was thinking “I just really have to write a song about what a cool drummer he is! I just have to put that out there for Joe.” That’s something that people don’t think about with Micky.

And you know, with Boyce & Hart, the Young Fresh Fellows actually covered one of their songs, “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight,” in 2001. And when we’re recording we’re in a studio in LA, the guy who’s producing said, “You know, I know Bobby Hart, I should give him a call and tell him we’re recording this!”

An hour later, [Bobby Hart] was down at the sessions. So he was there when we recorded the song. That was pretty amazing! We’d heard a lot of stories and stuff. That was part of the inspiration for that song. [I’d] studied a lot of their stuff, and I had seen Dolenz, Jones, Boyce, and Hart when they did that tour in the mid-Seventies. So I had plenty of first-hand experience to work into that song.

How much do we really know about Boyce and Hart?
How much do we really know about Boyce and Hart?

Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the Boyce & Hart song. It captures something ephemeral about them. There’s a sort-of formulated mythos around them. Do you agree?
Yeah, definitely! They were behind the scenes a lot, and then they managed to become people who actually were onstage and on TV shows. They did have a hit, and they did get to be on those TV shows, but they never really became a big act on their own. They came pretty close.

They did so much behind the scenes with the Monkees: a lot of those tracks were produced by Boyce & Hart and written by Boyce & Hart. They had a lot to do with the Monkees’ success. With all the other great songwriters, they had material by, Boyce & Hart were the driving, unifying force… and then they sort of disappeared [in the late ’60s].

I know they kept doing work. I have some strange Tommy Boyce solo records and stuff like that, but nobody ever heard them! I always felt that was kind of a shame because for that brief period they were such a force. They were the guys making the records but weren’t really recognized for it.

How do you think Boyce & Hart’s songwriting has influenced you?
Well, to the degree that I’m a big fan of their writing and, like all great pop songwriting of that era, that’s pretty much in everything I do. I can’t get away from it, because when I was 12 years old, that music grabbed hold of me and never let go. No matter how many different kinds of music I like and how many influences I had, I tried to throw it all into music I record. It’s that sort of 1966 pop music that always comes through. Some of the songs Boyce & Hart wrote for the Monkees were so seminal for me as a kid and still stand as perfect pop records.

Are there a few tracks that you feel that are the ones that stick out as making a big impression on you at that age?
When “Last Train to Clarksville” came out, I was just completely floored. And you listen to it now, and it’s still such a great song. And it’s also really cool because I don’t always write lyrics very directly, and you listen to that song, and it’s like, “What’s it about?” ya know? [laughs]

It’s really left completely up in the air: what’s going on, where the guy’s going, what’s happening? There [are] all these theories about it: “Oh, he’s going off to war in Vietnam, or whatever.” I like the open-ended-ness of it.

I’ve always held to that in my songwriting. I usually don’t spell things out too much. You pull a mood and a possible scenario in your head without [the song] actually spelling it out for you and telling you what it is. It’s much more interesting and inspiring.

There weren’t a lot of pop songwriters at the time that were doing that, which is interesting.
Yeah, the Monkees kind of embraced [the progressive Sixties songwriting] with “Circle Sky” or “Randy Scouse Git.” What are those songs about? You know what inspired them because you hear the stories behind them, but as a kid hearing those, I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about! And I didn’t care; I just thought they sounded cool.

tumblr_m9lpiiscif1qkge9po1_500
Screen actor Robert Ryan

You’ve got a song on the album called “Robert Ryan Is Among Us.” Was Robert Ryan making an impact on you around the same time as the Monkees?
That was probably when I first became aware of him, because I first saw him right around that time, maybe a year or two later in The Wild Bunch and The Professionals. Over the years, I’ve become more of a fan. And in a weird way, it’s not like he’s my favorite actor or anything like that, but there’s something about his presence that really struck me to write the song about him.

I always picture [Robert Ryan] in black and white, even though he was in a ton of color movies. But when I think of him in that song, it’s always his image in old film noirs: the boxing movies, the war movies. In a way, the song was not so much about him as it was a rumination on the kind of shadow that these films stars cast and where that will end up in the future.

That being said, I am a big fan of him and his movies. I think he’s a great actor, and he has been in a ton of amazing films. He’s the only non-musician [with a song about him] on the whole record, but I still felt like it fit in because of his celebrity and fame with the Monkees. It still seemed like it tied in to me.

Awesome! Anything else you’d like to share with our rabid REBEAT readers?
[Laughs] Yeah! I really liked the 50 Monkees songs countdown. That was really awesome! There were a few songs that I wasn’t familiar with that must have passed me by, that were bonus tracks on reissues. So it was fun digging up a few of those.

Funnily enough, a lot of my favorites on the list were on the list after the 50. Songs like “Writing Wrongs.” I think there were three or four that weren’t on your top 50 that were ones that would be on my list probably!

Learn more about the Minus 5’s Of Monkees And Men over at Yep Roc Records.

About Louie Pearlman 28 Articles
Louie Pearlman is a comedic performer, songwriter, producer and pop culture writer living in NYC. He loves bubblegum music and punk in all its forms -- his favorite band is Talking Heads, but the Archies are a close second or third. You can check out his current projects at LouiePearlman.com, come see a show, and say “hi” after!