To adopt a parlance he would appreciate: Scott McCaughey is a musical version of the perfect utility ballplayer -- a journeyman who can perform any baseball duty as needed, from bunting a runner over to playing shortstop or even filling in at catcher for an inning or two. Except McCaughey somehow does it all at once.
In addition to key support roles in R.E.M. and with English singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, McCaughey leads two groups of his own, the beloved garage-rock band Young Fresh Fellows and the classic-pop ensemble Minus 5. He's also ringleader for The Baseball Project, a supergroup featuring Steve Wynn and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck that does songs about the national pastime.
The Baseball Project takes center-stage Saturday at Cat's Cradle, a free-wheeling bill that also features Minus 5 and The Steve Wynn IV. It's part of a fairly insane stretch of work that finds McCaughey in a constant state of transition that would cause most people to have difficulty remembering their own names.
"The trickiest part will be that we finish this tour in Austin, and the very next day I'm at the Austin City Limits Festival with Robyn [Hitchcock]," McCaughey says, by phone from a highway rest stop in New York state. "So that means I'm suddenly playing bass and trying to remember songs I've not played in six months. After that, I do five shows with Robyn on the West Coast. Then I've got two days to rehearse with Young Fresh Fellows before going to Spain for 10 days. Then I've got about three days before going to New Orleans to start working on the next R.E.M. record."
McCaughey pauses to laugh a bit ruefully, wondering whether he has bitten off more than he can chew. But he's not complaining.
"Oh, I'm totally into it," he continues. "It's nonstop brain shifts, sure. But it's all great music, and I'm lucky to be able to play it. I'm really excited about R.E.M. We did some instrumental tracks back in April and May that sound really cool, a little more all over the place than [2008's] 'Accelerate.' There's some trashy-sounding garage rock, but also some weird new-wave guitar and a few quieter things. Michael [Stipe] still has to see which songs he's into and what he comes up with, so it's hard to say how it will turn out at this point. But there's a nice batch of 12 cool-sounding tracks, so we'll see how much ends up on the record."
A certain amount of attitude adjustment takes place when going back and forth between bandleader and sideman. Being a pretty mellow, roll-with-it character, he takes whatever pressure is involved in stride.
But the biggest adjustment of all is when he moves into his bassist's role behind Hitchcock, with whom McCaughey played the Cradle in April.
For a gregarious sort like McCaughey, staying out of the way of Hitchcock's surreal flights of fancy can be a challenge.
"The hardest part with Robyn is just trying to keep my mouth shut," he says with a laugh. "I always want to chime in, try to be funny myself. But it's best to just leave that to Robyn because he's the best at between-song rambling that you'd ever want to see."
More than a base hit
Saturday's show will feature a healthy chunk of material from last year's Baseball Project album, "Volume One: Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails" (Yep Roc Records), a love letter to the great American game.
"Frozen Ropes" includes sturdily constructed garage-pop songs about disgraced slugger Mark McGwire ("Broken Man"), the Say Hey Kid ("Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays"), the unluckiest pitcher of all time ("Harvey Haddix") and the racial barrier Jackie Robinson broke ("Jackie's Lament").
Because McCaughey just doesn't have enough going on, "Volume Two" is already in the works. One of the songs is an Italian operetta about Tony Conigliaro, the mid-1960s Red Sox phenom whose career was derailed when he took a pitch in the eye.
The other main song source for Saturday's show will be Minus 5's "Killingsworth" (Yep Roc Records), which has sunny pop tunes similar to what you'd hear on a '60s-vintage Kinks record. Except those melodies adorn some of the darkest lyrics this side of a goth kid's diary, which is surprising because McCaughey seems so good-natured.
"The Disembowelers" and "Dark Hand of Contagion" are two of the album's more prominent examples. The latter song was inspired by one of McCaughey's former musical collaborators, Jimmy Silva, who died in 1994 from what McCaughey calls a "freakish...run-in with chicken pox."
"I went to see him in the hospital and he made a joke about how horrible he looked," McCaughey says. " 'I guess I've been touched by the dark hand of contagion.' That was the last time I saw him -- he died the next day. And that line always stuck with me, so I wrote it. It's just what comes out, my way of venting.
"I guess it's just my way of getting things out," he concludes. "So I can go on with my lighthearted, carefree existence."