Friday, September 4, 2009

Swingin’ Party: Q&A with the Baseball Project

photo by Vivian Johnson

2008 was a mean year for several music magazines that had at one time or another been kind enough to publish my articles and reviews. No Depression, Country Standard Time, Harp and Pop Culture Press all bid adieu to the paper versions of their publications. No Depression and Country Standard Time live on through the interwebs and Harp has been reborn anew in print as Blurt. Pop Culture Press, meanwhile, I suppose you would say is on indefinite hiatus and could come back as a blog, according to editor Luke Torn.

I completed two articles and a dozen or so reviews for the fall/winter issue of PCP that never was. With the Baseball Project-Minus 5-Steve Wynn tour currently on the road, I figured it would be my last chance to post the Q&A I did with Wynn and Scott McCaughey last summer. The interview doesn’t appear to be ridiculously outdated, and Wynn and McCaughey are indeed blessed with timeless wits, so hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy. Here’s a recent review of their appearance in San Francisco from Magnet.

By Andy Turner
If there were an award for Damn Fun Album of the Year, you can bet the Baseball Project’s Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails would win it. Featuring the indie supergroup of Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Linda Pitmon and Peter Buck, it’s no lollygagger when it comes to the rock either.

Formed by admitted baseball geeks Wynn and McCaughey, the Baseball Project playfully but passionately plunder the game’s history from the familiar (Jackie Robinson Mark McGwire and Willie Mays) to the less celebrated (the nearly perfect Harvey Haddix and Big Ed Delahanty and his “boozy-bloat tongue”). Along the way, they spin tales of rowdy romps with Jack McDowell, pay tribute to Curt Flood and deliver a wonderfully profane and catchy ode to Ted Williams – all the while providing Cy Young and MVP levels of hooks, playing and energy.

Skippers Wynn and McCaughey talked to PCP recently about laying down a good bunt, the importance of hitting the cutoff and keys to highly effective dugout tirades – or something.

Can you tell me how this went from an idea to reality and how the band members came together?

Steve Wynn: I'd had the idea to do a record about baseball for years and kept talking about it but never going too far beyond that. Linda kept saying, “You have to do this record or at least stop talking about it or else someone will do it before you do.” Well, it turns out that all the while Scott had a similar idea. Our concept and ensuing procrastination met head-on during a fun, drunken party for REM's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York City last year. We had already met and hung out before but I don't think we each knew that the other was such a big baseball fan. The concept, the partnership and even the execution was born that evening. And we even remembered it the next day.

What were the songwriting and recording processes like? Did you all gel pretty quickly (the album sure sounds like you did)? You also all did a great job balancing the tone of the album between reverential, humorous, insightful, wistful, etc. Is that something you talked about and really strived for or did it happen pretty naturally?

SW: Once you have such a defined concept and such an endless wealth of stories and players and history, the songs almost write themselves. And the stories that we wanted to tell made it easy to set the mood for the song. Ted Williams was a cocky, swaggering guy? Let's give him a faux-Gary Glitter glam tune! Curt Flood's contribution to the game and American history was unrecognized and he was buried without any fanfare from major league ballplayers? He gets a haunting, cautionary tale. See what I mean? Scott and I are already writing volumes 7 and 8.

As far as the baseball stories/legends, were most of the details already in your heads? Did you have to consult books or other sources a lot during the course of writing and recording? Was it hard sometimes to keep your “baseball geek meter” in check with the songs?

SW: Oh, man. The Baseball Geek Meter could have easily been pinned into the red for the entire record. But we tried to concentrate on the things about each player or each story that was more universal. You don't have to care about Sandy Koufax (imagine that!) to wonder what it feels like to walk away from the thing you love when you are still at your peak. I did re-watch the Ken Burns series to get into the mood to write a lot of the songs. That's a great history of baseball. And there was a lot of Wikipedia checking to find out all of the pitchers who threw perfect games for “Harvey Haddix.”

Were any of you baseball standouts growing up or really into playing? What positions did you play? Who are your favorite teams – current or all-time? Who are your favorite current players?

Scott McCaughey: I played Little League in Callfornia, from age 9-12, and, not being a "stand-out" (though I made the All-Star team twice as a catcher at the lower levels), pretty much ended my baseball career before high school. I did play in organized keg leagues in my 20s and 30s, where I was actually a pretty decent fielder, hitter, and drinker. I was also really good at ripping up my knees and elbows – lots of blood the way I played the game!

I follow the A's, Giants, and Mariners pretty heavily. Grew up first as a Giants fan, fill in love with the Swingin' A's when they moved to Oakland , and then gradually fell for the M's during my 25-year stay in Seattle . Willie Mays is probably my all-time favorite player. Of the current crop, I am often in awe of Ichiro and Albert Pujols because of the sheer consistency they've shown so far in their careers. I like the way Aaron Rowand plays the game – really gritty! And this year I'm really excited about Tim Lincecum, the great young Giants hurler.

SW: Different story for me. I never played Little League but I did play a lot of “Over-The-Line” and “500” with my buddies. I was actually a sportswriter for most of my teenage years, dreaming of writing for Sports Illustrated and getting sidetracked in 1977 by punk rock and new wave.

I’m a geographically uprooted turncoat like Scott. Grew up a Dodgers fan in LA and then became a Yankees fan when I moved to New York in 1994. I would say that I'm primarily a Yankees fan now but I sure would love to see Joe Torre beat his old team in the World Series. I dig Torre. I think he is my role model when I'm producing records.

Have you gotten any response from any players or baseball-related folk about the album? Think anyone will want to use your songs for their intro music? A crowd singing along to “Ted Fucking Williams" would be beautiful, don't you think?

SM: Still waiting to hear what Jack McDowell thinks of “The Yankee Flipper”! Hope he likes it! Yeah, I think Young At Heart should do “Ted Fucking Williams” with the Boston Pops.

Do you ever get disgusted with professional baseball when hearing about steroids, exorbitant salaries, etc.? What makes you remain a fan?

SM: Yes, maybe more bored than disgusted. The amazing thing is that the game itself is still so beautiful. While it's changed a lot, there remains some kind of amazing purity in the way it unfolds each time two teams take the field, thousands of times a year.

Any oddball or unheralded players or managers just waiting to be immortalized in song?

SW: There are so many. I've already got some songs about Tim “Rock” Raines and Dizzy Dean for Volume 2. And even though Warren Zevon and Barbara Manning have already done them justice, I think that Bill Lee and Dock Ellis need more songs written about them. Really, there is no end to the inspiring stories, the songwriting fodder in the history of baseball. It's one of the reason that I love the game. More than any other team sport it is a game led by individuals and characters.

Will there be a Vol. 2 and if so, do you see other musicians joining the Baseball Project? Will you tour to support the album at all?

SM: I think Volume 2 will happen. It will hopefully feature Loretta Lynn on the hill, Miles Davis in the dugout, and the Replacements around the horn. Anything can happen!

SW: Maybe we can do a duet of “The Wabash Cannonball” with Dizzy Dean a la Natalie and Nat "King" Cole.

Any general comments you want to add?

SW: Fire Bud Selig! Now!

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