Cass McCombs wants you to buy his music, sort of

The veteran musician talks about his fifteen year career and his new album ’Tip of the Sphere,’ a record steeped in the 21 century malaise of American politics.

February 08, 2019
Cass McCombs wants you to buy his music, sort of Silvia Grav

Throughout Cass McCombs’ career, he's pursued artistic purity. The Northern California-born, self-described nomad has been releasing music for fifteen years each record attempting to translate his idea of artistic practice into song. As an artist who's more or less steadily released music every year and a half since 2003's A, McCombs has moved to a rhythm antithetical to the modern consumption of music, less intentional subversion and more just the way he operates. But during a phone conversation, he still acknowledges the economic and critical thrust that strips his music of wholesome artistic pursuit.

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“You don’t make records in a vacuum — they’re made for people to listen to. It’s just part of the process,” he explains. I get the sense throughout our conversation that if McCombs had a choice, his records would be made in a vacuum; he refers to releasing music as a trap of commodification he’s unable to avoid. But if the process of making and buying art is a con, then McCombs’ latest, Tip of the Sphere, is an excellent heist. His albums have always dabbled in folk-y territory while trying to move as far from that stylistic center as possible; 2016’s Mangy Love sounded like Talking Heads meets Little Feat, while 2011’s Wit’s End moved at a glacial pace, like Bert Jansch on lean.

Mangy Love was McCombs’ most successful record to date, culminating in a surprising performance on the Ellen show. (I can practically hear him cringe when I mention what he calls "the s-word": "I don’t think about it too much. I would question what that even means.") Overall, McCombs’ isn’t much for repeating a formula, so Tip of The Sphere features a slightly rock-ier sound, sounding like the Grateful Dead steeped in the 21st century malaise of American politics. His music zooms in on fading hometowns and broken spirits, a desperate sprint to capture fleetingness before it disappears for good.

Cass McCombs wants you to buy his music, sort of

Does writing, recording, and touring occupy all of your time?

I’m writing every day — playing guitar and re-learning old songs. It’s what I enjoy doing. When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to find the privacy to write. The downtime is welcome. I’m down to play anywhere, for any reason. When I’m in New York, I have a few jam nights that friends have. I love sitting in on those. It’s not about the money, it’s just about keeping up the chops. Sitting in with other people is essential. I prefer it because it’s wide open. It’s a good place to experiment with ideas.

Do you feel an obligation to your audience to stick to more traditional forms of your songs when you're on tour?

Anybody who’s been to our shows knows it’s a pretty loose affair [Laughs]. There are so many tunes, so we try to switch up the sets every night or two, to filter in older material.

Is there an overarching theme that's run through your career?

I actively avoid overarching themes or narratives. It’s challenging, because you do something and it seems successful—either personally or professionally. You might have the temptation to repeat that in another way. I've learned that’s an impossibility. It’s more exciting and fun to do new things.

Have you ever been tempted to replicate your success?

Maybe when I was really young, before I even made records. When you’re a kid, you’re extremely sensitive. It’s natural to be insecure then, and I don’t know if I’m any more secure today — although I’ve built up an alligator skin so I can just deal with the consequences of failure. Artistic failure is an option, as I’ve discovered.

A song is like an experiment. There’s no way to make it perfect. Every song is an organism. Some have more life than others. The lives of others may flourish down the road, but there’s an intolerance to waiting for things to grow and find their own livelihood. People want the quick thing. If it doesn’t make sense immediately, people move past it. We’re all guilty of this, we’re all looking for new shit to interest us. Different songs have different lifespans and life cycles.

You grew up around jam culture. I hear a bunch of Grateful Dead on this record, maybe more explicitly than on past records.

I was joking with an old high school friend of mine. We had a band back in the day and we were laughing about how the word "jam" didn’t exist at all. It's a new idea. Back then I don’t know what it was — freaky or acid music. The word "psychedelic" was around, but it didn’t have that aesthetic tinge that seems to be a marketing term now. There was no "jam" back then — especially in the early ’90s. There weren’t so many sub-categories. No one really wanted to be filed, anyways. People like to be filed today.

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Did recording in Brooklyn contribute to this record's New York-inspired themes?

That was the intention. I’ve made a couple records in New York. Big Wheel was made here, PREfection was finished in Times Square. Our intention was to go to New York and make it quickly. New York’s a quick town.

Was the quickness in reaction to the large scope of Mangy Love?

Exactly. Big Wheel was made with a similar intention, although with Big Wheel we recorded three times the amount of music. But no one liked that record.

Do you have a favorite record of yours?

No, it’s always the current shit that I’m focused on. I don’t listen to my old music. Does any artist go back and listen to their stuff?

Is there any record you associate positive feelings with?

Probably my first few records with [drummer and engineer] Jason Quever. We were really like one mind in a way. I enjoyed that, it was really exciting. I think back on those times fondly.

Is there some nostalgia about the innocence of that era?

We were definitely not innocent [Laughs]. Dirty, dirty people. I’m not nostalgic at all. But the process was just right — completely independent. There were zero photographs or video from that time. It was the dark ages. I do miss that, but there’s nothing you can do about that because everyone has lots of media at their fingertips.

You’ve been doing this for 15 years. Do you ever feel exhausted?

It’s a rat race, but that’s the case in whatever profession you’re in. Anybody’s job is gonna be annoying at some point, but I’m grateful that I get to speak my mind and write crazy songs about topics people don’t care about.

Are there themes you’re riffing on in these new songs?

I focus a lot on dreams in general. I keep a dream journal, and I access those entries when I’m writing songs. Politics in dreams [Laughs]. No one wants to talk about that but there are politics in dreams!

Do you have vivid dreams?

They’re all over the place. My journal entries could be pages long, or just one little note that I recorded. I write them in the middle of the night if I think I’m gonna forget.

Your music has always been political, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. Has the current administration affected the way you approach protest or political music?

I see it more affecting my relationships with people, weirdly. Maybe it’ll go away now that we’re used to this fascist takeover — "Oh, we gotta live with the fascists now." But it was such a shocking thing when it happened. It caused a lot of rifts in personal relationships. It’s sad, and it’s not gonna last forever, but it seems like the natural result of this traumatic event.

Are you a hopeful person, or are you a pessimist?

God, I don’t know. I’m confused. We’ve all been talking about this for years, it’s just so exhausting. There’s nothing more to say. It’s all been said.

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Cass McCombs wants you to buy his music, sort of