More often than not, Cass McCombs performs illuminated against a sea of soft, twinkling lights. It’s hardly a big budget effect – the glow radiates from something that resembles Christmas lights plugged into the back of a collection of foam boards. But low rent or not, the installation couldn’t be better tailored for McComb’s music: Both can project a certain woozy warmth, a starry-eyed romance, or a desert highway world weariness – sometimes all at once. And when the enigmatic singer-songwriter performs one of his many absurdly gorgeous ballads, the confluence of light and sound can make you forget that you’re in some grungy venue and transport you to the final slow dance at some middle of nowhere county fair a long, long time ago.
In any context, the music of Cass McCombs has always existed outside of place and time. If you sought to dissect some lineage, perhaps Elliot Smith or Bill Callahan or Leonard Cohen or wandering 70s icons like Harry Nilson would enter the discussion, but with each album, his universe both expands and becomes more his own. His seventh and most recent record, last year’s Big Wheel and Others, is his most ambitious effort to date, a double album of equally swooning and seedy Americana. But even in its sprawl, Big Wheel and Others never forsakes the understatement and patience that mark the former Baltimore native’s best work.
McCombs doesn’t speak much to the press. He finds discussion of his past and personal life a waste of time. He is absolutely not one to parse lyrics. For years, he refused face-to-face interviews, and instead did things like write letters to publications. But get him on the phone and he is not a difficult person to converse with, as I found out three weeks ago. McCombs was traveling through Northern California at the time, but aside from a jaunt through Europe and some scattered festival appearances, McCombs spent most of the preceding months at home in New York City. “It’s been a hot summer,” he vents. “I just can’t take that kind of humidity.”
McCombs and his band have since embarked on a co-headlining tour with alt-rock heroes the Meat Puppets. The two acts will travel down the East Coast over the next week, and they’ll come bearing a split single that features two new McCombs songs – the brooding “Night of the World” and rave-up “Evangeline”. Of course, those slow burning lights will be in tow, as well. “We’ve been touring with them for years now,” McCombs says of the Yellowbook Strangers installation. “It’s just become a part of the band, you know?”
Cass McCombs performs Friday and Saturday at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade with the Meat Puppets. Both bands visit DC’s Black Cat on Sunday. Big Wheel and Others and the Cass McCombs vs. the Meat Puppets 7″ are out now on Domino Records.
Where did “Night of the World” and “Evangeline” come from?
Both of them were just done for fun. They were made randomly with friends.
Actually, once we knew that we were going to do this [Meat] Puppets split, we went into drummer Joe Russo’s studio and recorded “Evangeline”. But it was a very shoestring situation. Most of the time, we’re just writing and recording with no concept of a release behind the songs. And then you usually get offers to do things or you conceive of something, and you kind of make it work.
Were the songs that ended up on Big Wheel and Others recorded that way?
That album was mostly recorded within a week at this studio in Brooklyn. Most of it was recorded live, including the vocal. I don’t know if people are aware of how rare that is in this day and age. It pretty much never happens – pretty much absolutely never.
Big Wheel wasn’t really recorded in a lot of different places. It was mainly just recorded in Brooklyn with just a few days here and there to mix in different studios. It was done really quickly and really haphazardly and it was really fun.
Was capturing vocals live meant to be a challenge?
The thing about the studio is that there are so many different options – so many different ways to become narcissistic and neurotic. You get seduced by your own neurosis.
Doing it all live is thrilling, because you’re basically telling yourself, “Whatever I do, I have to live with it. It might be nasty. And it might be flawed. But I’m telling myself right now that I’m going to live with it.” And then you commit to that. Generally, if you approach it that way, you end up doing something cool.
I don’t know why people avoid doing it. People sing live at concerts. The common way of recording vocals is doing multiple takes and comping them. It’s this slow, incoherent process. But with all of the classic vocalists – Louis Armstrong or anybody – it was all cut live. I mean, it was cut live with a symphony. It wasn’t just the vocal that was cut live – it was, like, 100 people that had to perform a song live.
It sounds like you’re more interested in capturing a moment in time than creating some definitive document.
Yeah. It’s also about being cool with your own rawness – your own flaws. It’s coming to terms with the idea that a human is not a perfect object. We admire perfection because we can never attain it. I understand the seduction of the recording process, but it tries to make people sound as if they shit light.
That requires a degree of confidence not just with yourself, but also those who are playing with you. What sort of collaborators do you seek out? What kind of people are you most compatible with?
I play music with people that I’ve met through friends. That’s not to say that you can’t find great people to play with other ways – that’s just the way that it’s always flowed with me. It’s been really natural. Someone says, “Oh, I can’t do this tour, but my buddy can do it.”
I just try not to have too high of expectations. [Laughs] I’m open to working with anyone. I almost feel like everyone has something unique to offer, and I don’t want to try to control that. I just want people to allow me to be me, and I want people who can work in an ensemble. At best, an ensemble is communist. We share everything. We share improvisational time on stage. On the road, we’re sharing the spoils of war and the space in the van. I guess that I’m not too picky. The more the merrier, or whatever you want to call it.
I’m not trying to find someone out there who’s identical to me. Actually, I’m trying to find someone who’s not like me. [Laughs] I want to find someone who can teach me something for a change. The band we have now, everyone has a completely different background. We’ve got dudes that went to college for music, who know theory upwards and down. We’ve had people travel to exotic places to learn things. We have people with a punk background. We have people who have made bluegrass. Everyone brings something different, and it all works out.
Earlier this year, you told the Washington Post that “biography has nothing to do with craft.” What did you mean by that?
I remember saying that, but I forget why exactly. [The writer] approached me about his vision for this article about modern techniques in songwriting, and we were talking about that, but at some point, he started asking me a few more personal questions, and I just glibly blurted that out. I like talking more about the more theoretical and philosophical. I don’t really enjoy talking about the personal reasons for making music. What would be the point? It doesn’t serve anyone.
Do you want your music to be approached as if in a vacuum?
I mean, music exists. It lives in the real world. People make music. We don’t have to try to make music, because we do. There’s no attempt. There’s just the presence of music. It does exist. I don’t understand why we need to keep needing to deliberate how it exists. It’s a waste of time when there’s music to be listened to.
What’s your reaction to critical adulation?
I don’t know. It’s cool? I don’t think about it. I try not to think about it. It doesn’t really help me to think about that. I basically think of what I do as an occupation, and I just have a lot of work to do. It doesn’t really serve the task that I have in front of me to think about how other people relate to what I do. Essentially, it doesn’t really matter.
Does the double album as a format possess any greater significance for you? Or was Big Wheel’s length just a matter of having too many songs to fit on one record?
It’s probably both. We knew that we had the songs. We had been playing most of them on tour for a couple of years, and then the band elected that this is what we wanted to do. On top of that, it just sounded different. We’d all made single records before. This sounded like an exciting challenge.
But, of course, there are a lot of great double records in this world. The [Beatles’] White Album is probably the template for this one, at least as far a length. Everyone has a different concept of what the definition of a double record is in the post-CD era. Some people make double records now that are, like, 70 minutes. But Big Wheel is 92 minutes, and that’s about what the White Album is. That’s also about how long [The Clash’s] London Calling is. Another template that we used was [Stevie Wonder’s] Songs in the Key of Life. That was accompanied by a 7”, so it was two LPs and a 45, which is how Big Wheel’s limited edition was formatted.
The double record is not really a traditional format. That’s kind of what’s interesting about it. Everyone has a different opinion about what one is, and they’re drastically different. Some people hate them. Most people probably hate them.
You’re using the first person plural a lot. These records are obviously released under your name, but it sounds like their creation is dictated in part by group decision making.
Some are definitely group decisions – in particular, when it comes to a song that has been developed by a live band, and it’s had a chance to develop slowly over a long course of time. A song like “Angle Blood” or even “Big Wheel”, we played so many times – hundreds of times on tour. When we went to record those, we knew exactly what we wanted to do with them. Those were recorded by consensus. I also think that sharing as much is you can is the most important thing.
How would describe your relationship with your back catalog? Do you enjoy performing old songs?
We know about 60 or 70 songs that we can choose from, and we change the set completely every night, so sometimes people can come back to different shows and catch an entirely different set. As far as the older material, we just choose what sounds best and what feels the best. If we perform a song and it’s like, “Oh, that didn’t go so good,” then we might hold off on it for a few shows, until we have a chance to work to iron out the wrinkles. Of course, you don’t want to iron it out too much, because then it becomes stale.
I still relate to a lot of old songs. I’m actually often surprised about that. When we haven’t played a song for years, and then we bring it back, I’m often surprised, like, “Wow, I forgot about this tune. It’s cool.”
How did “Protest Song” come about? What’s your involvement with the climate change movement?
I’m pretty active – or somewhat active – politically. I would encourage other people to organize. In New York, Oakland, San Francisco, and all over the world, there are preexisting communities that are very open to help and suggestions from people getting involved. It was surprising to me how easy it actually was to get shit done.
I had written that tune a little while before. It wasn’t necessarily for the climate march, but it’s a universal protest song. It could be for anything. There’s always going to be something, because it’s a corrupt world.
My friends the Chapin Sisters joined me with their beautiful voices, and it was fantastic. It was a great march. And the following day was Flood Wall Street, which was great.
How was the atmosphere?
It’s really inspiring and creative. And it’s necessary, you know? It’s not just art – which it is – it has value too.
You put out the Bradley Manning benefit single a few years ago too. Have you always been engaged on political issues?
I grew up on KPFA Berkley. This first real book I ever read, when I was 14, was the Malcolm X autobiography, and it changed everything for me. I’ve always been political – or at least politically minded. Through time, I’ve learned how and when to get involved. Mostly, it’s been through my music, but I’m also in conversation with people constantly.
Are you an optimistic person?
Fuck no. Optimistic? Hell no.
But I don’t want to consider myself anything. A really liberating aspect of the political discussion is that it’s beyond personality. Fuck personality. You know what I’m saying? There are some real, universal, global issues. Civil rights issues. Human rights issues. Climate stuff. Prison justice. These are universal concepts that are well beyond us as individuals. It’s our responsibility to address them. People like to think that they don’t have a responsibility, but they do. You can live with your head in the sand, but you do have a responsibility.
What is does that responsibility look like? What action should people be taking?
That’s not for me to say. I’m not a leader. I’m not going to tell people what to think or what to do or anything. But we’re the earth’s custodians. It’s on us to protect it. As she gives to us so freely with abundance, water, food, fruit, and fish in the ocean, we need to protect her. That’s our responsibility.
That’s how I feel – someone else may disagree. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to make up their own mind. That’s just what I think.