Q&A: Cass McCombs On Writing Songs, Doing Press, And His Epic New Record Big Wheel And Others
It seems weird that Cass McCombs has been releasing records for what is now an entire decade. In some ways, it’s like he’s kind of been around forever — given the current attention span of the indie-rock world, passing the 10-year mark is something akin to a small miracle — but it’s only really within the last few years (starting with the release of 2009’s Catacombs) that it seemed as if people really started to truly appreciate his rare talents as a songwriter and performer. On the surface, McCombs is ostensibly a singer/songwriter whose music treads the margins of what is most easily described as folk-inflected rock music. However, close inspection of his back catalog — now seven albums deep — defies any kind of pat categorization. McCombs’s songs are slippery things — by turns charming, deeply melancholic, achingly beautiful, frustratingly obtuse, and slyly hilarious. Adding to the mystique of his music is the fact that McCombs himself has always been so hard to pin down. Nomadic by nature and generally very press shy, he has almost always chosen to let his music speak for itself which, at least early on in his career, lent the songwriter a kind of impermeable, Dylan-esque appeal. Since releasing two albums in 2011 (the excellent Wit’s End and Humor Risk) McCombs seems at last happy to step away from the mythology that he spent the first half of his career cultivating, whether he really meant to or not. His new album — the sprawling, 22-song collection Big Wheel And Others — is arguably the most stylistically expansive thing he has ever released. Recorded at various points in Brooklyn, London, San Francisco, and “various homes and studios in California,” and involving the production talents of many of McCombs’s previous cohorts (Nicolas Vernhes, Ariel Rechtshaid, Chet JR White, the late, great Karen Black), Big Wheel is not a double album in the traditional sense (i.e., there doesn’t seem to be any pervasive theme or narrative tying all these songs together), but rather a compendium of songs that allow McCombs to deftly stretch his creative legs. Upon a few close listens, it also might be the least guarded and most emotionally generous of all his albums.
This marks the third time I’ve talked to McCombs about his music. The first was in 2007 when we spoke (somewhat disastrously) on the phone regarding Dropping The Writ. In 2011 we corresponded by mail and McCombs answered a few questions about Wit’s End. For this interview I actually met up with McCombs in person — twice, in fact — and for our second meeting (which took place in upstate New York at the Basilica Festival) he came prepared with a sheet of handwritten notes. While his reputation as something of an intense dude is not without merit, he also happens to be a very kind and exceptionally thoughtful guy.
STEREOGUM: My natural inclination when I listen to an album is to always try and create some sort of narrative around the songs, but my feeling is that wasn’t the intention with the tracks on Big Wheel.
CASS McCOMBS: No, definitely not. They were written over too long of a period to have any kind of one frame of mind. I would imagine that with the way thoughts materialize, that there are themes that weave in and out of many of the songs … but it wasn’t intentional.
STEREOGUM: Was most of this material done in a very contained period of time after the last record?
CASS McCOMBS: Probably some of them were written around the same time as the last couple records but we just didn’t get around to recording them for one reason or another — whether we didn’t have the right musicians in the room at the time or whatever … I know the song “Brighter,” which I wrote for Karen Black, was written a long time ago. At least that one and there’s probably a couple more — it’s hard to really remember exactly.
STEREOGUM: The bio materials that were sent to me along with the record kind of address the fact that you really don’t have much interest in explaining yourself or talking about what the songs are about. After you’ve written songs and put them out in the world, that you then required to explain them to people is, when you think about it, kind of preposterous … and yet people are asked to do it constantly.
CASS McCOMBS: More times than not, it can actually spoil the song because what a song can do is manipulate someone’s imagination so every listener has their own individual interpretation. To guide them is wrong; whatever they feel is right.
STEREOGUM: For me — as someone who makes a living talking to musicians and visual artists and writers — I very much enjoy talking to people about what they make and what inspires them to make it, but I do think it’s unfair to ask people explain their art to me. In that respect, I really enjoyed your tactic of writing letters to journalist during the press cycle for your last records — I still have the drawings you sent me, by the way — but I’m guessing that much have been very labor intensive for you. Maybe more so than just doing interviews?
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, it did take a lot of time for each one. I regretted it … one stupid little letter took a whole day to write sometimes.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been making records for a long time now — over a decade. Do you find your feelings about the process of making music or your approach to songwriting has changed a lot over the years?
CASS McCOMBS: Only in as much as I’m constantly learning and mutating what I want to do with it. The essential thing is that I want to express myself and this is the only way I know how. And then hopefully I can hand it off to the listenership so they can express themselves in whatever way they want — whether it’s with the music or if they want to write their own songs. I think that’s how we communicate with each other.
STEREOGUM: I like that idea. Often when I really love something or when some kind of art really speaks to me, it feels like not only an inspirational thing but also an aspirational experience as well. I’m often inspired to make something.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, not to copy anything but just like … “What do you think? What do you feel?”
STEREOGUM: Had you not been a musician, do you have any sense of what you might have done otherwise? When you were a kid, did you make art or do other kinds of art?
CASS McCOMBS: Oh sure. I drew pictures, acted, danced, and stuff. I was talking about this recently with a friend about our past lives. I have a friend who believes she knows what her past lives were and I don’t know what mine were … or if in fact there are past lives. It seems likely on some level. But anyway, we were just imagining hypothetical past lives. I think maybe I was a soldier in Vietnam and I died. And then I think I was … it’s just a fun thing to do to imagine past lives. I’m not certain whether there are past lives, but it’s definitely a fun exercise.
STEREOGUM: I could see as how a songwriter that would definitely be a fun exercise. There’s a guy here in Brooklyn that conducts hypnosis therapy that’s specifically about past life regression. Someone I know went and did it and she was saying that it was super emotional. Afterwards, most people cry … but not really out of sadness, just out of pure emotion. Just the suggestion that you’re mining some history that you can’t access … it’s interesting. I’ve never been hypnotized either because I’ve always been kind of spooked by it but I may try it …
CASS McCOMBS: You’re going to try hypnosis? I’m not so sure I would. It seems like child’s play with very serious materials. What are you gonna break while you’re in there, ya know?
STEREOGUM: In the past you’ve spoken about the live experience versus the recorded experience. Is being able to tour and play live in front of people a more gratifying part of the process as opposed to recording?
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah. For me, that’s what it’s all about. The record is just demos or something; all recordings are demos. The live thing is such a fleeting moment — that’s where I think it actually happens for me. Because we get to play live with a band and everyone’s working together and the audience is incredible … It’s just an essential thing that doesn’t always happen in a sterile environment of the studio. Studios are musky. You have to plan it out and there’s a lot of money on the line.
STEREOGUM: And the process itself can be so tedious. It’s hard to make it be fast or easy.
CASS McCOMBS: We tried to on this record. We were only in the studio for a week. So we tried to record at least one song a day, sometimes more.
STEREOGUM: Really? That is amazingly fast. Will you be touring with those same players?
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah. Pretty much. Dan “Buddy”, Mike Bones, and Jon Shaw. The drummers are changing a little bit. I like bringing in new people. I like existing in a group and supporting other people and we’re all supporting each other.
STEREOGUM: Will you tour a ton for this record?
CASS McCOMBS: I want to.
STEREOGUM: Did you tour a lot for the last one?
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, we did tour a lot.
STEREOGUM: Is that the most fun part of it for you — being on the road?
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah … Well, I actually like playing music. Being in a band is hard work, but playing music is an easy and fun reward.
STEREOGUM: The bio materials for your record make reference to an essay about universality. It reminded me of this quote I heard from another songwriter once — basically that there were basically only three subjects in music and all songs could somehow fall into one of these three categories — it’s either about falling in love, falling out of love, or being angry. The idea is that, whether you realize it or not, you’re always mining in one of those three caves.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah … I would think there’s more than three. Because then were does a song about boll weevils fit in? I don’t know. I think … well, we’re all the same; we’re all just combinations of each other. That’s why it’s slightly offensive to hear artists take complete credit for their work because you know they’re supported by countless other people. It disrupts the context of each piece that’s attributed to a singular individual. That’s why there’s so many great musicians on the recordings and who play with me live — it’s their music too, not just my songs. It’s their performance that makes it alive.
STEREOGUM: Was it a hard thing to find or seek out a community of people to work with creatively?
CASS McCOMBS: It’s not hard. People just have to ask or I ask people if they want to jam. It’s fun, music’s fun. You know?
STEREOGUM: It shouldn’t have to be so … I don’t know, maybe that’s not a fair thing to say. I talk to so many people working in so many different kinds of music about what they do and I feel like part of it sometimes gets really lost. Not that it’s not serious and not that it doesn’t merit serious discussion, but some part of the spirit of it that gets overlooked sometimes … it should be fun, it should be a pleasure.
CASS McCOMBS: It is. Even if the concept of the song or the groove is sorrowful or chaotic or something, it’s liberating to express that instead of caging it inside. And you can’t do it all by yourself — at least, I can’t do it all by myself. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work.
STEREOGUM: Did you always work in a band setting or initially were you just doing things on your own?
CASS McCOMBS: Even the first records were me with other people. I’m not much of a multi-instrumentalist — I’m pretty miserable at drums. I can play bongo every once in a while. But even if I can play the instrument, I’d rather get someone else’s experience and dimension on the sound.
STEREOGUM: When you’re recording songs and doing multiple songs in a day and trying to work through them really fast, do you find that the songs change much in that process? When other people start adding their own stuff to it, does it change radically from your original vision?
CASS McCOMBS: Totally. I write a lot of them on guitar so they can either be done totally sparse or … It really depends on who is there — the group takes on its own mind and the song has its own mind. It becomes whatever it wants to be. But the recording is just one interpretation, just one link in the change. A recording is not a song; a song can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Recording is like a performance.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting the way different people think about that. Like some people think, “This is a document of what happened on this day when the five of us were there.” I remember talking to … I think it was Conor Oberst and he was saying that he imagined songs existing in three different states: there was his recorded document that’s like “on this day, on this year, we got together and this is how it sounded,” and then there’s the live version, but the song itself was its other thing that’s out in the ether. It was more like the song was an idea.
CASS McCOMBS: Like a play or something — you have a script and, depending on who the actors are, it can be interpreted in different ways. There’s no one right way. There’s no specific style that it appropriate. I don’t feel comfortable with styles. It’s so temporary.
STEREOGUM: When you play live, are you cognizant of the vibe coming from the audience? Do you feel that energy coming back from people?
CASS McCOMBS: Retrospectively, I’ll look back and think, “The energy of the crowd really made us go off!” You feel like the crowd wants us to go and explore this dimension that we might not have if we were sticking to the books. Sometimes psychically you can just tell that the crowd wants us to expand. But I think it’s mostly just in hindsight. I don’t think a lot of actual thinking happens during the performance — it’s kind of like you’re an athlete. You’re not really thinking about what you’re doing. You’re totally immersed in your impulses and you just have to trust your instincts — you don’t want to overthink it too much. Maybe in hindsight, you think that, for that one moment, we were all in it together.
STEREOGUM: What is your relationship to your back catalog? Do you like playing old songs?
CASS McCOMBS: I like playing the old songs … some of them. Some of them are hard. In some ways, it’s more exciting to play the old songs because it’s an opportunity to access a former self. The thing with live stuff is the anxiety that you’re limited to the specific confines of where you are in time and place, but the songs are ways to access memories and former selves and maybe even improve upon them.
STEREOGUM: Do you find yourself to be a very nostalgic person?
CASS McCOMBS: I think I am. But I also don’t like to dwell on the past. I think we’re all a bit of both. We’re all nostalgic for our youth, in particular, and by youth I mean like six years old, your first experiences. But when you grow up … That’s a tough question. What about you?
STEREOGUM: I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’ve been writing these things about my family and where I grew up. I have moments where I think, “Does anyone else care about this stuff besides me? Is this resonant for anyone outside of myself?” Sometimes I feel like I’m deeply nostalgic in ways that aren’t always productive.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, I don’t think you can nostalgic for someone else’s memories. You wouldn’t be growing if you weren’t building on your experiences. And you can do tribute to the teachers of your past and pay homage in poetry or music or whatever.
STEREOGUM: Did you have people that were mentors to you when you started to play music that were particularly helpful in your coming of age as a song maker?
CASS McCOMBS: Definitely. I grew up around a lot of musicians so they would give me records and instruments. They’d give me a banjo and say, “try this.” Big stacks of records — “here’s ten Bob Wills records, just listen to them.” But I think you can also learn from your friends too. I didn’t go to college or anything so I would visit my friends in college and try to pick up on what they were studying and try to glean what I could from their education. I think I still do that.
STEREOGUM: I went to college, but I probably learned the most from all the bullshit that happened to me while I was going to college.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, at some point it’s who you are. You’re just the sum of your experiences — good and painful experiences.
STEREOGUM: As someone who has been somewhat reticent about doing press stuff, do you find this process has gotten easier over time?
CASS McCOMBS: Well … I think I now see the possibilities for the Internet that I didn’t see in the past. Maybe no one is doing what I see so I have to at least attempt it. I think new things could be done with the medium that I don’t see anyone exploring. So I’m not interested in doing an interview to promote the record like that, but I see possibilities of having a dialogue with someone and discussing concepts and arriving at solid ideas that other people could use. If we don’t articulate them, then no one will ever know and no one will ever use them.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I like that too. Ideally, when I love this job the most is when I can have a human conversation with someone about what they make or what inspires them. And it’s a dialogue and not just me asking them 20 questions like, “Who produced your record?” or whatever. That’s not an experience you get to have if you’re the kind of artist that is required to do 10-15 minute phoners in a row. That’s why I liked the idea of doing the mail correspondence.
CASS McCOMBS: It was an experiment. Doing something different …
STEREOGUM: And I would imagine that Domino is a pretty supportive place. Being able to put out two records in the same year or to put out a double album … not every label is going to be supportive of those kind of notions.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, they’re cool. I think they have the right idea. I may disagree with some of the groups they have on the roster but what are you gonna do? They’re allowed to like whatever they want to like.
STEREOGUM: Besides touring a lot and playing a lot of shows, do you see yourself making another record pretty quickly? You seem to always be making songs regardless of where you are or what you’re doing.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah, sure. I mean … I don’t understand when I hear songwriters describe writing for a record. I don’t relate to that. I only write what I feel is essential — if I have something to get out on any particular day. Many of the songs never even end up anywhere, but I believe that what I’m writing needs to get put down and I need to let it out or I need to explore some musical idea and push myself. It could happen outside of an album, though. It could even happen only in the live thing — just one night, try this one thing. I don’t know what to do next. But everyday is a new thing: new ideas come, new people come into your life. It just seems like to want to write for an album seems kind of like pandering. Maybe coming up with things that are not essential and not immediate — they’re just filler.
STEREOGUM: Figuring out what is essential is the hard part.
CASS McCOMBS: Not really. When you’re actually doing it, you’re guided by pure essence or impulse. If you’re actually doing it, there’s not even a thought — you’re being propelled by the thought, something outside of you.
STEREOGUM: It’s not the creation part I find hard. It’s the editing part I find difficult.
CASS McCOMBS: Maybe that’s what a record actually is: it’s the editing. The censored version.
STEREOGUM: Do you pay much attention to the reaction to the records? Do you read what people say about them?
CASS McCOMBS: Never. Good or bad. Why would I do that? Why would anyone do that?
STEREOGUM: That’s wise. But it’s hard to do.
CASS McCOMBS: I mean, if someone looks in my eyes and tells me what they feel … people are people. I’ll listen to them. But I don’t need to seek it out. I don’t want to tempt fate.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard for people to do that because it’s so easy to do that — you just look at your phone and do it.
CASS McCOMBS: Not my phone. I can hardly take a picture with my phone. [Holds up ancient looking cell phone]
A few days later at in Hudson, New York …
STEREOGUM: What made you want to meet up again?
CASS McCOMBS: I was just thinking about some of the things we talked about and I wished that we’d had more time. There were a couple of ideas that I wanted to revisit.
STEREOGUM: I love it that you came prepared with notes this time. Have you been doing a lot of interviews about the record since we last spoke?
CASS McCOMBS: No, not really. I think I’ve spoken to about three different people so far. They’ve all been very different experiences — since they are all different people — but so far they have all been pretty good. I think the publicist and the Domino people have pretty much figured out what not to agree to on my behalf, so it’s fine. Let me consult my notes here … oh, I was thinking about that notion you mentioned earlier, that there are only 3 types of songs …
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that all songs can basically fall into one of three categories …
CASS McCOMBS: I thought about that … and I totally reject that notion. It’s a silly and trite way of thinking about music. There are way more than three types of songs. What’s the point of making music if you can’t invent new types of experiences? Either there are an infinite amount of song types or maybe there’s only one song — a million variations on this one cosmic song. But not just three. I mean, that’s a funny, glib thing to say … but it’s wrong. I also wrote down here in my notes that the bible says that there will be one type of music that unites all of humanity. There are theories that, you know, maybe reggae is that music — that it represents this kind of universal vibration — but who knows. But it’s this idea that there’s one song, one sound … and we’re all contributing to it. No one is complete without everyone else … we all need to contribute to it.
STEREOGUM: As a student of poetry in grad school, I read a lot of criticism and theory and a lot of it points back to those ideas. The idea being that all this myriad forms of poetry are all basically struggling to express the very same basic ideas, they are all trying to convey this very simple human experiences that are actually totally universal.
CASS McCOMBS: Yeah. We’re all basically the same person, more or less. We’re all going through the same things. You also asked me how I felt about the old tunes — my old tunes. We’ve been talking about going back and playing more of the old ones. I enjoy it because I finally get to be a musician — a technician — with those old songs. There’s something about the time that passes between the inception and the present … you know, the dust has kind of settled and you can go back and view the material through fresh eyes and fresh hands. A song is never really finished, so you should revisit it many many times … and hopefully maybe other people will perform it and do their version of it as well.
STEREOGUM: Have you heard other people cover your songs?
CASS McCOMBS: A couple, yeah. I like it. That’s always been my goal, actually. To have the songs go on … I just feel like my versions are just demonstrations. Here’s how I play this song. But yeah … I love it.
STEREOGUM: I’ve spoken to Chan Marshall about that same thing. She was talking about the difference between “covering” a song and trying to interpret a song, which is something that is very much a part of our history as human beings, a part of our storytelling. She obviously has a deep love of interpreting songs and was really happy that there might be — that there are — people out there interpreting hers.
CASS McCOMBS: As a songwriter, it’s the highest honor someone can pay you, really. You’d also asked me about doing interviews — whether or not I felt like I had to do them or if the process of doing them had gotten easier. I think I probably said this already, but I think there are things that can be done with the format that haven’t really been done before. It can really be an opportunity to have a meaningful exchange with someone, to talk about ideas that are more universal. It’s not just me, I often hear that from other musicians who, you know, might be irritated by having to answer the same questions — usually very specific questions about the technical aspects of their records or whatever. It just seems like such a wasted opportunity so much of the time.
STEREOGUM: I’ve certainly been guilty of that. I try not to make people tell me things that are already in the press release that’s already sitting on my desk. My hope is that you can engage people on a more human level — Why did you make this? How did it feel to make this? What do you hope people can take away from this thing that you’ve made? But you don’t always get to have that dialogue with people … and more often than not, it’s my own fault.
CASS McCOMBS: I like to think that most musicians have this greater goal of not just contributing something to the world of music, but also contributing to the world … to culture. I think the interview could be another link in the chain of creativity, rather than something obligatory or something business related … or this capitalistic thing where you feel like you’re just trying to peddle a product. In my experience, most people don’t initially get into making music for the money. It’s kind of painful to later make them think of themselves as capitalists … as salesmen.
STEREOGUM: What is your takeaway from being asked to talk about your work in this kind of context? Does it make you think about it differently?
CASS McCOMBS: I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. It can be a kind of performance I guess, a chance for you to riff on certain ideas or maybe articulate things that before only existed in your subconscious. It’s another possibility for self-expression … and the good that can come from it really does outweigh the bad.
STEREOGUM: Well, I hope so.
CASS McCOMBS: I think that might be it for my notes …. oh wait, there was one more thing. We talked about trying to put forth only songs and ideas that felt essential. I mentioned how it was important to not try and force things out that maybe weren’t supposed to be there. I thought a lot about that idea after we talked. You know … it’s very easy to just be with the world. We’re all very elemental in this word, we are here whether we like it or not. We do kind of realize our essence on pretty much a daily basis, even if we don’t realize it. Making music is kind of just a byproduct of that. It’s not necessarily anything special, for some of us it’s just a thing that we do every day. You mentioned that trying to figure out what was “essential” or important was the hard thing … but I don’t think it’s hard. You know, whatever your nasty thoughts are — whatever happens to be inside you — is never anything to be ashamed of. So, most of my music ends up being about some kind of cathartic upheaval involving what are often ugly kinds of thoughts. But that’s who we are. I don’t make music to … I just want to make real things. You know? I just want to live in a world that’s real, not in some fantasy land. So I don’t think it’s hard to get down to the essentials … I think it’s the easiest thing in the world, actually.
Cass McCombs’ Big Wheel and Others is out now via Domino