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Photograph: Courtesy Silvia Grav

Cass McCombs on 'Tip of the Sphere' and the value of collaboration

The ballad continues: Cass McCombs plays two intimate shows in Brooklyn in support of the collective's latest record

By Keegan Sugnet
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Cass McCombs is on tour in support of his epic new album Tip of the Sphere, hitting New York for what should be two very special nights at intimate venues: Murmrr on March 7 and Bowery Ballroom on March 8. If you’re lucky enough to grab one of the few remaining tickets to the Murmrr show, you’ll have the not-to-be-missed privilege of hearing him play with frequent collaborator and Brooklyn JRAD staple Joe Russo, who announced just last week on Twitter that he’ll be joining the band on the kit.

While the 41-year-old musician has carved out one of the more varied and consistently great songwriting catalogs of the 21st century, he’s hit a seriously prolific stride over just the last few years. Starting with 2016’s great Mangy Love and followed by his criminally underheard work with The Skiffle Players, Tip of the Sphere now finds him at the top of his craft.

The 11-track album is experimental and jammy without ever being anything but structurally and melodically tight. The lyrics, as usual, avoid the heavy-handed and provide the listener with just as many compelling questions as answers. Most importantly—like the best of his work—its rich, intricate songwriting hooks on first listen but rewards with every subsequent spin, making it one that will not only still be in rotation by the end of the year, but will be revealing new shades too.

As enduring as the records are, they’ve got nothing on seeing Cass McCombs play live. Be prepared for at times drastic rearrangements and longer workouts that never sound the same twice, making for a genuinely unique experience worthy of hitting both NYC shows. And don’t be fooled by the name, either—refreshingly selfless and true to his collective art, Cass McCombs is not a solo project but entirely the product of a band fully in sync with each other, the moment, and the space they’re in, so Murmrr and Bowery should be right on point.

In honor of the tour, we chatted with the frontman about the value of collaboration, how his music career began in NYC and how he doesn't want to be seen as "an image."

What would you say most influences your music at this point in your career, specifically Tip of the Sphere?

Hmm, what does influence my sound? Particularly, with this record, I think it was the musicians themselves more than what I was listening to. We were on the road quite a lot the last few years and that was where most of these songs were written—on the road. We would play some of them live too, like “I Followed the River South to What.” We played that a lot; we played “Sleeping Volcanoes”; there are a couple others that we would play at shows or at sound checks and stuff, so it was like they were already living with us. There was a period of time for the songs to kind of grow organically, in a way. Sometimes when you’re in the studio, and you have a new song that no one’s ever heard before, it’s kind of like an assault. It just needs time. I think music needs time.

Do you find yourself wanting to re-record a song after you find it live, after it’s been given that “time”?

Yeah of course, every song, all the songs really I would love to re-record. But on the flip side of that, I don’t really care about recording. I’ve always said this: It’s not really my art. I like performing in front of people—that’s the recording. The recording is what happens in the audience’s brain; their memory is the recording.

To that end, I’ve noticed a lot of similarities between your recent output and the Grateful Dead, not just sonically but in the way you approach a record versus a live show. Speaking to your recent willingness to jam a little more on the record, how do you decide when to let a song jam and when not to? Is that even a thought process at all when recording?

It’s not really. Yeah, I don’t know. Well for one, I think the Dead thing is a little played out, honestly. There are so many great bands in this world, and I mean, particularly for me because I just grew up around it almost my entire life, it has just been that ubiquitous presence. It’s like, if you grow up in the Catholic church, it can get a little claustrophobic? That’s sometimes how I feel about the Dead.

And also, to me, it’s not just the Dead. It’s not a musical thing, it’s a consciousness thing. So it shouldn’t be a style thing. It should be a way of looking at the world or interacting with the world, and that could like lead you to punk music or sculptures—all forms of art. It shouldn’t just be constricted to one kind of product. It should be more liberating than repeating this iconography over and over again.

Finding some of your bootlegs just recently from nyctaper.com, I cherish the fact those live versions exist. To your point about “the consciousness,” the practice of taping and sharing the Dead’s shows—as opposed to putting on Blues for Allah I’m putting on a Dick’s or Dave’s Pick—would you like to see that be more available for you and other artists?

I mean yeah, when I was a kid going to shows and stuff back in the day, it was only the [bootleg] tapes. I only listened to the tapes. That was the environment. No one cared about the records, people made fun of them. They were ridiculous, so uptight and conservative. Like the old [Dead] Heads would go, “That is not the Grateful Dead..."

...That’s management.

Right, that’s management. Exactly, that’s the label’s album, but the Grateful Dead was a live experience. It’s not even a band as much as of a community—everybody’s involved.

They’re like Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, or you could even say something like Kraftwerk—there are these ensembles that use sound and time to manipulate people’s consciousness and their own consciousness. The Dead, well, they’re masters at that, of course. I mean, they’re also like the scrappiest, shittiest bar band of all time, but sometimes they have this weird talent to slip into this really profound, spiritual well and then they slip out and you’re like, “Wait where was I?” I think every musician stumbles into that at one point or another, you know? I don’t think it’s a style thing, that's what I'm saying. It could happen in hip-hop—it could happen anywhere. I just think it should be viewed slightly differently.

So has your approach to your live show changed over the years?

I don’t know that I ever had an approach. I’ve always tried to avoid putting my finger on it—on what I’m trying to do. I’ve enjoyed just shifting from side-to-side.

I guess it comes back to who you’re playing with.

Yeah, the people you’re playing with; the size of the room; if someone’s heckling you that night; like every small thing can alter the space. It’s really hard. You have to kind of avoid screwing yourself into a certain position.

In addition to these last two McCombs records, I’ve really loved your work with the Skiffle Players, and I know you work with [bassist and producer] Dan Horne in both, so how do you decide what a Cass song is and what a Skiffle Players song is?

Hm. I mean I have lots of other bands too. It’s not just the two bands, but there is no decision, there is no line. We’ll play anything in any of those bands. Some of those Skiffle songs we played [at Cass McCombs shows] beforehand. I’m very bad at commodifying myself and compartmentalizing like, “No, no this is for this band." It’s all music. Some people are really good at cultivating an image or product and getting people in alignment with their story, and I’ve been really bad at that. Maybe that’s why I’ve been broke my whole life.

Speaking of some of these other recent collaborations like your fantastic appearance on Kurt Vile’s record last year Bottle It In, are there any others you have coming up, or any that you’d love to do?

I love doing collabs, I really enjoy that. We're working on this—for years we’ve been working on this—Karen Black record. And, oh yeah, me and the Chapin Sisters have our project. We’ve played a few shows over the years, and we’ve made a few recordings, but we live on different coasts so it’s a slow burn.

I just really have never been great at feeling like this is a solo project. I’ve never wanted to have a solo project, and I haven’t played solo since the ‘90s. I still return to my original reason for wanting to play music when I was a kid and that’s to just be in a band and play with people.

Are there any specific veteran musicians who are still playing that you’d love to be able to go out on tour with and open up for instead of being the main act, like you typically are? I thought that Meat Puppets tour a few years ago came out of nowhere and was just a fantastic pairing.

I’m sure there’s many, many. I’ll open up for anybody. I say yes—that’s my thing. I say yes. I’m not that picky, I just wanna play. The truth of the matter is we don’t get that many gigs. And I don’t make that much money. I’m down. I just want to play.

Getting back to this new record, what are you most proud of?

I don’t know about pride, but it’s cool to be able to still make songs and write about pretty far-out ideas and have that be some kind of continuing story or developing of narratives that have been going on for a while, and have them take on new dimensions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily coming from me; there’s an interactive quality to this narration that has been going on for a couple decades now. A lot of my songs are about people that I know. They’re tributes to people who I’ve had feelings for. I just think that’s pretty cool—that a song can live like that. I just don’t think about it like an album. I think about it like each album is a continuing story.

Strand

How involved are you in decisions like the vinyl pressing of the deluxe edition of this record. I really dig the way it ended up being sequenced with the bonus material and the cool cylindrical art piece that’s included. Is that something you have a hand in or is that more management based?

On this one, I definitely had a hand in that. Between Tahiti [Pehrson], who did the artwork, and just wanting to do justice to his incredible work, I wanted to do something that actually involved it. Rather than having just like a photograph of his work, I wanted it to actually be punctured so you can have a piece of real artwork in your hands. You can put that Castillo on any record. It doesn’t just have to go with my record, it can go with any record. I think music shouldn’t be so proprietary. I think there’s this idea that collectors decide, “This is cool, That is not cool.” I don’t own music. You don’t own music. Nobody owns fucking music. That’s what it kind of represents to me.

I don’t know if this is too left-field, but some of the slide guitar has somewhat of a Hawaiian feel to it. Is there anything to that? Is Hawaiian music in your influences at all?

Of course, yeah, absolutely. Slack key guitars. I know Dan Iead who plays the pedal steel—who’s played with me for years—he’s all into that stuff. In general, Polynesian music is really interesting to me.

Any recommendations?

Well, Gabby [Pahinui]. He’s the dude. But in the '60s there were all kinds of like easy-listening—kind of Polynesian-Hawaiian style records. There’s the Exotica movement, which can be a little dicey at times, but I love it. I wouldn’t say it’s completely authentic although people like Les Baxter believed in it. I mean truly believed in it—eden ahbez and stuff like that. They captured people’s imagination before psychedelic music kind of obliterated them. It still was like a really far-out movement with some far-out people who just wanted to make music different. But I do love the traditional Hawaiian music.

Anything else you’ve discovered lately that you’re particularly excited about music-wise, new or old?

This is just going to sound so stupid, but Neurosis’ first album [Pain of Mind]—I can’t believe I had never heard it. Neurosis is from the Bay and they were legendary growing up. They had keyboards which was strange, but their first record is just a great punk record. I’m kind of trying to get into music that’s dissonant right now. I feel like there’s a harmonic oppression going on in music: things are a little too nice and saccharine to me. So I’m kind of just going back to that.

Anything unique about playing in New York City for you? Any special memories?

I mean, millions. To me, New York is where I started. My first show was at The Pink Pony on Ludlow Street with Josh Diamond from Gang Gang [Dance] working behind the counter. We played Pete’s Candy Store, Pianos, Max Fish—that’s in recent years—and I don’t know, we played all over. We played all the time.

I was a refugee from California—I just had to get the hell out of there. I wasn’t feeling anything from anybody there I guess, and then I get to New York and I’m introduced to all these different kinds of styles and people. It was just—and I assume it still is—a really supportive environment.

Looking for more concerts this month?

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