Cass McCombs has just released his new album, Big Wheel And Others - and it's a big deal. Well, it's a double for starters, but it recently picked up five stars in Q. There's a feature with the singer-songwriter in our new issue, Q329 which is out now, but ahead of that we sat down with Cass in a London park for a little chat...
How the devil are you? "I'm good, thanks."
You've said before that when you write it always feels like it's the first time you've written a song. Big Wheel & Others is a double, that was a lot of first times... "Well, I've never written any song for any record. I'm just always writing on tour and then they get arrange for a record or something. Lyrics are just how I'm feeling at any point. I try just to be thinking about how I'm feeling, what I'm observing, what my friends are telling me and what the signs are telling me. So records are an opportunity to rearrange songs, but I don't really understand how people can sit down to try to write a record. I've tried it and it don't work!"
So when you make a record it's just because you've got enough songs? How do you decide it's time to do an album? "It's just the stack of paper is like this tall [motions with his thumb and forefinger], and you think, I should be ready, if I'm not ready then we'll go back to the studio at some point. [laughs] A lot of it is recorded in different people's homes and places like that. We always have the opportunity to make amendments to the record if it feels incomplete. But usually we have more than enough material."
When you have all that material do themes or coherent ideas that link the songs together jump out at you? "I don't know. I just pick the songs that I like together. There's no logic [laughs] there's no logic. There's no real themes other than just I think that certain songs are written in proximity to each other, so there might be a theme that runs through them that I'm unaware of, that's subconscious to me."
It sounds like that if you tried to impose a theme or idea for an album it just wouldn't work for you. "No. No barriers, no boundaries. Even when I've tried to have a message, I've fallen short. I find with lyrics that saying how I feel, even if it's something that's ugly, is always easiest for me. I appreciate that in other songwriters. It's just honesty, you know?"
Is it a sense that if you tried to write something in particular you would be shoehorning in emotions rather than feeling them? "Exactly. I don't really want to think about it too much because I think honesty is usually the best policy in writing. Giving someone a message that's just real, raw and nasty sometimes. I find I relate to those poems and songs the most. It could be troubling, it could be politically incorrect, but rawness is honesty."
Does that approach limit when you can actually sit down and write? You have to be feeling something? You don't seem the type to say "Right, I'm going to write ten songs today!" "No, [laughs] no. I keep little notes but most of it comes in one fell swoop, it just comes in and out real quick. I try not to think about it too much. I've seen other songwriters really plan it out, they want to map it out and I admire that actually. I've been trying to adopt that, learn about that, but doing it quick and spontaneous is just more fun for me. If I can make myself laugh hopefully it does the same from others."
Which came first for you: did you pick up a guitar because you wanted to write songs, or did you write songs because you could play the guitar? "Oh the instrument first."
Would you say you're a player first and a songwriter second then? "Perhaps. Yeah. I don't know about now, a little bit of both I suppose. I still practice my scales and my modes and go through all the chords. You gotta stay fresh, I think, stay young. I'll forget all the learning from the decades of guitar playing if I don't practice the most childish of lessons."
So what motivates you to actually write songs rather than just have a jam? "There's a seduction to simplify what the song is, and I can't even tell you what it is. I think the song writes itself in a way, or maybe it comes from some other place. Some other being that I'm just the vessel for, on a new age level. I suppose there are some things that I control, and that would be the technical aspect, the nuts and bolts of being a guitar player."
So you're constantly surprising yourself? "I'm challenging myself, yes. I try to challenge myself, and listen to music that is beneath me on purpose."
Why, what do you get out of that? "I'm proving to myself that I can be wrong, you know? When you cultivate an identity, or whatever, a comfort level in your aesthetic you're limiting yourself. That's not very good when you're trying to compose or just learn things. I want to broaden the net I'm drawing from rather than tying myself in knots."
You're not refining down what Cass McCombs is then? "I'm making it more ambiguous! It's like a jellyfish. There's miles of tracks. Like a sphincter!" [laughs]
This album is probably you're most varied to date stylistically, why? "I've learned that people don't really care, that's a good thing."
Looking at live side of your work, if you have no boundaries when recording, is there a sense it's all up for interpretation when you take the stage? "Well to me it's all about the live thing. That's where it actually happens. The records are a live recording! They're just one link in the chain. They're just one recording. A recording of the band playing a version of that song. Live it's another level. Different people, different approaches. The hour of the day, different feelings, the size of the room... everything effects the performance."
If you look at the history of music, the recorded period is still the smallest part compared to how long it has existed, yet it is now the dominant part now. Do you find that strange? "Exactly. But is it the dominant side? It feels like it is because there's this concept that it lasts forever. But do we want to live in forever? None of us are going to live forever and many recordings don't last forever. Hollywood movies have vanished forever already, so to me performing is making it count in the moment. Putting yourself into that situation."
There are suggestions that the recording process has changed whole styles of music though. Apparently operatic singers' delivery changed radically over the 20 century because while it sounded ok live, it didn't record well... "I can see that happening in rock'n'roll. I can see how technology effects us as performers. For instance many singers I know they do many, many takes when they go to record and there's this editing process, this comping process. I try to do it live and if it comes back that I can't keep that then I will do it again, but I'll try to do it when everyone is in the room at the same time. Many of the tracks are complete one hundred per-cent live on all my records."
So for you the records are just one take of a song, rather than the definitive, benchmark versions? "Yeah, the latter is dangerous territory, because records are just garbage. It's a physical representation of something that can never be captured - spirit or something like that. My record is garbage! Everyone's records is garbage! I think performance is more important. That's why I say recording is just an appendage of live performance, you know?"
So for you, it all starts with live? "When I got started I performed on the streets. I guess people still do that and always will do that: tap dancing and holding out the hat at the end, busking and all that. I think it's a rite of passage and all musicians should do that. You've got to sing for your supper!" Paul Stokes @Stokesie