Near the end of a recent interview, I asked Cass McCombs if he was an optimist or a pessimist. After attempting in vain for years to fully decipher dozens of the 41-year-old’s often beautiful and almost always obtuse songs, it seemed like the most unknowable question about him.
For those not familiar with his work, McCombs writes a lot about endings: Of subcultures, belief systems, personal faith, even the world as we know it. For instance, on his terrific new album Tip Of The Sphere — his ninth, and his best — he gazes upon an American heartland riddled with trash, chain stores, and broken people and dubs it “a bottomless canyon of nightmares.” This is pure despair… sparked by a desperate hope for something better.
“Optimist definitely,” he answered immediately. “Not a pessimist. I’m not a pessimist. I’d like to be an optimist someday.”
It was a perfect Cass McCombs answer. Like his songs, it’s full of contradictions: Partly definitive and partly elusive, with moments of doubt and defiance that ultimately double-back on themselves.
Over the course of a 16-year career, the cult indie artist has put out a series of albums that have been put him in the orbit of the mainstream without ever threatening to drag him into any particular scene or movement. He has dabbled in outright provocations — his 2003 debut, A, includes the self-explanatory “AIDS In Africa” — but for the most part he’s stayed his own man by stubbornly avoiding any gesture that might appear overly obvious or direct. The kind way to put it is that he’s idiosyncratic. Someone less sympathetic might deem him inscrutable.
His primary obsession is with outcasts, and how many of them end up drifting around the decaying American West. (McCombs himself is a native of Northern California). Many of his lyrics read as resolutely internal, like a transcript from an inner monologue devoid of context. One of the best songs from Tip Of The Sphere, a meandering Grateful Dead homage called “Rounder,” is a hard-bitten noir recounted with vernacular derived from a mishmash of made-up slang, pig Latin, and punchlines with no joke set-ups, like Millers Crossing as reimagined by Robert Hunter during a marathon peyote session. “Dimed a thousand cycles / Come around to /meet we / Holding each folding / How are you keeling, rounder?”
What … is this? When I asked, McCombs demurred. He has reputation for not liking to explain himself. Every article about him includes some reference to how he doesn’t like to be interviewed — which is strange when you do a Google search and notice how many times he’s been interviewed. The truth is that McCombs isn’t difficult or unpleasant, but rather a little distracted. Each time you ask him a question, it’s as though he is pausing the endless conversation happening in his head between his better angels and unshakeable demons.
“Well, what can I say?” he finally sighed. “I guess it’s like trying to invent a language in a way. I think the way that we communicate is more fractured than a lot of literature would suggest, down to the way that people speak in most films. It’s not realistic to what our behaviors actually are. We’re constantly having this dialogue with ourselves — our anxieties and failures and all the other real insecurities. The dark dialogue that’s constantly going on, and this battle that we have with ourselves. This is almost, you know, impossible, to try to express those deep wells of feeling.”
Almost impossible but not, possibly, actually impossible. McCombs’ work in the ’10s has made great strides in approaching the ideal of songs that consciously express subconscious expression. In 2011, he put out two very different albums — Wit’s End is like Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky as filtered through the lens of Steely Dan’s Gaucho, all mid-paced yacht-rock ballads like the sublime “County Line,” while Humor Risk is that record’s surlier, more rock-oriented sister. Both were made with Ariel Rechtshaid, who would soon became the “it” producer of modern indie pop, thanks to his work on albums like Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of The City, Haim’s Days Are Gone, and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time.
McCombs meanwhile took a decisive turn away from commerciality on the 2013 double-album Big Wheel And Others. It was his deepest dive into the degraded west, whether in the form of Wild Bunch-style cowboy songs such as “Joe Murder” or updated Day Of The Locust narratives of debauched ’70s Hollywood like “Brighter!” Big Wheel confounded some of the critics that had embraced the Rechtshaid albums — re-doing the same song twice, including a take with the late “New Hollywood” icon Karen Black, seemed like overkill to some, but it proved to be a significant turning point for McCombs.
On Big Wheel, he was backed up by a dream band of modern jam-band scene luminaries, most notably drummer Joe Russo and Phish bassist Mike Gordon. A Deadhead since his youth, McCombs has sat in for years with Phil Lesh at his regular Phil & Friends showcases in San Rafael. For his next album, 2016’s Mangy Love, McCombs continued to lean in a jammy direction, favoring lightly rolling grooves and snaky guitar lines that affect a hypnotic pulse for several minutes, like on the brilliant opening track “Bum Bum Bum.” This approach reaches its apotheosis on Sphere, in which McCombs pushes songs (including “Rounder”) to the 10-minute mark, with a band that includes members of jam outfits such as Circles Around The Sun.
“It really just puts you to the limit of your discipline, your instrument, whatever it is, by forcing you to plunge yourself into this ensemble,” he explained. “You have to really use a lot of eye contact. And be able to pass the baton in a circular motion between all the different people who are on stage sharing that space.”
While the Dead has become more acceptable in indie rock circles in the past few years, it’s still unique for an artist to straddle the indie and jam worlds without quite belonging to either. “It’s fake. It’s bullsh*t. That’s what it feels out there in a nutshell,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t like that for me growing up. It wasn’t so partitioned. Like those of us who are real music fans know that Greg Ginn [of Black Flag] would come out on stage in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. Like, this whole thing that you can’t be punk rock and listen to the Grateful Dead, well, the inventors of punk rock liked the Grateful Dead. So maybe NOFX didn’t, but I don’t like NOFX.”
It might assure the jam-phobic to point out that McCombs mostly avoids ripping guitar solos or other displays of what he calls “idiotic kind of masculine concepts of professionalism.” (In terms of guitar players, he prefers the boogie-woogie minimalism of John Lee Hooker.) He’s more after the meditative clarity that comes from plugging into a group dynamic in which all the musicians are playing off of each other, a marked contrast from the cacophony of thoughts and desires that bound through his lyrics.
“It’s more like the group has to kind of play it, or maybe it just happens instantly that every person is bringing their own shit into the room, and they’re all in an emotional state,” he said. “Maybe they’re not so soothed. Maybe they’re having a bad day or something. To me, an interesting musician is someone who emotes with whatever instrument it is.”
By pushing beyond language, he just might find those deepest wells of feeling after all.