Cass McCombs on "Tip of the Sphere" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 17th, 2019  

Cass McCombs on “Tip of the Sphere”

Not a Product

Jun 05, 2019 Issue #65 - Mitski and boygenius
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Cass McCombs lives in Northern California. On this particular day, he is speaking from the inside of his car, parked on the streets of Oakland. Carrying a soft vibe, he mentions that he never really lives anywhere.

At the time, the worst forest blazes in California historythe Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles and the Camp Fire in the Northwere wreaking havoc. McCombs, 41, says the air is very hazy. "People are wearing masks," he adds. "The air is really dangerous."

McCombs doesn't seem overly excited to talk about Tip of the Sphere, his ninth full-length; he lives a secluded life and having a sense of solitude takes a lot. "Everything doesn't have to be under a microscope," he says. "The new album is a continuation from the last [Mangy Love] with most of the songs written around that same time [2016]. We thought about doing a live record...we've been playing these songs on the road for a while; maybe two were written within the last year."

Tip of the Sphere is McCombs' second album for ANTI- after spending an extended stay with Domino. He has been known to jump from studio to studio for recording, bringing in a range of guests, but this time McCombs and his band went to tape at one spot in Brooklyn. "It took a long time to make Mangy Love with a huge cast of musicians," he says. "We decided to get more simple, quick, and accurate. Music should be raw, and we don't have the money to waste. It comes from the blues: you don't need the polished record twice. There's a motivation in transformation. If it was a political song last time, how about a love song? My decisions are based on past choices; I like to challenge my listeners."

McCombs tries to write and play music every day. He says that he never really has a process, but he does like to revisit lyrical ideas. "I disagree with having a process because of transformation, which is more important; just reacting. Process is the enemy, it's too easy and mundane." McCombs is interested in making every song unlike the previous. The effort is to make every song unique to itself. 

"You can't say what music is; it's too vast," responds McCombs when asked if music can be mystical. "Music and dance has a long tradition in many different culturesit's not just one thing. But my music doesn't sound like anything...if it does, I made a mistake. Music is not reliant on instrumentsthe song is still there without it. Like, you're walking to work with this little song in your head...you didn't write it, record it; it's in your head. A piano? A chainsaw? Who is to say what is making the sound? Songs don't come from instruments."

Tip of the Sphere is bookended by two extended suites: "I Followed the River South to What" and "Rounder." In between, McCombs and his collaborators jam freely, albeit with a knack for sweet songwriting. There's a song called "Tying Up Loose Ends," but McCombs says that is not possible: "There's no real full closure; it's more of a melancholy feeling, and it shouldn't give us anxiety. The world is more beautiful when you try not to control it; there's always loose ends. People pass [away] and it chokes me up when I didn't get to really tell them how much I appreciate them."

The album's lead single, "Sleeping Volcanoes," is a meditation on the emotions we all harbor and the possibility of exploding at any moment. "We are a volcano of emotions, that's what we are, the accumulation of emotions," McCombs explains. "We're supposed to fit in, conform, and behave ourselves, but what if you don't? What if you saw something? I know a lot of people that couldn't deal with it and ended up on the streets or in jail...we all deal with barriers [in the professional world]. Who would like to be defined by someone or something else? I don't know; objection can be violence."

McCombs' favorite of his own albums is always the current one. But he says that he doesn't make albums; he writes songs. McCombs doesn't like definition, confines, or saying anything that could lock himself into a tiny prison. In that sense, he's like Jimmy Webb. "Albums can go in any direction; I don't take recording too seriously," McCombs concludes. "The live version is the real version. The album is the dead static object birthed from a live music background. I think listeners are savvy...music is not the product."

[Note: A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Issue 65 of Under the Radar's print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online and is a slightly extended version of the article.]

www.cassmccombs.com

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