Cass McCombs’ wonderful new record, Big Wheel and Others, is a big record, in length (22 tracks), scope and humanity. Ostensibly a folk-rock record, it dabbles in country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and just about every other genre that can be lumped into the general, overarching term “Americana.” Yet this isn’t a reverent record by any means. Much as his prior records did, such as 2011’s double whammy of Wit’s End and Humor Risk, songs veer into avant-garde atmospherics; lyrics defy their genre’s constraints, such as the country-rockin’ “Big Wheel,” which delves into the manhood country music often stands upon (“the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs,” he sings, before later undercutting such manly imagery with lyrics like “a man with a man, how more manly can you get? I may be 5-foot-one, but you’re all wet”). Interspersing the tracks are interludes cut from the 1970 documentary short Sean, about a hippie kid who smokes weed, plus two versions of the same song, “Brighter!,” one sung with the late actress Karen Black, with whom McCombs also dueted on the Catacombs highlight “Dreams-Come-True-Girl.” I sat down to ask McCombs about the epic new album.
This is your longest, most epic album by far. What made you decide to make it a double-length album?
No reason, except that we just couldn’t part with any of the songs, I guess. It wasn’t any productive reason.
Do you usually whittle it down from a bigger group?
Yeah, there’s always some that get omitted. This one maybe only two or three got left off—Actually we ended up using all of them. On one of the versions of this record, there’s an extra seven-inch. We used the remainder of the recordings. We used it all, we used all parts of the buffalo.
In some ways it’s also your most classically minded album. It sort of seems like you like to take traditional sounds and mess with them a bit, like take blues and country music and turn it on its head. Is that something you seek to do?
I guess that’s just how we play. We never spoke [about that], I didn’t pass around any reference materials. There was one reference material, actually. The only reference was an Eden Ahbez record. We weren’t using it as an aesthetic reference, but to get ourselves in the mood, a tiki kind of mindset.
“Big Wheel” in particular seems like a kind of satirical presentation of country music machismo. Was that part of the plan there, or more just an exploration of a character or what it means to be a man today?
It’s just all in good fun. There’s no big part as to why. What you’re saying to me never occurred to me, but that sounds great if that’s how it comes across. I mean the lyrics, performing it that way, it’s all in the spirit of fun, really.
There’s a lot of diversity to this album and playing with genres, but it feels very seamless. I also read that the same players only played on two of the songs. How did you achieve that unity?
There was no, I dunno how it’s cohesive, it just is! It was just an open door policy. Anyone who showed up could play on the record. Sometimes there were guys who got there early, and we’d already started to record the tunes. They might just wait until the next tune, or might split and try to check back later. It was loosely organized.
A couple of things that do that to me, I think, are the inclusion of the interludes, the clips from Sean and the inclusion of “Brighter” in two versions, which I personally love—I’m always a fan of hearing a song recorded in different ways. Did you feel that including those things, interludes and a song kind of on the A and B-side of the album, would help it hang together?
I guess so, yeah. When we were mixing the record, me and JR (Chet “JR” White), we were trying to think of ways to make it, flow or something, ’cause it is so long. And we were thinking about Wu-Tang records. Not just skits, but it’s all kinds of weird interludes because we weren’t pressed for time. So we could kind of just say hey, why not throw it in there? We weren’t concerned about people turning off the record. If they’re gonna turn it off, that’s okay. They can turn it off. You don’t have to listen to the whole record. Please don’t. It’s too long. I guess we were trying to make people turn it off in a way, insist, like do yourself a favor.
This seems to have been a really prolific time for you, with two albums in 2011 and a double-length in 2013. I read somewhere that you were recording a song a day for this album at one point. What’s your process like, demo-to-finished recording? Is it different every time?
There’s absolutely no method. I mean, from rolling on the floor in agony to pleading with people to invest money in the recording. There’s no system. There’s no nice way to go about making a record. Recording is suffering. And we were recording a lot more than one a day, Most of this was recorded over five days. So we would do up to five or six songs a day, with very few overdubs, if any. Many of these were 100 percent live in the studio. When you approach it this way, as we have many of the other records, you kind of have to live with the flaws. Myself, I like hearing flaws on a record. The Navajo record approach. I don’t like things to be so squeakly clean. It seems unreal. It seems like they’re trying to cover up the essential corruption as a human being.
Did you write the record over a certain period of time or were you kind of writing then recording?
Many of these songs we’d been playing on the road for a couple years, at least half of them, but we didn’t record any of them until we went to Brooklyn. So it’s just kind of a stockpile of material, just writing here and there on the road until we had way too much to record. It kind of just made itself at that point. It’s kind of a good problem.
What kinds of things were you engaging with a lot when you wrote this record, musically and otherwise?
I mean we’re talking about a period of like three years, you know? Some of these songs like “Brighter” were written like six years ago, so it’s hard to say. Gosh, how many books have I read in that five years? How many records have I fished out of the dollar bin? Gosh, it’s too much to mention! I want to have a radio show some day.
So I can just play music for people. That’s a really tough question to answer.
One thing I thought about when listening to the record today is the old cliche about people being either be lyric or music-first people, like I tend to like to get my head wrapped around the music of a song before I parse out the lyrics. With your music, I’m often shocked by what I find—I’m thinking of some of the lines of “Morning Star,” which is a really beautiful song but has some of these wild lines. Is that something you try to do, juxtapose the music with lyrics that sort of come at a different angle?
Music and lyrics are not separate. It’s like separating the mind from the body. There’s no distance. We are our mind or our body. We’re both at the same time. We can’t step out of our own thoughts. We can’t let go of our thoughts, it’s impossible. They’re both going simultaneously.
Do you usually write music and lyrics at the same time? Or do you ever leave songs and write lyrics like a year later or something like that?
I guess there’s been a few instances where there has been a delay in time, but it’s almost as if time is suspended for that period until the song is complete. It just takes finesse, you know? For instance, if you wrote a poem and you wanted to set it to music, well, that’s no assurance that you’re not gonna have to rewrite the lyrics. You might change all the lyrics, but you gotta start somewhere. In the end, it’s not a song until it’s balanced. It never exited until it’s balanced, on either side, with music or lyrics.
I want to talk a bit about the song “Brighter.” It’s a really special song. Did you know when you wrote it that Karen Black should sing on it? What was your process like with her?
I did write that song for Karen, but it was quite a long time ago. It was always a dream of mine to make a whole record with Karen, and we had talked about it, we’d done some recordings and wrote some songs together for it.
Can you give me a list of your five favorite records?
There are so many records!
OK how about over the last year?
Well, I look at music politically. But often what is thought of as political, isn’t, in my perception. And often times it’s flipped, what we regard as political. Political activist songs of the ’50s and ’60s, joe hill?, like sure, fine, that is obviously is a song to obtain a political end. But since then, it’s kind of become a little blurred. That’s why I’ve been listening to a lot of reggae music because it seems to walk the line between the aims of the spirit and the aims of humanity or politics. The perfect balance of the two things. I think in so many different parts of music, it’s all in what your perspective is. … Perceptions of music constantly change. A song is never political forever, and it’s never hip forever because our perceptions change. So I can’t pick a five, I’m sorry. I’ll pick 5,000?
'Big Wheel and Others' comes out on LP Nov. 5. Order it here.
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