The Walmart Mysticism of Cass McCombs
With an apocalyptic hum, the songwriter tells stories of solipsists and idealists on his new record 'Tip of the Sphere.'
Photo by Silvia Grav
"I wish to give myself into your hands here, a fugitive from justice, to be held a prisoner until the state authorities of California and the postal authorities of the United States are notified and can act on the matter," John R. Griffith wrote to the Sacramento Daily Union on March 12, 1892. He was confessing to a train robbery that had occured a month earlier, a few miles south of Pixley, California, a desert town between Fresno and Bakersfield. Two men had died. Griffith and his two accomplices, he insisted, had made off with $7,000 worth in gold.
Griffith was lying, and the Daily Union wasn't fooled. "It is stated by those who know him that Griffith is of unsound mind," a follow-up beneath his supposed confession read. He'd been in and out of the asylum before eventually being taken out of a facility in Napa, stuck on a whaling ship, and placed under watchful guard. He had nothing to do with the robbery at Pixley. "It is probably that he has found the life of the whaling vessel anything but pleasant and, not seeing convenient means of escape, has hit upon this plan for getting away," one of Griffiths's acquaintances told the newspaper.
According to Cass McCombs—whose winding and wide-open new album Tip of the Sphere is out this Friday, February 8 on Anti——the Pixley train robbery was "the Russia scandal of its day—big, big news." Back in the 19th century, anyone could say they were there on the train, that they wielded the pistol, that they made off with the riches. And if they built those fictions into a good enough story and told it with a dangerous enough glint in their eye, they might even earn some notoriety. "The way it was back then, it didn't matter if you were telling a truth or not,” McCombs says in a tone so soft that it almost loses out to the telephone's white noise. “It was a culture of storytelling. People would come from village to village and tell their far-out tale, and everyone would pay to hear this crazy person's story about how they were the train robber."
Born out of improvisation and unconventionally poetic, Tip of the Sphere—McCombs's ninth album and first since 2016's Mangy Love—resists easy interpretation. It is the work of a man who reads the Bhagavad Gita, spends lots of time thinking about Walmart, and treats the Gold Rush like a biblical creation story. Characters shuffle in and out of McCombs's throat, as they always have—solipsists, mystics, idealists. And with the exception of the stark, almost industrial-sounding "American Canyon Sutra," it is an inviting record, full of slide fills and open chords.
But there's an apocalyptic hum behind it, whether McCombs is drawling "Help me Armageddon!" on "Sleeping Volcanoes" or asking "Who are all these people?" on "Tying Up Loose Ends.” It's a record for the end of the world, albeit one that sounds like it could have been made at any point in the last half-century, with its country inflections, floating melodies, and psychedelic digressions.
On "The Great Pixley Train Robbery," the album's second song, McCombs quotes directly from Griffiths's false confession, shuffling the lines around until they fit a rhythm. In McCombs's mouth, Griffiths is just as much a disturbed man at sea as he is a disembodied soothsayer: "In hope of salvation / For surely I'll be found before port / Before Postal authorities can act," he sings, "I surrender myself unto the reward."
Like Griffiths, McCombs is a raconteur, a man with no fixed address, and a man who seems worried about the fate of his soul in the midst of chaos. When I called McCombs last month, he was in California, where he has spent a lot of his life, a world away from Brooklyn, where he recorded the new album and cut his teeth as a songwriter. Between long pauses, he talked about composition, capitalism, and California—digressing occasionally, as he does in his songs, to offer a memory or an idea that's eased into his mind. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Noisey: You've talked in the past about the nature of live performance—the way that live shows should maybe be considered in the same way as albums, or be given the same sort of creedence. Did you feel that when you were road-testing the material on the new record while touring for Mangy Love?
Cass McCombs: I don't see it like "road-testing." It's more like allowing the song to continually reveal itself—not that the recording is the be all and end all. That there is a life to the song. That lyrics can change, chords can change—the instrumentation. To break the song down, almost so that it isn't even there—that's what's most interesting to me, [rather] than looking at it like it's a rehearsal for a finite version.
So a record, to you, is like one particular expression of a song, but it can come in a million different ways on a million different nights.
Exactly. You go into the studio and you do multiple takes, and you just kinda have to pick which one feels right. You play the song over and over; you play the song when you wake up in the morning; you go in the studio and play it 10 times; you go on the road and you play it 100 times. At each moment, it's the song. It's like people: You wouldn't want to be defined by yourself at any specific moment.
Although that's changing al little now, because we're all trying to define ourselves by posting things online, posting what we think are our best moments.
Well, that's a good point. But is that how we define ourselves, or is that just an expression of who we are at that moment?
I guess different people look at it in different ways. You've started very gently inching into Instagram , posting old show posters. What's been your impression of social media so far?
I'm suspicious as hell. My manager helps me with it—she gives me suggestions. It's definitely not me; it's something else. It's partly a way to promote shows, promote albums, and also give credit to musicians who play in the band, and artists and filmmakers and stuff. If you want to collaborate with people, you've got to give respect to those people. I think social media's a good way to do that. I think that's the best thing about it, actually. To show the community, not the identity.
I know that you've been influenced by the Grateful Dead , and they definitely come to mind when you talk about your live performances. Rather than producing studio LPs, is there a sense in which you would almost prefer having a continual back catalog of live shows?
Of course. It really is troublesome and annoying to have to plan the studio. And very expensive. The whole studio album release mentality is marred with all kinds of problems, apart from the extreme expense of it—just the psychological consequences of it. This kind of living and dying aspect, where you create an album, you put everything you have into it, and then it dies. You watch the thing that you love and work so hard on just fucking deteriorate. You know?
What do you mean that it dies?
Well, it's a lot of things. It's that the songs are exciting when they're fresh—like freshly baked cookies—and then there's an excitement to go show them to the world. And you do, and it's fun. But unfortunately, we have an environment where—in the music world especially, but I think across the board—that new product, that new commodity, is appreciated the most.
I guess you could call it the capitalist society. You can't just sell the same old products over and over again—religion tried that, and it didn't work. So if you want to enter into this arena, you have to be expected to be outdated very quickly. You have a small window, and then you're obliterated, and then you have to kind of regroup and try it again. But it's also that we do it to ourselves. I don't think it's just society exploiting the dreams of creative people. I think it's also creative people exploiting themselves—myself included.
Mangy Love came out a couple of months before the 2016 election, and there were moments on that record that people pulled out as a response to a strange and difficult time in American culture. For example, on "Cry," you howl "We’re like two peas in a pod, Netflix and die." That said, I wonder if you're ever frustrated by people interpreting your music as a commentary on the times.
Personally, I don't really think that anything ever changes. I think we're locked into the same cycle that we've always been in, and that our consciousness is approximately the same as it has always been. Maybe some of the masks change, the leaders change. Your phone—you used to have a rotary phone and now you can buy a plane ticket on your phone. But it's still a phone. If you start looking at the "times," it's all-pervasive. Again, [it’s] like an advertising concept: If you can convince people that there's a new time, then they have to get new bedsheets. I think it's a trick that WalMart plays. But it doesn't trouble me how people want to use my music as some kind of a mirror, some form of reflective device on their environment. I think that's what it's there for.
"American Canyon Sutra" is one of the starkest songs you’ve ever made—and lyrically, by Cass McCombs standards, it’s a pretty forthright statement on capitalism and consumer culture.
So, I don't know if it's a statement as much as it's an allegory. It's a parable. It's a metaphor. It doesn't really tell you what to think. There's nothing pedantic in it, to my recollection. The narrator is telling you what he's observed. He's telling you what's terrible about this place that he's seen—about the WalMart and the recycling center. It's almost like the same voice as the "Big Wheel" character, even though the "Big Wheel" character is even more solipsistic, you know? Like, the "Big Wheel" character actually says, "This is what a man is to me." The "American Canyon" person is kind of lost. I don't think it's a statement.
But also another thing is Eastern consciousness and this kind of meditative quality of music. I think a lot of rock and roll music, or just Western pop music, has an incantation. It's a prayer in the sense that if you say [it] in a certain way, you will invoke a certain god. With eastern sutras and meditative processes, it's a continuous thing; you're not looking for a dissertation, or demanding a result. In Western meditative practices—not all of it, but certainly some—people go, Please, God, Jesus, restore my mother's health or something. You're praying for something material, for material things.
I wanted the sutra to be just an endless stream of thought about Western life. I wanted to kind of blend Eastern thought with WalMart and materialism. Because that's how we live our lives. At least, that's the way I've always lived. I've been reading the Bhagavad Gita [since] high school. It's always been present in my consciousness, even though I still have to go to Target.
So that blending of Eastern and Western thought—it's reflection of the Cass McCombs who has to go to Target, but who is thinking about the Bhagavad Gita at the same time.
I mean, yeah, it's inevitable. And if you have to go to Target, you know, bring the Gita.
It definitely felt like there were more than two or three characters at play on Mangy Love . Would you say there are fewer voices on this record?
Yeah, maybe. "Pixley Train Robbery" is a pretty specific character. I wouldn't say that really is matched with any other song. That character—he was a real person. I wouldn't say historic, but it comes from an article I found from the 1800s, the Gold Rush era.
Where did you find it?
I'm obsessed with California history. Not just California history, but Western history. I've always loved gunslingers and bandits and the Californios and the Mexican land grants and the Gold Rush and the Chinese railroad workers. Growing up around that, it was really imparted on all of us. It's such a strange creation story, you know? I think we relate to the Gold Rush almost the way that other cultures relate to Adam and Eve. It's our creation story. So I read a lot of books about the Old West, and I came across the Pixley train robbery story. Attached to that there were all kinds of people who claimed they were the bandits who robbed the train, and this person that I chose definitely was not anywhere near Pixley, California on the night of this robbery. He was probably in an asylum somewhere.
Why did everyone do this? Just for the notoriety?
Notoriety, exactly. The way it was back then, it didn't matter if you were telling a truth or not. It was a culture of storytelling. People would come from village to village and tell their far-out tale, and everyone would pay, what,10 cents or something to hear this crazy person's story about how they were the train robber—they were Joaquin Murrieta, they were Billy the Kid. And you tell your story, and it might be a fucking lie, but if you're a good storyteller, it doesn't matter.
I was going to ask about "Sleeping Volcanoes," a song about walking past strangers and realizing that everyone has their own story, their own turmoil. Is that something that's easier to access on the East Coast?
Yes, of course. You're literally bumping into people on a subway train. Especially these days, the subway trains are not really functioning great. You're squeezed in there with strangers. They're still just waking up in the morning. When peoples' skin touches, or energy that's coming from their bodies touches another person, there’s an energy transference there. The kinetic connection. That's just a fact.
That kinetic energy, that sense that everyone has something different going on—is that scary? What you're talking about in that song seems either scary or spiritual.
I don't see it as a scary thing. I think it's inspiring and reassuring to know that other people have the same anxieties. For those of us who have real fucking problems—emotional problems, financial problems, family problems—it's really important to know that you're not the only one. I know that we all love the idea of the individual, and we get to decorate ourselves and then call ourselves an "I." But that doesn't really actually bring us happiness. I don't think so. I think that's... it's gonna fall apart.
A lot of your records have been based around improvisation and openness. Is that sharing of energy part of the reason that you try to bring an improvisational quality to your music? That you can have five or six different voices on a song, or five or six different energies?
Music is improvisation. It begins that way. The idea of composition makes us think that there's a method to the madness, when actually there's a whole ritualistic aspect to music that's inherent when you pick up an instrument. But then, when you get into composition and you start playing with other people, other things arrive. In AC/DC, when there's a clearly defined riff, the rhythm of the ensemble is the most powerful when everyone is focused on this unison of that riff. That comes out of improvisation. Improvisation comes first. And then when you get into blues music, every solo, every little drum part, that's when you send it back out into the cosmos, with improvisation. So it's like an in-out-in kind of recipe. It's constantly going in and out of chaos and order, if you want to use those kinds of terms.
It definitely feels to me like there were things that were figured out take by take, rather than written out in advance.
Yeah, absolutely. That's just my style though. The other day, Dan, our drummer—I was over at his place and we were watching Black Sabbath videos, and just really feeling it. Like 1970, the first album Sabbath [made]—so fucking rad. But it occurred to us that they pretty much know exactly what they're going to do—and they each know what the other guy's going to do. And it's that understanding of the blocks of the composition that allows for another kind of element, which is this power element that Ozzy brings—just really fucking digging in.
But we don't really do it like that. We're lazy. It fits our mentality—the way we live our life. I think music's a good way to express the way you live your life.
You say "lazy." Is that really what you think Cass McCombs is?
I think it's different every time. You could get me on a night [when] I've got a real bad attitude. I think it's just natural. I love to perform and exorcise certain demons. It's a moment-to-moment kind of thing. And maybe I'm real moody or something, but I think it's a natural thing for all performers to use the space to just get rid of the baggage that's been hanging over them all that day. Because the show happens usually at nighttime, so all day long you've been dealing with some form of bullshit, and music's a really cathartic place to do that.
Also, I've always played with people. The kinship between the musicians and myself—each of us individually and collectively—that's a really important thing. Because you play with certain people for years, decades, and then you play with other people—you just started playing with them. So that's a whole other element:these relationship dances that we do. Everyone has family, everyone has sexual partners—a band is like that, kinda. That's another thing that's at play: how we respond to each other. The discipline that we're all understanding is to keep it all loose.
I've had labels and agents to sit me down and try to talk to me about this loose attitude, and I'm like, “It's not really professional at this point, but there really is no other solution. It's what we do.” Why do all bands have to have the same approach? Why is there this cookie-cutter mentality? I just figure we're the band that does it the other way, when you're sick of the status quo.