Reel Time: Cass McCombs
By Mike Greenhaus
"Most of my albums are a simple collection of songs that have nothing to do with each other except that they were written around the same time and, perhaps, have some recurring themes,‚ÄĚ Concord, Calif.-bred singer/songwriter Cass McCombs says of the thoughtful, often moody full-length albums he‚Äôs released since 2003. ‚ÄúBut this one‚Äôs a record.‚ÄĚ
In the spring of 2012, Bob Weir performed McCombs‚Äô ‚ÄúLove Thine Enemy‚ÄĚ with members of The National, Yellowbirds, The Walkmen and others at his TRI Studios as part of a live webcast. That cover helped McCombs score a spot at another TRI show a few months later and gave the nomadic, indie songsmith the green light to move deeper into the jamband universe. For the past year, McCombs has spent time working on his next Domino Records release with a range of collaborators, including Furthur drummer Joe Russo and Phish bassist Mike Gordon.
Pandemonium in the Studio
I‚Äôm always reading and writing on the road. I ended up with a bushel of songs, and we started in the studio in September  in Brooklyn. And, even before we went into the studio with the band, we did a couple of days in London and a few days in San Francisco with some friends. Plus, there has been periodic overdubbing. We ended up with around 30 some-odd songs, which is about twice as many as I‚Äôve ever tried to bite off. I have a touring band and they‚Äôre fantastic. So we started with those guys, but other folks started coming in‚ÄĒfriends of friends‚ÄĒand we had an open door policy. Toward the end there, it was pandemonium in the studio. People would just show up and grab whatever instrument they felt like. It was chaos‚ÄĒcontrolled chaos.
Musicians are on the Borderline of Psychotic
We don‚Äôt have a producer. That is another form of chaos. There is no one aside from myself or the band who are more familiar with the tunes just because we‚Äôve played them on the road for a couple of years now. Live, we do a lot of improvisation and toying around with different parts of a song. We can decide when to change the part, but we tried to create a whole new form of communication in the studio. But then again, this is why I‚Äôve always had a tough time in the studio‚ÄĒthe tape‚Äôs rolling, the clock‚Äôs ticking. It‚Äôs one thing to improvise in Akron, Ohio‚ÄĒbecause that‚Äôs what people traveled this far to do‚ÄĒbut in the studio everyone has taken the time to make an album. [Laughs.] Without a producer, it ends up being completely reckless, anyway. Musicians are on the borderline of psychotic, so that‚Äôs what‚Äôs gonna happen.
Big Names and Old Friends
All sorts of people play on the album‚ÄĒold friends from living here and stuff. There‚Äôs Joe Russo; Tim DeWitt from Gang Gang Dance; Ryan Sawyer, who‚Äôs in a bunch of great Brooklyn groups; Dan ‚ÄúBuddy‚ÄĚ Iead, who plays guitar in my band; ‚ÄúSleepy‚ÄĚ Doug Shaw; Mike Bones; Joan Wasser [of Joan As Police Woman] and, of course, Mike Gordon. Russo is the best. We met when we both played with Bob Weir at TRI Studios [in August 2012]. He also plays with my bass player [and Wolf! member] Jon Shaw from time to time. We don‚Äôt have a solid touring drummer, so he was perfect. On this album, we have two drummers: Joe and an old buddy of mine, Parker Kindred. But Joe‚Äôs ‚Äúperson‚ÄĚ is inspiring for everyone to be around and then his playing, of course, is so free. He plays drums like an instrumentalist.
I am a big Phish fan‚ÄĒI had a subscription to Relix in the early ‚Äė90s. I‚Äôm incredibly indebted to Mike Gordon for being on my record. He‚Äôs such an amazing player. I mean, God, he‚Äôs so unique. I‚Äôve never played with someone who plays like that. He‚Äôs one of the best‚ÄĒnot just bass players, but musicians‚ÄĒI‚Äôve ever been around. He was game for the chaos. He didn‚Äôt flinch. We also met through that TRI show.
Improvising in Slow Motion
I wanted to record as many songs as possible‚ÄĒnot just my songs, but other people‚Äôs songs. So basically, every song we did, we did two takes: a run-through take and the take that‚Äôs on the record. And many of them are completely live. I heard a saying once that composition is improvisation in slow motion. So they‚Äôre connected‚ÄĒwhen you‚Äôre improvising, you‚Äôre right at the precipice of invention at a momentary level, but you‚Äôre composing. You‚Äôre using the whole of your ability, but the form is not behind you‚ÄĒit‚Äôs in front of you.