Cass McCombs on That Time He Painted a Room in the Trump Tower, Regrets, Jam Bands, and More

Photo: Silvia Grav

Cass McCombs is what some would call a citizen of the world. “I’m based out of nowhere right now,” the nomadic singer/songwriter plainly states during a phone call earlier this week. His current place of non-residency finds him housesitting for a friend in Los Angeles, but when I ask the California-born artist about living in the Golden State, his response is brusque and a little funny, all at once: “I never have. Not since the ’90s. Fuck this place.”

Anyone who’s followed McCombs’s career since his 2003 debut A knows that his songwriting contains multitudes; he can sound aching, contemplative, angry, or eerily quiet, referencing the blues standard “Black Jack Davey” one moment and asking into the void, “What’s it like to shit in space?” the very next. The songs collected on his ninth album, Tip of the Sphere, which is out this Friday, represents familiar footing within the catalogue of one of indie rock’s most enigmatic artists working — the furthest thing from an insult, considering the impressive consistency of his discography.

But there’s a curveball or two, too, from the loose, ten-minute rambling closer “Rounder” to the Suicide-y “American Canyon Sutra,” which finds McCombs taking inspiration not only from industrial music but, somewhat surprisingly, hip-hop.” I grew up on hip-hop — I’m that generation,” he explains. “That 808 is in me. We’ve messed around with hip-hop ideas before. A lot of my lyrical flow comes from hip-hop artists. The way that E-40 crams all this lyrical content into the smallest amount of space is incredible.”

Cass discussed the time he painted a room in the Trump Tower, regrets, jam bands, and why he doesn’t like his home state.

Is there something about not having a place of permanent residence that’s attractive to you?
It’s not really an attraction — more of a necessity. I don’t really understand how any musician can afford to stay in one place. We don’t make enough money to afford an apartment. I know pretty much half of the musicians in existence have a side job of some sort. There’s nothing attractive about it. It’s just hard.

Any particular side jobs you’ve had over the years?
I’ve done everything. Worked in horse stables, rode a truck. Worked at bookstores, record stores, movie theaters. I was a projectionist. Worked in delicatessens. Did demolitions. Painting. I painted the Trump Tower one time. Folded and licked invitation envelopes.

When did you paint the Trump Tower?
It was someone’s apartment. I just painted the interior.

When was that?
Probably 2002 or 2003.

That was right after 9/11. What’s your memory of living through 9/11?
It’s such a charged memory, but it’s also a social memory at this point. One of those moments where you’re not entirely sure if it’s your own — even though I saw it with my own two eyes. I was there, I was living downtown.

The fact that you worked in demolition is interesting, because most people associate artists with creation.
I’m part of the punk-rock tribe that doesn’t believe art is creation. Art is destruction. Only capitalists think art is creation. It’s not — if it’s useful, that is.

There’s a growing anti-capitalist sentiment in American society right now.
It seems kind of cheesy — the brand of anti-capitalism they’re trying to sell. They’re selling a lifestyle, which is completely capitalistic. I think they’re liars. [Laughs.]

The letter you wrote that was sent out to press regarding the new album, which you recorded in New York City, mentioned “Emotional things related to the city.” What do you mean by “emotional things”?
There’s childhood, and the feelings that come up when you contemplate one’s own childhood and adolescence. [Rainer Maria Rilke] talks about it a lot in Letters to a Young Poet. That’s the fertile period, for better or worse. The bottomless well. There’s the city, and the activity of the city. Being in proximity to peoples’ bodies. In the sidewalk or the subway, we’re all sharing the same space. You pick up on these frequencies. You’re also fighting for your own space, but empathizing with people. Whereas California — Texas, anywhere — you live in a car. You might go to work with a few people, but being in a big city — London, Paris, New York, even downtown San Francisco — has that activity. But emotions aren’t something you can really quantify. That’s what’s so wonderful about them. They just pass in and out. They’re moods.

What’s your earliest memory?
I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about that. I haven’t engaged in that kind of therapy. [Laughs.]

Do you currently see a therapist?
Not currently, but I have — a lot. It’s worthwhile, I think, depending on the person. I mean, I’ve heard horror stories, obviously — my friends who have been in really compromising situations with therapists.

What’s the most recent piece of knowledge you learned?
Last night, I learned that “Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo” is a sentence. Eight buffalos equal a sentence. Look it up. A friend at a bar told it to me. Bar learning — it’s a good place to learn trivial things.

California has been the focal point of several of your times. Why is that there’s so much art focused on California?
I’ve never really had great things to say about California. Growing up, I didn’t really like it. [Laughs] I pretty much left as soon as I could — went to New York immediately and found people interested in similar things as me. Maybe it’s not the same anymore, but I’m not the same anymore. There’s a lower intelligence level in California that people aren’t really aware of. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re too busy kayaking or something. They don’t have time to read — they have their kayaking. It’s exploited for aesthetic reasons. We all love the ’60s. We love the Doors — everybody loves that shit. Even punk rock, whatever. Basically my whole life, it’s been stale, to me.

You’ve been making music for close to two decades now. The industry’s changed a lot during that time, especially regarding “indie rock.” Any changes you’ve noted as you’ve gotten older?
I’m not very good at projecting what the greater culture is doing. No one wants to hear my opinion about that, anyway. But it’s been two decades, basically, and a lot’s changed. For one, when I put out my first record, you’d do a self-addressed stamped envelope to get the lyrics. We couldn’t afford to have three-fold or four-fold CDs. There wasn’t enough real estate in the jacket to include the lyrics, so we went to Kinko’s and made a printout, and if you wanted them, send the envelope and we’d send a Xerox. And that was common — everyone did little things like that back then. Communicating through post.

The celebrity thing is a little more … repulsive now. Like, you’re a celebrity before you’re a musician. That’s repulsive to me, but whatever.

What’s your relationship with social media these days?
It’s a chimera. A beast. But I’ve starved for decades. I’ve had a really hard life and career. It’s not been all good — it’s been fucking brutal. I’ve had the finger pointed at me a million times for the reason why that might be.

I also think it’s dangerous to hold tightly onto any concepts, whether they’re religious or philosophical ideas, lifestyles, diets. Any kind of dogmatic idea can be a prison, so I like to break the cage. Long story short, when I got a new manager — and I trust her completely — we’re doing social media, I guess. She’s handling it, but it’s all good, and I have no problem with it. But that’s just because I basically ruined my career by being an asshole for decades. I’m not saying that anyone has to go through those same lengths.

Any specific regrets that have stayed with you?
Everything. I regret everything. I don’t trust people who don’t regret things. Where to even get started with regret? It’s a resource — an opportunity. Once you realize that you can regret almost anything — the lunch you just ate, or whatever — that’s a fertile place. Specific regrets? Probably a lot. I like to keep those things to myself though.

People make too much of regret, though. They exaggerate its power. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of regret. It’s a healthy thing. This culture of constantly fronting and faking your way through everything — pumping yourself up, this salesman culture we have of promoting yourself and never admitting fault — is the same culture that tells you regret is telling yourself you’re gonna fail. “Magical thinking.” You gotta manifest the positive reality you want, and all the things you want will become a reality! It’s a lie, of course.

Your live shows frequently feature jamming. What do you think of jam-band music?
Let’s not use the words “jam band” for a sec, because that’s a post–Grateful Dead word. To all of us grew up going to Grateful Dead shows — real Grateful Dead shows — that word didn’t exist. Bands jammed, but it wasn’t “jam band” music. It hadn’t been genre-fied yet. I never really dug that term, “jam band.” Any genre word just seems weak. What are we talking about when we’re talking about jamming? The same techniques of jamming can be applied to anything. There’s improvisation in all forms of music. In the pubs of Ireland, they’re jamming. Even Throbbing Gristle, there’s vast elements of improvisation to what they’re doing. Is that jamming? Because people have commodified the word, we don’t think of it as jamming. They’ve tainted the word.

What is your greatest fear?
I don’t know if I have one. I have many very great fears. I think we invent fears a little bit. That’s natural. If I was like, “That’s it, none of my records sold. It’s the end of my career. I gotta grow up. Had fun, got in a lot of trouble, it’s all good.” What’s next? I’d have fear about that, but all you would need is a different perspective. “Why do you even think you had a career in the first place?” You’re not losing anything if you never had it to begin with. You have to go to lengths to deprogram these made-up fears. I read an article yesterday about how LSD breaks apart the parts of the brain that tell us that things are set. It challenges the way we organize our minds and breaks it apart a little bit. It’s possible, is what I’m saying.

Are there any misconceptions you’ve faced as an artist or person?
Probably a million, but if I started to cherry-pick them, I’m sure I’d sound like I was whining. [Laughs] It’s not gonna sound gracious and awesome. Of course, we’re all misunderstood. I know I’m misunderstood, but I’m sure you are too. That’s one thing I’m trying to promote in my music, to go back to deconstruction — it’s to deconstruct the prejudices we have about other people and vilify the self. Well, not only vilify. But if you question your own prejudices — and I don’t mean “prejudice” in the regular sense.

Okay, check this out: I’m at a house right now, and there’s children who live here. What do you do when you’re a kid in school? They make you say, “What’s your favorite color? What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s your favorite food?” And you have to say, “Blue and yellow. Favorite animal — lion, tiger, horse.” We’re so programmed to define ourselves, and we commodify ourselves and judge people according to how we’ve judged ourselves. With music, I’m trying to question preconceptions — both of other people, and myself.

Cass McCombs on his Ninth Album, Jam Bands, and Much More