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Published: 2015/12/29
by Mike Greenhaus

Cass McCombs: A Wintertime Orgy

Cass McCombs had already staked claim as one of the indie-folk generation’s most prolific voices by the time Bob Weir covered his biblically charged “Love Thine Enemy” at a benefit show in 2012. That unexpected nod helped McCombs connect with Weir, who included him in his all-star, cross-genre Jerry Garcia tribute Move Me Brightly the following year, and brought his songwriting style full circle to the Grateful Dead-inspired psychedelic-folk that inspired him as a young songwriter in California and the Pacific Northwest. Move Me Brightly also introduced McCombs to Phish bassist Mike Gordon and cemented his relationship with Joe Russo, both of whom appear on his double-disc 2013 release Big Wheel and Others, and added a new, jammy twist to his songwriting style. McCombs has continued to veer into improvisational waters during the past two years and, this spring, he will play the holy grail of “Dark Star” of The National’s long-awaited Red Hot Grateful Dead tribute. While be puts the finishing touches on his next studio project with pals Russo, Ryan Sawyer, Jon Shaw and Dan Lead, McCombs released the rarities collection A Folk Set Apart, which features a lost collaboration with Gordon and a slew of live gems. He also plans to develop his next batch of songs during a big show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on January 7.

On an unseasonably warm winter day, McCombs stopped by the Relix and Jambands.com offices to talk about his new album, Deadhead roots and how an old Phish demo inspired his latest epic.

Let’s start by talking about your new album, A Folk Set Apart. Though many of the songs will be fresh for listeners, it is actually, as you have eloquently described, “a mixture of B-side rarities and space junk.” What was the original idea behind the compilation and over what span were these tracks originally recorded?

It was probably a span of about fifteen years. They’re mostly taken from 7-inch one-offs that we would release around our tours, though a few of them were outtakes from our albums. Some of them are from split 7-inches with other bands—on one side would be people like the Meat Puppets, Michael Hurley, White Magic or other bands we were on the road with and the other side would be us. So it’s our side, not theirs. [Laughs] I put them all together because a lot of those were my favorite tunes. You don’t stop writing music just because you are off an album cycle. You want to get it out. And there is something really cool about a 7-inch. It also gives you a chance to work with different people and other independent labels. I’ve been with Domino for records.

As you look back on this fifteen-year period of work, were there certain commonalities that you found among the songs that helped them fit into a cohesive collection or do still like they are year-book style retrospective?

It’s kind of bipolar. I don’t know what they have in common, except that they’re all recorded very poorly. [Laughs]

Have you continued to play the songs presented on A Folk Set Apart since they were originally released?

We try to change the setlist up every night. We play a lot of these tunes—“Bradley Manning” we play all the time. “Evangeline,” we play a lot. “I Cannot Lie” was the first 7-inch I ever put out, so we played that every show at our early shows. It was one of the only songs we had. We had to play it. It had this Velvet Underground kind of feel. We always started the shows with it because it got the party started. It doesn’t have to sound nice. It’s always good to start the first song in the set with—whatever can go wrong. Suddenly, it feels fine. The sound guy is tuning in, and it’s all good.

You’ve been playing in different settings over the years. Can you talk a little bit about the band that will back you?

Shaw, who is on the bass, has been with me for several years now. I met him at Occupy Wall Street. I was just hanging there. I was there every day. He grew up with Dan, who also plays steel and guitar in the band. He’s been in many bands, and they grew up together. Musically, they were like the same person. Their interplay is like Everly Brothers level of osmosis. So yeah, Dan will be there—we call him Buddy. Jesse Lee has been playing drums with us now here in New York. Ryan Sawyer, another drummer and percussionist—I don’t even know how to describe his role—will be with us. We’re trying to get some people to play with us onstage. Soldiers of Fortune, who are old buds, are opening for us in New York, and I am hoping Matt Sweeney and Mike Bones and all of those dudes will sit in. It’s going to be cold outside—at least I hope so given the weather recently—and I hope people can come warm each other up. That’s the idea—this wintertime orgy.

Before this collection, the last album you released was 2013’s Big Wheel and Others. That album had something of a different, groovy psychedelic sound that was directly informed by the Grateful Dead. It also featured Phish bassist Mike Gordon, Furthur drummer Joe Russo and a few other musicians from outside your normal stable of collaborators. What was the mindset going into that record and did the process of touring Big Wheels with Russo and playing with members of Phish and the Dead change your songwriting process in general?

Well, with the Dead thing—I kind of grew up around that music, and some of my earliest bands were in the psychedelic, Dead, J.J. Cale, jam-influenced vein. I read Relix in the 1990s and went to Dead shows. For one reason or another, you get older and you find other musical avenues to go down. The Dead were always there in my music, but I was venturing somewhere else. Then, I befriended [Joe] Russo and just kind of started to get back into the whole Dead thing and was being inspired by it again. I started remembering, “Oh, shit, I play guitar this way because of ‘Mountains Of The Moon.’” This idiom, this way I play, I got this from the Dead—or this Doc Watson phase I went through. I just started getting more into the Dead, and I wrote a whole new batch of songs on that trip.

You are currently working on a new studio album. Would you say that project continues the jammy, Grateful Dead feel of your recent work?

I would say it is a continuation of that groovy shit. The songs maintain that Dead influence. What I love about the Dead—you see it on their early posters. They were “Grateful Dead Dance Concert.” That’s built in into what they’re trying to do. Even on the slowest tunes, like “Stella Blue” or whatever, people are still dancing. You know, you take your shoes off, and you fucking get your rocks off. Whether it’s slow or fast, you can dance to it, find the groove. That’s what I learned.

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