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Wheel of Fire: To Converse With Cass McCombs

By Kyle MacKinnel; photos by Pony Cassells on October 8, 2013


Wheel of Fire: To Converse With Cass McCombs

[Telephone rings.]


Hi, is this Cass?

Yes, hi.

How’s it going?

Good; you know...

So what’s been on your mind, in terms of music on a universal level?



Nothing in particular, man. That’s how I relate to music—I think that’s how most people relate to music. Universally, you know? The individual really should come secondary to the universal relationship to music. I mean, we have ears on opposite sides of our heads. It’s a 360-degree procession of music. It’s the world around us; not like our eyes, on the front of our face, pointing in a straight line. Music swirls around our consciousness.

So does this make the self a filter for all that stimulation? Or is it really some sort of greater exchange taking place?

It’s a mystical experience at best. And it’s an achievement, music. It’s an expiration for a greater, higher consciousness. 

Do you have any personal interpretation of what that might be?

I mean, it’s just a spontaneous thing for me, and I’m figuring it out everyday. 

How did your understanding of this concept seem to progress while you were making Big Wheel and Others?

Mind you, it’s been a while, so I’m looking back...

But it really hasn’t been that long, has it? It’s your brand-new album.

Well, we recorded it in September [2012], you know? I don’t seem to remember September very well...I can’t. But what I’m left with is a feeling of gratitude to the musicians who gave their time and hearts. I’m still sorting out what I learned this time around. You always learn something from every record you make.

Big Wheel
is a double album, and it seems like it came together pretty quickly. How do you feel now that it’s done?

I mean, I did what I had to do. It wasn’t really a choice, you know? As you get in the middle of a record, you realize how few choices there actually are. The few that you have to make are really important. But most of it’s just borne of motion. The ball gets rolling, and then sparks start to fly. Whether those are musical notes, or even people just opening the door and showing up to the studio, spontaneous things happen and there’s a greater plan at work that musicians aren’t even in control of or aware of.

So you feel that you are not making conscious decisions about what to do next?

Well, that’s a good question. I don’t really know. Sometimes it feels like I’m in control. Other times it feels like the group is in control and I’m just a team player, like a shortstop. And then it feels like none of us are in control and it’s all going to fall apart. Then, other times it feels like none of us are in control and it’s all going the way it needs to go. It’s a terrifying thing, and it changes, you know? Because that’s the throbbing nature of music. It doesn’t live in any one place, so there’s no one answer to describe the experience. It’s like it’s a movie.

Many of your songs have a heavy narrative element to them.

I love a story. I love songs with stories in them. I feel like there was more of that going on in the early 20th century—most songs were about historical events or local news. Not just the early 20th century, but for thousands of years of the tradition of oral updating through music. Also, music is a way to instruct people of various consciousness and moral dilemmas, and I think narrative is the perfect way to express it. There will be lyrics in the eyes of characters, or even if you can see the narrator as its own voice outside of the author or the listener; it’s like a third perspective. It’s a godlike perspective, and it’s open to interpretation. Not everyone is going to have the same perception of that. That’s why I like narratives, because it’s out of all our control.

You’ve done other types of writing in the past. Did you ever think about focusing on that instead?

I’ve thought about it. That’s just not really my bag. I’m a musician, I’m a guitar player. Occasionally I’ll write poetry for laughs, but I don’t think I’m much of a writer in that sense.

Are you sometimes writing songs for laughs, too, or do you take it very seriously?

I don’t take it very seriously [laughs]. Yeah. Humor and melancholy somehow are perceived as being in opposition, but I don’t think they are. I think they live like a sort of yin and yang, you know? Humor—laughter—is a higher form of consciousness. It’s troubling sometimes because of the implication that to laugh at something is to trivialize it, because that’s where the contradiction with melancholy comes into play. I don’t think it necessarily is always so. In fact, I think most times humor is not trivial. I think it’s perceived as such. I think myself and many are often embarrassed at our laughter, whereas I feel it should be free and liberating.

I often find, when I laugh, people think I’m questioning the truth of something they said, when the laughter is intended as more of an affirmation of truth. 

There’s a tradition in many cultures that the fool is the wisest man, because only the fool can eliminate the self with complete abandon. The fool...the madman, for that matter, the psychopath. They should have no regard for their hygiene [laughs] or the lives or emotions of others, let alone themselves. It’s more of a trope for me than a rule.

You don’t strike me as the kind of guy who has too many rules.

More parameters. But parameters come and go, you know? You create them, and you knock ’em down for the individual purpose. For instance, if you’re writing a song, like the title song, “Big Wheel”—that song has a very specific parameter. It’s not really open to every argument; it has one view. And when that song’s done, you can knock down the walls and build up new ones.

You said something before about the tradition of using song to spread information and news. Is that a goal in your own songs? “Bradley Manning” comes to mind.

I really enjoy discussing politics with my friends, so it was a song I could do that with. But the song itself isn’t very political at all, actually. It’s not even necessarily about the actual Bradley Manning, it’s about a character that’s contained in that specific song. But at least it opens up some doors to the reputation of that person—I’ve never met him, I don’t know if he would disagree. I’m sure he would.

What drew you to that story?

A lot of things. I’m interested in scapegoats on a general level: who gets picked on in our society and why, who gets cast out. There’s very few of us who feel the necessity to stand up and go against the grain, and I appreciate that, just on a very human level. I admire that trait in people who do what’s not nice, and what’s not polite…

...But maybe is the right thing?

It might be the right thing. Right or wrong, some people just feel the necessity to do certain things, and I imagine it’s a lot like music. You feel an impulse, and you’re just guided by that wandering star, that impulse. You do certain things in life that maybe, later on in life, you look back and you almost feel outside of yourself. I guess it’s a form of possession in a way, or could be. But informants and heretics and traitors and scapegoats, in the tradition of Judas—why do we feel the necessity to externalize our own individual suspicions and personal hatreds? And we externalize them on other people, like a Bradley Manning, so we can feel better about ourselves by casting out the demons—our own demons. But whether that’s even what they were doing in the first place or not, it says more about us than them.

On Big Wheel, you included audio clips from Ralph Arlyck’s famous 1970 student film, Sean. Do you feel the same way about that character, in a sense?

I just think that kid is so cute, you know? I’ve loved that movie for decades now. I just think he’s a really clever kid. It’s one of my favorite short films.

Would you say that you’re an anarchist?

I wouldn’t say I’m an anarchist.

Do you believe in the pursuit of the individual?

I do not believe in the pursuit of the individual. I don’t believe in birthdays, either.

You talked about being guided by impulse. Does that not factor into how you think the world should work?

I think the world should work through basic regard for brotherly love and mutual respect. That’s how I think it should operate. Whether that’s actually what’s going on... [Pauses.] But we are on the cusp, sometimes, maybe on a smaller level.

Would you say you have a fixation on death as a subject?

I wouldn’t say it’s a fixation—it’s a fact. To disregard it would be a terrible mistake. It’s the elephant in the room.

Do you think about death a lot when you’re writing songs?

Well, I suppose so. It’s not really at the front of my brain. I think most people do think about death, when they’re vacuuming the carpet or doing most anything. It’s a cognizance of the clock that keeps ticking. There are definite ways to free ourselves from time, and from the anxiety that death brings us. Some are healthy ways, and some are not-so-healthy ways. I think it’s essential to be able to step in and out of that cognizance.

Do any of these ways work particularly well for you?

I mean, I’ve tried everything. I’ll try anything, you know? Of the many things that psychoactive drugs can teach us, that’s one thing that it can—for some people I suppose. And it can show us the mysteries of the cosmos, which seems to—at least momentarily—relieve us of the anxiety of death. If that’s possible, perhaps a greater liberation from our corporeal body is possible. If psychoactive drugs can give us some form of artificial enlightenment, perhaps there’s another way…even a better way. Or maybe it’s the first step on the way to a higher form of consciousness.

On your website, there’s a long passage of text on the front page. Is that a piece of original writing?

That’s somewhat of a collage of writing. Some of it is. I’m interested in ancient texts, so oftentimes I’ll rewrite things that interest me in a more modern tongue.

What is “the flame” the collage mentions? You write that people “don’t distrust the flame,” though they should.

It’s been a while. Maybe five years ago I wrote that, but I guess I take that to mean... Our planet’s lit up like a Christmas tree, all year ’round. And the fire is all around us. Fire is dangerous. We think that we’ve contained it with electricity, but we haven’t contained it. It’s spreading, and it’s continuing to spread, because we think we see the good of the flame, and I don’t think we really look at the facts honestly.

Do you think there’s some sort of breakdown happening? 

That’s the thing about fire: you can’t control the thing. We don’t control the flame; the flame controls us. And I guess the flame is also representative of consciousness and enlightenment, and generation from nature. Both good and bad come with that. It’s a cesspool of joy and fear. That’s where I like to dwell with my songs. Each song is almost like an X-Files episode—meditations on various phenomena that I have in common with my friends or strangers…almost universal forms of phenomena.

I like the song “Everything Has To Be Just So.” It feels like a central point of the record. 

Well, I love flutes. Such a sweet instrument, the flute. I don’t know, there’s a lot to say about that song. I hope it speaks for itself. It’s pretty funny when it comes down to it. We’re talking about racists, we’re talking about sexists, we’re talking about sexuality and we’re talking about what we have in common. From a sort of godlike perspective, you know? There’s no moral to the story. I think laughter is the best...what is it?


That’s right. Medicine. It’s an in-and-out kind of thing. Like, let’s go in and let’s see the head trip from the racist. Let’s see the prejudice that pervades everyday nonsense. And then let’s go out and look at that. I don’t know, that’s all it is.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 53