Singer-songwriter Cass McCombs isn’t your average indie-folk artist. Since 2003, he has put out nine albums (the latest, Tip of the Sphere, dropped in February). He grew up going to Grateful Dead shows but says he finds their recent resurgence “distasteful.” And despite being notoriously private—he doesn’t love interviews—he opened up to the Weekly about his lyrics, The Doors and his Las Vegas history. McCombs plays Beauty Bar on March 31.
What drives the mood on your albums, specifically Tip of the Sphere? The obvious answer is the song drives the sound. Like, whatever the composition is, it kind of dictates what the arrangement should be. I’m an obsessive music collector like a lot of people, and [with] each record you get turned on to so much more music that somehow filters into the influence. Also, I’ve been thinking about how our earliest influences are always coming back—the reason why we were inspired to play an instrument in the first place.
What kind of music was that for you? The music around my family, like country music and funk music, but then later growing up a bit and being 12 years old and getting into hip-hop, especially around that time, the late ’80s and ’90s. Hip-hop was really inspiring, and I think that influence persisted.
I read that you dabbled in saxophone as a kid. Is that you playing on the new record? I played when I was like 8 years old, but I’ve long forgotten. On the new record the sax is being played by Sam Owens, aka Sam Evian, who’s opening up the show. He’ll also be sitting in with us.
You’ve been open about your feelings on capitalism. Do you feel like the confines of that system has limited you as an artist? I’m sure there’s ways that it’s altered me, or any of us, ways we can’t even comprehend. It’s changed language; it’s placed more of an emphasis on pleasing the individual and creating and defining that individual, and then unfortunately selling that individual. It’s a very complicated, nasty process, but it’s what we have. I also feel like it would be kind of individualistic to try to appear above society, you know? I just try to observe things. Everyone’s entitled to their own life, and it’s not really the job of the songwriter to criticize how people live.
I found your track “Sleeping Volcanoes” to be eerily poignant, given that two mass shootings happened last week and you’re talking about “sleeping volcanoes that could erupt at any moment.” I think it’s one of those allegories [that] can maybe be applicable to a myriad of different personalities. I’m coming at it from my experiences with Buddhism and friends who’ve gotten into meditation and things like that, and [it’s]almost … not a joke, but there’s a levity to it. Most people I know who meditate, at least my zen friends, have a very good sense of humor ,and there is this somewhat recognition that zen people—people who practice zen—are more emotionally volatile than others, [laughs], which is a weird paradox, because it’s supposed to help you. But maybe people who are drawn to zen are already more emotionally volatile; it’s hard to know. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg kind of thing. So that’s where it started from. But I think most of my songs are just a surface to project upon.
“American Canyon Sutra” reminded me of An American Prayer, Jim Morrison’s spoken-word album. Did that have any influence on that track? I’m a huge Doors fan, always have been, but I wouldn’t say specifically on this track I felt the presence of the Lizard King.
Would you say The Doors have influenced your sonic output in general? Absolutely, and lyrically especially. His lyrics are really ahead of their time; they’re ahead of our time even now. He was really trying to do something different than other people, and I appreciate anybody who’s trying to do that.
You’ll be playing Vegas soon. Have you played here before? A long time ago I played a retirement home. It was a friend’s grandma’s apartment, back when we used to play house shows. And then we played—what’s the record shop there, Zia? I played there one time.
I know you grew up in California. Did you spend any time in Vegas as a kid? Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time [there]. I had a girlfriend in Las Vegas and would spend quite a lot of time in Vegas going to all kind of cool shows like Cook E. Jarr and Lance Burton. I’m into it, especially the more underground kind of music and magic.
Cass McCombs with Sam Evian March 31, 9 p.m., $20-$22, Beauty Bar, 702-598-3757.