Cass McCombs on Moving Around, His "Beauty Filter," and Why He Doesn't Like Talking About the Past
The vagabond. The recluse. The wanderer. The elusive anti-media troubadour. Cass McCombs has been called a lot of things. But in every description of the mystery man, there is always high praise for his musicianship, lyricism, and prolificacy: seven records in 10 years, with his most recent two, Wit's End and Humor Risk, released just seven months apart in 2011.
Though he hails originally from the Bay Area, McCombs has become somewhat of a drifter in his adult years. Recording albums piecemeal as he travels around the country, McCombs' creates collections of songs that can be hit-or-miss, ungrounded in a way that mirrors his itinerant ways. But standouts like "County Line," arguably one of his most popular songs -- and one of his most poignant -- evoke the idea of "home" with startling eloquence.
Cass McCombs returns to his somewhat-home this weekend for Sonoma's third annual Huichica Music Festival, the brainchild of Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats) and Gundlach Bundschu winery proprietor Jeff Bundschu. This year they've teamed up with (((folkYEAH!))) to curate a colorful list of performers, among them Blitzen Trapper, Fruit Bats, Jonathan Wilson, Damien Jurado, Jessica Pratt, and DJ Andy Cabic, plus beloved San Francisco food purveyors like Salumeria and Namu Gaji. We spoke with McCombs last year about his musical reputation, his dislike of doing interviews, and his "beauty filter."
I've heard you don't like to do interviews or talk about yourself. Are you worried that leaving tracks threatens to affect the music you're creating?
It does. What you want when you're trying to make something is you want no boundaries. You want no expectations. You want to be totally excited that you're making something new and unique, not just a small piece of a larger puzzle. I feel pretty successful that every time I write a song, it can stand alone.
You're often described as a "musician's musician," where the average person may not have heard of you but other musicians always name you on their lists of revered peers. What do you think it is that makes your music particularly appealing to other artists?
That's very cool. I approach my music from a musical perspective. I'm a guitar player and I'm always trying to be a better guitar player. I think about music on a technical level, always trying to learn new things, different cultural perspectives, riffs from the Middle East. That's the kind of stuff that interests me. Jazz, standards, of course folk music, and also modern music. I'm fortunate I don't have to really concern myself with writing commercial music because my record company doesn't expect me to and I don't think my audience expects me to.
You said in a Pitchfork interview that losing yourself in music is the ultimate goal. Can you expound on that a bit?
I don't remember why I said that but it's an interesting idea. With performance you get the opportunity to interact and engage with an audience and they respond and you react to their response and it's a seamless ... I wouldn't call it a 'communication,' it's beyond that. It's like ESP. It's a sense, a new sense, an ancient sense. So music is a way for us all to lose ourselves, together. It sounds new-agey but you know it when you're there.
Out of that triad that you mentioned — writing, improvising, and performance — do you get more excited about one than another, or is it a seamless marriage of all three?
Ideally, when it feels the most perfect I think it is everything working together. But these are all things that you feel, not really things you can plan ahead or think about. We're talking about other people's feelings mixing with your desires and then when you're there, it suddenly hits you. That's why I'm not afraid to make mistakes. I try a lot of things, I throw a lot of stuff against the wall, and I'm sure a lot of it is garbage. But it's an attempt to make something that is sublime.
And you achieve it. "County Line" is a perfect example. It's an incredibly poignant song. You have this ability to speak universally to questions of loneliness and home and travel. When you played it on Pitchfork TV, you didn't even sing. Why?
I think I was just a little self-conscious that day. There were a lot of people in that room. I just wasn't in the mood to sing. The lights were so beautiful I felt like it was warm enough that I didn't have to spoil it with 'trying.' These Internet videos can feel like you're making a commercial. It doesn't necessarily act like a creative vehicle but like an advertisement for something else. I think we all decided to do it instrumental to make it special and make it unique, so it wasn't an ad, because we never did it instrumental anywhere but there. To know that its just gonna be some little Internet video, it's not really a day well spent, but it was. It ended up being great.
You've said you don't understand why listeners feel the need to include an artist's biographical history in their music consumption. But are there any parts of your background that you do find applicable to people understanding your music?
I completely understand the desire to know more about other people because I want to know about my audience and I want to know about the people that I'm around, wherever I am. It is somewhat of a paradox because we all want to learn about others and learn about ourselves through others, but there's things about myself that I'm just never going to tell anyone. I mean, there's a lot, and it's just gonna stay locked inside. I don't tell anyone. Even my closest friends and loved ones, I will not tell them. Thank god I have music, so it all comes out.
So music is cathartic for you?
It is cathartic, and oftentimes I can turn something that is a painful thought into something of beauty. Whereas, if you simply want the cold hard facts, the flotsam and jetsam, the blood and cum of reality, well I'm not gonna give it to you that way. It's gotta be through my beauty filter. I think people understand that. If you use your brain and heart and mind and set the bar as high as you possible can, in music it'll always leads somewhere. There's no dead-end streets in music. I've seen a lot of shit and the only thing that I can't get enough of is music.
What subjects inspire you to write?
I'm trying to figure that our right now myself. Before, I tried to relate to myself as a member of a group, and then I tried relate myself as maybe a person who exists independently of any group, and then I also tried to look at people I knew as they relate to me, and then I tried to write songs about people I don't know the first thing about. Sometimes I realize I can pretend to understand what it's like to live in a hotel in the Tenderloin, but what the fuck do I really know? But I want to know.
What's the longest that you've lived in one place?
Since being a kid? I don't know. I don't like that word, "I live here, I've lived there." I don't really relate to this word. I stayed or I stopped at a certain town. Although I am not really interested in cities right now.
Do you know what it is that keeps you on the move?
There are quite a lot of reasons. Going back it was probably a financial lack of money mixed with an interest in seeing the world. That's what we all did back in the day. We would get a shitty car, and that's what I'm still doing. You get a car and you just drive to Texas or go see someone you know and chase down everything that's remotely interesting along the way. And go camping! I love camping. Never really been good at holding down a job, that's why I've had so many.
Can I assume the early childhood facts I read on the Internet are true or can you give me a short bio that you're comfortable with?
You want me to give you a little background check here? Well, I'm from the East Bay and so I spent a lot of time in Berkeley, in the UC Theatre, in the Berkeley square, in Gilman, Telegraph, Peoples' Park. I don't really like people knowing this stuff. I don't want to go back to my shitty adolescence. It doesn't feel good. I don't want to be a boy. I want to be a man.