Singer/songwriter Cass McCombs has earned his comparisons to Cohen and Dylan. The 34-year-old musical vagrant has released one phenomenal EP and six intelligent, well-crafted and introspective LPs of melodic, folk-driven pop tunes in his decade on the scene. But he's also earned his reputation as a tricky (er, difficult) interview as well, widely known for his reluctance to share anything personal, a complete disinterest in self-promotion or fame and a penchant for conducting interviews by doing things like writing postcards or letters. And even though I had trusted my Amoeba "Music We Like" guide nine years ago, picked up that amazing first EP, and have followed him since, I still had plenty of trepidation going in.
Fittingly, Mr. McCombs was anything but the hearsay-fueled worst-case scenario I had worked up in my mind, was in a great mood as he spoke from the New York office of Domino Records and had plenty to say without ever once being difficult.
And why not? This has been a big year for McCombs, who released two LPs -- April's terrifically lonesome Wit's End and the just-released, pallet-cleansing Humor Risk, complete with songs about things like a mannequin factory-based discussion on the topic of beauty.
Now McCombs has hit the road again. He and his five-piece band will be at the Casbah on Thursday night, with White Magic opening.
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Cass McCombs: Good. Hi, Scott.
SM: Hi. You currently on break?
CM: Well, I don’t regard them necessarily as breaks. And I don’t necessarily regard touring as … well … you know … it’s just not that difficult to tour. Some people may say it’s awful -- you can’t do your laundry and all that -- but when it really comes down to it, it’s not that bad. It’s kind of fun, actually. But right now, I’m just in New York, visiting friends and doing some things here and there -- along with a little recording.
SM: I know you weren’t doing much press around Wit’s End this way. I was a bit worried. Something change?
CM: I’ve always done interviews -- in one way or another. I’ve just tried to do them in different ways every time -- whether it was e-mail, letters, postcards, a number of different ways -- but when you change the medium, I think the message changes with it. And it also keeps me on my toes. There’s only so far you can go talking about yourself. I really don’t think anyone’s that interested in hearing someone talk about themselves. You know?
SM: I agree with you to a point. I feel like sometimes people call music journalism fake writing, but I’m such an audiophile, I don’t care if that’s said. I love music so much, I do want to know things about the people I listen to. But I guess that changes when it’s just the same re-hashed, scripted, knee-jerk lines over and over again. That borders on belittling it.
CM: I would pretty much agree with that.
SM: Why is the separation of personality and art so important to you? Do you think it takes away from the art? CM: I think it does. And I don’t think I have the greatest personality in the world. But it’s not only that. My music isn’t necessarily about … me. I think what I’m trying to do through music is a transparent form of songwriting. The subject matter is greater than the author. Many of my songs aren’t about myself, but other people or other people’s opinions and lifestyles. Sometimes, occasionally, it’s about how I react to them or interact with them, but I try to use morally abstract imagery to inspire the listener to decipher their own meaning. And I think in an interview, you steer people in a direction. And I’m not trying to tell people how to think or how to live. I want people to interpret my songs freely and independently.
SM: You released two albums this year. More to say? Is it getting easier? Just happened?
CM: The way records are made is a very mysterious process. The first of the two records took three years to make. Then, Humor Risk took less than a year to make. It just depends on what the songs are and where the funding is coming from.
SM: They’re such different records. Was there any overlap?
CM: I don’t think there was. Wit’s End came first. And I don’t think even one song overlapped.
SM: Are you still doing production/engineering?
CM: A little. I was never really good at it. I putz around, but I’m kind of a monkey in the studio. I don’t know what I’m doing. I do it when I need to, but there’s just so many things that need to be done. When I’ve done it in the past, I had assistance. I was always a novice, and I’m still at the same level. I’m not going to turn into Prince any time soon. I’m a f---ing folk singer. I’m no studio guy. I’m an acoustic guitar playing folk singer. [Laughs] That’s it. Nothing more.
SM: You’ve now hit the decade mark. Do you think about that? Does it register with you at all? CM: I mean, I’m aware if it. You know. I feel old. Especially when people bring it up. [Laughs] Just kidding.
SM: Does that mean you’re more comfortable with that random a--hole who comes to the show and talks through the set? CM: My crowd is pretty excellent. I think they know what they’re in for, and it seems like it’s a group feeling. It’s different than other shows. It really is a group effort between the crowd, and the band and myself. It really has its own order.
SM: Do you find the process cathartic?
CM: That’s an interesting question. Well … I find a cup of coffee to be cathartic. But I’m an over-exaggerated cathart-erer. Everything can be an epiphany for me. I’m a Stephen Dedalus type of character. But music is more of a release. Actually, if I can answer your question in a yes or no, then I’d say no, because music is the opposite of catharsis for me. It’s where I get to go outside of my problems. I get to have fun. I get to experiment and play with time and space as if they were meaningless. Everything is just for my amusement. My music … it’s all about my creativity and joy.
SM: With two records out, and a tour, do you even think about what’s coming next?
CM: Not really. I mean, I have some ideas of what I want to do as far as making another record or working with certain people. Everything just seems like such a vague idea. Music can either never be made, or it can be made. It’s such an easy thing to make music. A lot of the music we hear never needed to have ever existed. And then, a lot of the greatest musical minds never make music. Or, at least, what we call music. They may be making music in their minds -- and that’s probably the greatest f---ing thing you’ve never heard. But only they can hear it. But to answer your question: No, I don’t make plans [laughs].