Cass McCombs with Frank Fairfield and Jennifer Castle at the Garrison (1197 Dundas St. W.) Friday, January 27, 9 p.m.$14 - $16. RT, SS.
Acclaimed Californian songwriter Cass McCombs released two albums last year, Wit's End in April and Humor Risk in November (both on Domino Records). While Wit's End was an unapologetically melancholic and at times a difficult listen, Humor Risk threw a bone to people who prefer to dance along to his challenging lyrics.
McCombs is a shape shifter - I hear hints of everything I love about music from the past 60 years and beyond in his work, often with a hazy late-night glittery sheen. His unusual delivery and commitment to pushing things lyrically seems to demand repeated listens - ironic then, that he tells me he'd like to see a future with no records.
McCombs is known for shying away from the press -Domino hired a private investigator in 2010 to photograph him in lieu of conventional promo photos - but recently he took that up a notch, refusing to be interviewed by male journalists for a month after an article was published that described a female friend in a "not-so-wonderful light" (probably this one). You can read his statement here.
When I reached McCombs in New York prior to his show there, he was just getting off the phone with a male journalist from Australia.
Were you for real about preferring to be interviewed by women?
Seldom do I talk to female journalists. It's a pretty rare occurrence, that's why it was almost an absurd thing to request. I did it for the last month. All month. As many as I could garner, which was about five. Today is the first male interview that I had done since that all went down last month.
I'd like to just keep a flow, to change the format. To show myself and maybe others that you can change things up, you don't have to do everything like everyone else all the time.
I think a lot of artists will do anything to come across as a nice guy. And once you eliminate that possibility from your conscience, things get a lot easier. You don't have to be a politician and make everyone like you. All you have to do is just be real and things are suddenly lighter.
Do you have women that you work with as musicians or on the business side?
Yeah, of course. My European agent is a woman, the label has plenty of women. I've had at least five female members of my band. I enjoy playing music with women. Not just in my music - I go to a lot of women just to seek a feminine perspective. Not that I even relate to the black and white of our two genders. I think that basically we're the same. There is only one gender. And we're all basically sexually deviant people who ascribe ourselves to a certain gender. We decide that we are male or female. We're not born either. We're the same when we're born.
These conservative times where everyone is homophobic and sexist you wouldn't believe some of the things I hear even some of my male friends saying about women. These genders are fucking ridiculous antiquated concepts. It's over for gender but people are still latching onto it.
Do you have a steady band these days? Is it still the same lineup as last year?
No, it's always morphing. There might be some of the same guys. We don't rake in the cash. Not that that's really any reason why anyone would decide to make music ... people have their own lives. It'll always change.
Are some of the same people who played on Humor Risk touring with you currently?
Probably. I don't remember. I had so many people play on that record it's hard to remember. Yes, some of them.
How did the recording sessions work for Wit's End and Humor Risk? Was there overlap? Were some of the songs from the same sessions?
Not really, there was overlap between [2009's] Catacombs and Wit's End.
Did you make a conscious decision to shift your sound in a more accessible, more rock'n'roll direction for Humor Risk?
No, the last thing I think about is the sound. I don't really care. We just get friends in and qualified musicians and hopefully - sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes we have to throw it away. I try to have a good time in the studio.
But you had some really unusual instrumentation on Wit's End (Humor Risk, by contrast, sounds more conventional). I'm just wondering how that change came about?
The last thing I would want to be is accessible. That would be an insult if someone said that my music was accessible. I try to be as difficult as possible.
I don't think it's a crime if sometimes you write something that is accessible, but I do think it's a mistake when people aim to be accessible, when that's their goal.
It is. Oh my god, those poor souls, what are they thinking? Why do they do it to themselves? Politicians.
At your Rivoli show last year you had light displays behind you. Do you often tour with those is there a story behind where they come from?
Those lights are designed by two very close friends of mine, Jacob Hascub and Molly Devoe. Two very old friends. They're light sculptures that they invented years ago and we just decided to do at our shows. They will be in Toronto, they're doing the show tonight with us in New York.
Do you have a normal songwriting process?
No, I just keep it spontaneous, and keep it humorous. Don't get too serious is what I tell myself. I find it easy to try to carry the weight of the world and whatever and then I realize its all a bunch of baloney and no one wants to hear that song anyway.
I just like songs that are subtle, that are humorous, that are complex, that are airy. Just something that floats, the music floats.
Do you write frequently? Do you make yourself write every day?
No. I don't know where the songs come from, I'm not an academic, I didn't go to school, but you know what? Neither did Hank Williams and he's pretty darn good. Honestly I don't even think ... if you want to take it to where you need to go, I don't think I write these songs. I think they come from God or Satan or somewhere else, I don't know where. They're not from my inner thoughts, they're from somewhere beyond.
Do they come to you more or less complete or do you have to work on them for a while?
I don't know, I suppose every song has it's own voice. Some might take a long time and some might just shoot right out and I don't have a template or any kind of ritual or anything like that.
Have you at different times spent a fair amount of time reading? And I'm not even talking about literature, I'm more talking about the references in the songs to the Bible and to other kind of mystical things, you mention Tarot and astrology and numerology and I think also Chinese philosophy. How do you incorporate that stuff into your songs?
I do read a lot, I always have. I was fortunate to grow up near San Francisco and was exposed to a lot of culture of that area, a lot of different types of people and certain kinds of people that don't really exist in other parts of the world. I think as far as incorporating classical themes, it's just kind of a Creole, a hodgepodge of different ideas. It's an invented language and I just take what I like. I'm not a religious person, I don't really care about anything but ... where was I?
Just whatever resonates with me. Like it could be a gum wrapper or it could also be the Art Of War.
Did you write County Line about a particular place?
Do you remember what you were thinking about when you wrote that song?
No, I don't really remember why I wrote that song. All I know is that I don't think it's about a person or a place or anything like that. I think I was able to write a lyric that was so simple - unlike most of my songs, which are very convoluted - that song has very simple language because I wasn't even thinking about anything that was simple. It was probably something that was ... it's about what's hidden. It usually always is, I mean all of life is about what's hidden. I really like that song because of that reason. There's something unsaid, there's something that's going on that's never spoken.
Are you working on a new album right now?
No, not really. I'd like to, I've talked about. I could, I have songs, I'm itching to go. It's just so expensive making these goddamn records and no one wants to pay for them. Not that I'm complaining about that, they can have it for free, I don't care. The label cares, and the label's the one that gives me money to make the records. So the money's got to come from somewhere or there's not going to be any records. If it was up to me I would just give it away for free anyway.
What I'm hoping is that there won't be records in the future, no records, and I won't have to ever go into another studio again in my life. And that people will just experience songs live, only live, and they'll only relate to them in the flesh, but they won't exist in a recordable format. That's my wish.
Live music is great, but there's also all the music that you wouldn't have got to hear because of geography or time, where you probably appreciate that there's a recording, right?
I don't know, not really. It's not real music. I wouldn't even say that music on a record is actual music, it's a recording of music, but real music happens in front of your face, you feel it breathing on you. But a recording is just a representation. It's three times removed from the actual thing. It's like totally artificial, like the difference between Suboxone and Opium; one is a synthetic compound that is made in the laboratory and one comes from the earth.