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Cass McCombs: A Multifarious Portrait of the Artist

California outsider on his roots, politics and new album ‘Mangy Love’.

Prevailing wisdom would tend to have it that Californian songsmith and adroit outsider Cass McCombs is an enigma. But the label does him the disservice of ignoring all those things he patently is. Eight albums deep, McCombs is, above all, a protean master of his craft.

Latest outing Mangy Love – released August 26th – is all narcotic, roomy soul and hypnotic funk-lite colours, in contrast to the cosmic American roots music of Big Wheel And Others (2013). But McCombs’ Bay Area Aquarian bent shines through undimmed.

McCombs has always been a one-man comedic double act, the straight man and the fool in one, and Mangy Love gives ample demonstration of his singular wit. “You’re bad – I mean you smell bad…” he sings on lumbering snarler “Rancid Girl”. He’s a consummate bandleader – there’s not a wrinkle to be found across the length and breadth of Mangy Love despite the moveable feast that is his backing cohort. He’s an allusive and mesmerisingly poetic lyricist – see the ‘white dog of the farm’ on the silken “Bum Bum Bum”. He’s at once philosophically-minded and intent on subverting systems of logic – ‘how do you make a magnet? You create a potential…’ he sings on the slinky “Opposite House” (featuring Angel Olsen). He’s suspicious of modernity (“Cry”), politically alive (centrepiece “Run Sister Run”), and seemingly ready to revive disco (“Switch”). He’s also a shoe (“I’m a Shoe”).

Rolling Stone Australia caught up with McCombs ahead of the release of Mangy Love.

Mangy Love is your first release with ANTI- Records, after 5 LPs and a compilation with Domino. What prompted the change of label at this point – does it signal anything like a change in the wind for you, creatively?
Nothing really prompted it. I wanted to make a record, and you need a label to release your music – I guess you don’t need one, but if you want one, they’re there.

Not only are you one of the few recording artists outside the world of metal to have designed your own font, but you’ve also done it more than once. Has that got anything to do with a surfeit of creative energy, do you think?
Oh God, no. I have an interest in graphic design, I guess, and typefaces. I did the lettering for the covers of a few of my records by hand – I did PREfection by hand. I just like lettering in general. I collect books of typefaces and things like that, and I’ve collaborated with a couple different friends. Aaron Brown and I formed the Die Sect organisation around about 2007 or something, which was kind of a multi-media collective and we made films and we wrote manifestos. And with anything we did, it was a completely collaborative project. We made a board game, we made a font. I love working with friends and people that inspire me. It’s actually nothing to do with me – it has to do with friendship and community.

It makes me wonder, I guess, whether you perhaps find that music can’t quite encompass the entirety of your aesthetic sense.
Coming from, kind of, an underground community, before the music business was even a glint in my eye, it was never even an option that this was going to lead anywhere – it was just like a community, you know? Make flyers together, make bands together, make films together, do exquisite corpse paintings and poetry. I think that’s an important thing for other musicians to remember. As the community extends to an Internet global thing, let’s not forget where we come from and the people around us. And that might end up being, like, a longer lasting work, because it symbolises that time and place perfectly. Even the music I release is just one microscopic part of the kind of music that I do – it’s just the music that I release. I have many other projects and interests – and that’s just musically. So if someone hears my music, that’s not the full picture, because, I mean, a big part of what I do on a day-to-day level is study old folk songs and learn old traditional ballads and things like that – I’ve always done that, I’ve done that for decades now. And this songwriting thing is just like a – it’s a gas – it’s a job, and it’s fun.

The weight of interview material I’ve read leads me to believe that you’re particularly resistant to the idea of your songs being, kind of, reified – possessed or experienced as objects. All of which leads me to suspect that you perhaps consider music in particular, and art more generally, to be, kind of, ephemeral – that each new work is swept along and away by everything that follows. Is that fair to say?
I guess I wouldn’t use the word ephemeral – no, I would be afraid to use the word at all to describe one’s creative expression and passion. It is what it is and it is what you create – and it’s nothing more than that. It’s not a philosophy, and it’s not a lifestyle, it’s not a choice. It’s just you. It’s just what I do and I’ve been doing it for 25 years. It’s not a religion or a belief system.

You’re a noted wanderer, which is something that I suppose predisposes you to making music in a way that’s more radically free. In terms of Mangy Love, though, are there any places in particular that you’d say ground these songs?
A young person might look at American music and think, oh, banjos and fiddles, Zydeco music, maybe. And then, when you get a little bit older, you start to look at jazz, I guess. Now, to me, at this point it’s kind of making me look closer at the Bay Area and our history, here. So that includes Vallejo, California and Oakland, California: Sly & The Family Stone, Johnny Otis, and all the kind of psychedelic music and funk and hop-hop – Nineties hip-hop, I was way into that, all of that Souls Of Mischief, you know, the underground, Bay Area hip-hop that was coming out in the mid-Nineties. My scope on American music, it’s pretty healthy right now. By healthy I mean obese! It’s anything – anybody is like Elvis Presley or Ralph Stanley to me.

Mangy Love follows hot on the heels of your debut LP with The Skiffle Players (Skifflin’), which was released earlier in the year. That album seems to give flight to your love of psych and jam bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead. And I know that Wit’s End and Humor Risk (both from 2011) were recorded pretty well back-to-back. Is making different albums in quick succession perhaps helpful in some way, in terms of your creative energy?
Of course!

You’ve formed a sprawling network of collaborators over the years – how did you go about assembling a band for Mangy Love?
It’s co-produced with Rob Schapf (Surfer Blood) and Dan Horne (The Chapin Sisters). Dan Horne also plays bass in The Skiffle Players – he plays bass on this record. So, musically, he’s kind of like the anchor or the bridge or any kind of nautical instrument that connects the live room to the control room. So he’s playing bass. And Aaron Sperske (Beachwood Sparks) from Skiffle Players played on a jam. There’re so many amazing people. ‘Farmer’ Dave Scher (Kurt Vile). You know, it’s really just, like, friends, you know?

You performed at a Bernie Sanders benefit event earlier in the year, and press surrounding “Run Sister Run” seems to feature the word political front-and-centre [there’s a definite emphasis on the experience of women represented on Mangy Love]. Of course, some of your earlier songs like “Don’t Vote” (from 2009’s Catacombs) and “Bradley Manning” (from 2015 B-Sides and rarities compilation A Folk Set Apart) have also drawn that label. Would you say that you’re a political songwriter, in the sense that you set out to write songs with a protest- or- political bent – or is it simply the case that politics and songs sometimes just meet, or intersect haphazardly?
It’s a chicken and egg kind of question, you know? We’re all people in society, and we all – I mean, y’all have to vote, you’re legally obligated to vote! But, like, today with all these crazy police killings, it’s so fucked up and the police are just killing people all the time, like a couple times a day and for really unjustified reasons – as if there is such a thing as ‘justified killing’, there is no such thing as justified killing, it’s not a thing. So I just think, it shouldn’t be a surprise when people want to express themselves in [a political] way. And I encourage other musicians to do it – I think it’s a little too rare, honestly.

You sing about ‘garlic, cayenne, turmeric and lime’ on “Laughter is the Best Medicine” – do you have a particular dish or recipe in mind?
I wonder what all of those elements would taste like if they were all just in one big cauldron? Like, the whole song, if you put the whole song into one big pot, maybe added some water and heated it up a little, I wonder what that would taste like? That was kinda the idea – you know, the witches’ brew? I just wanted to make this big pot – the whole song was just this big boiling, bubbling cauldron.

McCombs has a string of East Coast dates lined up for December, details here.