Talking about the Grateful Dead, religion and the intrinsic gloominess of music journalists

By Alex Heigl
September 05, 2016 01:00 PM
Jordi Vidal/Redferns

Cass McCombs is one of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of. Regrettably still something of an unknown quantity in the larger music world, he’s frequently tagged as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” or something equally reductive. I didn’t even hear of him until The Talkhouse published what was essentially a list of other artists talking about how good McCombs’ music was, and at that point, he’d been putting out records for something like 14 years.

McCombs’ newest, Mangy Love, is his first for alt-leaning Epitaph subsidiary Anti-, and it, like most of his music, is languid and breezy, though still packed with his typically beautiful melodies and lyrical punchlines: “Netflix and die / go on and cry,” for one; “Sugar and spice / and everything weird,” for another.

I was a little leery about talking with McCombs, because he’s gained something of a reputation as a cagey or difficult interviewee, but as it turns out, I had absolutely no reason to be. He was relaxed, cheery and remarkably willing to take any number of digressions in our conversation, which ended up a little like one of his albums: Winding, informative and thought-provoking.

In lieu of doing interviews during one press cycle, you sent out typewritten letters, and you put up a satirical interview on YouTube (below) at one point. Do you feel like you have to come at this whole routine from different ways every time it comes around?
No, not anymore. Maybe at one point … I think that back then, it was new to me and just wasn’t natural. So I tried to do some different things just to keep me interested, Actually, that project [the letters] turned into a book called Letter to a Gloomy Music Journalist and I took all those letters and rewrote them as one letter and it’s kind of a manifesto, in a way.

Do you typically find music journalists to be gloomy people?
Well, that’s a reference to a collective I was a member of, called the Gloom Genre. But no, music journalists, they’re not gloomy people [laughs] – and neither am I!

How did your version of "Dark Star" come about on the recent Grateful Dead tribute album, Day of the Dead? I know you’re a fan of the Dead and Phish.
Well, I’m an old head, went to shows and all that. And that’s like, my family and everything. I’ve been playing those songs forever, those are some of the first songs I learned how to play. And we wanted to make the tune kind of a collage, cut-up kind of feel, little bits from different locations … field recordings, that sort of thing.

I think Tim Hecker went out of his way to say he hates the Grateful Dead. Do you think that kind of approach can work – covering a song completely cold?
Yeah, of course. I mean, we do that all the time. You go to any kind of music school and you learn a song together, and it’s just right before you for the first time. And some people do it at church. Or even as kids, in class – the teacher passes out a song and it becomes a communal thing. I was just listening to Sly and the Family Stone’s Woodstock performance, and they get the entire crowd to sing “Higher,” and it’s magical. I’m sure some of those people had never heard the song before, but the whole group is singing as one. And we get fractioned off in these weird little projects that are supposed to encapsulate us as individuals, but it’s important to realize that our voices are usually speaking as one.

Did you change your approach to recording or production at all, going into Mangy Love?
Well, every record’s a little different. We wanted to have more time to talk about the arrangements – arranging on records was never really something I cared about, until now. We’ve always gone into the records like, “Let’s just make the rawest, fastest, nastiest, thoughtless thing,” always as kind of a response to the kind of commodity-driven aspect of music. Just to make something that had life, that had flawed people in it, not perfect robots. So on this record, we talked about retaining that, and recorded everything live with the band and then of course we got all cosmic and started adding cool sound effects. Which is a blast. [laughs]. The whole way through was just joking and laughing and trying weird things.

You had this quote, "I try to give some dignity to peoples’ lifestyles that tend to be ignored." That’s a great mission statement.
My songs are generally not from my perspective, but from someone else’s, maybe one of my friends’, or maybe a few of my friends’ – maybe I can create a new character based on things that I gathered from my friends and other people that I’ve spoken with. It’s easier, I think, to be oneself, when you’re giving back to other people. It’s harder to create a whole new artificial self. It can be done, but it’s much easier to use yourself as some kind of, I don’t know, some kind of carrier.

Your website at one point was just a series of photos from frat parties, and one of your music videos consisted of footage shot by a friend. Is this a way of distancing yourself or filtering your work through other people’s visuals?
Well, it’s like … okay, a staff photographer for PEOPLE, they’re given an assignment, right? And they go out and they take a picture, on assignment, and like, it could be a brilliant photograph. Is that art? Is that person an artist? It doesn’t really matter. That’s my thing. I’m not really interested in “artists,” if they’re making interesting work.

You had another quote where you said "a master craftsman … doesn’t let his personality get in the way of his art." It seems like you have this consistent idea of distancing yourself from what you’re making, of creating something that lives separately from you.
Definitely, and I think that’s really easy to see in certain crafts like carpentry. You can see how focused a carpenter is in making a balanced object, something that is strong, and works. There’s a school called the California College of the Arts and it used to be called the California College of Arts and Crafts and it was a real tragic day to me when they dropped the “crafts,” part, because to me, that’s the most important part, is the craft of the thing, of whatever you’re creating.

There’s this line on "Medusa’s Outhouse:" "If it’s so easy, you try." Is that a dig?
I mean, it is some kind of dig, yeah, I guess. I don’t know if it knows exactly who it’s trying to dig into. But it’s like, dig it, you know? I’m digging back, and you’re digging this, and I’m digging you, and it’s all good, you know? [Writer’s note: I’m pretty sure he’s messing with me at this point.] Like, let your guard down, that’s basically what it’s saying. Unfold your arms and let’s get down. Trying to crack someone’s ice-cold exterior. Like, “Hey motherf—er, I’m here, wake up, give me a kiss! Kiss me, motherf—er!” [laughs].