It’s rush hour in central London and on a rainy backstreet, Cass McCombs is trying to get a taxi. One approaches but suddenly speeds off, the driver shouting “I’m not going that way,” through the window. Cass shuffles around in a puddle and shrugs, “That guy probably had an argument with his wife or something.” A smile crinkles the corners of his face. He’ll wait for the next one.
Perhaps the cabbie clocked Cass’s craggy features and saggy, skater bum get-up and opted for one of the suited commuters nearby, chasing a bigger tip. Whatever his reasons, he’s missed out on quite the fare.
Born a Scorpio on November 13, 1977 in Concord, California, Cass McCombs grew up a Grateful Dead fan surrounded by fog and redwood trees. His guitar provided an entry point to the fringes of mainstream society and he began to nomadically traverse America’s underbelly. Now 38, he hoards Beatles records, digs the occult, calls himself ‘Lionkiller’ in songs, has been married and has swapped skateboarding for hiking due to persistent injuries.
2003 debut ‘A’ sparked a quest to use music to expose the uglier side of human nature, to talk truthfully about the things we think we shouldn’t. War, crime, drugs, sex, religion, and discrimination have filled seven records since, brought to life by folky, soulful often psychedelic music drifting around dense lyrics that dance between poetic, prickly, heartwarming and hilarious.
His more awkward songs (‘AIDS In Africa’, ‘Bradley Manning’, ‘Run Sister Run’) make you itch, whereas effortless tracks like ‘Morning Star’ and the glorious ‘Opposite House’ soothe like a cold flannel. His albums may emanate from the gutter, but gliding numbers like ‘You Saved My Life’ and ‘Dreams Come True Girl’ (featuring actress Karen Black, with whom Cass was writing an album he still plans to release until her death three years ago) from 2009 and ‘County Line’ from 2011 seem to make time stand still.
In the press, Cass has inadvertently (or not) built an awkward enigma. In 2007 he asked Vice, “If I believe I have the personality of a wet blanket, what do I have to say?” and, when promoting ‘Wit’s End’, forced journalists to conduct interviews via letter. The last time I interviewed him, in 2013, he smoked weed and bemoaned his search for “real human interaction” and his answers came either in curt sentences or rambling monologue.
Three years on, outside a cafe in a park that has the feel of an inner city secret garden, Cass is still smoking and wearing a lost expression. My first question – about debuting material from spacey new album ‘Mangy Love’ at the previous evening’s show – lands awkwardly. The spattered brown rings around the pupils of his blueish eyes widen as he answers.
“We want to tell a story. There’s a lot written about what albums mean as a whole, why can’t set-lists be the same? Why can’t you tell a [new] story with a set-list?”
Perhaps because people feel old songs are part of an old story?
“But stories are always retold,” he argues. “There’s massive redundancy in the media.”
I change tack and ask if he noticed the adulation in the crowd – London’s Cass cult is strong.
He says he mostly kept his eyes closed, but calls the audience “sweet.” He’s even more positive about his current band – bassist Dan Horne, keyboardist Lee Pardini and drummer Otto Hauser – and the “magic” they create. Of the 15 jazzy minutes of an extended ‘Dreams Come True Girl’ he says, “With jams like that we’ll be looking around like, ‘there’s no key, there’s no tempo and we have no plan to get out of this hole!’.”
Reality is a fantasy. Sex is the most real thing you can do, but it’s a delusion.
Cass encourages his collaborators to “do their freaky thing” in the studio too. Featuring 22 musicians including him, ‘Mangy Love’ encompasses sun-hardened guitars, dirty blues, reggae, Latin funk, lush piano and spoken word (the grizzly segment on ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’ comes from New Orleans actor, activist and “medicine man” Reverend Goat Carson, who starred in HBO’s Treme and met Cass through Black). Although written during harsh winters in New York and Ireland (where he dove deep into traditional Irish folk music and drank Guinness) it radiates warmth, right up until its 12 tracks slope to a close after 59 minutes with bizarre ballad ‘I’m A Shoe’.
“The players are playing a lot!” Cass says, smiling. “There are a lot of notes spinning around your head.” ‘Run Sister Run’ is a good example of what he means: a six-minute attack on America’s misogynist justice system set to an organised muddle of swinging riffs, spidery bass, percussion and tongue-twisting lyrics (“Or do male justices piss in a squat / Our sister lives in a squat that pisses on justice“).
Cass relishes its weirdness. “That song’s a blast and the way the key flips back is… uncommon. I try to throw in melodic ideas so things aren’t too insipid.” ‘Mangy Love’ bubbles away incessantly and you’d be hard pushed to describe it as insipid, like the music or not.
For a second, it’s as if he knows it: “It’s easy for me to love the record, I think it’s great. I’m totally cool with it. I feel different about it.”
“I don’t know where I am, but I’m onto some new shit. I had an opportunity to feel I like all the songs,” he says, referring to a longer-than-usual recording period with producers Rob Schnapf and Dan Horne. “Most of my other records were made much faster and my ethos was [to use] whatever songs we have in front of us. The point was to present something unedited, a raw snapshot. Whether it’s good or bad someone else could interpret that. It could be bad, it could easily be bad.”
In fact, Cass reckons the majority of his previous work is bad. “I released my sketchbooks, they weren’t records. It was a prank on the music business because everyone takes themselves so seriously like, ‘Oh Radiohead has a new album’. There’s all this pretentious posturing, everybody wants to be an artist. I was anti-art, I wanted to make something brutal.”
But even now he’s made something he likes, Cass still can’t acknowledge his talent. ‘Mangy Love’’s seventh track is a swampy song with a malevolent bassline called ‘Cry’. The first line goes, “No gold for bards“. Does he consider himself a bard?
“No I do not. Not at all. I’m sure for every person who likes my music there are 10 that think it’s terrible.”
This answer reflects something Cass said last time we met, that he despises himself most of the time. He still does. “That’s honest. There’s a lot of people believing in themselves… I find I can mislead myself if I think I’m too good or I feel comfortable at all. That’s when I’m in danger of making my worst shit.”
This idea of discomfort fueling creativity drives Cass towards exposing the world for what he believes it is – a “terrible place.” He admits ‘Mangy Love’ is a political record, but not in the sense of promoting change. “I don’t think anyone needs to change anything – if this is the world people want, this is the world they get. I write a song about it and that’s it.”
He bangs a fist on the table before continuing.
“My question is, do we like disliking the world? How do we know we dislike it? We’re all the same, we all destroy what we love and make up values that are impossible to commit to. I’m interested in presenting a world for what it is. It’s about wiping away the bullshit. Why do we want more bullshit?”
We touch on some recent news stories – the European referendum, Donald Trump’s election bid, the tragic terrorist attack in Orlando – and Cass looks disgusted. “I didn’t want to make the record feel like reading a newspaper. Ugly things just interest me. We are a very repressive people – we repress what we dislike and point the finger at other people for being racist, sexist or homophobic, but never at ourselves.”
The longer we talk, the weaker Cass’s faith in mankind seems. “People generally like to think they’re good,” he says, spitting the last word like a spoonful of rotten eggs. “I think people are amused when presented with ideas they have crossed off as taboo – the thing we tried to ignore is the very thing we were looking for, and it’s funny. We’re amused.”
He rubs his spindly fingers together and suggests we move indoors, he’s cold.
Surrounded by young professionals eating artichoke hearts and chatting rubbish inside, he’s brilliantly incongruous and warms to his theme, easing into a monologue about fantasy. “Reality is a fantasy. Sex is the most real thing you can do, but it’s a delusion. People think pornography is actually sex! That’s not what sex is.”
The “people” he’s referring to are all around us, making his comments even sharper. This eloquent drifter has made up his mind about the humans he shares oxygen with and the world we’ve created. “A lot of things aren’t what we think they are,” he continues, conspiratorially leaning over the table. “I hang on the border of fantasy, escapism, UFOs and the illuminati, paranoid drug hallucinations, politics… the words we use to express our delusions.”
Hearing him revel in the grubbiness of his craft makes its prettier moments even more acute. In ‘Medusa’s Outhouse’ he sings, “Dancing and music are sisters/ Sisters are good listeners/ Sisters are good kissers”. He delivers the line with a falsetto that almost sounds like it’s hiding behind the guitar, afraid to show itself. It’s one of the most straight-up, innocent moments on ‘Mangy Love’. Put that to Cass and he just smiles and uses it to segue into talking about people again. “People should think about the many ways we can listen to music – while cooking, wherever. Because we don’t talk about that our taste becomes homogenous – ‘I like this so I will repeat it to death!’.”
It’s no surprise to hear he doesn’t mind how or even whether people listen to ‘Mangy Love’. “I’m not here to convince anyone to like what I do, I’m really comfortable with people disliking it,” he says. When he adds, “I don’t know if I like the record…” and threatens to go back on his earlier praise, another classic Cass contradiction looms, but he rescues it by saying “It’s what we set out to make. It’s strong.”
The idea that it’s taken Cass McCombs eight albums and 13 years to even come close to accepting his music is odd – the connection is instant and enduring for most fans – but perhaps that’s what ‘Mangy Love’ signifies. The spiky Die Sect font he invented for ‘Dropping The Writ’ has been abandoned and the unlikely new sleeve features nothing but a close-up photograph of his camera-shy face. And, after openly talking up the music, he’s dismissing his awkward reputation (“It was always bullshit, I don’t know where it came from”). As we finish and head to find a taxi, he insists “I’m a regular guy,” and even talks about settling down one day.
But outside, leaning against a damp wall wondering when a cabbie will say yes, he looks a long way from regular.@cassmccombs