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Cass McCombs: Mangy Love Songs

by Benjy Eisen on February 06, 2017
“There's so much research to be done on people’s actual work that, sometimes, I’m distracted by their biography,” Cass McCombs tells me, as we take our seats in the bar of a private club in downtown San Francisco. I can’t help but wonder if he means that as an anecdote or more of a warning: “Don’t write my bio. Anyone can find that out on the Internet. Write about what’s interesting instead.” That was already my intent, so it’s off to a good start.

And, yeah, look, if you want to know Cass McCombs’ timeline and statistical data, then I suggest a quick glance at his Wikipedia page: “Born Nov. 13, 1977 in Concord, Calif.; released his first EP in 2002; toured with Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, War on Drugs; genres: rock, folk, psychedelic, punk, alt-country.” But for those already familiar with him as an artist, reading the bio can make you feel like you’re Capt. Willard reading Col. Kurtz’s dossier on his way up river. If musicians were an army, then Cass would be plenty well decorated, but for the social media generation, where history no longer matters, neither does that.

So, then, this is not a Cass McCombs bio. We don’t have time for that distraction. This is a conversation with the artist, conducted over one too many glasses of wine, from the cozy confines of an elite private urban country club where tech secrets are traded and power deals are made with a handshake and, perhaps, another round. Little wonder, then, that we talk less about the album—or, for that matter, his music specifically—and more about art in the abstract, set against a backdrop of “life, the universe, everything.”

The club is called The Battery and, at first brush, it might seem like one of those privileged places that a “people’s artist,” such as Cass, could have their share of hesitations about. The Battery certainly tailors to a very select—and, for the most part, admirable—crowd. It counts, as card-carrying members, no shortage of techies, entertainment lawyers, liberal-leaning politicians, investment capitalists, trust-fund grown-ups and Wild West entrepreneurs. The club does not represent one ideology, nor does it push any agenda. Instead, it actively supports, encourages and fosters a sense of community. That is, the community within and the community without. Its members are generally aware that they are part of an elite, and they are glad to mix among such like-minded company; but they also are generally aware that with their money and influence comes responsibility to the greater good. They are asked, here, to become leaders, examples, role models—and, above all, to be cognizant, aware and engaged.

It’s what we, as a culture, ask of our artists. Little wonder then that The Battery opens its doors (and arms) to artists of all types, aware that it is the creatives—the Cass McCombs of the world—who first give voice and context to communities and, within those communities, movements, mobilization and, ultimately, action networks. All of which could form fl w charts that would somehow look familiar to Cass, even if they were found crumpled up in his waste bin.

Look: Cass McCombs is complicated. He’s not a contradiction; he’s just complicated. He gives the impression that he’s never been fully pleased by anything ever written about him, yet he agreed to do the interview, although his management said that this might be the last interview he gives for a while.

Listen: Cass will likely find some amount of disgust in any analysis either because he doesn’t identify with the depiction, or because he does but doesn’t want to admit it, almost like hearing yourself talk on tape for the first time. But in these dark and uncertain times, we need him more than ever. He’s the type of artist that conscientious citizens could really lean on, looking for clues to something, but what exactly, who’s to say: We don’t know what, and Cass probably doesn’t either. He’s looking with us. It’s his art, like all art, that whispers the clues. Maybe what we’re looking for is permission. Permission from an artist (who claims no other authority) to be furious with the government, furious with politicians and reality TV stars alike…Permission to engage in the oncoming era of political unrest and permission to disengage from it entirely. As he sings on the opening song to his new album, Mangy Love, “And eulogies poured from the stage/ but nothing changed.” (The double-take moment comes a couple verses later, when he sings: “Sent a letter to my congressman/ the Ku Klux Klan/ from my pierced hands/ bum bum bum/ They sent me back an Apple phone/ a fine-hair comb/ and a bell tolled/ bum bum bum.”)

But Cass is right in that it’s hard to cast him as a typical artist, and doing so would be a great disservice to his work. An easy example would be to point to his website—the obvious place for commerce and accessibility. Most artists would want their online portal to have content relating to their latest products, complete with purchase links, an online store, photos, favorable press clips and a current bio. Cass’s website has none of that. Instead, it offers a free download of an original font (“Die Sect”) that he and his friends came up with, for fun, by dismantling and altering the peace sign. Instead of an “About” section, there’s a seemingly outdated “This Site’s History” page. There are lyrics, but none from Mangy Love. There’s a “Video” section, featuring just one brilliant video, for “Laughter Is the Best Medicine”—certainly one of the highlights from the new album. But in order to view the other new videos, you have to search for them on Vimeo.

“Laughter Is the Best Medicine,” by itself, would likely appear on a Pandora station for Super Furry Animals. The video is barely abstract, certainly confusing, but undeniably compelling, much like the song and the artist behind it. In fact, it’s eye candy for ear candy. Of course, Cass himself will likely wince when he reads that sentence.
Dig a little bit deeper, though, and perhaps the video is meant as a metaphor for the song’s lyrical content. It pairs lazy landscape scenes with politically charged images, but one is never quite sure of the intent or agenda. There’s a protest of some sort, the remnants of a Bernie Sanders rally, a parody of the HRC campaign with the hashtag #freechelseamanning and—perhaps most important—a cat licking itself in its forbidden parts, bookending the whole thing. Cass sings, “Sugar and spice and everything weird.” It seems like the message, if there is one, is that the revolution— and revolution— can go be and do whatever, off in th distance, and as the images flash across our television sets and mobile devices, we’ll make jokes and keep each other laughing at cat porn while Rome goes down in flame . And it’s all on equal ground. I like that interpretation. But is that what’s really going on here? Again, who’s to say?

Cass should know, so I text him. I did this just now, in real time, while writing about it, and relayed my interpretation, asking almost apologetically if I missed the mark. “That’s hilarious,” he writes back, almost immediately. “Hadn’t thought about that, but I dig it.” Naturally, he doesn’t offer a alternative explanation. I don’t follow up.

Instead, I recall something he said during our meeting at The Battery: “I think I believe in a world that defies, and is beyond, description. So when I’m writing, I’m asking myself: ‘What’s a song I haven’t written yet?’ I’ve written about this, I’ve written about that, but it’s a pretty big universe, so what haven’t I talked about yet? Maybe even something that’s slightly contradictory to something else I’ve firmly held on to as a belief—let’s challenge that. Let’s fuck with my own beliefs.”

I suppose that’s how a song like “Rancid Girl” makes it from the notepad to the final tracklist on the album. Featuring an intro by Phish’s Mike Gordon (on guitar and vocals—not bass) the song is an unusual sort-of nightmare love song to an unworthy heroine from a man who expects to kill himself before long. (“You’re a rancid girl/ in a rancid world/ but I don’t mind.”)

I wonder how I can relate to such an undeniably catchy song. I am reminded, then, of something Cass said while we were waiting on the waitress. After conceding that many of his songs are written from the perspective of other people, real or imagined, and from all different walks of life, he pauses to think for a moment, then postulates, “Naturally, they will appear on the surface as being contradictory, but these are just surface things like politics, gender, race—things like that. I view those as surface things. There’s something more universal that we all have in common that’s more hidden.”
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