Progress Report: Cass McCombs
NAME: Cass McCombs
PROGRESS REPORT: The singer/songwriter (and reticent interview subject) writes us a letter to shed some light on his new record, WIT’S END
One of my weirdest interview experiences of all time happened several years ago when I conducted an ill-advised phone interview with Cass McCombs. To be fair, this was totally my fault. We were supposed be talking about his record, 2008’s Dropping The Writ, which happened to be one of my favorite record of that year. Unfortunately, the day of our interview (which was happening on the phone — me in NYC, Cass in LA) I came down with what can only be described as a biblical case of the flu. Rather than just reschedule the interview like a sane person should have, I decided that, after mixing a cocktail of over the counter cold remedies with a glass of whiskey and honey, I could still make it happen. I called him up and had what I remember as one of the most awkward phone conversations in human history. I think I might have actually opened with “Hey, I’m really really sick, but I’m so happy to talk to you!” or something equally embarrassing. Then I went on to slur incoherently from underneath a pile of blankets while Cass gave terse, one-word answers to my awkwardly-phrased questions. Listening back to the interview later, I was so intensely mortified that I immediately destroyed the cassette tape on which it was recorded and opted to write a simple review of the record instead. The End.
So, I was excited by the prospect of talking to Cass about his forthcoming album, WIT’S END. Not only because I think it might very well be his loveliest, darkest and oddest record to date (hear the first single, “County Line“), but because talking to him would also be a way to erase the painful memory of our past interview, which has haunted me for three long years. However, Cass McCombs is no easy person to pin down. He currently does not give interviews in person or on the phone. These days the elusive McCombs only does written interviews … and by that I mean he only responds to interview questions via good old snail mail. NOT EVEN EMAIL, PEOPLE. Cass McCombs is keeping it old school.
So, I wrote Cass McCombs a letter. I asked him about the making of WIT’S END, what he’s been up to lately, his feelings about the music business, and what sort of books he’s been reading. Along with a few small drawings of birds and dogs done on index cards (which are now pinned to the wall in my office), McCombs sent me the following typed out letter…
To T. Cole,
Thanks for putting up with my request to communicate through the mail. I originally saw it as an experiment to improve my penmanship, but as you can see I’ve given up all hope of legibility. Also, I never get letters anymore. Actually that’s not true, yesterday an old friend sent me a letter handwritten by green fountain pen and the book, East of These Golden Shores: Architecture of the Earlier Days in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties. Talk about old school. Anyway, thanks for your questions, I’ll try to answer them for you…
The earliest of these songs probably began in Chicago, but I don’t think I really make albums, I’m always writing and recording songs and these releases are simply the most recent. It’s craftwork, not Art. Over all, the making spanned about two years, in too many locations to list. The players changed, as did the engineers. This was all deliberate so whatever the thing ended up being, it was Folk. I mean, it’s non-commercial. I made this because this is what I make, that’s Folk, and it’s about people I know and how we’re living. It comes from the heart and it’s not intended to be sold, it’s just intended to be traded, like a Dead tape. No need to know what I think of the business, just that it’s Babylon. I’m more interested in what people are saying, whoever I come in contact with, yesterday I was at a bar and someone was talking about a guy we know that turned down a job modeling for Urban Outfitters and one person said, “That’s stupid. None of his friends would ever see the Ad anyways. And it’s a lot of money.” Someone else said, “Money is bullshit.” Then there was a fizzle of a conversation about Money. Someone blurted out something about the broken American Dream and there was mention of the movie “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” These scenes make up our times and I find it kind of cute and endearing. The greatest art of any era comes from anonymous sources. The Folk who sacrifice themselves by passing on what has been taught to them so that it will live. In this sense, the future is Folk. We must not sell out our Past, but teach the Future. This is how I relate to influences, that Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Darby Crash, Merle Haggard, Ritchie Valens, etc. are all 20th century figureheads for Folk feelings, Folk heroes, and the entire 20th century was an exercise in Celebrity. What if someone said that in the future we will return to the Folk, that Celebrity will be an impossibility by virture of technology? Well who knows and who cares. People I know take drugs. Some people I know have emotions that get the best of them, or they hide their emotions altogether and focus on technology or something. I’ve been mostly in California recently. It’s been interesting to see how legalized weed has become. I know people get lonely because I do, so that’s what I end up writing songs about, how you get lonely sometimes and come up with these big ideas that give you meaning for a second but then leave you like everything else leaves you. And Money is bullshit.
Thanks for allowing my rant. I’ll try and answer your questions more straight-up now.
The credits of the album do a pretty good job explaining where the record was made and who played on it, etc.
I wanted to make a record that only people who listen to my records would understand and everyone at Domino has been really supportive allowing me to try and out coo-coo self destructive ideas, it feels like they got my back pretty good. When I told them it was communication-by-mail-or-nothing-at-all and no new photos I’m sure they had some trepidation.
Trying to think of what I’ve been reading…
Whores for Gloria
Gilles and Jeanne
Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Bible, always
Hope this is okay & best wishes,
WIT’S END is released April 12th on Domino.
[Photo by Paul Valencia, P.I.]