Cass McCombs avoids classification. The Northern California-born singer-songwriter has been reimagining modern American myths in his songs – from Wild West gunslingers and gold diggers to his theoretical past life as a Vietnam soldier – for nearly a decade and a half, ever since Baltimore label Monitor Records took a chance on his stripped-down 2002 EP Not the Way.
Over the course of seven full-length albums since then, McCombs has explored the full spectrum of rock, folk, country and more. In this excerpt from his recent Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio with Frosty, McCombs goes deep on his creative process.
THE BAY AREA
In high school I was involved in the community of Unitarian universalists. I really felt comfortable around them to be myself for the first time ever. I learned about other kinds of people’s interests in music and art and theater and poetry. Everyone was extremely creative. At the conferences, which happened maybe once a month in different spots all over the Bay, anybody could perform anything. Performance art, weirdness. We were just kids trying to figure it out. It was free and open. That was inspiring.
We were going to [Grateful] Dead shows and punk shows like [at] 924 Gilman Street, but also involved in various forms of social activism and political stuff. But we were all kids. We were young so we had to start our own community, and meet other people that had similar interests or could inform us to things we didn’t even know about. Sexuality was a big thing, exploring one’s sexuality free from judgement. Not just whether you’re gay or not. There’s so many shades of one’s sexuality and just to explore that in an open, nonjudgmental community was joyful.
[I was] involved in a big friend circle, like a big community of musicians at that time, we’d travel all over the Bay Area and jam with all kinds of people, like down in South Bay and up the peninsula in the city. The Bay Area was pretty vibrant in the early ’90s. People just sharing ideas, like hip-hop people and punk people and hippie psychedelic people. People really shared ideas and they didn’t judge you, like “Let’s try to make something weird and different.”
When I first started out, I played acoustic guitar, a lot of country songs, Merle Haggard, John Prine, things like that. And then I wanted to play loud music, like really loud music, like fucked-up loud music, as loud as could possibly be. One of my bands in high school, the drummer had a china cymbal. It’s the loudest thing ever, and he just laid on that china, “gahhh, gahhh, clang, clang.” Metal falling off the roof kind of sound. It was that time. It was that funk-metal-punk-psychedelic-acid time in music. So just whatever the craziest, loudest, nastiest thing was, that’s what we wanted to do.
My early lyrics really sucked. And I knew they sucked. So we ended up doing lots of covers.
To me it’s always just been work. I work at my craft, I guess, and I’m interested in music. I try to learn about it and learn about music, collect records, read books, learn about the history that I’m involved in as a listener and also as a participant, as a musician myself. I think that also extends to writing songs because you know the song that you need to write. By doing your research you say, “Oh, I’ve surveyed a hundred thousand songs on coal mining. No one’s written this kind of coal mining song yet, so I guess I will.” It makes the job easier, the more research one does, I think.
The Beatles’ lyrics always really excited my imagination. Then if you want to talk about lyrics in the mid-’80s, we have to talk about rap. I could still rap those old songs. Ice-T, Slick Rick, Ice Cube, Public Enemy. They were really vivid and memorable lyrics. I think rapping has really showed the way for our generation, like how you could express yourself. Then later I found out about Scottish balladry and stuff like that.
My early lyrics really sucked. And I knew they sucked. So we ended up doing lots of covers. We’d throw some covers into the set to show that side of ourselves. When we were making a set, because we had to play like three or four hours, we were like, “Let’s tell a story. We’re going to start acoustic and then there’s going to be a 20 minute drum solo, and we’re going to try to tell the craziest story and go to every little island that you could think of.”
I think I still try to do that in a different way now, not playing the same thing twice. It’s boring. Similarly, not writing the same song twice. When you write songs, try to make them as disparate from each other as possible. Exaggerate the songs. Push them away from each other. Because then they can grow on their own.
My songs are not about me. It bothers me when people think that they are, because most of the lines are taken from other people that I interview. I write it down because I think what they say is cool, and then I make it rhyme, and that’s it, and then it’s a song.
I get asked about “Don’t Vote” a lot. I’m not telling people not to vote, the character of the song is telling people not to vote. There’s a difference. It’s about walking in someone else’s shoes. I find songs that are from the perspective of really unique personalities interesting. I try to make my characters contradict each other so they can be totally themselves.
“Run Sister Run” came from a variety of people, women that I spoke with who were involved in community organizing. That’s a song that’s not from a singular person, but about a singular idea. It’s a man who’s involved in community organizing, fighting the good fight alongside really righteous women, and in reality, they are the ones who are actually making it happen, but the guy’s kind of like following them around like a puppy dog, trying to keep up intellectually. The narrator is using rhetoric that he thinks will please the women, but in a way he’s mansplaining. He falls into the same trap that other guys who are not even in activism fall into. It’s kind of a zany idea.
If someone’s going to judge you, let them judge you. Who cares?
I always approach my own music as a listener of other people’s music. My music is a response to the music that I love. I always used to say my music’s like theft. It’s not even coming from me. I just steal it from other people.
I have no tricks up my sleeve whatsoever. If you do have a trick up your sleeve, then you’re already doing the same thing twice. You’ve become a tool to yourself. You have to keep on searching for new ways to obliterate your consciousness, really, and wipe yourself clean. Just don’t be afraid. If someone’s going to judge you, let them judge you. Who cares?
MUSIC AS PLANETARY CONSCIOUSNESS
I support my friend’s music, and the community that I’m in, but as far as a historical context, it’s challenging to see a future to music. Everyone talks about the apocalypse all the time. Ecologically, this planet’s going to crumble, like, tomorrow. The planet is hurting. I think it’s reflecting in our music. Music is a part of the planetary consciousness, and it’s starting to break apart also. As we pave over the earth, we mine it and we do all these terrible things, we do the same thing to our history and music. I just see there’s a connection between our consciousness, our planetary consciousness, and our music.
People don’t even have to think about making music. I guess I would encourage people, when they make music, to be truthful [so] that it’s reflective of themselves and the time that they live in, and is as well-rounded and complex as they are as people. When I encourage the community to go in a certain direction, it’s with love. I’m not trying to cause people more pain. I think we’re living in a perfect world. It’s a perfect disaster, it’s a perfect storm. It’s the world we got. There’s no future, there’s no heaven, there’s no paradise awaiting us. It’s now.
LOVE AND HATE
It’s all love. Love encompasses hate. The universe is surrounded by love, and whatever love means, that’s a pretty giant idea. Hate’s not even a bad thing. In one of my tunes, “Brighter!” the character is burning an effigy, and every time he pitches an object or an idea [towards it], it sparks, the fire gets a little brighter. When Karen Black sang that tune, she was like, “What’s up with this line, brighter hate? I don’t know if I agree with that.” I’m like, “But he’s throwing anything into the fire. Everything and anything goes into the fire.” It’s not saying it’s a good thing. It’s not illuminating hate like, “Hey, hate’s great.” It’s a character incinerating shit he doesn’t need, and later he throws all his friends in the fire too. Hate, it’s not the boogeyman. Sometimes there is some heavy, shitty feelings, and that’s the reality.