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Most anything written about Cass McCombs mentions the California singer-songwriter’s caginess. He’s not typically one for interviews, and has never had much interest in divulging the sort of personal information that drives the rock press. If anything, he’s a modern folk artist and poet: He has zero interest in fame, and a strong drive to craft intricate narratives about the lives of outsiders, often written only to impress his closest friends and dearest fans.
McCombs lets his work speak for itself. Since 2003, he’s released five albums of lonesome, delicately melodic music that’s garnered him comparisons to everyone from a young Roy Orbison to John Lennon and Leonard Cohen. This year’s LP Wit’s End is the first of McCombs’ releases that could justifiably be called “epic”: It’s darker and more cavernous than anything he’s done before, and he handles the gloomiest, most intimate subject matter with rare grace and intellect. The A.V. Club caught up with McCombs in anticipation of his July 29 show at Larimer Lounge, and talked to him about folk, falsettos, his one-off play The Pretender, the Wild West morality of California, and his affinity for the Grateful Dead.
The A.V. Club: In many ways, Wit’s End is your most somber, at times despairing album. Can you talk about how it came to take this shape?
Cass McCombs: Well, I don’t really have a story for it. I don’t think I’m a particularly somber human being. We were making this record, and it moved in that direction. I like the way it sounds—maybe I just prefer that kind of music. So much noise in this world.
AVC: It seems like one of those albums that weeds out casual fans.
CM: Yeah. Hopefully.
AVC: Is that something you were thinking about with the record?
CM: I don’t think I thought about that, but I think I try to do a lot of things to weed out casual fans.
AVC: Like what?
CM: [Laughs.] Well, subject matter, you know. Really, I’m not trying to write for the masses. I don’t care. I write for myself, and I write for my friends and people who I have a connection with. I try to give some dignity to peoples’ lifestyles that tend to be ignored.
AVC: Do you consider yourself a “folk” artist in that sense?
CM: I suppose so. I’ve always thought about myself as somewhat of a folk musician. I just write words. I don’t think I’m even a musician. I don’t play a lot of instruments, not really a soloist or anything.
AVC: On the page, your lyrics definitely read more like poetry than those of many other songwriters. You’re a “lyrics first” guy, right?
CM: Generally. About half the songs on this record began as lyrics, and then I sculpted the music to fit the words in there. Even if I’m writing music, it’s with a lyric in mind, to communicate some kind of feeling.
AVC: Can you give an example of a Wit’s End song that was “lyrics first”?
CM: “Lonely Doll,” “A Knock Upon The Door”—I’m forgetting what’s on the record. Those were definitely written as poems.
AVC: “Lonely Doll” seems like it has a particular inspiration. It’s incredibly vivid.
CM: That was written as a present to a friend, ages ago. Well before I recorded it, I gave them a copy of it. It was a gift. It wasn’t intended to be on a record. But I like it, so I put it on the record.
AVC: One of the splits in the folk way of making music is the confessional mode and the more experiential mode of giving voice to others. Is there anything on Wit’s End that is autobiographical?
CM: Well, when I’m trying to write a song for someone else, like “Lonely Doll,” you can only see anything through your own eyes. I wouldn’t claim to know what another person is thinking. I can imagine it, but it’s my interpretation, and I try to make that clear. It’s my vision of what I think their life is. I don’t think there are empirical truths in that regard. I couldn’t write a political song. There’s just opinion; it’s all arbitrary anyway. It’s all subjective.
AVC: Can you go into “County Line” a little?
CM: I don’t think it came from me, that’s for sure. I think I wanted to write a sad song. And that’s my idea of a sad song. [Laughs.] Tried to not make it too complicated, because loneliness is the most compelling force in the universe. And I think love would be secondary to loneliness. Usually there’s no specific reason for loneliness—it’s a broad feeling.
AVC: Can you talk a bit about the video for “County Line,” the one with the home-video footage of addicts?
CM: That came to me through a close friend of mine, who had been working with this footage for some time. I think he heard the song months before I finished the record. He thought it would fit, and showed me a rough cut. I loved it. It’s his vision; I wasn’t too involved with it.
AVC: Do you know how he came across this footage? It’s intensely intimate.
CM: I don’t know how he got it. But that’s what I love about it. It’s real. To me, it’s beautiful because it’s real. It’s nothing to shrink away from, because that’s how these people—that’s their reality.
AVC: Do you like music videos more generally?
CM: I don’t think about it. I’ve only made a few of them. I guess I haven’t found my creative outlet for it. I just like writing lyrics. I find a little satisfaction in performing live, making records. But primarily, I just try to write every day. Videos are, like, the last thought. When I started, I made a couple albums and no music videos. No one made me do it. It’s more of a recent thing—it’s come back as a thing, too. That’s why this one was perfect, because a friend had a vision.
AVC: Speaking of visual art, can you talk about The Pretender?
CM: Well, we did the performance on New Year’s last year, in Boston. It’s pretty much going to live as that. We did film it, and we might release it as some kind of video, or maybe we’ll do another live performance of it. We just flew out a bunch of people from California and made a play out of it. It’s hard to describe. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did it come about? It was another collaboration, right?
CM: Yeah, with a friend—Aaron Brown. We wanted to make a movie. As it turns out, it’s really expensive to make movies, much more than records. So it turned into a slideshow. [Laughs.] And then another friend of ours, Albert Herter, who does all my artwork, got involved.
AVC: People talked about how the production represents “Western morality.”
CM: Specifically what we mean by “Western” in The Pretender is the American West. Basically California, and it’s kind of a history. Growing up out here, me and Aaron have ideas about the history of California, drugs, gunslingers, and gold, all that. You can still see it, especially in San Francisco. It still seems like the Barbary Coast. If you walk through the Tenderloin, there still is an element of mystery and danger, and violence.
AVC: Do you find West Coast drug culture filtering into your music?
CM: It’s growing up around it. It’s not specific to California—everyone has a drug scene, wherever you’re from. But I think, something about Northern California, it’s pretty common. I know a lot of people from high school went on to grow in Northern California, trying to find their own niche in that world. I don’t need to examine it—just meditate on it. That’s what I mean by “Western morality,” is the lack of morality. There is none. People are out for themselves, and they’ll stab you in the back.
AVC: We wanted to ask you about your stunning singing voice. How long have you been singing?
CM: I hate my voice. I’ve never been comfortable singing. But I have been singing as long as I can remember. I used to be in choir; I used to do musical theater. I’d prefer not to sing my own songs, but there you have it.
AVC: Was the falsetto something you discovered pretty early on?
CM: Yeah. I think I prefer singing in falsetto. I like the way it sounds. It doesn’t sound like my natural voice. It sounds like a character. If you’ve ever sang in falsetto, you know that your throat is between your voice and your mouth. In a standard voice, you sing from your belly. And when you sing in a falsetto, you’re blocking that. It gives it a filter. It gives it a character. It’s less revealing.
AVC: What’s your take on touring in general? You say you’re not a typical musician; you don’t like to sing your own songs, but you’ve done it so much over the past decade. What do you get from it?
CM: I do like it. I love my band. I think I like singing when I’m singing live. It’s just in the studio when it’s a drag. I don’t like going to the studio. It just seems too cold. There’s no crowd to react to, or share anything with; it’s just talking into a microphone that’s going into a computer. I grew up on the Grateful Dead, and any Deadhead knows that the live stuff is the best stuff.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Dead bootleg?
CM: I just got this cool Maine tape from ’71 that I found at a thrift store. I don’t have a favorite one, though. I like [multi-instrumentalist Ron] “Pigpen” [McKernan].
AVC: This past March at SXSW you were at Emo’s for the Domino showcase, and then at the East Side Drive-In for a Pitchfork showcase. Both sets were great, but neither venue seemed friendly at all. How was it for you?
CM: Weird. It’s a drag playing these festivals, because you don’t get to play your full set. And our show has an acoustic section—I play piano, I play electric; sometimes I don’t play anything, sometimes we do a lot of improvisation as well. That’s why I like touring, because you get to play. When you’re playing festivals, you only get a half-hour. It’s like a meat market. You don’t get to be artistic. You don’t get to play music. It’s called a showcase for a reason.
AVC: That said, I take it you’re looking forward to this current tour.
CM: Hell yeah, can’t wait. I don’t live anywhere, so that’s what’s fun about tours. I get to do something.
AVC: Do you and the band have any tour rituals as you travel between towns?
CM: We play a lot of cards. I try to read as much as I can, which is hard in the van. Try to keep your mind. Try not to eat bad, try not to wake up with too bad of a hangover. It’s the stupidest thing of all time, going on tour. It deteriorates the soul, but it’s fun.