Oh em gee, you guys, where have I been? I have, as usual, been splitting my time between working and galavanting around the Bay Area, both on and off assignment. Funny how the number-one thing that prevents me from updating the blog is the thing this blog is about: my freelance work.
Lately I’ve started working with Paste Magazine, though my work with them came about under unfortunate circumstances: Crawdaddy! closed up shop over the summer, and their freelancing team got passed along to Paste, which was also part of the Wolfgang’s Vault family. It was tough to break in at Paste — after taking on the Crawdaddy! writers in addition to their existing freelancer pool, there was a lot of competition for assignments — but I completed my first assignment for them last month: a profile of the elusive Cass McCombs.
To be honest, I knew nothing of Cass McCombs’ reputation going into this project, and I still kind of wish I didn’t: rumor had it he’s…well, read along and you’ll see.
If you have an mPlayer account, you can read it here. But it’s likely you don’t (though you should: Paste affiliations aside, mPlayer is a very cool little gadget. You can easily lose several hours playing with it if you have no pressing engagements and no clocks within view), so here’s a copy-paste of the story:
It’s safe to assume that Cass McCombs doesn’t have a Twitter account. He’s become as famous for keeping mum about pretty much everything as for being a gifted songwriter. Interviews dating back several years reference his thinly veiled disdain for conversation, all of them using cautionary but upbeat adjectives like “reserved” and “enigmatic” to describe him. They all seemed to suggest one of two things: that he harbors a deep resentment of the press or that he’s some kind of merry prankster. Or both.
However, the reality is that McCombs is almost disappointingly approachable. After releasing his fifth album Wit’s End in April, he’s already back with another full-length called Humor Risk. “I wanted to keep the momentum going from Wit’s End, he says in a soft-spoken voice. “We had to speed up mixing on Humor Risk just to get it out before the end of the year. The most frustrating thing is being told you have to wait six months [to release music]. It’s like artistic constipation.”
Humor Risk marks McCombs’ first attempt at introducing comedy into his music, a surprising turn for an artist known for his opaque brooding. But fans will recognize the album’s uptick in major chords as well as McCombs’ wry lyrics. “I think it’s a revolutionary idea to use humor in music,” he says. “I believe that because of the commercialization of music, people take it very seriously. We want to uphold this idea that it’s worth your hard-earned money. I don’t believe my music has any value. Music should be free and fun and not heavy.”
And yet, McCombs fans are a fervent bunch. There are a few artists who can inspire mass worship on the level that he unwittingly commands—his Facebook page is littered with comments calling him a genius, inspiring, un tremendo artista. Even critics are unapologetically adoring. It’s an awkward position for someone who operates as an outsider.
“I don’t Google my name, if that’s what you’re asking,” he says of it all. “I’d be afraid of what I’d find…I’m trying to piss people off! If you’re saying I’m not, I must be failing.”
McCombs grew up in Concord, Calif., in San Francisco’s East Bay. It’s not the tumultuous East Bay that rappers and punks (and now, Occupy protestors) have made famous, but a sunny suburb about halfway between Oakland and the tenuous boundary of the Bay Area.
He left Concord in 1999, but he never really landed anywhere, leading something of a nomadic existence since—Humor Risk, he says, was recorded in “different studios; different bedrooms” all across the country. Though it seems that pretty much any city he’s stayed put in for more than a few months claims him as their own—he’s been linked to New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles—he begs to differ. “I’d consider the Bay Area my home,” he says. “I’ve spent probably the most time there. It’s a place where I can go and—I wouldn’t say I get in touch with myself, but every time I go there it’s an entirely different experience. Especially San Francisco. Fortunately, Chinatown stays the same,” he adds with a short exhalation that might be a laugh.
Maybe he’s just in rare form this afternoon, or maybe his whole creepy-neighbor persona is just a role people have thrust upon him because they don’t want to believe that he just doesn’t talk much. Even his music hearkens back to old cowboy ballads, often appropriating the use of characters to tell a story. When he does refer to himself in first-person, the truth is usually buried deep in metaphor or simply lacking in details.
It’s these nostalgic tendencies that have McCombs lazily tossed into the “Americana” category. Each album is very different from the next, but it all, in some hazy way, evokes something very American: two-lane highways, high-school sweethearts, boarded-up farmhouses you pass on your way to somewhere else. It’s not a boot-in-your-ass kind of Americana. Not even a schmaltzy John Mellencamp kind. The mood and melody sound like a simple, rustic, American Gothic USA, but there are still modern touches to it all: a sudden syncopation, a jazz organ, a dash of dark humor. Still, he’s not sure the genre suits him.
“Americana, it’s a weird term; a modern term,” he almost whispers before a long silence. “…Yeah. Fuck it. I’m not Americana.”