When I called in late August to request an interview with Cass McCombs, his agent, Jessica, said a lot of other journalists wanted to talk to him about his latest album, Mangy Love. "He's a little pressed out," she told me. "But seeing as it's you, it's a maybe."
Cass and I first met after a Christmas party in London in 2005, when he was doing press for his second album, PREfection. He'd had an underground hit called "Aids in Africa," which came seemingly out of nowhere. Well, it came out of Baltimore, released by Monitor Records, a label run by a guy some people call "Baby Leg." Cass, still in the early stages of his career, was already a mythical figure. There were stories about a young musician who critics described as "weird" and "confrontational," and as someone who hated reporters. "Difficult" has always attracted me, and when I thought of his beautiful songs—like "I Went to the Hospital," and all those other stoned, country-blues-gospel hybrids—I realized, at the time, I was in love with someone I hadn't, until then, actually met.
When his PR person introduced us at that party, I was a bit wobbly (because it was a Christmas celebration in London), but I got the distinct feeling that this "difficult" guy was actually really chill and charming. And he had these piercing blue-green eyes.
Since then, we've had a strange journalist-fan-friend relationship. I've interviewed him many times over the past eight years, and in early September, with Jessica's blessing, I flew to San Francisco to do it for what Cass assured me would be the last time. Ever. With anyone. Cass isn't going to do any more interviews, for no reason other than that he hates doing them and the way he comes across in them.
So when he texted me to meet him at Mill Valley Music, I put the name into my GPS and didn't think twice about taking the scenic, two-hour-long drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. It was an epic, winding trip, reminiscent of the opening scenes of The Shining, when Jack Torrance first brings his family to the Overlook Hotel. On arriving at Mills Music, I encountered a man who appeared to be Mr. Mills himself. He had never heard of Cass McCombs. An SUV pulled into the driveway, and I figured maybe I'd just beaten him there, but the person who exited the car was one of Mr. Mills's music students. It quickly became apparent that I was at the wrong Mills Music. Mill Valley Music, it turns out, is a record shop that was now two hours and ten minutes away, just outside of San Francisco—not on a mountaintop in Santa Cruz.
I called Cass to fill him in on the situation. He seemed concerned but not overly so. "Sorry about that," he said. "We can drive to the beach, though. I've got a cooler full of beer." And with that, I returned to San Francisco to meet him in Dolores Park, where he was waiting for me in a White Sox hat, shades, and new Levi's.
Mangy Love, released in late August, was met with overwhelming positivity. The New York Times called Cass "one of the great songwriters of his time," but it's taken the release of nine albums for him to receive such accolades from the mainstream media. It doesn't matter, because the praise doesn't make him happy, and, in fact, he finds receiving any press at all a bit embarrassing.
Shortly after the release, he did an interview with O.G. MTV News reporter John Norris. Cass said that the conversation started off comfortably—as a fun, casual chat between two people—but the video was edited into something he felt made him look like a social-justice warrior: He spoke exceedingly earnestly about the disconnection between the heart and the soul and the internet. I told him, genuinely, that I'd loved it. It seemed to me a throwback to a time when artists like Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain talked sincerely with journalists about the subjects that made them feel like outsiders.
"People are broke, people are suffering, and maybe this is one way to help them," he told Norris, referencing the importance of political awareness and voting this election season. "And even just writing a song about a voice that is seldom heard can help, you know?"
"Man, it's horrible," he said, grimacing with humiliation as we drove to the beach. "When I see my quotes in a magazine, or on the internet, I feel like I'm betraying my former self. It's seeing yourself through the lens of other people, instead of who you actually are." But in many ways, he is the person in those interviews: thoughtful, sensitive, and concerned. In the MTV interview, he discussed his connection to HeadCount, a non-partisan nonprofit organization that teams with musicians to promote democracy, but he revealed that he might not be voting this election season, because of his anti-war stance. He believes neither candidate represents his view. He generally doesn't like to divulge details about his personal life or beliefs, which makes interviewing him difficult, and explains his remorse about sharing those candid thoughts with Norris and MTV's audience. But when he does get personal you know it's what he really feels.
To make him comfortable for our interview—the Last Interview—I opened a voice-recording app and threw my iPhone on the dash of his Subaru Outback (which is full of records, books, cassette tapes, and the aforementioned cooler of beer) and started a winding conversation about music.
"When I see my quotes in a magazine, or on the internet, I feel like I'm betraying my former self. It's seeing yourself through the lens of other people, instead of who you actually are."—Cass McCombs
We began talking about songs on a cassette tape he had just picked up by the San Quentin Mass Choir, including one called "He's All I Need," which the Rex Foundation, the Grateful Dead's nonprofit organization, had produced. The songs on the tape are gospel, but the instrumentation sounds like something you'd hear on Mangy Love. There's a kind of trippy West Coast psych-guitar jam beneath the voices of the prisoners and their chaplains. Cass's musical roots are in the church. He sang in a Catholic Church choir, where he learned to play piano at five years old. Then he learned the saxophone, and then he learned the guitar, and then he had a crisis of faith. "I had a meltdown and decided I couldn't ingest the body of Christ with any certainty that it would transform me," he said. "If you ask me now, I would say that I don't have this faith. But I really still enjoy music that comes from church choirs."
His connection to gospel music, which he described to me as "music that stirs the soul," has a heavy influence on the new album—not in the full-church-choir-backing way but in a more stripped-back and devotional way. It's present on many of his records. Just listen to "County Line" from his album Wit's End. But he told me that he feels his lack of faith is actually what keeps him inspired by music with religious associations. "It's really important to step out of one's comfort level and what defines us as a culture or religion and sometimes walk into somebody else's church.
"A lot of white people vehemently disagree to do anything that has any religious context, and my response to that kind of pronounced, vocal atheism is, 'Why is it that gospel music is 100 percent better than the music you're listening to? Why is Rasta and gospel better than all your bourgeois bullshit put together?'"
There are, of course, lots of other influences that he mentioned, including Coil, Hot Tuna, Throbbing Gristle, and Aretha Franklin (probably the only time Throbbing Gristle and Franklin have ever been or ever will be mentioned in the same breath). He also brought up Vassar Clements, who was really encouraging when Cass met him backstage at the Warfield as a kid. "He sat me down in the dressing room and said, 'So you're learning to play music now, huh, kid? Well, don't give up. Keep at it, and don't listen to what people say.' He was saying, I know what it's like to be discouraged to play music. So that's why I decided to try that much harder."
We finished two Lagunitas and our rambling music chat, and we watched the sunset on Ocean Beach while discussing Burning Man, which had just ended. We decided that its idea of sharing, caring, and a vaguely lawless collection of people is quite a good vibe, spiritually. Cass concluded that if it only lasts for a weekend, then what's the fucking point? Then, after a bit, he drove me to my rental car, and I went back to my hotel to transcribe the Last Interview. I was feeling quite a good vibe, spiritually, myself. Until I realized that two hours of the Last Interview had not been recorded, and I punched a wall.
Sheepishly, I texted Cass the next morning. "Hey man. You know you said that was the last interview you were ever gonna do… Can we do it again?"
My phone pinged. "Hahaha. I dunno man. Maybe all this is just the universe's way of telling me to shut the fuck up."
UPDATE 10/11/16: An earlier version of this article stated that Cass McCombs met Vassar Clements backstage at the Fillmore. It was actually the Warfield.