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Mystery Man

Three years ago I had the worst winter of my life. I was sullen and Walkman-addicted, and I wore the same thing every day. I only listened to music I had liked when I was in high school, since it was the only other time I felt that awful. It was all...

by Ethan Swan
Nov 1 2007, 12:00am

Photo by Aaron Brown

Three years ago I had the worst winter of my life. I was sullen and Walkman-addicted, and I wore the same thing every day. I only listened to music I had liked when I was in high school, since it was the only other time I felt that awful. It was all Dinosaur Jr., Unrest, Morrissey, and, weirdly, NWA. During that time I heard Cass McCombs’s second album, PREfection, and it fit right into the big gaping hole of my mind’s dramatic despair—the heartache, the buzzing energy, and the shamelessness. His voice gliding with the grace and slight humor of a grandiose, unrestrained bow. The guitars chiming with the perfect melody of an older sister’s Smiths records. You know, stuff like that. It took months of repeated listening, but the songs pulled me out of that hole (the one in my mind).

As if to mark the end of my days of darkness, I saw Cass play a few months later, as the sun set on a long, bright summer day. His band played hazy acoustic versions of songs from PREfection, from his debut, A, and a few new ones. New songs! I was so in love with PREfection I didn’t even consider how great new songs would be. And then I did a terrible thing. I got greedy. I assumed the new songs meant a new record, maybe only months away. But months passed, then a year. I would occasionally hear that he was working on a new album, but time just kept passing.

I ran internet searches to see if anyone knew about Cass recording or playing new material. You know how there are “critical favorites”? Like how reviewers love the Velvet Underground but everyday people don’t? It turns out Cass is even more select. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, as they say. All I ever found online were testimonials from other musicians—from bands like Les Savy Fav, Grizzly Bear, Destroyer, and the Shins—who all brought up PREfection with the same reverential awe that I felt.

Now, finally, I have his third LP, Dropping the Writ, and it builds on everything I ever loved about PREfection. But where PREfection is a band playing remarkable songs live in the studio, Dropping the Writ is a richly crafted album. Every sound is carefully placed in the exact right spot, with a care that’s as deft as it’s deliberate. The songs are as right-there as if he were in your room, singing them into your ear.

Greedy again, there was so much I wanted to learn about Cass and his new record. He doesn’t usually do interviews but my soul was pure, so he told me a few things.

Vice: I keep thinking about how scary the song “I Went to the Hospital” was on the first record, or the line “I cannot mend this massive slashing” on the second one, but how there isn’t a similar heaviness on the new CD. Where is the darkness? It seems like something happened in the past and you’ve learned from it. Do you feel like you’re beyond that? Happier?

Cass McCombs:
Naw, it’s not behind me yet. That wouldn’t be realistic. But I’m trying to learn something from unfortunate events these days. Being happier, I wouldn’t say that. I’m a little older and the game got a little deeper. Negativity is the easy way out. I look back at the old songs and try to find the meaning of words that I don’t even necessarily agree with now.

Is that what drives the reinvention of your songs live?

If you look at the songs on a purely musical level and perform them without meaning, it can be just basic, musical fun. And that kind of thing invents itself, like doing a Bill Monroe version of an old song. Joking around in rehearsal, and then someone says, “No, seriously, let’s do that.”

Are there songs you feel a specific dedication to, or is everything open?

I’m open. I’m not that specific about how I need it to sound. Really, playing live is like covering yourself. The repetition of playing the same song every night lends itself to caricature. And in every cover new things come up that weren’t there in the original artist’s version. I think more people should perform covers. It’s a dying art.

You recently moved from LA to Chicago, right?

Yes, we just moved here like a month ago.

It’s OK?

Yeah, I was riding my bike yesterday through the busy intersection at Milwaukee and Western and a head-on collision between a tow truck and a sedan happened about two feet away from me.

Yikes. What’s your favorite place to live?

I don’t know. I like everywhere.

It’s funny, because I used to think about your music in relation to location, like how A is such an American-sounding record, like it definitely came from this East Coast lineage. And then you went and lived in England for a while and made PREfection, which has these totally English-sounding guitars. I guess I wanted it to be this thing where the new record is this California record but it really isn’t.

I’m glad you say that because some people have tried to pin it on me that it’s some kind of West Coast thing. It’s all over the place because I was all over the place. I can’t stand it when people market themselves as being from a region, like drawing “212” on your forehead. You know what I’m talking about.

It’s been a while since your last album...

It took forever because I bit off more than I could chew by recording a lot of it on my own.

Did you feel that right away, or was it a new challenge every day?

Yeah, it was just one thing after another for a year, learning how to record on a computer, learning about outboard gear, compressors, microphones, all of which I knew nothing about before this. I’ve made records in, like, a week. PREfection was recorded in a week and I didn’t have time to think. There’s a certain kind of raw energy that comes from that, and I think I’ll do the next record the same way, but on this one I wanted to push myself.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

Sadly, I can’t. I have a rotten memory.

I just looked at and there’s no information, just the text “Fire in the hole.” A few years ago I remember it was a series of super-upsetting fraternity-party photos. Do you feel like there’s a correspondence between that art and your music?

Those photos were found by Tres H. Zour. We really should bring them back “by popular demand.”

What’s the story behind those photos? What were they and why did you like them?

They’re hard to describe. Just nightclubbers enjoying themselves. It doesn’t seem that shocking to me but I’ve definitely heard some strong reactions from people. A radio DJ in Amsterdam asked me on the air if the photos explained some hidden meaning about my sexual orientation.

I ask because people have accused you of being opaque in your songs, and there definitely seems to be gray areas that you’d rather not give people access to. Is this is a conscious project, or just natural?

It’s a shame about an accusation like that because to me, I’m trying to be as direct as possible—that’s what lyrics are for. There are a lot of very stylish people out there who don’t have time for music, and I think they should spare us all their complaining.

In your press bios you are often identified as a Scorpio, and you make reference to it in “Lionkiller,” the first song on your new record. Which of the following traits do you think mark you as one: determined, emotional, passionate, magnetic, jealous, compulsive, or secretive?

Multiple choice! This is fun, but you’re missing a few. I’m not really sure if I identify as being a Scorpio, but it’s just a plain fact: I am a Scorpio whether I like it or not, just as I was born into many things that I can’t escape.

You’ve said that you dislike interviews. Is that true? And why?

Yes, I dislike interviews very much. If I believe I have the personality of a wet blanket, what do I have to say? Why do artists have to vouch for their actions? It seems counterproductive. Music journalism on the whole is completely outside the world of the creative process and everyone knows it, although it can be a funny game in and of itself. I hardly ever have a negative opinion about music. In fact, it seems to me the only people who have very strong opinions about music are oafish jocks. Men. And there are a lot of them out there. There should be more printed opinions by women in this world.

Cass McCombs’s new album, Dropping the Writ, is out now on Domino Records.

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