Cass McCombs and the Cosmos
We meet up with the mystery that is Mr. McCombs to talk Bush, Obama, Trump, and Malcolm X. Plus the importance of taking psychedelics to fully understand your place in the universe.
Cass McCombs walks down the stairs of an East Village restaurant wearing giant rose pink sunglasses and says “Hey man” in a very soft voice. The glasses look like something you’d choose while on a mushroom bender after deciding you simply have to go outside and walk around for a while. We’re here to talk about his new record Mangy Love. Arguably the greatest American singer-songwriter of this generation, his ninth album shifts gears between 70s drive-time tunes and guitar riffs that chug, hypnotic as a metronome; songs that shimmy (“Run Sister Run”), and songs that spin melancholy into understated explorations of the human condition. And then he goes and closes the album with the Cohen-esque “I’m a Shoe.”
And yet after all this time, after all these observational, confessional songs, the 39-year-old remains a mystery, and I’m trying to pry as much personal information from him as I can manage. McCombs is a nomad. I wonder where he picked up those pink shades—or who from—but I don’t ask. Even though I’ve known him for eight years, there’s a quiet fierceness to his personality that projects the vibe: just let the mysteries be, please. We meet on St Mark’s Place, where NYU kids mingle with skateboarders, fashion punks, crust punks, and the J Crew-sporting professional set who continue to colonize the area with increasing regularity. St Mark’s also happens to be where you can buy just about any of the semi-legal synthetic drugs on the market including fake opiates, fake mushrooms, and fake cannabis. The latter recently caused a scene in Brooklyn when a bunch of street addicts who smoke it all day—between hits of crack cocaine—OD-ed, collapsing on the pavement outside the subway station thanks to a bad batch.
Noisey: Have you ever tried that stuff—the synthetic cannabis?
Cass McCombs: I’ve heard about this K2 or whatever. What the fuck is it?
It’s usually made in China and it starts off as white powder and then they spray it on shredded leaves or whatever.
What does it have to do with pot? I don’t understand.
It feels like pot and some people fuck up how they make it and spray a thousand doses of pot into something that’s suppose to be one thing of pot. Imagine if you did a one hitter, but it was a thousand times stronger than you it’d be. So people are just falling over the pavement.
Yeah and puking everywhere, I saw those pictures from Bed-Stuy the other night. Body, puke, body, puke.
You don’t have that in California. Marijuana prohibition is still here in New York.
Yeah we’re having this big herb renaissance where everything is organic. They talk to the plants and they play music to the plants—like they’re people, their spirits are in the plant and then they enter your consciousness and everything. I don’t understand this synthetic-ness, but I guess one has nothing to do with the other.
Do you still smoke weed?
Where are you living now?
I’ve been mostly in Northern California and here. The Bay.
It’s beautiful there when you drive over the bridges. Maybe I would like to die there because it looks like a bit like heaven when you see the city surrounded by all the clouds.
Yeah it’s a pretty place I can’t really stay in a place for too long. I like the city and I like the country too. Don’t we all?
There’s a song on the new record called “Rancid Girl,” which contains one of your funniest lyrics: “You’ve got a diet of Mike and Ikes and fresh mongoose / Your favorite movie: Every Which Way But Loose.” Is it about somebody you hate?
It’s just like an ZZ Top riff, it’s a rock ’n’ roll love song I guess. Like a rock ’n’ roll girl, we know all cool rock chicks. I knew I wanted to make it harsh, but it’s all love.
Is it about a girl who likes Rancid the band?
A little bit, Adeline, Berkeley, punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll, teenagers, Telegraph Avenue.
What do you like about those places and those things?
I mean we were all teenagers and we all try to access that time from 14-17 when we get older, because when you’re in it you’re having sex for the first time, doing acid, going to New York for the first time, whatever you’re doing for the first time. You’re not even a real person, yet these traumatic things are happening to you and you don’t really have the ability to appreciate them.
The first song “Bum, Bum, Bum” talks about “blood on the streets” and there’s a lot of coverage of terrible crazy things happening at the moment. Is that song is a take on that?
Of course yeah.
Do you follow the news? What are you thinking regarding what you’re seeing with police brutality, and Trump, and the Middle East, and all the bloodshed, and people trying to divide people through fear and violence?
We’re all following the news, but I put it in the song, I’m not an extremely articulate organizer—I just write songs and that’s my way. I think it’s escalating, even the divisions in music, these styles. I can’t remember a time where people were so married to what divides us in music. It’s escalating, but I don’t think it was so great in the past: we come from pretty violent origins, so I wanted to write a song about that. How can we envision a rosy peaceful future when we come from such a violent place?
I don’t think Trump is going to win though. Do you think he’s funny? Does he entertain you?
No, he’s tired. His schtick is tired.
How would you feel if someone killed him?
The pacifist in me doesn’t really want to condone shit like that, but then the revolutionist in me is like, by any means necessary. So I don’t fucking know.
It’s like if you would’ve killed Hitler before it happened you would’ve saved a whole lot of problems.
I don’t know. Is killing wrong?
Some would say it’s fine.
Who says that?
Well a lot of people are killing people every day, so people are fine with it. If it’s a means to an end, I think if it justifies that means to an end, that’s why people do it.
Pacifism is [perceived as] pretty old school, like corny, and we’re stuck in these wars. I voted for Obama because he said he was going to stop war. I believed him. I thought he meant it because he was so harsh on Bush, I was like, yeah, we’re going to stop war forever!
What do you think of him now?
His policies are brutal and imperialistic. Drone wars, it’s insane, but I still kind of like the guy. When he speaks it feels like I’m having a conversation—it’s a weird trick. He’s like a real human being, but his policies, citizens united, one after another.
Did you see George W. Bush dancing at the memorial service to the slain Dallas police officer?
They were playing the violin and “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” and he’s just dancing and he’s holding hands with Michelle Obama and his wife. He looks red-faced, like he’s drunk, and everybody is just looking at him.
No one else is dancing?
No, that was always that guy’s thing I think, his dancing.
I went to his exhibition of paintings.
You went to it? Where was it?
It was at his Presidential library in Dallas. We went on opening day—we just happened to be playing the same day in Dallas. That Putin is special. It’s kind of Edgar Allen Poe, there’s something strange about that one painting.
How many paintings were there?
It was called The Art of Leadership and here might have been around 30, like Tony Blair, Bush Senior, Dalai Lama, Sarkozy.
What materials were he using? What was his medium?
Watercolors, oil on canvas. But those ones of him in the shower, in the bathrobe in the mirror… [Laughs.]
What did you get out of it? Do you think you saw a window into the man?
Well you look at his paintings and he paints like a child. There’s an innocence to him, but I can’t help but think about being here on 9/11. I still feel that feeling of that day and how major it was. It could’ve been the best thing for us, or it could destroy us depending on how we reacted to it. I think we took the latter choice: we’ve destroyed ourselves. So he seems like a comedian, another Trump kind of guy, like just this knucklehead, and you want to kind of be sympathetic to him, but you think about Afghanistan, Iraq, his whole posse—Dick Cheney and all those guys—they’re basically warlords, imperialistic warlords, so it’s not so funny, or cute any longer.
You’re right things didn’t work out that well. That’s possibly one of the biggest mistakes in the history of civilization. But if people don’t vote for Hillary as a protest vote against Bernie not getting in there, that’s annoying to me.
There’s is a world outside of these elections and politics, I think it’s important to step into it, know the language, and then also be able to step away from it and meditate. The world doesn’t always revolve around people. We have this really egocentric concept of the cosmos, that it’s elections, and the next leader, our leader, one person—it’s ridiculous. What about planets and stars, galaxies, supernovas, and shit? That’s why it’s important to take psychedelics from time to time; it does that.
What’s the last psychedelic you took? I’m a bit scared of them now I had a few accidents with liquid.
It’s dangerous. Those vials the liquids, everyone who's ever had a vile has had some kind of spillage moment.
Mushrooms are safer and I heard they’re good for depression.
I think that’s true I’m a pretty depressive guy, I snack on them and it helps. I don’t understand why they’re illegal. I have a friend who has them and they’re apparently really special, really pampered and stuff. And even the way they’re brought into the United States they try to do everything in the most sacred way.
It’s like a sacrament rather than just taking drugs.
How often do you do them?
I go in and out of it—doing it all the time to don’t need to do it all the time. It’s fun to play music doing it, but I don’t really like to be at bars doing it [although] I’ve done it a few times. The woods is a nice place [to do it]. Legalize it. It’ll save us.
It’s too wild of a concept for most people though. Mushrooms is still too crazy, but the other stuff is not crazy, like invading countries.
Right, but banning a fungus that grows naturally, that’s crazy. Or making it legal would be crazy.
How do you deal with the depression? I started meditating and it worked a bit.
Me too. I’m nowhere though. I’m really bad at it and I need to do it more, but the guy who played drums with me in high school is now an instructor at the Oakland Zen Center and I think it’s Japanese style. There’s koans and riddles but words—it’s a riddle. They’re great for lyrics, use your imagination and wherever the riddle takes you it’s OK.
I love the Buddhism thing where the basic message is: “It’s all OK, it’s fine, because it’s all so massive, there’s nothing you can really do.” It’s really good if you have control issues.
But then my roommate studies a different style which is a really rigorous traditional Buddhist practice, vows of silence. I don’t know anything—he just tells me about that style and it sounds really intense. He says it’s not fun, it’s not nice.
My friend went to a silent retreat before. He said to me, “You’d love it you should go.” I don’t think I would.
A lot of strange old dudes, all with possible mental health issues in the middle of nowhere! What have you been reading? Were there any books that help formed this record just tell me what you’ve been reading the past two years?
I guess I revisited a lot of books that I read when I was younger that really made an impact on me, like the autobiography of Malcolm X, which is basically the first book that really spoke to me outside of when you’re a kid and you’re reading Dr. Seuss, Judy Blume, or something. I was 14 when I read Malcolm X and it really just started me off. I kind of grew up immediately. I felt like I had sight after reading that book.
It gave you perspective, inspiration, or what? What did you get out of it?
I thought about my suburban upbringing in Northern California, East Bay. And I was listening to Public Enemy and all of the music of the time too.
Like “Fight The Power”?
Then I loved Do The Right Thing, and then I heard that Spike Lee was making the Malcolm X movie so I wanted to read the book before it came out. So I re-read that after all of these years and I like Chester Himes, he’s a black writer I wouldn’t say that he’s a crime writer but he wrote all different kinds of stuff, he’s hilarious.
There’s tons of people on the new record, including Rob Schnapf who made some Elliott Smith records, and your long-time collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid, who worked on the records you made with the actress Karen Black. [Karen passed away in 2013 at the age of 74.] Can I ask about Karen? How did you meet?
I asked her to sing on my song “Brighter” and we hit it off. I was writing a handful of songs for her, but she has stacks and stacks of all these poems and lyrics. She wrote songs and would send me them. She’d call me and leave long voicemails of singing then it would cut off and she would call right back and keep singing. But she had also been writing songs and recording them since the early 70s, maybe 60s. She always wanted to make a record.
I guess that was 2007 or ’08?
I don’t remember exactly, I have no memory of anything.
What is she like? I was excited to see that creative partnership. I was always a fan and when I saw her on your record I thought that was a great team. What was it like and how did the relationship work?
I would go visit her home all the time and sometimes accompany her to events and things like that, but she was always drawing, singing, just creating constantly. Like a whirlwind, she’s always thinking. She had amazing control over her creativity: she knew exactly what she wanted; it was really inspiring because musicians or a lot of artists I’m friends with from my generation… everyone seems so lazy sometimes. I like intense people. I find them inspiring.
Cass McCombs Tour Dates
Tue. Sep. 13 – Big Sur, CA @ Henry Miller Library
Wed. Sep. 14 - San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
Thu. Sep. 15 - Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom
Fri. Sep. 16 - San Diego, CA @ The Casbah
Sat. Sep. 17 - Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Mon. Sep. 19 - Austin, TX @ The Parish
Tue. Sep. 20 - Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall Upstairs
Wed. Sep. 21 - Dallas, TX @ Three Links
Fri. Sep. 23 - Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge
Sat. Sep. 24 - Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
Mon. Sep. 26 - Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
Tue. Sep. 27 - Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
Fri. Oct. 14 - Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts
Sat. Oct. 15 - Baltimore, MD @ Ottobar
Sun. Oct. 16 - Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight
Tue. Oct. 18 - Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
Wed. Oct. 19 - Nashville, TN @ The High Watt
Fri. Oct. 21 - Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
Sat. Oct. 22 - St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
Sun. Oct. 23 - Madison, WI @ The Frequency
Mon. Oct. 24 - Indianapolis, IN @The Hi-Fi
Wed. Oct. 26 - Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
Thu. Oct. 27 - Montreal, QC @ Petit Campus
Fri. Oct. 28 - Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sat. Oct. 29 - Boston, MA @ Cafe 939 at Berklee
Tue. Nov. 1 – Paris, FR @ Point Ephemere
Wed. Nov. 2 – Luxembourg City, Luxembourg @ Rotonde
Wed. Nov. 3 – Lisbon, PT @ Cinema S. Jorge
Thu. Nov. 4 – Berlin, DE @ Kantine am Berghain
Fri. Nov. 5 – The Hague, NL @ Crossing Border Festival
Sun. Nov. 7 – London, UK @ Scala
Fri. Dec. 9 -- Meredith, AU @ Meredith Music Festival
Andy Capper is the executive producer and director of Noisey on Viceland. Follow him on Twitter.