Saturday, 2 July 2011

Interview: A Letter From Cass McCombs

To many, Cass McCombs went to his darkest place yet on new album WIT’S END. Here was a collection of morose and rather archaic-sounding ballads that told helpless tales of lost love, grief and existential angst. One almost wondered what demons had befall Cass in the two years since his distinctly more witty and varied previous LP, Catacombs, such was the elastic emotional range on show on WIT’S END.

The thing to remember with this artist though, is that ever since his first album A, his songs have always been ‘story’ songs. The ‘Lionkiller’ of Dropping The Writ is not him, Catacombs’ ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is not his personal paean to job satisfaction and the miserable figure at the centre of WIT’S END’s epic closing track, ‘A Knock Upon The Door’, is not him either. It all begs the question of how he is able to call upon these reserves of apparent despair… maybe it’s the mood he finds in the American air these days (because if there is one artist peculiarly obsessed with being American, it is McCombs).

As an artist and songwriter, McCombs wants to feel everything and be everything – to tell the tales of kings and of paupers alike from the inside. And perhaps this is why he is so reticent with media coverage and interviews to the point that his ostensible reclusiveness is as well known as his music. To talk about his songs is to reduce them to one thing, to frame them when they should be allowed to sprawl and expand, both in the minds of listeners and more importantly, himself. So he simply doesn’t talk about them, or at least, is incredibly careful of whom he communicates with, how he communicates and the language he uses.

When his third album Dropping The Writ was released in 2007, he was still willing to do the odd telephone interview, albeit providing many one-word answers and leaving endless journalists enduring his trademark excruciating silence. Then when Catacombs came out, it was email questionnaires only, so he could pick and choose which questions he answered and to what extent of detail. Replies were invariably pretty laconic, to say the least.

Then finally, when it came to doing press for WIT’S END, McCombs chose to communicate with the media by post. Journalists were expected to write a letter of questions to his manager in Los Angeles, who would forward them on. As well as embracing the romance of epistolary communication, McCombs was ensuring he only heard from those who cared enough to go through this unusual rigmarole.

I sent him 15 handwritten questions, never for a second expecting he would answer each one in turn, or even one directly. Naturally, I received a straightforward one-page letter in return… typed out using Word, by the looks of it – so much for the romance of us men of letters.

However, the questions that took his fancy, that he seemed to be addressing in the letter, were:

1. What has your life entailed over the last year?

2. WIT’S END is a beautiful record. How did you approach the songwriting and recording process as distinct to Catacombs?

3. WIT’S END and Catacombs seem less directly autobiographical than Dropping The Writ. Is that the case from your point of view also?

4. What is your relationship with the idea of ‘tradition’, do you see yourself as part of one?

And that was about it. Here’s the letter:


Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I’ll try and answer your questions best I can.

This past year… after spending a lifetime of trying not to get my hopes up, I’m not concerned bout convincing anything to anyone, it’ll just be taken the wrong way. There’s no different approach to any of my records, I just write and record continuously and release the songs that seem the most complete. I have a sketchbook approach to making records, they’re drafts for a better version somewhere down the line, maybe a better live version, or maybe someone who can really sing will find my songs. Recordings give a general layout of songs so you can see what’s possible. The greatest possibilities are non-recordable, they are transient. I’m after a pure feeling through music, which anything could trigger if you’re open to it, mainly I’m talking about the feeling that comes across through performance, the feeling that is passed back and forth from the audience to the stage, the most thrilling and surprising feeling, pure spirit.

In my old age I’m interested in songs with a good story, with characters that carry my imagination. I think through storytelling the true spirit of the songwriter comes through far more than if they were writing in the first person, spilling their guts out. I’ve learned this the hard way. Nobody wants to hear your feelings or your opinions. Nobody can relate to your innermost thoughts, the best we can do is trade stories, speak in parables, and be good listeners.

I’m sure we’re all part of a tradition, though beats me where it’s taking us. Perhaps under the Vatican is hidden a scroll that explains the sacred bloodline of songwriters, right next to the family tree of the first person who mated with a ghost, causing the bloodline of the white race, a half-breed race of half-human and half-ghost. I don’t know and don’t care about tradition except to carry the old time songs into the future. It’s bad news that so few people care about the old songs, but what can you do. I’m talking about the really, really old songs. The kind that return us to our primordial essence.

My music has nothing to do with my factual life, it never has. The songs are told through characters that are totems for feelings that I get from friends and people I meet. Songs are masks.

I saw a snake yesterday.

I hope this finds you well.

Rest in peace, live in love.


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