Cass McCombs Embraces His Contradictions

The indie icon posits extreme optimism with political cynicism on ‘Mangy Love’

by John Norris

“I constantly break my own values, all the time,” Cass McCombs insists. “I’m snaky. I don’t believe in anything. We’re all walking contradictions.” For a long time, McCombs has been a mystery, both elusive personally and hard to pin down in his art, seeming to thrive in a place of impressionism rather than explicitness. But some of the evasive quality that’s long been a part of the singer and his work has lifted on Mangy Love, his seventh studio album, out this week, where the political vagaries of his previous records come more starkly to the fore. Not surprisingly, he’s a prickly interview subject, a contrarian who’ll not only challenge you but will also sometimes upend his own arguments, mid-sentence. Plainspoken in some areas and willfully vague in others, he’s not sentimental, but he gives a shit about the world.

So who is the inscrutable Cass McCombs? And how did he get here?

A nearly 15-year canon of songs that merge folk, punk, pop, country, skiffle, and, on Mangy Love, soul and soft-rock impulses, have earned McCombs a reputation as one of our most affecting singer-songwriters, an everyman from the American underground. On earlier records like 2009’s Catacombs, 2011’s Wit’s End and 2013’s Big Wheel and Others, he told unfussy, poetic stories of survival, dreams, death, defiance, and unexceptional workaday people. Now, on Mangy Love, he embraces groove, muscle, and — seemingly — politics. It comes right off the starting blocks, on the brooding commentary “Bum Bum Bum”: “There’s blood in the streets,” he sings. “How long until this river of blood congeals?”

While it may have been the 2014 killings in the streets of Ferguson (Michael Brown), Cleveland (Tamir Rice), and Chicago (Laquan McDonald) that most directly informed this track, in the days before our interview, Orlando, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul had all taken place — we only need to name the city to evoke the incident. When you live in a chronically violent society, “Bum Bum Bum” remains tragically evergreen. “That’s kind of the idea of the song,” says McCombs, “that the origins of our culture are violent. They began in violence, so that’s no surprise to me. But I’m a very cynical guy. It’s just the story of our culture, in the States. And slavery, I guess? How we’ve never really talked about that. I mean, really briefly we’ve talked about it. We’ve made some films about it. And I don’t think my song is gonna do anything to change anybody.”

McCombs believes that if there is any hope, it’s in being honest. “The only way to offer any kind of optimism is to just be real about what’s going on, with each other, and with our real feelings about things,” he says. “And sometimes they’re not cute or pretty or even marketable.”

Much like his music, Cass is understated but blunt, humble and skeptical. Drawing him out on personal details or inspirations for the record is largely ineffective. A native Californian, he currently makes his home there — to the extent that he has a home. “I guess so,” he offers. “For now. I mean, I have a bed? I had a van that I liked to sleep in. You know, it’s like camping.” As suggested in Mangy Love’s closer, “I’m a Shoe,” McCombs is a nomad at heart: “I’m always moving. I can’t be anywhere for very long.” And does his new media-accessibility, along with a new label (he recently ended his longtime association with Domino Records and moved to another indie stalwart, ANTI-) mark the start of a new chapter for him? “No, it all blurs together,” he says. “I’m still as broke as ever, so not really.”

Didacticism has rarely been McCombs’ way, though he’s infused politics into his work over the years in ways both explicit and subtle. His debut album, 2003’s A, features songs that take on war and religion. On Catacombs, the darkly matter-of-fact “The Executioner’s Song” was the testament of a guy who saw his 9-to-5 job carrying out capital punishment as just a way to put bread on the table. And Big Wheel’s “Everything Has to Be Just So” addresses racist and sexist tropes.

But Mangy Love feels different. Elsewhere on the new record is the taut, urgent “Run Sister Run,” whose staccato vocals, somewhere between sung and spoken word, are primarily a paean to Cecily McMillan, the Occupy Wall Street activist who in 2012 was arrested and convicted of second-degree assault of a police officer — a conviction widely protested as unjust. “I wanted to write a song about the women that I knew and admired for their work,” he tells me. “They have way more guts than most of us guys, as far as activism and community organizing. And the Cecily McMillan story I really thought was messed up. The first two verses start with her as a character, and then it kind of extends to other women that I knew, and then kind of flips inside because I realize that I can’t write from the female perspective. So it goes back to a male perspective and then it kind of ends in uncertainty.”

McCombs has long written about female characters, typically from a perspective of solidarity with women rather than one in pursuit of them. He has written love songs, sort of, but a lot of the female characters in his songs are not love interests. On so many tracks — like “The Lonely Doll” from Wit’s End, “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery” and “Mariah” on 2011’s Humor Risk, and the new album’s “Rancid Girl” and “In a Chinese Alley” — women are heroines.

There was also McCombs’s collaboration with the late screen icon Karen Black, the wild woman of ’70s essentials Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, and The Day of the Locust — something of a prototype for the woman we know as Lana Del Rey. “I was just a big fan of her movies, and I knew from her movies that she sang,” recalls McCombs. “In almost all her movies, at one point, she’s always singing. My friend Aaron [Brown, of Focus Creeps] was working for a filmmaker in the Bay Area, and his job was to pick up Karen at the airport and bring her to a film festival. He was like, ‘Hey, you’ll never guess who I met today. Karen Black!’ And so I just straight-up asked, ‘You think she’ll sing on my record?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know. All you have to do is ask!’” Black was there the next day. She first appeared with McCombs on the haunting, Roy Orbison–worthy 2009 track “Dreams Come True Girl,” then took the lead on one of two versions of the sweet singalong “Brighter!” on Big Wheel and Others, released only two months after Black’s death in August 2013 from cancer. Her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, put together a touching video for the song — a montage of Black’s greatest moments. “She was a really open person,” says McCombs. “Really loving and interested in all people. She made friends with every person she came in contact with. It was cool to become her friend.”

“Brighter!” was chosen for inclusion on a Cass McCombs playlist curated this spring by fellow musicians for The Talkhouse, by another exceptional woman, Angel Olsen. Olsen, who’s got a new record of her own out next month, appears on Mangy Love in an inconspicuous but lovely role — cooing along as a counterpoint on the wah-wah soul-pop gem “Opposite House” — the result of a long-distance collaboration that Olsen played by ear. “Angel, she killed it,” says McCombs. “I sent her the track, and I didn’t even tell her the influences, the sound or the vibe, or anything. She picked it up immediately: ‘Oh, Philly Soul! Chi-Lites!’ And she sent me back a bunch of, like, soul jams. Of course, it doesn’t end up sounding anything like Chi-Lites. It ends up sounding like The Cure to me. But without even telling her what to do, she just sprinkled a little magic on top.”

There’s bite beneath the sonic sweetness of “Opposite House” — lyrics that tell of a house as a cage where the “ceiling’s on the floor,” there are “pet snakes in the hall,” and it rains inside. Depression is real, and why not acknowledge that? “You get sad sometimes,” McCombs explains. “And then you get happy. Or, I don’t know, you drink to get happy maybe. And then you think that you’re insane, you know? But then you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m not insane. They’re insane.’ It’s just kind of a meditation on the borderline between one’s own sanity and the other side. I feel like there’s a serious conversation about our emotional fragility that is pretty much missing in music, from what I hear. Everything is pretty campy or exaggerated or cocky or just boneheaded stupid. No one’s really trying to write about just what’s fucking in their heart.”

Internal fragility. And out there, a world that feels more precarious than ever, ready to combust in one way or another. So surely, with all that McCombs gets into on Mangy Love, he must have something to say about this most absurd presidential election playing out before our eyes? Not so much. In 2009, McCombs released “Don’t Vote,” a song that takes the old axiom “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain” and turns it on its head. On the new “Rancid Girl,” he sings, “You’re only 17 / Almost woman / You can almost vote / But I know you won’t.” At least as of our conversation in mid-July, the singer was unsure of what he would do come Election Day. “I don’t know if I’m voting,” he admits. “It’s gonna be hard.” He explains that his ambivalence has to do with his belief that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are too bellicose. “I’m not pro-war. It’s just — I can’t. I’ve got a block in my mind that I can’t support a war.” Nor does he think there’s anything wrong with choosing not to vote. “I think it’s important to register to vote, and I think it’s important to know what’s up, and if you’re not gonna vote, to know why," he maintains. "But I think not voting is a vote. It is.”

Musically, Mangy Love may upend some who think they knew McCombs. Of course, part of the man’s restless manner is that he doesn’t necessarily want to be “known” — and the curve ball thrown this time comes in the form of songs that in another era might have been described as “soft rock.” Synths, strings, hand drums, a flute and a jaw harp; songs like “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” and “Low Flyin’ Bird” represent some of the gentlest, most lush productions of McCombs’s career, while “Cry” and especially “Switch” recall Ariel Pink at his ’70s-channeling funk-pop best, minus the irony.

But for all of its warm musical embrace, the record tells hard truths, asks uncomfortable questions, and challenges its listeners, nowhere more so than on “It.” A late album song that still sits at the heart of the album, “It” is a mission statement of anti-materialist pacifism. Against a track that audaciously swells and reaches for the rafters, with an operatic, angelic backing vocal, McCombs declares in a free-verse, spoken-sung vocal: “It is not wealth to have more than others / It is not peace when others are in pain.” The song's chorus asks, “I wanna know how can it stop when there’s nowhere to go?” If that sounds hopeless, McCombs sees it as anything but. “I view is as extreme optimism. It’s like we’re airing out our dirty laundry,” he tells me. “The only way we’ll know where to go is if we talk about the serious shit, and we’re real with each other.”