Cass McCombs has not one, but two records in our Top 50 Albums of 2011 Humour Risk (at 35) and Wit's End (19). Here's an extended version of the Q&a that appears in our new issue Q306 along with the rest of the Top 50, our review of 2011 and much more.
Hello Cass You were born in Concord, California. What's it like? "It's very suburban and it's [long pause] old. It's an old suburb. There's lots of Mexican food and lots of skate spots. It's very concrete. In Concord."
Did you move around a lot? "Yep, moved around."
Why did you move around? "[Massive pause] I don't know. I don't really enjoy talking about my childhood. I don't remember it very well. And it's not fair, because I didn't get to decide anything about it. I didn't get to decide my sex. I didn't get to decide my race or anything. I just enjoy thinking about and talking about what I want to be."
When did you realise you wanted to be a songwriter? "I don't think I ever really made a decision. I think I'm still holding off on making that decision. I just kind of fell into it. I don't know if I'll do it forever. There are a lot of things about the business side that I try to ignore. I held off for a long time about really getting serious about making music. It was like a virus though."
How did you fall into it? "I started trying to write songs as soon as I could play the guitar, but they were no good. Years later, they started to be ok instead of terrible. I learned what not to do. Eventually I was writing songs that I didn't hate. I don't have a way to write songs. It's always like writing for the first time. There is no sure way to do it. It's totally different every time. Different emotions. Every song has a different parameter to it."
You've always been pretty clear about your dislike for celebrity or fame in any form, were you worried that when you started releasing songs that might be a problem? "No, because I don't like to dwell on things like that. I'm a pretty reckless person when it comes down to it. I just do what I please. That gets me in trouble and I end up regretting that attitude. I'm not safe. I don't plan ahead."
How do you mean you're reckless? "I just mean none of this is planned, even my touring is hardly planned. The records aren't planned. The songwriting isn't planned. The band isn't planned...I want to be a friend of disorder and you have to have an attitude towards making mistakes to do that. I guess you make mistakes and recognize it, but you just live with it, you know?"
Being "a friend of disorder" plays into everything you do, right? Right down to not having a home and living nomadically? "I think so. I mean, compared to some, my life is extremely structured. I have a tour planned. I don't have a home, but I have a...car! There are people who've been occupying Wall Street for weeks now. Compared to them, I'm very structured. I think disorder is noble if you can maintain a certain sense of self. Argh, sense of self. Sense of self! That's terrible. God! Sense of self...why did I say that?"
Is part of it that you don't want to get too comfortable? That it would interfere with your songwriting? "I think, yeah, a little bit. I think every time I try to put barriers up around me then I can't create. I don't adhere to any religion or any structure like that. Not for any other reason than it stifles my creativity. That's the only thing I know."
Is it hard to live like you do? "I think I'm somewhere in between being completely destitute and the guy with the job and the apartment. It's what my friend Albert calls the range. I've got to be in the middle so I can touch all sides of humanity in my writing."
Is it a lonely existence? "No, no. No. I'm hardly ever alone. I've been lonely, and I guess I do get lonely. Loneliness is a real part of life. Personally, I don't really pay attention to my feelings. I don't care about how I feel. Other people go into analysis. I'm more interested in how other people are feeling and trying to relate to them. It's like getting infected with their feelings. If you could be infected by joy, then that would be accurate."
You're empathetic? "I'm pathetic and empathetic."
What part do drugs play in this life you describe? "I mean... drugs are there. Do I want to go out and promote drug use? Maybe [laughs]. It's there. Everybody does drugs now. It would be incredibly stupid not to recognize their existence and the role that they have. Not only for adults. It's part of growing up now. You learn from that. You learn what not to do. You learn what you like and what you don't like. I think all drugs should be totally legalized. All drugs. I think it should be our freedom to console our suffering and one of the ways you can console your suffering is through administering drugs unto yourself or not, but you should have that choice."
Do the drugs add to the disorder? "They can do, but many addicts that I know live extremely structured lives and it's structured around the fix. In fact, the fix becomes the only structure that is necessary. In some ways, they live more structured lives than the people with the job, the car and the kid. Other things become less important. You just wake up at six in the morning and need that thing."
Tell us about your two albums this year. Do they fit together or do you see them as completely disparate? "They're pretty different. They weren't made alongside of each other. Wit's End was well on its way to being finished before we even started Humor Risk, so I just see them as entirely different. Humor Risk is mainly stories, narratives and things like that. Musically of course they're very very different."
There seems to be a lot of anger on Humor Risk. "I don't know about that...I don't think of myself as an angry person. However, I think fury is always there. It's always easily attainable. I think I'm interested in the dead ends that the mind creates. Like if you go into your mind and try to find answers to problems you're having, you will not find them in your brain. All you'll do is be driven mad and go crazy. You'll just double your insecurities by looking inside of your brain. Trying to find an explanation for something that is inexplicable, you're creating a mental disease."
Your records seem to be getting more acclaim than ever. Does that make you happy? "I don't really feel that. It feels like it's been the same for years. I don't care, I really don't. I'm not lying. I swear to God I don't care. I just enjoy what I do."
When are you happiest, Cass? "Don't ask me a question like that, that's not fair. C'mon! You know joy when you find it, but you can't plan for it. You can say I love going to Disneyland and then when you go you have a miserable time, you puke on the rides and the lines are too long. You can't plan for joy. It just happens. It's like a miracle." James Oldham
Head to Cassmccombs.com for more, plus we'll have an extended St Vincent Albums Of The Year Q&a going live next week.