Humor Risk, out tomorrow, is Cass McCombs’ sixth album. McCombs describes it on his website as “an attempt at laughter instead of confusion, chaos instead of morality.” It certainly leans more towards laughter than his previous two albums: the soft, melodious Wit’s End and 2009’s impenitent, candid Catacombs. There’s something playful in McCombs’s guitar in “Mystery Mail” and “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery.” (Don’t worry if you’re very attached to McCombs’ past styles; the third track, “The Same Thing,” is very Catacombs-y.)
McCombs first came to our attention through interviewing other bands. When asked for their favorite contemporary musicians, someone always mentions McCombs (look no further than our interview with Real Estate for proof). So who is this enigmatic musician? He’s quite prolific—Humor Risk is McCombs’ second album of 2011—in his music, at least. In person, McCombs is rather terse—polite, but somewhat cagey in his responses. It was still a minor miracle that McCombs agreed to talk to us—for his last album, he only conducted interviews via air mail, so we deeply appreciated our time on the phone with him.
EMMA BROWN: You’re not writing letters this time?
CASS MCCOMBS: [laughs] I’ve given that up.
BROWN: How did that work out for you?
MCCOMBS: It was interesting. It was an experiment to begin with. I get to keep the letters, I’m going to use them for some later project, I’m not sure what yet. There are some interesting ideas in them, I think, that only could have come out in writing a letter.
BROWN: Do you usually write letters to your friends?
MCCOMBS: No, never. [laughs]
BROWN: You’re releasing this album just seven months after your last album, Wit’s End; were you writing the songs for both records at the same time? How did you divide the songs?
MCCOMBS: I don’t really write for an album. I just write songs whenever I feel like it, whenever they come to me. The first of the two records started years ago, around the same time as my record Catacombs, and it just took a really long time to finish. None of this is on purpose. It’s all a complete accident.
BROWN: Do you ever get writer’s block? Is that why Wit’s End took so long to finish?
MCCOMBS: Oh no, the writing of the record didn’t take long, because I just have a huge stack of papers and I just pluck from the stack. It took a long time because it’s very expensive to make records; in fact, I think it’s a complete rip-off.BROWN: Is your writing stream pretty constant, then?
MCCOMBS: It’s not like that when you’re a songwriter—songwriters aren’t like pulp writers or journalists, even. You just follow the muse. It’s called muse-ic. Whenever the muse decides to bestow her inspiration on the songwriter, then the song is born.
BROWN: What sort of things fall under the umbrella of your “muse?” What inspires your writing?
MCCOMBS: Nothing in particular… that’s the thing about inspiration, it just smacks you upside the head, you can’t plan for it. It comes like a stranger in the night; you never know when it’s going to come or leave, and you just have to deal with the in-between moments because there’s nothing you can really do about it.
BROWN: Does that bother you, the uncontrolled nature of it?
MCCOMBS: No, I love being lost! I don’t need to control anything. Even with romantic partnerships, I don’t need to control anyone. I think I have some very meaningful relationships with people, we all do. At the same time, I recognize that everyone is following their own heart; there’s been people who have left my life and I don’t have a problem with that. This is a transitory world, we’re all spirits just looking for love and finding it, and holding on. Even if it’s a moment it’s true love, true love doesn’t mean that it goes on for eternity. Eternity is a terrible concept.
BROWN: But knowing where you are going can be a reassuring feeling sometimes.
MCCOMBS: No, that’s not me. I make it up as I go along. I don’t think anyone knows anything and I don’t trust people who say that they do. Don’t give me a plan, give me action.
BROWN: In the spirit of action, are you exited about going on tour in a few weeks?
MCCOMBS: I suppose so.
BROWN: The band Real Estate recently mentioned how excited they were to be on the same label as you, Domino Records, and to have met you. Are you enjoying the Domino experience?
MCCOMBS: I suppose I am. They’re crazy. Most of the ideas don’t work, they do punish me from time to time, but they’re very supportive. I’ve been with them for a bunch of years.
BROWN: Punish you by forcing you to do interviews?
MCCOMBS: No, I don’t have a problem doing interviews. It’s not punishment.
BROWN: Just checking! I’ve read that you don’t really enjoy them.
MCCOMBS: Well, there’s things about it that I don’t like. No one else is really saying these kinds of things, so someone has to. I don’t think that it’s the most humbled thing to talk about yourself for hours and hours and hours.
BROWN: I know that you had a lot of odd jobs before you became a full-time musician; what’s been your favorite job, aside from music?
MCCOMBS: I don’t think music is my job—I don’t think about it that way, because I don’t really get paid. There’s not paycheck at the end; it’s more of a “whatever is left over” kind of situation. Also, it keeps me from thinking about my creativity as a business, which it is not. It should remain pure; that’s one of the reasons I made music in the first place. I’m glad I did very, very hard jobs, like janitorial kind of jobs, dealing with the human body. I think it’s worthwhile to expand your comfort level and just do something awful. I wasn’t trying to make music for money.
BROWN: Would you ever go back to having a “day job?”
MCCOMBS: Sure! I miss working. It’s real, you know? But I don’t know anything but songwriting, and I don’t even know that. I didn’t go to school; the only thing I know how to do is this. The only thing that I know is that I know nothing.
BROWN: I think Socrates said that.
MCCOMBS: Did he? Someone said that, I think my grandfather said that.
BROWN: When did you start making music?
MCCOMBS: We all make music when we’re little kids. I took piano lessons when I was a little kid, but even before that, you’re singing in the classroom and wherever. Gosh, children are always singing. But I took music lessons, some choir and things like that at school. I learned how to play the guitar when I was about 13… ancient history.
BROWN: Would you say that songwriting is the thing that makes you the happiest? Or would you not want to ascribe such an emotion to writing?
MCCOMBS: I don’t like the word “happy.” I wouldn’t want to use it that context. I enjoy writing songs, it’s a really good challenge, it tickles me. It’s a wonderful way to engage with your surroundings, through poetry and songs.
BROWN: I’ve heard that you don’t have negative opinions about music.
MCCOMBS: That depends who you ask. It may be true, in essence, but it doesn’t mean that I’m overly enthusiastic about much music. Except, you know, the people that really touch me. It has to touch me, it has to grab a hold of me, I’m not looking for anything in particular.
BROWN: Can you give me an example of something that’s grabbed you recently?
MCCOMBS: Every time I try and think of something like this, my mind is a complete blank. I guess that’s the nature of what I’m talking about—it somehow evades the memory. I’m looking for a moment, a flash of light.
BROWN: It’s ephemeral?
MCCOMBS: Ephemeral? [jokingly] I suppose it’s mysterious!
BROWN: This is sort of unrelated, but I’m curious, have you been following Occupy Wall Street at all?
MCCOMBS: Oh yeah, I’m going down there all of the time. I’m in New York.
BROWN: Do you bring your guitar?
MCCOMBS: [laughs] No. I was in Madrid and other parts of Spain when they had their protest at the Plaza del Sol recently, and I got to London the day after their… whatever you want to call it, which no one wants to talk about anymore.
BROWN: Yeah, I’m actually from London.
MCCOMBS: What was that? No one wants to talk about it! Well, it was interesting for a second.
HUMOR RISK DROPS TOMORROW. FOR MORE ABOUT CASS MCCOMBS, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.