Cass McCombs: The Anti-Rock Star

by Ariela Kozin

"A lot of my songs are created to have a specific magical reaction. If it works, it punctures a hole in reality. It’s an alternate universe that you can peer through."
When I meet Cass McCombs', at the discreet Epitaph Records building on a corner of Sunset Blvd in Silver Lake, there is no glamorous shield. The Northern California-native sat in a dimly lit, plain conference lounge in front of shelves of albums from icons like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Without question, I noticed his eyes first—deep pools of blue that quite literally sparkled underneath a worn out baseball cap and on top of a basic t-shirt and jeans. His presence was true and vulnerable, the way his music has always been.

McCombs’ music speaks for itself. His forthcoming album, Mangy Love—set for release August 26—is a beautifully honest tale that is fantastical in its symbolism and string-play, yet intense when paid attention to. The album’s opener, “Bum Bum Bum,” talks about the never-ending global war with lines that cut deep (“No, it ain’t no dream, it’s all too real / how long until / this river of blood congeals?"). Later, in “Run Sister Run," McCombs fervently defends women’s reproductive rights.

Not an anthemic album by any means,  McCombs insists that his eighth studio album is, above all, a love story.

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Seconds into our conversation McCombs confesses, “We [people in general] love each other and we want to make the world a better place. We want to create a better world, you know? That’s love. Isn't that what love is?”

In "Laughter Is the Best Medicine," McCombs takes a break from blunt musings on misogyny and racism to present listeners with a remedy: It is a song that focuses on a swamp, but in that muck there are plants growing and fairies flying. It's about collecting the herbs, stirring them into a big pot, and using the recipe for healing.

That is what makes McCombs so special among today’s artists, that besides the way he glides over his guitar strings, the iconoclast exposes the magic of life in that it is painful and ugly and amazing all at the same time.  When he isn't exposing grim realities, he hugs listeners with permission to "go on and cry."

"A lot of my songs are created to have a specific magical reaction. If it works, it punctures a hole in reality. It’s an alternate universe that you can peer through," he said.

Surely the goal to create an alternate universal is a big hurdle to overcome, but maybe McCombs was able to achieve a truly transcendent experience because he isn't distracted by hopes of fame. While he is sweet to speak with, the musician has always had an open distaste for interviews and photographs because he detests the idea of rock stardom.

"I’m not interested in being anyone’s hero. Artists can be portrayed as heroic. I’m not really down with that role and I don’t really understand how certain artists perpetuate that rock star character,” the artist revealed. I'm totally against it. I’m blocking that shit.”

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It can't be ignored that his want to block the spotlight isn't stopping it from shining on him brighter than ever. Since his 2002 EP, the singer-songwriter has collaborated with everyone from DJ Khaled to Ariel Pink, and toured with the likes of Arcade Fire and The War on Drugs. Producer Rob Schnapf is also on McCombs' team after previously working with Beck and Elliot Smith.

His ever-growing fanbase has led him overseas this summer to mega festivals like Barcelona’s Primavera and London’s Field Day. Fans are waiting for the musician’s international tour in support of the record, kicking off September 15 at LA’s Teragram Ballroom.

"I hope we're refreshing. We're bare bones. We'll always keep it bare bones. Someone has to," he vows.

Whether McCombs likes it or not, his is a star without spectacle. A renowned creator, his success is in spite of the podium he refuses to step on to.

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