Cass McCombs thrives on imperfection and spontaneity. The songwriter is notorious for beginning a song idea with lyrics and leaving his bandmates to improvise the rest. Even as he works through his own illustration of the creative process, there's some improvisation in how he describes it, never too quick to answer, often pausing to think before speaking.
"We're not trying to achieve perfection, we're trying to create something that is flawed, and kind of fucked up and crazy, and a little bit silly and," he pauses, "absurd, but beautiful and unique."
The California singer/songwriter could be defined simply as an indie-folk artist, but his creative blood runs thicker than that. He decided he wanted to be an artist when he was 13 years old, and now at 38, he's built up a large body of work that reflects a work ethic of, as he puts it, "going against the grain, purposefully." On the newly released Mangy Love, his eighth full-length album within 13 years, Cass looks to give back to the world, spewing generosity and musical maturity while maintaining his playful style. Sweet and sour, warm and frigid, he has created his most contradictory album to date.
The album is a blend of different styles and approaches that include—but are not limited to—psychedelic-punk, folk, reggae, soul and even R&B. The 12 tracks offer an abundance of tones and emotions, from the somber guitar and vocals that create a sensation of crawling through a boggy marsh on "I'm A Shoe" to the spunky reggae painted with flutes, horns and lyrical wit in "Laughter is the Best Medicine." Mangy Love is laden with replay value, as sadness and beauty intertwine.
The guiding force in his songs is a thoughtful, poetic outlook, which could be considered his greatest attribute. McCombs takes the listener through a paradoxical world of thought-provoking political innuendoes, which examines the oppression of women, healing, brutality and the distraction of mind-numbing activities. McCombs tackles a corrupted world with empathy and concern.
"[We are] trying to give something back to the planet—which seems to be crying out all the time—people are a part of this earth and we tend to want to separate ourselves and think of ourselves as individuals," McCombs says of the message behind Mangy Love. "Some musicians want to react to that by making happy music or repressive music and ignore the pain of the world. My reaction is to create a song that is a very simple vibration, that I think most people—that I know at least—would enjoy."
There is an array of stellar musicians (22 to be exact) featured on Mangy Love. One of the most notable is Mike Gordon of famed jam band Phish, as well as indie singer/songwriter Angel Olsen. The cordial collaboration between McCombs and his bandmates brings out a generous and collaborative spirit between everyone involved.
"Everyone's coming from different walks of life, kind of like Star Trek," he says. "It's a weird tribe that is trying to say something together. The thing that unites us—I like to think—is a certain kind of feeling that what we do here will actually be a beautiful and positive creational vibration."
Describing the working relationship behind Mangy Love, Cass speaks of his bandmates as if they were family members: "It's all generosity and love. The music is a sacrament, it brings people together, even when you're talking about horrible things like oppression." That communal spirit of creativity carries into their live performances as well. When on stage, McCombs doesn't shy away from taking risks, making a point not to play his songs exactly as they appear on the album. Instead, he and his band compose a performance with substance and character.
"People are okay with things to be a little rough around the edges," he says. "People like that—I like that. I don't like perfect music, and when I go see a band, I definitely don't want them to sound like they did on the record. I want them to do something that's memorable and exciting and strange and sometimes confusing, and a little bit scary. That's what I look for in live music."
Cass McCombs' raw approach to music results in a wholesome product with selfless collaboration and love. Sometimes it's colorfully melancholy and concerned, but it carries a sense of comic relief, both lyrically and musically, which lightens the mood. Going with the flow, yet always against the grain, McCombs never over-prepares or overthinks what he does—but he always reaches his destination.
"There might be a loose outline of what we're trying to shoot for, but usually, we change courses mid-stream," he says. "It's a journey."
Cass McCombs plays September 16 at The Casbah