Cass McCombs isn't going to show. It's 2:05 p.m. on a radiant October Wednesday and he's already five minutes late. No one near the music concourse in Golden Gate Park looks like an itinerant, mercurial folk-rocker; it's all tourist families. Cass McCombs is not going to show, I'm sure, because he's already late, because he's semi-famous for hating interviews, for hating even to discuss his music. For his last album release, the almighty Pitchfork could only get him over the phone, and he spent most of the interview exuding unhappiness about doing the interview.
But ... who is that red T-shirted figure on the bench nearest the pavilion, baggy pants pulled up high above skate shoes, reading a book? He looks a little scraggly, might fit the part. Could it be? I speak his name, get a quizzical look. The figure pauses to wonder whether I'm a random stranger introducing himself, or the journalist he's supposed to meet right here, seven minutes ago.
Q: You seem to believe that there's a kind of folly in being asked to account for your music, or to explain it.
A: Funny you should ask that, I was just looking through an old notebook and here it is — I wrote down, "To explain is to reason, which is an excuse, which is to bargain, which is an apology. And one should never apologize."
This is Cass "Our solitude connects us with our sorrow" McCombs. He's from Northern California, and he lives on couches and floors and other people's beds and in his car, which he drives, alone, back and forth across the country from New York to San Francisco to Los Angeles and then back around again, a true rambling modern folk singer-songwriter, even when he isn't on tour, although he prefers being on tour. He is 35 and was married once. He puts out records on the Domino label, mostly pared-down rock affairs, lots of them rather dark, some parts of them kinda dull. But his latest, Big Wheel and Others, is a double album that achieves the incredibly rare double-album feat: It's fantastic from its start, from the lumbering, drone-like trucker rock of "Big Wheel," to the ghostly acoustic blues of album closer "Unearthed," and through all the half-jazz jams and morbid pop ditties and Dylanesque country vignettes in between.
It's not just McCombs' best album (even NPR thinks so!), it's the kind of album that propels an artist from one echelon to another: diverse and energetic and funny and unsettling and gorgeous, full of stories and images drawn from his travels and readings and imagination. Big Wheel could make a case for McCombs' status as one of the leading story-song peddlers of our time, a wandering poet of liberal, misfit America. If he wanted that. It's not clear that he does. Rather than the social agitation of a Woody Guthrie or early Dylan, or the Beats' endless journey into the self, McCombs' favorite modes are redirection and ambivalence, his favorite passions solitary. To believe that Big Wheel was not made with much deliberateness is nearly impossible, yet that's what he'll suggest this Wednesday afternoon.
A list of artists by which Cass McCombs will admit being influenced, after issuing such disclamatory phrases as, "We're all unique," "We're all just an amalgamation of our teachers," "We're all built from the same stardust," and "No":
"The underground music community"
Dan the Automator
McCombs seems so deliberately archetypal that you suspect he's putting you on, that his whole mysterious traveling musician persona is a show planned to impress or confound people like me. "I just love playing music with the female spirit," he says when we're talking about his band. "Even the female spirit within men. What is gender anyway? We're all the same. We're all bisexual. We're all transgender."
Only certain kinds of people would wonder such things out loud to the press, and many might do it for effect. McCombs, though, seems utterly earnest, guileless even, words tumbling out of his mouth as if his mind is feeling its way through a dark tunnel. The notion of him as some kind of chameleon who cultivates a careful self-image seems less likely the more you talk to him. He appears undecided about almost everything. "I have no opinions, or maybe, like, we all have millions of opinions, and we can change our opinions like that," he says.
Fine. But what good is a folk singer with no opinions?
While we're sitting in front of the music concourse, McCombs goes searching through his backpack, seemingly happening upon a wrinkled piece of paper. He pulls out what looks like a jury summons.
"Do you have jury duty?" I ask.
"Is it here?"
"No, it's up in the north."
We know McCombs was born in Concord and orbited the Bay Area for a while before moving to the East Coast around 2003. That's about it. He won't say much more about where he's from. "I don't really like to use that word, 'live here or there,'" says. "It just reeks of bravado and entitlement."
Again, is this enigma-cultivation? Is it simply McCombs being honest? Hard to say. But if McCombs' upbringing fit with his current image, you'd think he'd be more open to talking about it.
The one thing McCombs plainly professes to love is playing music, though he's openly ambivalent about making records. "If the record was made, it's because of them [the producers and his band], not me," he says of Big Wheel, an album that will likely raise his profile forever. "It probably would never have been made if it were up to me."
The album moves more like a magnum opus than a collection of tracks laid down in different places by different people at different times, though that is how it was recorded. McCombs gives most of the credit to other people. "I wouldn't go into the studio if I didn't have a band who's ready, willing, and able," he says. "I wouldn't do it for myself ... I don't feel the necessity to make records, even now."
So after almost an hour with McCombs, my questions have only led to more questions. Is he trying to subvert the classical picture of the traveling songwriter, even as he seems to embrace it? Is he holding us away because that's really his way, or because he's afraid that if we get too close, we'll realize he's not everything he claims to be?
Toward the end of our encounter, McCombs lights a joint. I ask if he thinks he'll ever drop his itinerant lifestyle, settle down, maintain a permanent residence. It must be easy to travel all the time, I say, but isn't it also stressful, to not have a place to live?
He pulls on the joint. "It's not stressful at all," he says, eyes gleaming with amusement. "I'm making music with my friends. It's fun. It should be fun. You shouldn't make music if it isn't fun. There's no money in it anyway. And if there's any money in it, you should stop right away. You're doing something wrong if you're making money."
So here is one explanation. Cass McCombs has made his best album yet. He could be a great songwriter of our time. He may seem to be following the template made by other, guitar-wielding word-men decades ago. But this is 2013, not 1963. Cass McCombs is not doing what he does for art, or fame, or America, or for the good of the poor. He is doing it for himself, because he likes to. When it comes to his songs, and his inscrutable answers to interview questions, he simply doesn't care if anyone else follows along or not.