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How Cass McCombs Turned a Cold Winter Into the Tropical, Soulful and Politically Charged 'Mangy Love'

On August 16, 2016

by Dan Reilly

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One of the great things about a Cass McCombs record is that the more you listen, the more you uncover the little details that make him such a unique songwriter, whether they're unexpected musical flourishes or wry turns of phrase. Mangy Love, his eighth LP, and first for Anti-, is no different, with production by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith) and Dan Horne (The Chapin Sisters), and guest appearances by Angel Olsen, Blake Mills and New Orleans artist, activist and shaman Rev. Goat Carson, among others. Before the album's August 26th release--and before we offer it in our members store today-- we caught up with McCombs to talk about the album, its wintry and tropical influences, his pornography-themed "Medusa's Outhouse" video, and how a trip to Ireland got him writing more about politics.

Congratulations on the album and the "Medusa's Outhouse" video. How did that one come about?

Cass McCombs: The director Aaron Brown is an old friend of mine. We're both from the Bay.  He's made a few other videos for me in the past. We hadn't done anything in a few years and he went ahead and made that video and put it to my song. It felt weirdly magical and synchronistic how it all worked out. He began it as his own film. The video is beautifully shot and it works really well with the lyrics, but also it's interesting to hear directly from the women who are involved. We really don't get to hear, in their words, much so I thought that was really cool that he included their voices and perspective. One thing I learned through this is how much women are involved in that business. It's like they run the show.

VMP: A lot of people have a set opinion of women who work in porn, but they are human like everyone else.

CM: Yeah. It's expression, and it's complicated. All of our lives are complicated. That's why I think it fits with the lyrics so well because it's a weird puzzle, a puzzle you can't ever figure out, like Medusa herself being a symbol of magic. She's a patron of Sicily, like historically a magical deity that one could invoke. But she's also obviously feminine and in other traditions invoked for misogynist reasons, like she's this vengeful bitch. So what I tried to do with the song and what Aaron did with the video is to explore how these fake women we like create in our mind are not real. There are real women. Let's hear from them. To hell with the women in our head.

VMP: On a broader level, did you go into the recording of this album with a theme in mind or was it more spontaneous?

CM: I remember when I first talked to Rob Schnapf about what kind of record we all wanted to make. He said, "No ideas. Let's not have any ideas. Just make the record." Because once you have an idea, you're never going to make that thing – it's just going to stay an idea. I was like "OK, I get it. But can we please make the bass sound awesome?" That was my one request. "Everything else can sound crazy and whatever but like can we please just make the bass sound rad?"

VMP: You wrote this in New York and Ireland. How did that affect the lyrics and sound?

CM: Well, they're both cold places and the cloistered time of the wintertime a good place to work. I don't find Los Angeles to be a really great place to work. It's too much sun, way too much. They should ship it out somewhere else because they got too much of it. But yeah, the winter, that doesn't necessarily create a cold-sounding record or make cold songs. In fact, I think it can go the other way. Because you're freezing your ass off, what I did is I started listening to like Colombian funk music and soca and Cuban music and island music and merengue. That's what I got into. Like it's frozen and all ice and just bleak outside and in my apartment I'm sambaing around. Maybe I do the opposite of what the environment calls for. When it's sunny out, I just want to make dark evil music and then when it when it's bitter cold out I want to make light, happy.

VMP: The intro to "Run Sister Run" has a very island-like feel.

CM: The beat for "Run Sister" is a really a South America kind of thing but it ends up not sounding Latin at all. At the end of the day it ends up sounding like some outtake from Sandinista, something they like kicked off a three-LP record. It's one that they couldn't fit on.

VMP: Where did you travel in Ireland?

CM: Dublin, county Donegal, a few other places. One thing about Ireland is that's where the whole political aspect comes in, because the Irish are still very much aware of how hard they fought for their liberation. They all have personal stories about the '70s and '80s, witnessing terrible acts of brutality. I know people who lost family members. And it's all mixed into their folk music, their poetry. I was just really moved to see a modern revolution that was successful and how it manifests itself like in their music. Because their music is not like commodified – it's folk music, it's free, it's in the pub and it's on the street. People just make it. They don't do it to make money. They do it because they're singing from their soul, their gut, because they want to sing.

Every record I have, there's at least a couple songs that talk about politics on a really basic level, although I think all my work is encompassed by an ideology that is, whatever you want to call it, a revolutionary attitude. But in Ireland, the music is political but it doesn't beat you over the head. Here, it's like if you write a political song, you're somehow pushed away from the rest of music. It's like there's music and then there's political music and it's a different thing, and all you political people can go into that corner. I don't understand how one can express themselves without addressing political issues. Because we all we all have political feelings so how do you expect me to express myself if I can't talk about certain issues?

VMP: Especially these days with the election.

CM: Honestly, when I made this record I had no clue that this election thing was even going to be ... I don't really even care. Honestly, I'm a "tune in, turn on, drop out" kind of guy. I also think like Dada, the most political response is usually abstraction. Just refuse to even use the language of the aggressor, because once you engage in dialogue with them, you've already lost. You've submitted to their rules. So abstraction I think is an essential weapon in art.

Like Will Rogers said, "All I know is what I read in the papers." But also I talk to people, strangers, just like random people, go to the bar, strike up a conversation and then have like long conversations with friends about their feelings. I'm interested in what other people think. It helps me helps me think, seeing other people's perspectives on all this violence and craziness and injustice, like little kids get shot and cops don't even get a slap on the wrist. It's insane. What are we supposed to think? They didn't prepare us for this. We're totally unprepared to be not just witness but implicated in this violent society. It's not like we're outside of it. We're a part of it and so when this shit happens, we made it happen and that's really fucking frustrating to have the blood on our hands. There is there is no us and them. It's just us. I see a lot of white artists aren't talking about it. It's cool that that black artists are talking about it but we really need other people to do it as well. This whole "I'm only going to help people that look like me" attitude is crazy. It's what got us in this situation in the first place.

VMP: You're a pretty itinerant guy. What size is your vinyl collection?

CM: Big.

VMP: What's in there that might surprise people?

CM: I don't know what would really surprise people these days. They wouldn't be surprised that I've got lots and lots of country and folk records. I don't think they're really surprised that I'm a Beatles completest, including like weird English and German versions and seven inches. I mean I'm just always finding out about new shit that's blowing me away. Making this record, I tried to learn a lot about South American music and I'm not talking about like Tropicalia and all that. I did that years ago. But like merengue and soca and stuff like that. There's a great Columbian funk compilation called Palenque Palenque, I never really knew about that. I never really knew how Latin and funk was infused outside of the U.S. It seems to weave in and out of like the reggae movement, the roots. To me, music is not just music. It's not aesthetic pleasure. I mean yes it is of course, but there's a reason why we listen to this music. And like that's the whole reggae thing. It's a lifestyle, it's a consciousness, a philosophy, it's a religion, it's all one thing. That's the Grateful Dead thing, too. It's also punk rock. All them kids with their handmade patches.

VMP: And you also have a lot of soul-inspired music on this album.

CM: We all grew up with that. It's my shit. I've always listened to that stuff and, in fact, my first record, we were chasing an Al Green drum sound. The whole basis of my first record A is trying to do a Willie Mitchell but we didn't have enough money for horns. I've always loved Delfonics, Stylistics, OJs, Spinners, William DeVaughn, Sylvia, all that stuff is great. But what about Curtis Mayfield? What about like Shuggie Otis? Temptations, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," the lyrics can have serious, serious subject matter. That is not a good father. Not a happy song at all but it's a funky song. It's rad. What's so cool about soul music is of course the songs are brilliant and the playing is the top top top time in American popular music. But getting music with a message that's intended to change people's consciousness? That's really amazing. It's just revolutionary message music. My shit's not like that but I take that idea with me.


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