Interview: Cass McCombs

The enigmatic modern folkie corresponds with TONY via snail mail.

Cass McCombs

Cass McCombs Photograph: Paul Valencia

Cass McCombs has always had a distaste for interviews. Nowadays, the singer-songwriter, known for being a drifter as much as a wordsmith, doesn't do them at all—at least not in person: McCombs would only communicate with TONY the old-fashioned way, via snail mail. And phone interviews aren't the only thing McCombs has left behind; on Wit's End (Domino), his latest and darkest album, the folkster has dropped the verbose tropes and pop conventions of his earlier work in favor of sparse, brooding dirges. The enigmatic crooner sounds off about truth, politics, Tupac and more in these excerpts from our correspondence.

Do you think it's unfair that artists are expected to not just write a good song, but also to explain and promote it? How do you cope with that obligation?
There's no obligation for a musician to talk. You do it when you want to and you try to make it cool. If you don't want to do it, you just say no like Nancy Reagan taught us.

Folk artists often mix politics into their music. Are those kinds of messages in your songs?
I don't care much about politics; that kind of witchcraft I stay away from because people end up dead. I'd rather die for music. I'm interested in people whose lives are political; whose actions alter our morals—such as so-called criminals.

What are you trying to tell people with your words?
I've never liked being told how to live, so I'm not going to tell anybody what to think. Our actions, our feelings and ideas are what the future wants. Opinions only carry weight in the second or third person. Craft work is how future people decipher the wisdom of the dead. We uncover the truth like the quest for the Grail. I either want my songs to be dug up or vanish entirely. Time will tell. I saw a tag in New Orleans a few weeks back on a convenience-store wall that said dick moon is a rapist, and it took me a long time to understand what that meant.

On Wit's End, you've pared down your lyrics considerably. Was that a conscious decision?
I try to use as few words as possible. It's usually funnier that way, anyway. I wish I were a motormouth. There's something soothing about the sound of a voice running off, madcap storytelling—people who just won't shut up. There was a Tupac documentary on TV the other day. Man, he sure had the gift of gab. Compared to Tupac, I'm lettuce. But I'm trying.

There's a lot of mystery surrounding your origins and your past. How does your background feed into your music?
Folk is where you're from. If you're from Burger King, Arkansas, there's nothing you can do to outrun it, except to burn the whole town down. My music is not about where I'm from; it is where I'm from.

Cass McCombs plays Bowery Ballroom Thu 12. For an unedited view of Cass McCombs's letter, go here.

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