Cass McCombs :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

His tenth full-length, Heartmind at times feels like a representation of Cass McCombs’ own wandering mindset. While the album’s eight songs vary in tone and style, they all seem to hold a common thread, whether lyrically or musically. It’s an album that McCombs couldn’t have intended to make precisely, as to direct himself toward it, would’ve been to betray his own ambitions. | j neas

Aquarium Drunkard: Heartmind is your tenth full length album in about 20 years. Do you spend much time reflecting on how you’ve evolved as an artist? You have to on some level reflect as you go along, but what have you seen change in yourself over that time period?

Cass McCombs: I don’t really do a lot of that, maybe to my detriment. Even now that I’m supposed to be, I guess, promoting this work, my mind is already on to the next thing. That’s just the way that I go.

AD: That feels like on some level it ties into, if there is a theme to this record, the title Heartmind. And in the liner notes there is this paragraph that you wrote where you use this phrase ‘if I direct myself, I betray my direction.’ Is that kind of speaking to that idea of moving forward?

Cass McCombs: Yeah, I could see the parallel there. I think that captures it. I don’t know I could improve upon that. [laughs]

AD: I don’t know if it’s exactly what you’re talking about in that paragraph, but it reads like one of Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I was thinking about what do you mean by ‘betray.’ Does it mean betray as in giving away something, or does it mean going against someone. When I said I thought too much about this, this is what I’m talking about. [laughs]

Cass McCombs: It is an interesting and multi-faceted idea. There’s the direction we’re all on. You could call it destiny, the road of life, whatever. And along that road are choices. So I don’t know. It’s a paradoxical kind of thing. 

AD: You assembled quite a cadre of people for this album. Shahzad Ismailey is probably the most active person on this. 

Cass McCombs: Yeah, he runs the studio, Figure 8, where we recorded most of the last album and this one. So when we were doing that, he would come down and talk a bit and he performed a bit on a couple of the songs on the last album. And then when this record came in and we started communicating, I wanted to collaborate more with him. He is quite an interesting mind. Really, it just kind of happened because of the studio itself.

AD: The other one that really jumped out at me was Wynonna Judd. She’s only on the one song, but did she end up on the record mostly as a function of working with her partner Cactus Moser, or was it something else?

Cass McCombs: Initially we met because we collaborated on a song together, and then we and some friends started a band, but we only did one show. We did a bunch of her songs and my songs. And we did “Unproud Warrior” [the song Judd and Moser play on] in its embryonic stage, like I had just completed the writing. And we premiered it there. So when we ended up cutting here with Shahzad in New York, I sent the tracks to them and they of course remembered it and contributed to it.

AD: I was curious about that song. Our culture is sort of steeped in Vietnam-era war songs; that’s very well covered in a way. But though they exist, I feel like we haven’t seen as many Afghanistan/Iraq-era songs come out of the last 20 years. “Unproud Warrior” kind of transcends being about any particular war, even with the title character being rooted in the 2010s, but it still seems like one of those songs.

Cass McCombs: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. There are a couple of modern songs that addressed the military in action of the last couple of decades, but you know, I don’t think of that song necessarily as being about the military or anything political. I thought of it more as a character study that gets down to a more universal human condition. And hopefully people could relate to that kind of character and reflecting on the consequences of choices. 

AD: You mention that the character enlisted at the age of 17, but then in the third verse you mention a lot of famous artists that did things at a young age. You mention S.E. Hinton, Mary Shelley, and Stephen Crane. I was curious about the connection between the idea of enlisting versus artists that did things at a similar age. 

Cass McCombs: I guess, one way to think about it is that young people are people, and they are capable of great books and great creations and great things. There’s a tendency to think about young people as kind of flotsam and jetsam just being tossed around by the world, you know. I’m trying to instill that they are people with their own autonomy and decisions and can create masterworks. 

AD: I love the length of this album. I love that it’s eight songs and clearly fits on a vinyl record. I can see it very neatly divided in to four songs and four songs. Were there songs you recorded for this album that you held off on for wanting to keep it to a certain size?

Cass McCombs: Absolutely. This record has really changed in my mind over the course of making it. There were a lot of songs that were omitted from it that I thought, going into it, were integral to what I was going to do. I’m sure those songs will come back later. But the whole idea of the record changed over making it. It wasn’t this ‘heartmind’ thing. It had more to do with people on the street and living on the street, and also a continuation of the old gold rush, gunslinger, bandit kind of balladry that I’ve done on previous records. I wanted to explore that side of California’s history. It’s pretty different from where I ended up, but it just kind of split apart at some point and became what it wanted to be. I had to get it out of the way from what I wanted it to be. 

AD: With streaming, it seems like we’ve entered this weird era where we’ve gone back to the pre-album era, where it’s more about singles and individual songs. But streaming has held on to the idea of an album less than as ‘here, this group of files is an album’ and more like ‘here’s this algorithmic arrangement of various tracks on a playlist.’ But <i>Heartmind</i> kind of feels like my platonic ideal of an album in a way. 

Cass McCombs: You’re right, the whole medium of the album is in a very awkward phase of its evolution. Like, what is the running time of an album? There doesn’t seem to be any agreement over what it’s supposed to do. Which is a chaotic thing when you’re trying to make one. [laughs]

AD: There are a bunch of pairings between the color blue and music on the album – especially in the opener “Music is Blue” and the later “A Blue, Blue Band.” Is that a pairing you’d thought about before?

Cass McCombs: There’s not really any logic behind it. In general, there’s not something specific I’m trying to do here. But color is like a splash, it’s a feeling. It can be this color, that color, color is just there for us to play with. I guess it kind of fit into my approach which has always been to allow the listener a certain amount of autonomy to interpret the songs according to their experience and what suits them. I think colors can do that. It’s kind of the word color. I chose a color, but it’s more like color itself. I think that’s what I was trying to say – color it yourself.

AD: Going back to that liner note paragraph, you say that line about ‘the blossoms didn’t know their own pink,’ ‘is it possible to know my own pink.’ That leaves that same kind of openness. In the bio notes for the promotional push for the record, Grayson Currin wrote “at the risk of being didactic, I need to reiterate something: I might be completely wrong about everything I’ve said about these songs.” And that’s what’s frustrating and beautiful about art. You want people to see the same things you do, but that’s not always going to happen.

Cass McCombs: Even more frustrating as a listener or viewer is when you’re being forced – this outlook is forced upon you, as if it’s being advertised to you, like you’re a consumer, and not a person with eyes and ears. A lot of times these explanations of works read like bad sales pitches. I’m just worried about – I don’t want my work to be like that. You have to say something, I suppose. [laughs]

AD: Sure, in retrospect, I said that various moments on this album reminded me of various things. But I appreciated that some of the things I was thinking about, your thought process clearly wasn’t there. But I love that. In that sense, we all kind of build structures for art from our experiences with other things. 

Cass McCombs: Right, and ideally it’s a journey. The role of the artist – I just don’t see the divide here. I’m a music fan, too. I don’t see this chasm between these roles as like artist, critic, audience. These barriers are just ridiculous. I think we’re all creating just in different ways.

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