Cass McCombsâ€™ Catacombs
Cass McCombs may not consider himself a good writer or a very good musician, but there are plenty of others who beg to differ. He can count some of the most lauded indie acts around as fans, including The Arcade Fire, Peter Bjorn and John, and Modest Mouse, to new indie darlings like The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. Many have invited him on tour. Others, such as Sweden's Sahara Hotnights have covered his work, and his albums have received accolades from music critics. Yet it's a good bet that most people haven't heard of him.
Perhaps that's part of his appeal. He has been pegged as a mystery. But, he says, with his latest album, Catacombs, he is opening up.
TRACK 15: … I'm becoming more comfortable with writing, with abstractions and bringing back a greater theme you know so it's not just obtuse or nonsensical ... I want to put through a message to people, but I also want it to be true and not pretentious not pretentious not angry, not opinion, I'm trying to not be opinionated. If you can have a message without being opinionated, that's what resonates with me in songs…
McCombs moved to Chicago in 2007 after years spent drifting up and down both coasts. And here he spent time studying the city's musical history, which helped sonically shape Catacombs.
TRACK 4: … Moving here and going to the record stores and thrift stores, to the clubs blues clubs … I had known about blues but not specifically Chicago blues too well before coming here, so I guess I've always been obsessed with Bo Diddly and Chess recordings and things, so when me and Airel who recorded it, wanted to set this up, we bought a bunch of equipment that they used, the exact microphones and the tape machine that they used at Chess.
While there is nothing that directly resembles the blues on Catacombs, they recorded live, like those old blues and classic rock bands did. With the band all recording live in the same room, the mics picked up any and all mistakes, many of which were kept on the final tape – just as artists did in the past. Several songs on Catacombs were done in just one take.
The live recording and spare and pretty arrangements give many of the songs a timeless quality, but there are slightly modern twists from analog synthesizers. Writing the lyrics, just as his approach to recording, mirror an old fashioned style. He traces the lineage of storytelling.
TRACK 7: I have some characters that are bits and pieces of myself and people that I know and people I meet, it's not strictly autobiographical and it's not strictly fictional, they're kind of Frankenstein characters from a bunch of peoples' experiences. And then I like to . ..bring them back because you know sometimes these characters really embody like a theme, like the Lionkiller character is a pretty broad character, I think you can adapt that character to all themes of violence and destruction and hatred and then in contrast to those themes, you know you can make a character that is the opposite of those things. So I think it's easy when you make a character to you can talk through them, or they talk through you…it's just short story writing. The characters have a life of their own at a certain point, you know, they just do the writing for you. You give them enough background and then they're off and away, you know.
For McCombs, who is a voracious reader who has also recently penned his first screenplay, words carry the most weight.
TRACK 6: I think about words and music entirely separately and as entirely separate pieces. I think the Executioner's Song was written words first. So I just came up with some pretty music to fit over the top of it, just to make it flow, you know. It's just a little puzzle, you know. I don't think about the music too deeply, the words I try to spend more time on than the music.
McCombs says for him, the music is already there, just waiting for the artist to discover
TRACK 5: …I think that's the thing about songwriting, it's an ancient art form, you know. I mean it predates history,. ..I think it's ineveitable that I or I mean I think what is it Hegel says it, it's uncovering you know, like you've uncovered a melody, or you've uncovered a theme, or something like that – a timeless whatever you want to call it theme that was there, and it's just the songwriters job to push all of the sands of time, the garbage of the internet and whatever away from it and smooth it out.
McCombs SHOULD NOT REMAIN LOW PROFILE FOR LONG, AS HIS PEERS AND MUSIC CRITICS ALIKE CONTINUE TO CHAMPION HIM. Catch him while you can… Cass McCombs headlines Chicago's Hideout tonight.
For WBEZ, I'm Althea Legaspi
OUTRO: Honeyboy Edwards, who is performing in celebration of his 94th birthday, opens the set.