Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Cass McCombs’s 2011 albums, WIT’S END and Humor Risk , are the work of one of the finest singer-songwriters currently working. He draws on the history of everything implied by that mossy title—“singer-songwriter”—as well as on traditions more occult and obscured from the golden California afternoon sunshine that suffuses his music. As with most things, California or not, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, dark things as well as light, all precisely etched into the songs by McCombs’s oracular words and trademark croon—as alien, distant, and warm as Dion’s or Merle Haggard’s.
Ariel Pink’s special brand of homemade (and, now, studio-processed) psychedelic song has antecedents in the records, tapes, and CD-Rs of outsiders like R. Stevie Moore. With last year’s record Before Today , and its hit single “Round and Round,” Pink’s music—the lo-fi product of an imagination in constant motion, frantically picking through the threadbare simulacrum of contemporary Los Angeles—has escaped the bedroom and resonates with a larger audience. The Internet is littered with the corpses of his imitators’ MySpace pages.
Last April, both thirty-something musicians met in Los Angeles while Pink was recording his forthcoming yet untitled album with Haunted Graffiti, his band. A laid-back conversation was followed by a call-in session a few weeks later. Though McCombs and Pink might appear to speak different languages, they are both writing the same book.
Nearly every time I see Ariel, I am impressed by his ability to speak his mind. Every madcap, absurd, intelligent, misguided, generous blathering flows so freely from his whim that I imagine it’s because of this freedom that his music is so great. He is such an intelligent blatherer that I revert to my country-boy aw-shucks put-on to escape dying on the floor of laughter. He makes sense too. I relate to his desire to establish new values when consciousness itself seems false, and I’m charmed by his contempt for rhetoric. I feel lucky to have participated in these talks and hope they do some good for someone somewhere.
PART I — In an apartment in Los Angeles.
Ariel Pink Maybe we can take this opportunity to discuss current music and stuff. I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling that everything is extremely melodious and a little too pretty. Too emotional. Too serious. Everyone wants to emote—maybe the emo stance hasn’t left us yet. I’d say in the last five years even it’s gotten a little bit more intense. And everyone’s talking about pop, using that word, but I don’t think they know what it means.
Young Woman People get really upset when you walk down that path … when you act as though you’re going to die tomorrow.
AP That’s why I love the Westboro Baptist Church. You know them?
Cass Mccombs Sure.
AP I love their message: “You’re going to hell, honey!” They’ll say that to people on the street, people driving by. And their reaction will be, “How can these people say this to me? I’m a good God-fearing American!” The members of the church want to provoke violence and physical retaliation, because it’s a family of lawyers. Then they can actually sue them. That’s the scam. I love that words can provoke people enough to act.
CM Just not through music, at least not consciously.
AP Not anymore. Music, to me, is a heightened degree of the fantasy. It’s the sexual dance of the woman and the Dionysian. Like, “Look at the ghost! Look at the shiny spotlights! Look at all of the psychedelic colors!” It’s just a distraction. It doesn’t tell us anything about ourselves. Death metal had a good go.
CM Growing up I felt provoked. Music provoked me, back in the day.
AP It’s a good point, so the people that go to action are the kids. Therefore music is targeted to a youth audience. The youth are castrating themselves. Willingly. That political correctness thing. Everybody’s bi now. Have you noticed that?
CM Outside of San Francisco?
AP Everybody under 27 years old. Every girl I’ve ever met who’s under 27: bi. Call me old-fashioned. That did not happen in my generation. I find it very disturbing, frankly. The Millennials are what I’m talking about—they have no gender. Their gender is a biological imperative. It can’t be a choice, of course. They’re just born bi. Maybe it’s a mutation or something like that.
Young Woman Hormones in milk.
CM Hormones in ice cream. Passing of the torch …
PART II — Phone conversation with Cass McCombs in San Francisco, Ariel Pink in Los Angeles, and Mónica de la Torre in New York City.
MT Where is Ariel? Did he call in yet?
CM I just spoke with him. I could call him again.
MT Let’s do that. Oh wait, what was that?
CM I think you’re hearing things.
MT I think I am. There’s got to be a name for auditory hallucinations, like when you think that someone is texting you or that your phone is ringing. Technology’s phantom sounds. Okay. Let’s call each other again in five minutes.
AP Hey guys! Sorry it took me so long, sorry. Here we are!
MT Thanks for wanting to do this again. Hopefully we’ll get it right this time.
AP I thought we got it right last time, but that’s okay.
MT Yeah. I was pretty pleased with the results, actually, but I did want to hear more from Cass, though.
AP Don’t we all.
CM The royal we.
AP I’ll try and not hog the conversation.
CM Hog it? Naw, you’re good, man.
MT Cass was curious about why we invited you two to have a conversation. I said that aside from the fact that we are—the royal we—fans of your work, it seems different enough that it’d be interesting to counterpoint your approaches to production and lyrics. But as Cass pointed out, you’re not that dissimilar, right?
AP We’re friends and such, so it’s hard to pretend like we’re coming at it completely from different walks of life and all.
MT So did you instantly connect?
AP Yeah, I thought his stuff was really good. We also had friends in common. In fact, we were in each other’s bands for a tour we organized in 2007, if you didn’t know already. The bands were kind of one and the same for a month there.
CM And we ruined each other’s songs.
AP I mean, I tried to stay back, but you certainly ruined my songs, man. I’ll never forgive you for that.
CM Thank you.
MT So do you think you have things in common, musically, or not?
AP Actually—I’ll just say my piece and then get out of the way—Cass is a very capable and wonderfully paced guitar player. He’s an underrated guitar player, in my opinion. He’s got a great hold on that. But more apparently, it’s his writing, his ability to write lyrics and songs. That’s what really distinguishes us. I don’t know; what do you think?
CM There’s a similarity in what we do, or at least our work is as similar as it is dissimilar, but that’s natural when you’re talking about individuals, you know? We’ve shared a lot of musicians and we like a lot of the same music. We’re both from the West and that’s not all …
AP Yeah, we get along more on a personal level. Also, art and music play similar roles in each of our lives. So when we get together, it’s hard for us to be anything but casual about it. I’ll probe him on certain aspects of his songwriting, and I’m not trying to gain pointers so much as … I kind of know what a song means, intuitively. It doesn’t need an explanation and I don’t expect anybody to gain anything from my enlightening it with my own music stuff.
MT Wait, Ariel, are you talking about your own lyrics?
AP I don’t talk about them! In fact, I’d rather change the topic entirely. They’re there for other people to scrutinize and make of them what they will.
MT Cass, what about you? What’s your approach to lyrics? You seem to put a lot of thought into your lyrics—it shows.
CM I mull over the words, yeah. I put a lot of time into it, and elbow grease. But the time is not as important as the idea. If you have a strong release out of the gate, the dog is gonna run all the way, it’s gonna go the distance. What was the song we were talking about last time, Ariel? Your song. Every line in the song was a branch of an original idea. Do you remember?
AP Was it “Good Kids Make Bad Grown-Ups”? I was just extrapolating on that. The title is truer than it might sound at first. Taken literally, it resonates on so many levels—to me, at least. So if I come up with some sort of offhand aphorism like that, that is rich to me; I can pontificate and write about it endlessly. And it shouldn’t be hard work, but it ends up being hard work somehow. I’m not speaking for you, Cass, but for me, if it’s too difficult, it’s too difficult—I kind of want to put it down. It has to come easy on the one level, ’cause it’s music, after all. We want to impart the grace of some kind of ecstasy, something magical there. We don’t want to hammer you with some kind of theosophical … we don’t want to talk about anything, really. We want to talk about everything at once.
MT Do you feel the same way, Cass?
CM Well, he said a lot there. I’d have to listen back to agree with everything, but I like the way he said it.
MT Does a line in a song just pop up in your mind? Do you have a formed idea of where you want to go with a lyric and then start? Or is the process more fragmentary? And once something good comes, do you want to expand on it or do you want to not touch it and have it be ecstatic, as Ariel said?
CM I try to write songs for the range of how I’m feeling. There should or could be a song for every part of life. People may say, “Oh, I prefer this type of music,” or that they don’t like to hear moaning in music. Someone who’d say that they don’t like moaning doesn’t really know why someone else would be sorrowful and why they’d need to express that in music. So I try to write songs for all the facets and depths of my life and the people around me. I try to treat others with the dignity I carry for myself and try not to judge.
AP Cass seems like somebody who writes for people in every sense of the word. It gives him an anchor, a place to focus, and he gravitates to that naturally. But you were saying, Cass, that you pretty often write songs about the people you know, which gives you a starting point. That speaks volumes about your target and what the point in writing is for you: to speak to people. It should only be that, or it should be at least that. You do that really well. I, on the other hand, might be a little bit less empathetic to humanity. I have a latent urge, but I don’t know whom I’m singing for—and that’s usually pretty apparent.
CM Your songs are a lot funnier than mine.
AP Your songs are funny. It’s dark humor, though—not ha-ha funny, intelligent funny. George Carlin was funny too and was a brilliant philosopher. The odd thing is that I think I’m funnier in real life and sadder on tape, you know what I’m saying? For whatever reason, my oldest reflex is this oversentimentality that I decided to throw onto things very early on in life.
MT Really? Do you think that comes across in your music? I don’t think your music sounds sentimental at all.
AP I set out to make the saddest music. That’s the irony.
CM I would agree with that, man. For example, the chords that you use. They’re not standard chords—they’re dissonant. There’s a lot of sevens going on, a lot of discord.
AP It’s overbearing and it’s overdone in every way. Even the performances are so overdone. But that’s been part and parcel of my whole thing. Back in the day, when I thought I was peerless, I felt I was making some huge leap for humanity. Actually, I was just being the most drippingly pathetic, sad, and desperate human being ever. It felt like it was me against the world. And nowadays everybody’s doing it. I never had the cool, objective reserve that Cass has. I admire that. I’ve always wanted to be an adult.
MT That’s so interesting, because Cass’s music seems so much more emotional to me.
AP Oh, it is to me too. But he has the voice of God on top of it.
CM What are you talking about?
AP I mean, you have the voice of somebody I would trust. That’s what I’m saying. You wouldn’t trust anybody who had my voice. I would never follow that guy. I’d feel like there was some sort of camera around the corner that was gonna catch me. What’s more interesting is the fact that, in my view, we’re both normal individuals—an increasingly abnormal thing. Intelligence is dying.
MT Intelligence is dying. Hold that thought. Are you guys comfortable enough with me leaving? I have to go. What do you think, Ariel? Hello?
CM Maybe he split.
AP I’m trying to put you on speaker because I’m in my car driving and I don’t have a mouthpiece.
(MT gasps.) (Break.)
AP The Gnostics!
CM Let’s jump into a volcano together! Do you need a second to figure out your car thing?
AP Yeah, I’m just going to keep you on the phone and take side streets.
CM Okay, so who’s your favorite Gnostic?
AP My favorite Gnostic! I guess The Manichaeans? They’re all good. I came to the conclusion the other day, after doing a fair amount of reading, that I fall into the category of a Gnostic. Not a religious Gnostic, though I do sympathize with the idea of it being a response to Christianity as opposed to being completely different from religion—a science, for instance. We have to deal with the question of where we come from; you can’t just pretend like the issue doesn’t exist. In that sense, I’ve always been a kind of Gnostic. I’ve always been reluctant to be religious, to fully embrace the tenets of Christianity or Judaism or whatever, but I also don’t fully fall in with the science crew either.
CM Do you ever go to the Gnostic Society?
AP No. Where’s that?
CM It’s on Glendale. You should go.
AP Dude, I’ve never even heard of that. Is it open to everybody?
CM Yes, they’re very welcoming.
AP Is it the Dream Center?
CM No, the Gnostic Society.
AP You’ve been there?
AP Sounds like an AA meeting. Now, I’ve only been a Gnostic for a couple of days, but I’m working on it! Keep coming! It works if you work it!
CM Every day, think about it. Step-by-step.
AP Talk about it! I wanna go to fuckin’ church every fuckin’ day but I can’t go anymore. I just can’t. I like to celebrate Christmas just once a year—if I could do the Gnostic Society just once a year I would do it, but shit, man.
CM The hardest time of year is Lent. I wanna hide underneath a rock during Lent.
AP I’ve been delving into other waters since I last talked to you. I’ve been working on the record mostly, actually. Today we recorded “Immigration.”
CM Immigration like the law in Arizona?
AP Immigration as an idea. There are so many Chinese here. Did they come here on their own accord? Did they have to escape China to come here?
CM I don’t know.
AP So it begs the question, what are they coming for? It’s not freedom, obviously. It’s money. Whatever happens to this country doesn’t really matter; just go where the money is. I love the idea of an American immigrant in another country.
CM Some folks leave their countries for religious reasons. Or you meet Americans abroad—they’re not going to other countries for money or religious reasons. They just don’t like it here.
AP Americans don’t emigrate. People immigrate to America, historically speaking, but Americans stay here.
CM Well, there are some, aren’t there? Butch Cassidy was selling arms in Bolivia. Would you call him an immigrant?
AP Wait, who?
CM Butch Cassidy.
AP But those people were colonialists. The point is that it’s one thing if you’re a traveling salesman. Those people stay Americans through and through. Whereas you have people who immigrate to this country and get absorbed in the culture and the promise of what this country is to them. They have this amazing perspective on what makes this country great. Whereas we, as “privileged” Americans, haven’t got the slightest clue as to our country’s redeeming character. No wonder everybody’s so clueless about how to run the country too—Americans don’t know their ass from the back of their hand. It’d really benefit us to have a foreign president, an immigrant who straight up had a French accent or something.
CM Very good.
AP People always say, “Let’s focus on something positive.” “What we would like to see … ” That kind of thing. But we’d rather not be dealing with some issues. For instance, the idea that the world is heading toward uniformity. It’s Marx’s idea that we’ll have permanent revolutions leading toward the eventual disintegration of an upper class. I think that’s right on the money.
CM Well, I hope you’re right. Go on.
AP We are lucky to live in a time when we actually have the things that we have—they’ll go away. It’s a scary prospect, if you think about it. There just aren’t enough resources. And if there isn’t a profit motive, companies and technologies don’t have the motivation to exist, you know what I’m saying?
CM I’m thinking. It’s interesting.
AP Capitalism only works if there’s a lower class that you can exploit. It helps a lot to have countries that aren’t capitalist, but we’re slowly democratizing every nation. China is democratized in a real enough sense that it’s hard to actually say what side they’re on. We’re pretty much all on the same boat. So it really has to do with who’s got the plan that can sustain the most amount of agreement within the populations. I guess, I don’t know. For me, it’s a conundrum—the whole idea of world peace, that we’ll outgrow war and all that stuff. What does that really mean? Is that practical? Is that desirable? Do you think that we’ll be able to produce an enlightened generation that will somehow feel less guilt for the past?
CM I certainly hope so. Responsibility for Beauty and Nature would be a good place to start. Walking without wearing shoes—building up calluses, thinking with the soft foot. When we walk around with all this weight on our shoulders, we justify our boots. We justify our tough exterior. We behave like we’re on the way to the company orgy just to take our minds off it. But it’s an illusion, as is most guilt. It’s not real, it’s BS. I am bad to want what I can’t get; I haven’t got it, therefore I am bad to want it. And I’m bad to feel bad …
AP Guilt is a conditioned reflex that we’ve acquired, and we need to shrug it somehow. Which I think can be done, but not without a price. Like, for instance, Americans, insofar as we have been the Big Brother bully/watchdog of the world, we’ve intervened when humanitarian issues have come into play. There’s a sense of purpose that the government sticks to; it’s hard line. No pussyfooting, no liberal shit. We’ll chop some heads if we need to in order to keep this thing going. Americans don’t have any guilt whatsoever for any transaction of this kind that’s taken place in the past hundred years—but only on the surface of it! What we have now is this silent cancer or ulcer in people’s stomachs, which comes with bad times, naturally. It’s a sense of guilt that is slowly starting to emanate. That’s why Americans don’t travel much. The way that they feel perceived by the rest of the world stifles Americans. It’s a manifestation of an acknowledgment of this guilt.
CM Well, guilt can be used as a political term but, really, it’s an emotional, moralistic concept. It may end up in politics, but it begins with families and how people treat children and how we are endlessly competitive, like in the arts. Artists are competitive with other artists. It’s a greedy environment that we’re all in, if you choose to accept it. They instill these weapons, and guilt is their weapon.
AP Guilt is obviously a useful thing as well; it has done a lot of good for humanity. You can’t completely write it off because guilt is what makes us conscionable. It is the I in you; it is the you in me. Try walking in somebody else’s shoes.
CM I and I.
AP That’s one of the best aspects of guilt; we keep ourselves in check because we’re not just sociopaths run amok. And that’s important when there is a competitive society—
CM We all believe our opinions to be correct and truthful.
AP Competition might be inborn in humans, but family and community are so much more primal, you know? We got by for millions of years through communities, through familiar bonds. This is getting undone in this every-man-for-himself society. Just to be here you become complicit; you are to blame for stepping on somebody’s toes to be slightly more visible or aboveground or successful than you would be otherwise. Everybody’s taking part in this. If there is any guilt, and there should be, that’s what it should point to. I don’t know about you, but I believe in psychohistory.
CM What do you mean by that?
AP Viewing civilization as if it were a body, a person. A child gets traumatized. It represses that stuff and works things out in whatever way it can over decades and millennia. Yet we lose touch with the original problem, which keeps on rearing its ugly head. It’s the one thing that’s escaping our notice. It’s part of us, but it’s so deeply ingrained.
CM I’ll have to think about that.
AP Now we’re tending to right wrongs everywhere we feel responsible. We want to solve problems because we feel like we’ve been neglecting ourselves; we’ve been neglecting our children. We’ve done all these terrible things in the past and we don’t want to do them again. That’s psychohistory for you.
CM I think our job is done here.
AP It better be. What did you say this time that you didn’t say last time, man? You’re going to be an enigma, just live with it. Everybody, just live with it: Cass is an enigma.
CM Nghyaah …
AP That’s a perfect place to end it.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.