Cass McCombs was born in 1977 and raised in Northern California. He is of the generation that grew up hearing the stories still fresh on people’s minds: Zodiac killings, Zebra killings, Manson, Black Panthers, SLA, riots, People’s Park, LSD, etc. These were the local legends and became the basis for McCombs’ imagination. He is a child of the 70s. Since leaving the area, he lived many years drifting the U.S. until ever attempting to make music seriously. He has said that from this experience he learned to listen to people’s stories from many walks of life. Instead of university, this was his education. McCombs worked as a janitor, in a horse stable, a book shop; he was a soda jerk, a truck driver, and a movie projectionist. He worked construction in New Jersey and at a midtown NYC delicatessen. McCombs developed his narrative songwriting style, and since has always expressed himself through the use of characters. He writes stories for his friends using their humour, their language, with detail and color, relating their drug use to classical literary themes, for instance. Rather than fulfilling the stereotype of the confessional singer-songwriter, he describes the lifestyles and feelings of those that surround him, with more love than judgment. McCombs is a mirror.
Deeply distrustful of the Business, McCombs has stayed relatively underground, supported by a devoted fan base and his label/publisher. In 2010, Domino Records hired a photo-surveillance private investigator to follow McCombs and take what would be become the publicity shots for Wit’s End . Examples such as this suggest that he and mainstream acceptance are in a state of perpetual stalemate. However, in contrast to his persona, McCombs’ music is generous, the melodies always infectious, the production and musicianship first-rate. And at the forefront of his craft are always the lyrics, which more than any songwriter today propels the avant-garde. He presents morally ambiguous situations for the listener, allowing them to interpret however they choose. McCombs has always refused to speak his influences, except for American folk music and The Beatles. He is a folk artist, telling the stories of his native land in a modern tongue.
Humor Risk is his sixth-and-a-half record, and second to be released in 2011, following Wit’s End , which featured the tragic song “County Line”. Musically, it is more rhythm-based, and with a heavier lyricism, than its sparse predecessor. Both were compiled from recordings made over the course of three years, in various places such as New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and mixed in a single session and divided into albums. This follows the way McCombs works, he writes continuously, not for any album in mind, and then puts them into themed groups. Humor Risk is an attempt at laughter instead of confusion, chaos instead of morality, or, as fellow Northern Californian Jack London said, “I would rather be ashes than dust!”