You’re a photographer, and you’ve exhibited your work in places as far away as Tokyo. How does photography define your life as an artist?
The greatest thing that photography has done for me is not to define my life as an artist, but to add to it. I didn’t start taking photographs until I was well into my thirties. It was a new thing that happened to me in addition to music. I find that it adds to my artistic life, which is centered around music. But music and photography go very well together. Photography is an indispensible part of my artistic life now. It broadens my palette and adds another facet to what I can do. I’m kind of insatiable when it comes to my artistic aspirations. You can never play enough music. You can never write enough good songs. You can never take enough pictures.
Have you ever considered taking a break from music to focus full time on visual art?
I have dreams of taking time off to just go on long road trips and follow my camera where it leads me. But, then again, that’s kind of what my touring life is right now. I’m on these endless road trips where I take photographs constantly. That’s why I started in the first place. To remember where I’ve been. I feel a duty to document my life in travel.
If I’m in a couple-day stretch where I’m not writing a song, I can go out and take photographs. And I can let that visual inspiration lead me to the next musical inspiration. Photography and music are a great handoff to one another. When one is not happening, you can pick up the other. And often times both are happening simultaneously. It creates this continuum that makes everything much more interesting for me. It lengthens the thread.
Sounds like you don’t ever have to turn off your muse. You can find it one way or the other.
Yeah. The other thing about photography is that it doesn’t take an audience. It doesn’t take anyone to be there with you. I don’t play much music by myself. I’m a band guy. I need other people to play music at my best. But I’m also an only child. And a Scorpio (laughs]. So I have a great need to be alone. Photography is a means by which I can stay artistic but be alone. My morning walks by myself in a new city with my camera are some of the best moments of my life.
You’re also a surfer. Given the rigorous travel demands of being in bands, I imagine you don’t surf as much as you’d like to. Do you ever get out while you’re on tour?
Sure. I’ve surfed while on tour in Australia, New Zealand, Japan. All over the States. Surfing is the third element of the Holy Trinity: music, photography, and surfing. It’s three things that really complement each other.
Surfing, like photography, is something that I can do alone. There’s an introspective nature to surfing for me. A lot of people see it as a sport, but I see it as an art. It’s a place where I get a lot of thinking done. It’s the whole connection to nature, connections to the deeper part of yourself. The typical things that surfers say. The tropes [laughs]. Those are all things that are true for me, and they inspire me musically and visually.
Just getting tossed around by the ocean tends to shake a lot of things out of you. I’ve literally felt songs that have been shaken out of me by my time in the ocean. Photographs too. Sometimes the water literally grabs you and that turbulence lines up with my inner turbulence. The ocean can often be a catalyst for some of my better work. It’s just a really important part of my life. So much so that I moved out of the city to live near the ocean. I live in a small town in a house about a mile from the beach. Being near the water is essential to me now. I can’t imagine myself moving away from it.
I’m always jealous of people like that. I went to school with a bunch of people who lived on the coast – primarily Wilmington. The ocean was in their blood. And there’s a huge difference between them and me. There are definitely people who are from the coast, and then there are people are not. There is a discernable difference. I imagine that’s similar for you.
Well it is, but surfing’s not something I took up until my late thirties. Photography and surfing were both things that happened to me later. They came into bloom around the same time in my life, as a matter of fact. Learning to surf to with any kind of competence is a pretty steep learning curve [laughs]. I had some hilarious experiences learning how to do this. I would have ten year olds whizzing by me, surfing beautifully, because they’d been doing it all their lives. But my obsession with it was so strong that I stopped at nothing to learn at a later age.
I learned to surf while on tour. This was like ten years ago, when I was in Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. We were touring all over the world. And I would call promoters ahead of time in Australia and New Zealand, anywhere. I would find people to take me surfing. Nothing was going to stop me from learning to do this. And I did. I’m not that great of a surfer [laughs]. My approach to it is kind of that classic style of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s my favorite. Smaller waves. Longer boards. My photographic style, my musical style, my surfing style – they are all similar aesthetically.
Yeah. I don’t move that fast. My fingers have never moved fast on a guitar. I don’t take fast motion photos. And I surf very slowly [laughs]. Everything I do is on the more languid side of things. Fluid and elegant and poetic is what I aspire to in all levels of my life. There’s important place for those kind of aesthetics in our world. Especially in light of all the things we’re seeing right now.
Cream Puff Records shares space with a men’s clothing store called Tabor, which carries a lot of Mollusk surf wear. I’ve read about the musical community surrounding Mollusk Surf Shop in Venice and the role that Farmer Dave Scher [of Beachwood Sparks and the Skiffle Players] has played in organizing live performances there. I’m curious to know what role, if any, that community has played in your life as a songwriter and musician?
I have strong connections with many of the people in the Mollusk scene. I’ve been to gigs there. I’ve participated in gigs there. It’s an amazing group of people. Surfers. Artistic souls who lead that place. People who work tirelessly to enhance the sense of community among all of us. Musicians. Artists of all stripes.
Farmer Dave has been a friend of mine for going on twenty years now. We go back a long way and are very close friends. Through Dave I met people like the Marshall Brothers and A.A. Bondy. He’s one of the most devastatingly great musicians I’ve ever come across. We surf together. All of us surf together. There’s a large familial feeling. And it extends to the San Francisco Mollusk store as well. That’s the original one. It’s a group of friends and artistic allies that extends all the way up the California coast. It’s just an inspirational scene.
For someone following from afar on the East Coast, it seems pretty special.
I was originally an East Coaster too. I was born in New Jersey and lived in New York for a long time. But being a part of this scene in California is a dream for me too. I’ve lived here for the better part of twenty years. But as a kid from New Jersey who grew up in the depressing heavy metal 1980s, it’s been great [laughs]. I’ve been a fan of California psych music forever, so it was always a dream for me to live there. So now that I do and I have all of these incredible friends. It’s never lost on me how special it is.
One thing I find interesting about your career is how fluid you have been. You’ve played in a lot of bands that have made or are currently making a huge impact. You’ve also played some with Phil Lesh. How long have you known him?
I met Phil Lesh in 2005 when I was playing with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. Phil and Ryan had a friendship back then and they were playing together some. Phil sat in with the Cardinals at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006 when we opened up for Willie Nelson. I sat in with Phil and Friends in 2008 in New York and then Phil ended up writing the afterward for my photography book. So I first knew Phil from the Ryan Adams days but not too well. Then in 2011, when Chris Robinson Brotherhood started, whenever we would play at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Phil would come sit in with us. He and Chris have been friends for a long time. Chris was a member of Phil Lesh and Friends. So I reconnected with Phil through Chris. I started playing with Phil a little more formally when he opened Terrapin Crossroads, his club in San Rafael in 2012.
When Phil started that club, he opened up his Rolodex of musician friends to help him with shows. He had a pretty ambitious plan for many night of music a week at Terrapin. And I happened to be standing in the right place at the right time when the call came. So I started going to Terrapin a lot. And I started attending what we like to call “P.L.U. – Phil Lesh University” [laughs]. It’s an incredibly difficult school to put yourself through.
I follow Terrapin Crossroads on Instagram, and my favorite posts are the ones he does with pictures of “story time” sessions, where sits in a chair and reads stories to kids that must be his grandkids’s age. I’ve always thought it would be fun to go listen to him read those stories.
Phil is just a great guy. He’s an amazing musician and he’s still playing his ass off. He’s one of the original architects of some of my favorite music in the world. That era of psychedelic music from the West Coast. And he’s still with it. Still here teaching us and showing us the way. I’m honored to be in his presence whenever I can be in it and play in his band. I take it very seriously. I look at it as an education that I’m going to have with me for the rest of my life. When you’re getting it from the source, it’s like receiving a very special esoteric knowledge. He still speaks the original language in its undiluted form. When you see and hear him play, it’s all still there. The language is still very much alive and fluid in him. It’s not something that’s passed on. And it doesn’t feel like something he’s recreating. His bass playing is very much a living language, and that is what interests me the most. It holds endless interest. When you put your own guitar playing into his flow, something really happens if you’re paying attention. If you’re listening. If you have your ears open. That’s the most important thing he’s taught me. I’ve always been a pretty good listener, but I didn’t realize how much work I had to do until I started playing with Phil.
You started the year off with Skifflin’, the debut record from The Skiffle Players. I’m obsessed with that album. Can you tell me the story behind that band?
You brought up the Mollusk scene, and we’re connected to that. But I don’t think anyone would say those were the explicit roots of the band. Farmer Dave and Cass [McCombs] are very close friends, and they came up with the idea. I can’t remember how I fell into it. That’s how the best things start. They just happen.
I think our first show was at a Mollusk festival in Big Sur a couple years ago. Most of us come from some version of Beachwood Sparks. I go back as far with Aaron [Sperske] as I do with Farmer Dave. We have some really strong roots. Dan [Horne] and I go back a little less far, but we became instant friends when we met. And Cass I didn’t really know at all. I was just a huge fan of his writing. It’s impossible not to be. He’s arguably the best songwriter to be found anywhere right now.
He and Farmer Dave had been friends for quite some time, and they cooked up the idea. They’d been thinking about doing something like this for a while. Somehow my name got thrown into the hat. And somehow we ended up at some jam, somewhere. Pulled out some acoustic guitars and a band was born. We get together whenever we can.
How did you go from being friends that jammed together to making a record?
I’m not sure the others would agree with me, but my recollection is of being at a Folk Yeah festival in Joshua Tree about two years ago. I said we should record this. And our collective light bulbs turned on, and the idea was born to make a record. It should be said – I recall saying that, but I don’t want to take credit for it [laughs]. It was very obvious anyway. We had done a couple of shows, and the band just has a real chemistry. And we have a great sound, so it was obvious that we needed to record it. And Britt Govea [founder of Folk Yeah Presents] was there that day and said Spiritual Pajamas [Govea's record label] could do it. We all talked it over and started hatching a plan. In February or March of last year, we all went to a studio in L.A. that we know really well – King Size Sound, in Echo Park – kind of a home base for us. We went in there and recorded a thick handful of songs. At least half of which is not released. There’s a lot of really good stuff from those sessions that is unreleased. There’s at least another record.
Do you have plans to tour or release a second album?
The last time I saw Cass, he said let’s make another record. I’m trying to carve out some time to do it because I would go anywhere to make music with that guy and with those people. Skiffle Players is a part time thing now but that’s solely due to logistics. It’s a very important part of my life. Those friends. Dave. Dan. Aaron. It’s a deep, deep group of friends. It extends through the Mollusk world, through our artistic ties, our musical ties, our bond with the ocean. It’s all real to me.
And Cass as a songwriter – it’s rare that you get to be around somebody that good. I’ve been involved with music for a quite a while now, and you start to recognize as time goes by that great songs do not come easily. When you hear one, it’s special. But with Cass, you can hear ten in a row. You gotta stop what you’re doing and be there for those songs. I get a lot of work as a guitar player, and people think of me as that. But I’m no virtuoso guitar player, believe me. I just serve songs. That’s all I’m here to do on guitar. I’m not any kind of prodigy. There’s nothing all that special going on with my playing. The only reason that I get to hang around doing this is that I’m in service of the songs that I’m playing. And when I hear great ones coming from really great people, I’ll stop at nothing to be around them. That’s what my life is for. I feel like it’s my deepest purpose.
You’re not the only person I’ve spoken to who reveres Cass McCombs. I’ve talked to a couple of other musicians who know him or have played with him. There’s a lot of great musicians and songwriters out there, but he just seems to have this aura where people really look up to him and admire him. Do you think it’s just because he’s a good songwriter or is there something else?
It’s not just because of his songwriting. His singing and guitar playing are phenomenal. It’s the sum total of his artistry. It’s also the understated nature with which he goes about his work. There’s a lot of self-aggrandizing people out there, barking about how great they are. But you’ll never hear one word like that out of Cass. I’m guessing somewhere inside, he knows he’s got the goods. But you’re never gonna hear it from him. He’s a class act. He has a charisma that most people wish they had. It’s the kind that requires very few words and zero showmanship. He just walks into a room, and the molecules change, and you don’t know why. The guy hasn’t said a word. He’s not wearing flashy clothes. You can’t pinpoint it. There’s just something intangible that he as a person and as an artist that’s unmistakable if you just hang around long enough. When you work with him, at any moment he could open up his notebook to a page of lyrics or a song he’s never played for anyone. And he may be unsure of its quality, but it can change your life right there on the spot. All of us who know Cass, that’s why we revere him to the point that we do.
I’ll wrap it up by discussing your current tour with Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Your upcoming show in Charlotte kicks off a run through North Carolina followed by a trip through the South (with a two-week break in between). Does the geography of a gig affect what kind of show you play or setlist you choose?
I think it can to an extent. It depends though. Chris primarily chooses the setlist, so you’d have to ask him. But I think he takes where he is into consideration. He’s not the kind of guy to shout, “How’s it going out there North Carolina?!” [laughs]. And he doesn’t change a geographical lyric to the name of the city he’s in. But there is a little bit of leeway. Generally, we do what we do wherever we are. We’re bringing our world to your city, not the opposite.
How has the tour been going so far?
It’s been great. We’re in our sixth year together. We’ve got a record and an EP coming out this year that we’re all really invested in and proud of. Our band is sounding better than it ever has. We solidified our lineup this year with our bassist Jeff Hill. Musically, without question, we’re better than we ever have been. The hundreds of shows that we’ve played now are really starting to pay off. There’s an assuredness about our band that we didn’t have before. We had to get the experience first.
For me personally, this has been the best year musically of my life. Two new CRB records, a new Hard Working Americans record that turned out great, the Skiffle Players record. Circles Around the Sun continues to get attention that I never, ever thought it would. We played our first shows this year at Lockn [Festival], which was really exciting. And we have some Phil gigs coming up soon. All these seeds that I’ve been growing for over twenty years now are all showing flowers over the past few years. It’s been really rewarding to witness and be a part of. I’m grateful for it.