Old friend Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced McCombs’ records Wit’s End and Humor Risk as well as 2009’s Catacombs, has carried him through several of those musical incarnations. Currently, he’s also putting him up in the guest room of his Echo Park home several nights a week. Far from the chaos of Thorn’s dishabille, Rechtshaid’s house is deep, USA-blue and relaxing to look at. Opposite the porch, skinny pine trees march in rows under haphazard, cloud-grazing palm stalks. Rows of white and tan houses are stacked crooked into a hill, painting a portrait so dead-on California, that even the stupid Accord across the street looks like it was parked there for a reason. All September an Asian pear tree has been dumping browning yellow fruit across his lawn and you can hear the bees going crazy for it over McCombs’ guitar, as he picks out the measured, bendy blues of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train.” Barefoot in the kitchen, he’s wearing last night’s jeans and a breeze rolls in through the open door carrying outside smells. “I don’t understand why anybody would want to write about me,” he muses. “I’m not interesting. I’m the writer. I tell the stories. The story is not about me.” Though not exactly anti-press, McCombs can only recall three sit-down interviews in the past 10 years. It’s not the reporters so much as the self-degradation they inspire that has soured him on the process. “If you want to do something exceptional,” he says, “something individual, unique and rare, it’s just impossible if you’re going to the committee. It can only inhibit the songs.”
Spending time with McCombs conjures an endless high school weekend, dappled with aimless walks, stoney drop-ins, odd-hour meals and over-hyped Salvation Army visits. His thrift spot of choice is a dank and massive St. Vincent’s in Lincoln Heights, full of old washing machines and children. Saturday morning he drops by after breakfast, hoping to find material for a song based on Schopenhauer’s Short Dialogue On The Indestructibility Of Our True Being By Death. “I structure my life for music. I live for my songs. But if I wanted to tell people exactly what I was doing, I’d be in politics. I don’t want to be made a statue. I don’t think any human does.” McCombs can be vague to the point of non sequitur, showcasing the vast, ongoing self-education that compensates for his lack of diplomas. “I don’t need to be a big star or make a ton of dough,” he says, plucking a volume of Maurice Blanchot’s French philosophy out from a mildewed stack, “That’s not how I get my kicks, you know? It’s just song to song, trying to, like, up the ante every time. Can I write a song based on Lacanian analysis? I don’t know, let’s try.”
Lacan sits gamely next to the various characters McCombs turns to for perspective. Thorn and Rechtshaid are there, and so are Friedrich Nietzsche, L. Ron Hubbard, Preston Sturges and Jesus Christ, mixed in with skateboarders, traveling heads, drug dealers and relatives. Sooner or later they all find their way into a song, but McCombs is more of a grazer than a scholar, cherry-picking tidbits that enrich his mystical worldview rather than delving into details. He later admits to knowing very little about Lacan, attracted mostly to parallels he sees between interpretive psychoanalysis and his own love of Tarot. “Tarot is the most amazing,” he says, eyes going wide. Before committing to music, McCombs moved to London expressly to learn it. “It’s about reading signs, you know? The reader basically becomes an oracle and locks minds with the initiate to interpret the cards. The skill is recognizing what was there all along.” He likens it to seeing rainbows, which require particular circumstances of moisture and light to manifest. “But there are always rainbows as long as the sun is up,” McCombs says brightly. “There are even moon rainbows. The magic is just to see them, and then they’re gone. That’s what I love about performing. You unlock something in the moment, but then it’s destroyed and you’ll never have it back again.” Cashing out at St. Vincent’s with Blanchot and mismatched juice glasses wrapped in newsprint, McCombs explains, “I have a friend I stay with sometimes. She only has one glass. Now she’ll have three.” He is always buying little gifts for his friends, which he stashes in the trunk of his car with other odds and ends, on top of all the clothes he owns. Satisfied, he heads to Koreatown to pick up Thorn.