Portland multi-instrumentalist Andy Combs embraces musical schizophrenia. His latest release, The Robot in the Clouds, runs the gamut from macabre blues to bluegrass to indie rock. The result is something a bit like Tom Waits sung by Elliott Smith. It’s sort of like a mysterious journey through coalmines and down dusty country roads – in a space ship. Combs has just as much trouble settling on an instrument as he does a genre, opting to provide much of the instrumentation himself. During Combs’ one-man-band live act, harmonica hung around his neck, seated behind a kick drum and a high hat, guitar on his knee, he resembles an old bayou sidewalk bluesman reincarnated as a curly-haired white kid.
Vanguard: How long have you been playing and writing music? What kinds of bands have you been in in the past?
Andy Combs: I’ve been playing guitar, and music I suppose, for about 10 years. I think that almost from the start I’ve been in some sort of group. The first one was just me and my friend playing Nirvana covers, weird originals, and stuff like that and I was actually playing bongos because I couldn’t afford a drum set. I went away one summer and came back after playing my mom’s guitar for two months and that’s when it all really began. I got back and we started a ska band. Then in high school I played in sort of a pop-punk band, a funk/rock band, a Cuban-style band, the school jazz band and an out-of-school jazz band and then a more rock/post-hardcore type of band. It actually wasn’t until about two/three years ago that I started doing the solo thing full time without a band.
You also play a ridiculous number of instruments. How did you get started playing all that stuff, and why play so many instruments yourself instead of just committing to, say, the guitar?
Actually, the violin was my first instrument, but after a couple years I went to the guitar. And for many years of playing, I did only play guitar, and I sold my violin because of it being too small. Then a while back my friend and I were doing this recording project and we were in a pawn shop and decided to buy some instruments on a whim. He bought a trombone, I bought a violin, he got a trumpet, I got a trumpet, and so on. For a while I couldn’t resist buying old cheap instruments and trying to play and record with them. Now I just have a ton of different stuff around and I almost can’t make a record without them. It’s not that I’ll necessarily use them all, but it’s nice to have the option. I am going to record a bare-bones, just-guitar type record pretty soon though.
On your album, The Robot in the Clouds, you seem to draw on a lot of different musical styles. There’s everything from old-time blues to doo-wop to quite modern rock. What kind of music do you listen to, and how did you get into all these different styles?
I think just throughout the years it’s sort of built up. I listen to and draw inspiration from all kinds of music. And the ones that have become my favorite are ones that play a lot of different styles (Ween, Tom Waits, Danny Elfman, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Modest Mouse, and Pinback to name a few). But everything I hear that I like, I’m usually thinking, "wow that sounds great, I wanna take a stab at it." Not really to try to do it better of course, but just to have fun.
Along those same lines, do you find you have trouble committing to any particular style when you are writing music?
There are times when the solo thing was more of an idea and not so much a thing I did all the time, and I would hear stuff that I would like to play and think, "oh I like that music, I want to start a rock band or a bluegrass band or something." So I really didn’t stick to one as I began to record more and more. Now I really don’t care. I just have fun and create what I want to play. It’s a great, fun challenge for me to try to make all these different styles. I think part of being in some of the bands I’ve been in is that we tried to stick to one style and consistency. So when I started making solo records, it was kind of me spewing out all the music I wanted to play over the years. Now if I want to start a weird old 70’s blues rock band, I just make a record, get some people together, book a show and ba-bam! (That one’s coming by the way – on cassette!)
Your lyrics, especially on songs like The Bloodship, seem to have a focus on the macabre, where does that stuff come from?
Lyrics! That’s always been a tricky subject for me. I think it’s also what kind of weird shit that I’m inspired by. Sometimes they get boiled down to a bunch of single phrases that bring to my mind some image … or just sound cool when I sing it. Some end up being stories and some just very vague stories. I do generally like spooky, macabre-type things though.
Andy Combs and the Moth plays Nov. 1 at Mississippi Pizza
The Robot In the Clouds is available on Tinglefinger records, www.tinglefinger.com