On Tour with Cass McCombs

Posted inDesigner Interviews
Thumbnail for On Tour with Cass McCombs

The indie singer-songwriter on DIY fonts, Hieronymus Bosch, and WikiLeaks

Cass McCombs
Photograph by Joel Brooks

Most people know you as a musician, but you’ve also designed a font called Die Sect.

The font was created as part of the artwork for one of my records with a friend of mine, Aaron Brown. We were up in Sonoma, California, for a few weeks—that’s where Aaron’s from—just compiling bits and pieces. We had the help of another friend of ours, Albert Herter, who does most of the artwork for my records and posters and things. I don’t really remember how or why we created the font. First we made a board game, and we wrote an instruction manual. Then Aaron and I went to Mexico and began to develop the Die Sect moniker as a collaborative name for all the extra stuff that we weren’t going to use for the album artwork. It was also a parody of the College of Sociology and these other avant-garde movements. We wrote some farcical manifestos and made a website as a hoax.

Part of the idea behind Die Sect and the manifestos was a reinvention of symbols. So we crossed out the peace sign and added one extra diagonal line; and then from that symbol you can spell out all the letters of the alphabet. And then we somehow figured out how to make it typeable. I don’t know if we have a semicolon yet, but we do have a question mark. It’s kind of comical how contrived some of the letters are.

the Die Sect iconThe Die Sect font Alphabet

The Die Sect font was developed by Cass McCombs and Aaron Brown. All of the letters in the alphabet (above) were constructed from the Die Sect icon (top).

What about the cover of Catacombs, where the title is in another hand-drawn font?

That was Aaron and I again. We wanted it to be caves and bones and things like that, since the album was called Catacombs. I wanted to beat people over the head with it. Some people can’t read it, apparently.

From your first EP, Not the Way, your covers often seem to be interested in typography.

I did that one by hand. I just looked in the font book and found some medieval-looking font. There’s a bit of watercolor to it as well.

How did you end up making a board game?

It came as an insert to my Dropping the Writ record. It’s kind of like backgammon. You snake around, and you’ve got five different pieces, and you have to make the pieces yourself or assign different objects to be your pieces. And there are certain pitfalls that could either eliminate the piece or send it back to the beginning or to other places. We tried to make it as simple as possible, not ever having made a board game before. But it works. We held a party when we finished it, and people successfully played it.

It definitely has a medieval look to it. Do you like art from that time?

I do like medieval art and old ancient stuff. But I didn’t go to school for it, so I don’t really know a whole lot about what I’m looking at exactly. But, you know, Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel and people like that.

What about contemporary design?

Just being a musician, I like a lot of the rock-and-roll, punk-rock design. Like old ’70s and early ’80s Los Angeles punk flyers. My friend Trevor Shimizu, I like what he does, because he uses a lot of digital photography. It seems handmade. I like people to be able to see that a person made it with their hand. I like handmade clothing, I like anything that just seems almost—I wouldn’t say flawed, but handmade.

You recently released a song about Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier awaiting trial for allegedly passing secret government documents to WikiLeaks. Were you interested in the politics or his personal story?

Both without being either, hopefully. It’s really difficult to write a political song and not be conscious that you’re going to piss off some people. Because most people just hate political art, music, anything. But as far as that song, I wasn’t really trying to be political. It was part of a series of songs that I wanted to write about people. Just biographical songs and narratives. I think there are a few songs on Humor Risk that are just simple kinds of stories, almost like an old folk ballad. And not try to be moralistic about who’s in the right and the wrong, just say what the person did and where they went, who they spoke to, and things like that.

So you’re not interested in advocacy work for WikiLeaks?

Hell, yes, I am! I think [Manning] got a real bad rap. But, you know, I’m not a political leader or anything. I’m just a songwriter. But I do follow politics and things, and I think about it, and I talk about it. But that’s it.

To learn how to create your own fonts, check out the Logo, Font & Lettering Bible, one of many typography books available at MyDesignShop.com.