Music

Cursive's Tim Kasher Keeps Maturing in Public on His Solo Effort

Corey Beasley
Photo by Eric Nowels

An older and more experienced veteran of hundreds of shows and over a decade in the public eye, Kasher’s asking himself again what it means to be an artist in the commercial world.


Tim Kasher

The Game of Monogamy

Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2010-10-05
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Tim Kasher is the kind of artist increasingly rare in today’s musical atmosphere. In a world where a single song or rushed EP can bring a band incalculable blog hype—and where the flipside to that early attention can be disappointment surrounding a first release or being lost in the shuffle of the song-of-the-day culture—Kasher is a Career Musician. As frontman and principle songwriter for post-hardcore titans Cursive Growing Up and folksier outfit The Good Life, he and his bands have put out twelve records in thirteen years, each one adding fans to his dedicated following. Now, Kasher’s venturing out on his own, releasing his first record under his own name, The Game of Monogamy, out October 5th from his longtime home Saddle Creek Records. The album sees Kasher pushing his songwriting forward while still investigating his perennial themes of love, commitment, career, and the conflict between dedicated artistry and everyday life.

The decision to release an album separately from his two primary acts resulted from simple convenience, Kasher says. The Game of Monogamy wasn’t a Cursive or The Good Life project, after all, so it made sense to mark it as something different: “There’s not a lot behind choosing my own name other than we recognized it would just be easier, ultimately – every flyer and article would just be explaining that the moniker was just me, anyway. Maybe a third band name would be one too many,” Kasher says. Though he enlisted friends to help, the album was “a little more of a lone venture.” Kasher didn’t write these songs in a group practice space with other artists. Instead, Minus the Bear’s Erin Tate and longtime Cursive bandmate Matt Magin made their own contributions to Kasher’s mostly finished material, while producer Patrick Newbury helped with the majority of the songs’ arrangements. It was a comparatively solitary process to much of Kasher’s songwriting, he says. “There’s a difference, a pleasure, in being able to stay on top of all of it, and have every compartment be mine, in a sense.”

Monogamy is indeed a Tim Kasher record, through and through. Marked by his usual musical eclecticism, its songs range from beautifully candid folk (“Strays”) to danceable, skittering rock (“I’m Afraid I’m Gonna Die Here”) to pure pop song-craft (“Cold Love”) and beyond. More importantly, and perhaps predictably, the album is founded on Kasher’s articulate, brutally honest lyrics. Due to Kasher’s lengthy and thematically consistent career, longtime fans will be able to track Kasher’s ideas on his pet subjects as he’s grown up, both as a man and as a songwriter. On Monogamy, those subjects are back out in full force, with Kasher still managing to wring new complexity from well trod ground.

Take art. For years, Kasher has been writing about the nature of being an artist, from Cursive’s self-lacerating stinger “Art is Hard” to The Good Life’s mournful “An Acquaintance Strikes a Chord”. Here, an older and more experienced veteran of hundreds of shows and over a decade in the public eye, Kasher’s asking himself again what it means to be an artist in the commercial world. No longer a kid in his early twenties living a rock star dream, he’s now an adult, with all the societal trappings and expectations that come with it.

Don’t get him wrong—Kasher is happy to be a successful musician, but he still feels an outsider in larger social circles where music or art don’t play such central roles. “It’s something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot over the years,” he says. “There’s just something so juvenile about rock and roll. It’s really two-edged, because that’s completely what I love about it. But it also doesn’t garner a ton of respect, sometimes, at least in that kind of conversation.” People tend to love artists in the abstract, Kasher observes, but sometimes the general public just doesn’t know what to do with them when a writer or a painter joins in for a drink. “Being an upstanding member of society—we tend to be considered a bit more delinquent.”

Monogamy sees Kasher exploring in sharper detail than ever before his concept of what society expects from him as a man. If a respectable career is one half of the equation toward finding acceptance among his peers, the other half is laid out in the record’s title. Longtime fans may feel a bit of guilt at having delighted in—or at least sung along to—Kasher’s heartbreak and search for companionship over the years, as he renders the experience with such crystalline precision in his songwriting. He says that at this point in his life, he knows that our “concept of love is one the top two most important things for our self-affirmation in our lives, love and perhaps career.” But while a part of him can acknowledge “that’s kind of been built in by society,” he nonetheless can’t quite tear himself away from searching for that ultimate companionship. “I can’t get off of that road,” he says, “I can’t seem to strip myself away from this need of fulfillment by finding the proper person to be with.”

Kasher writes as well as anyone about the fear of not being cut out for monogamy, and the common reflex to fight desperately against that conclusion. He explains that conflict by framing it in the light of a more typically discussed debate. “I think it’s a similar struggle that people have with religion,” he points out, “where maybe you can’t make heads or tails of the concept of a God, but you also can’t possibly conceive of a world without one. I personally don’t have that problem, but it’s totally rational and fair to have this refusal to believe that there’s absolutely no higher power. And I think that love falls into that same category. But I really struggle with it—I really struggle with it,” he admits.

After all these years of searching and turning the idea of romantic love inside and out, Kasher’s restless mind hasn’t put it to rest. “I would love to believe that it’s just a construct, but maybe that goes back to blaming Hollywood and literature.” He laughs at the thought, the simplicity of that escape in passing the blame. “I want to believe in something more.”

Of course, the situation for Kasher is more complicated than that, by virtue of his profession. As an artist, his principle motivation for creating music often stems from personal conflict. It might seem, then, that he simply could never accept the good things in his life and settle down, since he’s driven by the need to write. On the album he puts it, “love makes you lazy,” but he’s quick to reject the notion that carrying that idea to such an extreme would be the proper course of action for any artist. “I stay on myself not to subscribe to that philosophy, because it’s totally cheap,” he explains. “That will intentionally leave any said writer down in the proverbial dumps, because ‘you can’t be happy to write.’” As usual, he sees both sides of the issue. “I suffer from this, but I also refuse to accept it.”

He goes on to point out that discontentment’s not just a common experience in the artistic community. “It’s not only just writers, it’s any of us—in the world of accountants, there are some that can be married and fully content and focus on their lives. And there are others that are never going to be able to find contentment, because they ask too many questions.” Kasher is often quick to put himself squarely in his own crosshairs when writing about how he simply can’t turn his mind off and relax in happiness. Inexorably inquisitive and critical by nature, though, he’s not one to pass the buck to anyone else for his problems.

On Monogamy Kasher writes about the excitement of falling in love in your youth and its comparison to the sometimes less optimistic feelings about relationships that come with age. Though his lyrics might often find fault with Hollywood and artists at large for the “Disney-fication” of the ideal of romantic love in our culture, he tones things down when discussing that notion in reality. “Nobody has to take any blame,” he says. “I love to write in that vein and use that analogy and kind of blame Hollywood.” Ultimately, though, it’s simply “too bad we become adults, and everything just becomes more dulled,” says Kasher. “When I was young, the way I felt those pains were…” he trails off at the thought of that emotional depth, before continuing, “…and I don’t even expect that. You look for it in different places and different ways. It’s too bad, but it’s just the way it goes.”

Even if Walt Disney got it wrong, Kasher points to other writers that seem to more closely hew to the reality of adult romantic relationships. “Philip Roth,” he says. “It’s a pretty dark and misogynistic perspective he takes sometimes, and I wouldn’t agree with everything he says, but I do appreciate how brutally sincere and honest he is about this male perspective of sexuality and love relationships.” He pauses to think for a moment, before continuing with a grin. “Honest to the point of confusing us,” he laughs. “I don’t where he’s going with it, sometimes.”

Roth seems to have experienced the same dulling in feeling that Kasher writes about. In Portnoy’s Complaint, Kasher points out, “you can see in his writing that he was much more lovelorn in his earlier life. Even though Portnoy can come off as derogatory toward love, you can still tell he’s earnest about it.” For Kasher, Roth captured the trials of love in a man’s early life with humor and truth. Roth’s later work, such as My Life as a Man, on the other hand, is “the strongest and darkest one I’ve read of his, to the point where maybe you read it from a distance, because you’re not sure how much you should subscribe to his point of view.”

Ultimately, Kasher may be trying to reconcile that early earnestness and the comparative darkness of later experience. He may have an answer for where the conflict comes from, at least, and it’s not a surprising one for anyone who pays attention to his songs—himself. “I think the conflict,” he suggests, “is just in these people who have to live in conflict, who can’t find resolution. I don’t think there has to be much conflict at all. I think we could in so many ways simply settle these questions—not answer them, but settle them.” He mentions another artistic luminary, Stanley Kubrick, as an example of someone who did so successfully. “I was reading an article—I wish I could subscribe to this—by Kubrick, who would completely tear this record apart,” he laughs. “He found those notions of love to be far, far simpler. And maybe he’s being cocky or painting a rosy picture of himself, but it seems like he just had a kind of private, personal life, and then he had work. And everything was peachy—maybe a little boastful, but you know,” he says, ruminatively.

Kasher’s attention to the film world shouldn’t surprise fans of The Good Life’s Help Wanted Nights, which was inspired by a screenplay Kasher wrote. The film had been scheduled to shoot during the summer of 2010, but it fell through. “I lost a producer,” he sighs. “It’s been kind of a drag. I’m seeing it more as just trying to continue to juggle these projects. I was hoping to work something out before this album came out. But, I’m going to try to keep it going in some form or another before I have a chance to really attack it again.” Kasher names Mike Leigh and Mike Nichols as favorite directors and screenwriters, pointing to their shared tendency toward character driven, dialogue focused work that tells real, intimate human stories.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, considering that Kasher has made a career mining the same vein. He’s spent the majority of his adult life on stage, for our consumption, serving up his takes on love and the common search for what might make us feel complete. Like so many of us, Kasher’s life remains a work in progress.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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