'But That Doesn’t Make It Any Less Scary': An Interview with Cursive
PopMatters' Drew Fortune catches up with his former babysitter and Cursive frontman in this interview about concept albums, angst, and why happy songs are hard to write.
“Hey! Drew Fortune!” exclaims Cursive’s Tim Kasher as I meet him outside The Troubadour in West Hollywood. We shouldn’t recognize each other’s faces (Kasher looking like a bearded, more delicate Jeff Tweedy) but somehow, both of us register the connection. Doing the math quickly in my head, I haven’t seen Tim Kasher in person for at least 24 years, when I was six years old and he was a teenager and my older brother’s friend, both of us growing up in the quiet confines of Omaha, Nebraska. Before the interview, I did some fact-checking with my mom, and she confirmed that Kasher baby-sat for me at least once and Cursive bassist Matt Maginn on numerous occasions. From inside the Troubadour, I see Maginn loading gear and by God, his face triggers an instant sense memory as well. Of the assorted babysitters I cycled through growing up, Maginn and Kasher were the most fun, always up for building a couch fort or a spirited game of Nerf basketball in the basement. It’s a reminder of how small the music business is that both of us, each on our own paths, are now crossing again.
Tim Kasher and Maginn have been making music together since the early ‘90s, and their partnership was sealed when Cursive came together in 1996 with the release of the The Disruption 7’’ on burgeoning indie upstart Saddle Creek Records, which would soon become home to fellow Omaha-ian Conor Oberst. Oozing angst and post-hardcore vitriol, Kasher never shied away from expressing heartbreak and outright rage at whatever or whoever was hurting him. The band has also never shied away from lofty concepts, and on Cursive’s latest I Am Gemini, Kasher and Co. make the leap into full-fledged concept album, with a liner note narrative and story arc. Naturally, the band has taken some heat, as the concept album comes ready made with a scarlet letter brand of pretension. However, Kasher seems more like a Husker-bred barfly than a brooding, pretentious rock star, and during the band’s set later that night, Kasher projects regular-guy angst, more Paul Westerberg than emo bleeding heart. It’s a relief to find that Kasher is still down to earth, as us Midwest guys have to stick together!
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Do you consider 'concept album' a pejorative term?
No, I don’t, but I recognize that it is and can be thought of that way. I’m so deeply ensconced into writing that way, that if I felt that way then I would hate everything I write (laughs). It’s too bad that it’s considered so pretentious. I don’t think it’s considered antiquated, but it’s just considered pretentious. The word “concept” doesn’t sound very good either. I think of our stuff as thematic, that there’s usually a common theme that runs through it. I personally have never minded the term “concept” but it is pejorative. I’ve never switched what I do. I never think it’s a bad thing if you put extra effort into what you do.
Does that style of writing come from growing up? Did you grow up writing stories?
Yeah, I did. I did and I still do. There were never really other records that I used as templates. I drew from other mediums, like novels and film. Those are all stories. A lot of the records we’ve done aren’t stories, but end up being themes.
Critics love to hate concept albums. Does the critical response play into your creative process?
Absolutely. I’m still getting hell for this one. It can be nerve-wracking, but I’ve always enjoyed going out on a limb. I don’t think it’s necessary to go out on a limb to be creative, but whenever I do, I’m always kind of proud of that. I’m more than willing for people to hate on it. I know that I’m not doing this for everybody. But, that doesn’t make it any less scary. No one likes to be attacked. But, I’ve been doing it for a while, and have learned to not give too big a shit.
Have you developed a thicker skin? Were you more vulnerable early on?
I don’t expect everyone to like what I do, and I say that sincerely. I don’t need to be loved by everyone. It’s just nice to be liked by a group of people who are into it, and that’s great. Those people are really supportive. It sounds so simple what I’m saying, but I think a lot of people can forget that. The last Good Life record I did got bad reviews, and I think that was my lesson, and now it doesn’t bother me anymore. It is a growing experience. Bad reviews seem totally acceptable. Everyone has a right to their opinion.
Sonically, the record is heavy. Is that a product of Matt Bayles (Mastodon)? Was that Matt’s input as a producer?
That was the first conversation we had when the band got together and decided to do another album. We just decided to do a rock record, basically just because it seemed fun, and that’s where we all seemed to be at the time. In the past records I’ve done, I’ve always tried to make them so dynamic and all-encompassing, peaks and valleys and all that, so it was important to have quiet songs and louder songs. That just wasn’t my mindset this time around. I just thought it would be fun to have a Friday night record. That was how we decided to work with Bayles, because we had been thinking about working with him for years. When we decided to make a hard rock record, it just made sense to ask a hard rock producer.
The record sounds fun. Was it liberating to write a record based entirely around characters, removing yourself from the equation?
Lyrically, it was a little weird writing it, and thinking of that small niche of supporters, I’m no dolt. I recognize what they want out of me lyrically, which is something highly personalized. But, this record is rooted in something that is highly personal. It’s based off of my own experiences, as far as us struggling with conscious and voices that refuse to get along in our heads. But, the fun part was going way off the rails to the point where it became a highly fictionalized thing, as far as how weird and surreal it got. But, I’m looking at it as just trying different forms of fiction, throwing it out there, and hoping it works.
I can’t remember if you have a brother, but I was wondering if this was some sort of weird sibling therapy?
(Laughs) No, and I hope he doesn’t think that.
Why do you think Omaha and the Saddle Creek sound shaped the way it did? On the surface, there’s not a lot of angst.
I don’t know. I see a thread in all the Saddle Creek bands, and a certain kind of melody. I hear it in all the bands, and even newer Omaha bands. I don’t really know how or why we ended up as this kind of hard rock band. I guess I did end up pretty pissed off as a teenager, for whatever reason.
You weren’t dark and brooding though.
No, but I carried a lot of things with me back then, and I don’t do that at all anymore. Going back to this being a fun album and some of the criticisms, people still see it as dark. I actually agree with that, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s a little upsetting for me to set out and have a lot of fun making a hard rock record, and it still comes out sounding grim. But, that’s just what came out. This is yet another record, of so many records that I’ve done, I’ll think that I’ve done something different, maybe a little normal and lighthearted, and then it’ll be pointed out that it’s not. I don’t know if it’s a thing that I’ll ever get over. If I don’t, then fuck it.
Could you write a happy, two minute pop song?
I can, and I do, but I don’t like them as much. When I write a happy, upbeat tune, it feels like a confection. It’s not my forte, and not what I’m supposed to be doing. I get burned out on them really quick, and they never last.
What brought you and Matt Maginn together? You guys have been making music in various incarnations since the early ‘90s.
We were pretty intense music fans. We loved Joy Division and New Order, The Smiths, The Cure and The Jam. A lot of British pop, and melodrama pop. That was the primary ‘80s stuff. In the ‘90s, it was a lot of indie rock. We started the March Hares in 1990 or something. Our parents are friends, so we grew up together.
Would you recommend starting a band with a best friend?
It depends on the friend. Matt and I take care of each other, and that’s how we stay together. We’ve proven to be a really good team. Even from the very beginning, I was learning to play guitar, so he was like ‘I’m gonna get a bass!’
Was he pissed that you got dibs on the guitar?
He picked up a bass because he didn’t want to follow in my footsteps. He just said ‘Alright, bass is cool. That’ll be my thing.’ When you’re kids, you want to have your own identity. With that spark of independence, we realized that if we started a band, we’d already have those pieces together. You buy that gear, I’ll buy this gear. As for the way we evolved, I just became more of a songwriter, and he got more interested in the business side of it, so we just became a really great team. He takes care of all the things that I don’t want to, and I take care of the songwriting.
When you first started making music, how did you view your career trajectory? Are you where you want to be right now?
Growing up in Omaha, the bar was really low. I don’t want to say that it was such a negative atmosphere, but it was the attitude that what we were doing was 100% impossible. That fueled the fire, and as a teenager, you really want to be a part of something. I really think back fondly of myself back then, and the passion to be in music was insane. I thought about it constantly and worked on it constantly. I’m pretty psyched to be where I am. It’s wild, and really nice, at least for the time being, to have a career as a writer. We’ll see how long it lasts.