Who Cleans Up When the Party's Over? An Interview with the Good Life
Eight years since their last effort, Tim Kasher of Cursive and Ryan Fox shake that "other band" tag by making their best, weirdest disc yet.
The Good Life has long been casually hinged on front man Tim Kasher's "other" project, Cursive. Though Kasher's commercial breakthrough as a songwriter first came with Cursive's Domestica (2000) and The Ugly Organ (2003), it was the Good Life's Album of the Year in 2004 that served as final proof of his obvious talents. Two high-aiming and lyrically complex albums could be a fluke; three shows true mastery.
Much has been written about the levels of "fiction" that Kasher's work inhabits as lyricist for both bands. Domestica is universally accepted as autobiography, documenting the lows of Kasher's divorce. Whether or not it's true, it doesn't really matter at this point. The critical writing surrounding the record's release is reflective of our early aughts obsessions with intimacy between artist and audience. The reverberations of this were felt for the better part of the decade, as "confessional" lyrics nearly became a genre of their own rather than a songwriting tool.
The Ugly Organ certainly achieved impressive heights of self-reference, but Kasher was already sick of the taste as he spit it fresh from his mouth (e.g. "Art Is Hard"). What really set the album apart was its musicality: Cellist Gretta Cohn serving as the 'x' factor. By relying on nontraditional arrangements and instruments, Cursive managed to briefly shape a genre dominated (and saturated) by angular guitars and polyrhythms into something more interesting.
But really, the Good Life is where's Kasher's most interesting work has always happened. The band (comprised of Stefanie Drootin-Senseney, Roger Lewis, and Ryan Fox) proved they wouldn't settle into the periphery of Cursive back in 2002 with Black Out, but Album of the Year boldly placed a flag in the ground of a post-Ugly Organ landscape. It might be Kasher's most enduring release, giving him a second pass at Domestica by offering a new setting alongside the salve of time and distance. The reframing was not only beautiful; it was entirely necessary to full-stop define his voice as a writer.
Perhaps it's all subjective, but the Good Life's moving parts seem to fit better together than Cursive's ever did. From where I stand, this is in no small part thanks to Ryan Fox informal role as bandleader. By providing opportunities for horizontal expansion in the instrumentation, Fox balances Kasher's towering, heady and heartbreaking prose. Because of this, packaging the Good Life as the effort of Kasher alone is such a mistake. Instead, The Good Life provides Kasher with the largest sandbox to explore his gifts. With Fox, Drootin-Senseney and Lewis providing strong framework for both a slew of collaborators
Their newest record, Everybody's Coming Down is the band's first release in eight years. It hits much harder than where we last left the band, but somehow manages to show a little bit of their age. There's not much uncovered ground sonically, but there's signs of the band's maturity that make the album still a solid entry in their discography. The shiny thing will always be deconstructing Kasher's contributions. In this tradition, Everybody's Coming Down presents a much more paced, much less verbally acrobatic lead singer. He's still interested in the relationship between art, artist, man, and hype machine (on "The Troubador's Green Room" he examines his reasons for continuing), but the guy's nearing 40, for fuck's sake. What is he going to do? "Keep churning out those hits / 'til it's all the same old shit"?
My conversations with both Fox and Kasher were relaxed, but not too meandering. With Kasher, we focused on unpacking his recent life and longstanding career, reflecting on the ebb and flow of his writing, and parsing out the themes of Everybody's Coming Down. My time with Fox was spent building a profile: there's not much information about him available online, so I was interested in learning more about him and his label, Majestic Kitty.
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There's very little about you online, as far as I can tell.
Fox: [laughs] Yeah.
I don't know if that's purposeful, but the small things that are online are amazing. There's this blip about how you were doing a live score for The Adventures of Prince Ahmed?
Fox: Yeah! My old friend Rachel [Jacobson] founded this art-film theater in Omaha called Film Streams. She and I met when we worked at a popcorn store in the mall when we were 17. She went on to found this theater and a bunch of musicians were doing these live scores, so she asked me to do one. And Jake [Bellows] and I had this project that's improvised, guitar feedback, ambient free-form sort of stuff.
We've actually only performed it twice in ten years because he moved out to LA the same time I moved to Portland. So we watched the film and had a couple germs of ideas. Some things written, some things really loose. And the purpose of that trip was for [the live score] and we were like, "We're going to Omaha and [Jake] has all these songs, so why don't we go to the studio with our friend Ben [Brodin] and let's make a record?" So, I flew to LA and we drove to Omaha and we did all that.
Help [the record we're talking about] is really excellent. And I was listening to the Our Fox stuff, as well. I was really struck by the mastering. Who helmed that?
Fox: That's Ephriam Nagler who runs live sound for The Good Life. He plays in The Velvet Teen right now; his brother Judah is the songwriter. He's a super dude, super talented. He also lives in Portland.
You met him through his doing sound for The Good Life?
Fox: Yeah, well The Good Life toured with The Velvet Teen and Ephriam was running sound for them when he was like, 20 years old or something. So we kept in touch and Good Life needed a sound guy, so we took him out, and then we became friends.
How did you get hooked up with Tim [Kasher] originally?
Fox: That was my friend Dan Brennan, who used to run live sound for Cursive. We played baseball together, when we were nine years old. And our dads played in bands in Omaha in the '60s, so they knew each other. I went to school in California and moved back to Omaha and was kind of just like, "What am I going to do with my life? I like music, I have this English and French degree that's moderately useless." [laughs] But in Omaha, the people are friendly and the music scene is pretty small and you kind of meet everyone hanging around. So Dan knew Tim and he mentioned they were making the record. I played saxophone and bass and keyboards, so I was originally going to play saxophone on Black Out on a couple of songs. I came to a couple of practices and they asked me to be in the band and make the whole record with them!
It's incredible that in the first six minutes of this conversation, we've covered that you used to sell popcorn with Rachel at the mall, you played Little League with Dan -- that's an incredible chain of events of your first half of life informing your second half so well.
Fox: Yeah, I guess I don't disassociate myself. When I make friends -- I'm careful about making friends in a lot of cases -- I try to hang onto them. You know what I mean?
That makes a lot of sense. Do you think that a smaller town has an influence on that? The Midwest sensibility?
Fox: Yeah, I think there's an inclusiveness. Not necessarily a warmth, but there's a certain feeling of people being willing to engage a little more than some places.
When did Majestic Litter come about?
Fox: It was an idea I had a long time ago. It was a matter of Jake doing Help and we decided to do an EP before the full-length, to give an introduction and momentum. The day we played [the release] show, we were dubbing tapes at sound check. And it didn't sound good. So we decided to step up the production value. It was kind of like, "Let's do this. Let's do this now." And that's the spirit of it, to not be beholden to the industry or budgets or waiting. It's immediate and direct.
Tim makes a clear point of The Good Life not being a "side project." It's a band he cares about as much as Cursive. Working with Tim for so long, what is the ebb and flow of The Good Life? Is it just suddenly "Good Life season," where you just jump back in with this old friend while you're making your own stuff happen?
Fox: Yeah, with everybody living in different cities and playing with different bands we've left it open-ended. Always. There's closing of small chapters -- this album cycle's over, see you guys later -- even if we don't always know when "later" is going to be. This break was longer than the others, but everybody else had moved and Stef [Drootin-Senseney] had a couple kids. It was really exciting to have the early awakening from hibernation with "Hey, what do you guys think of doing a record next year? Want to start getting together next summer?" So, it's kind of a lot of planning just for everyone's schedules, but we're able to organize it and give ourselves enough time to make it happen.
There's a lot of differences with Everybody's Coming Down. It's a lot harder, a lot more biting energy that Tim usually has reserved for Cursive. What was that like, to open that possibility up for you as a multi-instrumentalist?
Fox: It's interesting, because I'm mostly playing guitar [on the record]. So that's different, which I like. It's partly because of the condensed writing sessions, but I like that the rhythm section is a lot more prominent. The songs are groovier, they hit harder. Stef and Roger [Lewis] are just kicking ass. It's sort of where we are in 2015: there's no acoustic guitar on the record. And after Album of the Year, where there's acoustic guitars all over the place. Every record kind of represents where we are at the time, what we're into and what we're feeling. I guess this one has a little more of that energy, more direct and louder.
There's a linearity that people expect from Tim, or a thematic continuity from The Good Life. What is your take on the new record?
Fox: I don't know if I have a great answer as far as the intention behind it. I'm more reacting to the vibe or feeling on a song-by-song basis. Overall, I think the album art reflects that there's these cycles with the Ferris Wheel. And on "Skeleton Song" there's this fear of death. But for me, it's a thing that comes out after playing the songs on the road after a while. The way I think I treat each song is about the feeling through that song, that little vignette.
As you ready the tour for the record, what are you doing on either side of that personally?
Fox: I'm trying to slowly piece together a new Our Fox record and Majestic Litter is going to have a few cassettes -- we're doing the cassette for Everybody's Coming Down and one for Ben, who did the tracking. I'm also the treasurer for the Omaha Girls Rock music camp. And I have a day job, too. Working, saving money. Gonna try to spend some time in Omaha before and after the tour, hang out with my dad. See some baseball games.
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The first few minutes of my time with Kasher was spent discussing our shared residence in Chicago. The weekend we spoke, there were an unnecessary amount of good shows going on throughout the city, so he was both excited and overwhelmed by that. Having grown up in Omaha, living in the nation's third largest city presents Kasher with hard decisions he doesn't begrudge having to make. The Avondale two-flat with backyard space that he shares with his girlfriend and dog doesn't hurt, either. After some back and forth, we landed on his motives as a writer with multiple outputs.
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There's a temptation to lump The Good Life in as a side project to Cursive. But they're both really flushed out. You have huge discographies on both sides, as well as your solo material. What are the impulses or methods of storytelling that you can do with one that you can't do with the others?
Kasher: On one hand, I'd want to answer with "There's no differentiation. There doesn't need to be. I'm just a songwriter." When you put up albums under different monikers, what you're really up against is the industry's perception of your "main" band and then your "other" bands aren't as "important." And therefore, you're not working as hard on those or those are your b-sides [laughs]. These are all the things that end up defining a "side project." And I don't know why that started, but it's just the case.
I don't worry about that. I think it's obvious that each album I do, that's the next most important album that I do. It would be kind of silly, and a disservice to the people out there purchasing albums, to be like "Well, here's kind of my shittier stuff that I didn't think was good enough for this band." [laughs] So there's a part of me that wants to say that each album is me putting everything forward and it doesn't matter. The thing is that there are these subtle differences and I think that I've tended to find over the years that some of those more personalized or emotional storytelling, darker self-deprecation, that would land better on Good Life.
But I say that and there's plenty of that in Cursive, too. And conversely, one of Cursive's M.O.'s is that the music has to constantly be this aggressive side of ourselves, constantly questioning things, and within that, you find questions for yourself which turns into self-deprecating that I'd do on Good Life. [laughs] I think on Good Life I found that freedom to be more easygoing with storytelling. And then getting between them with the solo stuff, I can only split myself up in so many ways. To me, the players [of Good Life] apply a totally different approach to music and to the best I could, I wrote differently. I approached songwriting differently, to what Roger's really into or what Ryan wants to hear come out of me.
That's a nice tailoring to the people involved. And serves to separate and keep those things monuments on their own.
Kasher: I'm really comfortable that people think the difference are really fucking subtle. I'm fine with that. I don't mind the fact that I'm just playing with a different group of people and I'm still the same songwriter. I don't try to push myself or force myself to write songs extremely differently, but those differences still exist, at least in my mind.
Absolutely. And knowing that you're the constant between these bands as a listener of yours I'm trained to look for a linear storyline or continuity on any album you put out. So the new album, I was looking at the tracklist and noticed that it starts at 7am and ends close to midnight, and I was like "Fuck, this album could be a single day." That's the way I'm bred to listen to your stuff, like a conspiracy theorist looking for links across disparate songs. Was that shade of linearity purposeful or intentional?
Kasher: Well, I think that with every record I do, it's either gonna start completely conceptualized or it's going to start with a serious effort to not conceptualize it ... and then it ends up with a concept, anyway. Because ultimately, every record you're trying to make the best record you can and I think I can't shake the idea. Like, my preference in short stories is I like it if there's some kind of tether that kinda holds it all together. I just think it's just more captivating that way.
There was a sense of an impending finality to the album, which works nicely with the artwork -- you've got this circus framed by an expansive ocean, next to a sleepy town. How much of that gives context to the listener?
Kasher: It's not fraught with Easter Eggs, but you can definitely go through and point to various symbols, illustrations of lyrics. As far as the album and the loose form of a day, I wanted this feeling of the artwork (and the album, as well) that we are throwing a party and you're all invited. But there's always that sadder undercurrent of "Well, this party is going to end. And someone's gonna have to clean it up."
Where do you find that starting point for yourself [with] the thing you want to explore? Because a lot of your work (you've made it clear) is primarily a work of fiction. So is that idea of a party that will have to be cleaned up the vibe where you wrote from?
Kasher: Yeah, I'd say in a general sense, the kernel of this record's "philosophy" is just based on this past year, this frustrating concept or thought I kept grappling with of how much anticipation we have in our lives. For the thing that's dangling. And you live waiting for that moment, but when that moment's happening it's nearly impossible to live in that moment. It all flies by so fast, so it's hard to capture that memory. Or that's all it is, is the memory. And so it's like, where are we in the present? That might be much for an album, but where are we in the present? We're constantly laboring over the past and over the future, but what is it that we're doing? Mostly Everybody's Coming Down is that frustration with the moment after. I was trying to capture a lot of that idea in the lyrics: that sadness after the moment of release."Well, there. It's done now. It's gone."
Even if it isn't autobiographical, are there things in your life that color that? To use as images?
Kasher: You use fiction as a safeguard. Like any writer says, fiction comes from a place and that place is from yourself. There's varying degrees of fiction: JK Rowling didn't go through [what happens in] Harry Potter. [laughs] But I bet those characters probably remind her of her family members and of her friends growing up.
It's a human act, either to document for fear of losing access to those moments that you just described, but also being so compelled once you realize what's around you, the particular bend of reality that you can comment on. You're moved to do so.
Kasher: Yeah! I think that's great, because I think that's what all writer want to do. "Well, can I put this intangible into words? Can I express this? If I can be the one to do it, then other people can pinpoint that [intangible thing] and relate it to themselves." And now you've made a connection with the reader.
You're 40 now, right?
A lot of your older interviews are from when you turned 30, you spoke of entering your 30's as "Well, I'm getting older so that fuels how I'm writing." What over the last ten years are you carrying on now?
Kasher: A lot of what I'm writing about lately is that another ten years have passed. When I was 29 and turning 30, I was feeling that wheel of time turning, but I was still maintaining a certain amount of confused eternity that youth has. I've said this before, but I've spent a lot of my life with this dream of when I retire I hope that in my elderly state I can live out the rest of my days as a jazz drummer. And you can always say, in your youth, "That's something I'm going to do. That's the way I'd like to end my life, that sounds great." And when I was turning 30, I think I was still able to say that "Yeah, there's plenty of time!" But then when I turned 40, it's just like, "You know, you're not really developing those drummer chops yet. I think you may have blown it." [laughs] And that's me at 40. When I turn 50 it'll be, "No, you're not a jazz drummer."
When I was in high school, it seemed impossible to imagine life at 25. When I turned 25 in real life, I really and truly thought I wouldn't have made it this long. It's just something weird and part of using other people's benchmarks as a way to live. Miles Davis recorded Birth of the Cool when he was 23, so if I hit 24 and I didn't do that, I couldn't imagine what would happen. Do you feel like you've lived out Plan A? To the best that you could, so far.
Kasher: Yeah! A very positive, enthusiastic yes. I know I tend to not be positive and enthusiastic, but I wouldn't want to come off as not totally grateful for where I am right now and whatever cloudy wealth of memories I have of what I was able to do through my 20's and 30's.
What do you hope is the legacy you eventually leave for people?
Kasher: Mostly, just as an earnest, yearning human I hope it's not done yet. And if it is, then I'm glad for what I've been able to leave. I've been real conflicted about Ugly Organ over the years, because I've been confused by it and it's head-over-heels much more successful than anything else I've ever done. So that leaves me confused and distrustful of it, sometimes. But really, if I stopped writing today -- I'm glad that [Ugly Organ] happened. I'm glad that I had that and every other record. But that album really did help me, [and] Album of the Year as well, because they were highlight albums for me. They helped bring people to check out Adult Film last year. And I appreciate that so much. You have to, or you're an asshole.