Cursive
Story and Photos By Jessica Raetzke

Formed in 1995 in Omaha, Nebraska, Cursive has become the forerunner of semi-autobiographical songwriting and dramatic, literate post-hardcore music. Singer/guitarist Tim Kasher has developed a unique and literate style of songwriting that can easily be compared to the likes of Jarvis Cocker, strange as that might sound, entwining personal feelings with an introspective eye on himself and his own relationships, be they with a significant other, his record label, reviewers or a fan.

Cursive’s Domestica (Saddle Creek), the follow-up to their sophomore effort, The Storms of Early Summer: The Semantics of Song (Saddle Creek, 1998), was released in 2000 and took a more in-depth look at what was only hinted at on previous albums. The Storms of Early Summer chronicled a man’s inner turmoil and emotional breakdown resolved, finally, through rage. The semi-autobiographical nature of Kasher’s songwriting was taken further on Domestica, as he recounted a conversation between two people living together and the eventual deterioration of their relationship. Closely tied into the release of Domestica was Kasher’s very public divorce; enclosed in the promotional release of Domestica was a letter explaining to reviewers that the album was a response to his own personal experience with the end of his marriage.

Kasher didn’t stop exploring these issues with Domestica. Forming The Good Life, which is fundamentally a solo project with a rotating cast of backing musicians, he released Novena on a Nocturn (Better Looking, 2000), again directly addressing his divorce. On his follow-up, Black Out (Saddle Creek, 2002), his focus was on alcohol, thus fueling the fire for those who believe that Kasher’s abuse of alcohol – and romanticism of it – are the subject matter for more mature audiences and not the average attendee of an all-ages show. In comparison, The Good Life is a more minimalist and darker version of Cursive, albeit with a slightly mellower and poppier sound. Whereas Kasher elaborates openly on Novena and Black Out, on Cursive’s albums his stance is more that of a playwright than an actual player. Ever prolific, The Good Life issued their album, Lovers Need Lawyers (Saddle Creek, 2004), in nearly as many years.

With the release of Cursive’s fourth full-length, The Ugly Organ, in early 2003, Tim Kasher and company (guitarist/vocalist Ted Stevens, drummer Clint Schnase, and bassist/vocalist Matt Maginn) tried again to explore untouched territory for them. Not only did they flawlessly add cellist Gretta Cohn to the group, they also experimented with more electronic elements. As they attempt to embrace the success that Domestica brought them and branch out into new areas, Cursive appear to be a band continuing to grow and expand, keeping not only themselves interested in their music but also their fans.

Exploring Kasher’s views on his public persona, penchant for drinking, and disappointment with himself and his music, you essentially find a man struggling to come to terms with who he is and who he is perceived to be – not wholly unlike the day-to-day struggles most people face, and certainly why so many listeners appear to identify with his songwriting.

Skyscraper sat down with Kasher in the back booth of a restaurant in Orlando, Florida – over water, no less – in the midst of Cursive’s January 2003 tour to make up for the dates they missed due to Kasher’s collapsed lung the year before. Early 2004, Cursive is still touring strong off of the success of The Ugly Organ and in support of election-year causes such by way of the Plea For Peace Tour.

With all the time taken off due to your recent injury, and the new EP [Burst and Bloom] and full-length [The Ugly Organ] coming out soon, do you find it difficult to support a release [Domestica] that is now over a year old?
No, not really, because I’m adjusting to years a lot differently. I’m getting accustomed to how long these things take. A year seems to take a long time, but it’s also like you never have enough time to get anything done. It seems to be right on schedule. I wish they would go faster, but they don’t.

Do you find that, as your back catalog of songs grows, you enjoy performing the older material as much as the newer songs? Or are you finding it to be just the opposite?
It’s weird for us because it’s usually the opposite – but it can be great. With us it seems like we did these records and it wasn’t until Domestica came out... there it was this big deal. Domestica, for being two years old (and three years old from the point of writing it), it is still a new album to a lot of people. So, most people don’t consider it old, because they just picked it up last week. It’s had a really long success. For the longest time, we didn’t play [old songs], then people got really mad. Now we play a song or two from each album and people don’t get mad anymore, but people aren’t that excited, either, because there are only a few people that know it. You’ll hear a few hips and hollers; that’s kind of cool. They liked the old catalog and maybe they’ve been listening to it for the last seven years. [laughter] There’s a thank you in there somewhere.

You were called by a reviewer, “one of the most prolific songwriters of your generation.” Do you think the title aptly describes you?
It just looks that way, I think, because of doing two bands. I guess, maybe Elvis Costello isn’t in our generation, but he once said that he could write an entire pop album in a weekend.

Is that something you’ve attempted to do?
It’s something that I toy with at times. The thing is, Elvis’s would be really great. I just write a lot – a lot more than people hear.

So, you have a good amount of material that you haven’t done anything with?
There was a lot of material in the past. Now, I don’t really sit on anything. If I decide I’m not going to use it, I just don’t use it. I don’t really catalog – but I probably should, just to have it. I don’t know, like I say, it probably seems that way… some people write a ton, others don’t.

What do you think it is about your songwriting that people most identify with?
It’s lame that emotions have become taboo because of “emo.” It’s everything we want in music; it’s everything we ever wanted before this ludicrous tag was placed on it. But that’s what it is. People relate to aggression, people relate to frustration, people relate to sadness and some kind of reconciliation of what was wrong – probably some kind of day-to-day honesty in how it’s portrayed.

How do you feel being grouped into that “emo” genre?
It’s just too bad that we ended up coming out at a time when the genre was a bad word. It seems that, usually a genre is not a bad word. “Indie rock” was not a bad word, “hardcore” is not a bad word, “electroclash” isn’t a bad word. Now you can’t get out of it, and it’s too bad for the writers who are continuing, carrying some kind of torch for other generations. Unless someone feels this generation’s music is bad, then so be it, that’s fair. They should give it a bad name. But a lot of people like it and they still give it a bad name.

Since the release of Domestica and both of the Good Life albums, do you feel your private life has become fair game for fans and journalists?
It would seem that people meet you and expect you to be a larger-than-life figure that bridges the gap between Jarvis Cocker [of Pulp] and [Charles] Bukowski.
Sometimes interviewers try to sneakily angle their questions to squeeze stuff out. In Omaha, we have a tendency to write about very real things that are occurring in our day-to-day [lives], and it’s difficult for us because you are dealing with the people you love and trying to write as true to form as you can.

Without giving too much away?
Yeah, and all that just kind of came out and it came out too much, and it didn’t have to, I guess. So, now I think certain people kind of keep an eye on what’s going on. Even things like the lung [collapsing]. Maybe some people hope for something to result from that.

How did the use of your divorce as a marketing tool for Domestica make you feel, and what role did you play in that?
That’s a tough topic because it’s something that I try not to place blame [for], and I still don’t mean to. I don’t think that anyone thought that it was going to come out and have the effect that it did. Robb [Nansel] at Saddle Creek was being very compassionate and said, “You went through a divorce and I think it’s a big part of this record, whether or not you want to admit it.” At the time, I was saying that it wasn’t. I didn’t think it was necessary to get it out. There were things... like, that my grandmother was so upset. The whole country was talking about how her grandson was getting a divorce. I think it’s too bad; I really think it’s bad for my ex-wife. I haven’t talked to her. I’m sure she probably sees it in the worst light. Again, you go back to trying to write true to form about what’s going on in your life.

Without hurting people – which can be difficult to do.
Yeah, and I think I did hurt a lot of people. I think the whole thing ended up being really bad.


Do you regret having done it?

Yes. Going back to Robb, I don’t feel angry at all. Actually, Robb and I are really close friends and we all see that as a mistake. It’s growing pains of running a record label. I think, honestly, he thought it was important to let some of these reviewers know that I had been going through some difficult things, at the time, and that could be found on the record. People really ate that up. I don’t think Robb saw dollar signs in his eyes; it was just a mistake, and it’s not one I would make again.

As you continue to expand as a band, do you find that you’re becoming more jaded by the experience of being in a band, marketing yourself and selling a “product”?
I do become more jaded, and you kind of have asked me at a really vulnerable time. I have some kind of imbalance when things go well – it’s really hard for me to deal with it, to accept it. Then I get more self-analytical, as far as being very hard on myself. What is it that you’re writing? Why do you write? Are you intentionally writing big, hit songs to try to rake in some cash on a divorce? That kind of stuff. I get hard on myself and admit that I want to quit [playing] really bad. As [I get] more mature, I’m trying hard not to [be that way], and just be okay with what we’re doing and try to stand behind my stuff, and not be such a prick to myself.

Does it help having added Gretta [Cohn, cellist]?
It helps a lot to be able to create a different angle to the music, [which] was huge for me after Domestica. I did a Cursive record, now I want to do something different. Then, again, I thought I really shouldn’t quit this. A lot of people believe in this and seem to want to work on it, mostly the people I’m playing with. I thought about what I could do to reinvent it. That’s just it: I need to keep reinventing things. Now we’re going to have to do something totally different or else I’m not going to want to do it anymore.

With all the recent attention given to the Saddle Creek roster, as well as Omaha area bands, do you find that there is more solidarity between the bands, or are you now competing against each other for fans?
There’s no competition at all, that’s for sure. As far as solidarity, I love them all very much and I know that they feel the same. But you can’t help but wonder – and I will agree with this – that all this success has maybe caused some separation. When we were all kind of fighting together on a local scene – and really believing, and really pushing each other, and really cheering each other on – it was probably a closer community then. Now we’re all spread out, constantly on tour, and aren’t really needing each other’s help any more, but wanting to seek it. It’s different.

Given your own personal experiences, do you find songwriting to be cathartic? Or has the fact that your life is recorded for the whole world to hear been more a drawback?
Anyone should be really big on trying as hard as you can to not think of it that way. I’m working on songs right now, and it’s great. I am writing about a lot of stuff that I do feel I’m getting out, and I feel better having it down on paper. It’s personal stuff that will hopefully become so universal that other people will relate to – [they] won’t necessarily have to know the specifics, but probably can draw lines and put it into their own lives. For the time being, I’m keeping it that way. I made a decision that that’s the type of songwriter I want to be, still writing from the personal and keeping it very internal and releasing it. If people are cool with it, then that’s great. People say, “You can be political now.” There are things you can do when you’re on a platform. I guess I’m not thinking about the platform.

Do you feel pressured by people who want for you to send a message to the kids in your audience?
People do that. It almost gets me pumped up sometimes. I have friends who are teachers, who say, “I have kids in my classroom that listen to you.” They say it’s great, because there’s maturity to it but they don’t understand all of it, but what they do understand is a better message than what they’re getting from other bands. There’s so much more I could say, but don’t.

Domestica lends itself easily to film or stage adaptation, are you considering pursuing that?
I’m trying to push more heavily now into screenwriting and I’d really like that to be the next phase that I go into. At one point, music was this trap. You’d work so hard at it to try to make a dime at it, or just try to make it work. Now, I realize I’m trapped in it again because it’s my source of income. I don’t have a job anymore. If I go wait tables again, it’s going to be hard to find the time to get into film. I might be willing to just stop playing music and go wait tables, just to start something new.

Is it often that you think about going back to a regular job and quitting music?
That would be really hard for me to do – to be able to make a living doing something like this is a real gift.

It’s a feat.
Yeah. It’s something that I think I need to keep doing. It looks like it’s all work to me; I don’t think there’s going to be a point where I’m going to be able to sit back and look at all the money I’m making. I’m always going to have to make it, day by day. I’ll have to wait and see.

So, you view making music now as more of a job than anything else? Are you still passionate about it?
I am passionate. It is a job, in the sense that I tour way more than I really would. I don’t love that part of it. If I were to plan my year, I wouldn’t say that I want to be on stage most of the year. I’d rather be at home being productive.

Did you not go through a phase where all you wanted was to tour?
Well, yeah, I think so… [laughter] But then you do it. Before this tour, I was into getting out on the road. It’s just doing it so much… but I did it to myself, having two bands. Everyone else only goes out half as much. That’s probably a lot more enjoyable.

You’re doing back-to-back tours over the next couple of months. It doesn’t sound like you’re looking forward to that.
These tours are a lot closer to work, because it is doing the entire country in a month. I’m doing the entire country with Cursive in January and the whole country with The Good Life in February. That’s eight to ten hour drives a day. So, it definitely gets filed under the less enjoyable role. But things will definitely pick up after that.

Do you find that being in a confined space for so long with the same people, you get tired of being with them?
I won’t speak for any of them. I’d say I do, but it’s not really them, it’s just being on the road for so long. It really slows down my productivity because of all the people around. I’m close to them all, so I don’t feel like I have to put on airs, like you have to with other people.

Do you feel like you have to project a particular image? Do you think that people want you to be something you’re not, that they’re expecting more from you than you’re capable of giving?
I don’t know, but that’s another sore spot for me right now. Playing these shows, everything is getting kind of bigger. This pressure is being applied to who I am and what I’m saying. I just get tired of it. I don’t want to think about it, but you have to. I have to be a socially responsible person now, to a degree, because I’m representing a band. Some of the people that are getting into it are young. I’m not saying that I do drugs, but what if I did, and was, and I was getting high in the bathroom and two fourteen year-old boys walk in?

Having fourteen year-olds view you as a role model, do you feel overwhelmed?
It’s not really overwhelming, it’s just that this is the first tour where this has become an issue – mostly with what’s said on stage. I tend to have a very careless attitude. I generally don’t give two shits what people think about me, but like it or not I should start caring. If not for me, for anyone that I’m involved with. It’s not that I’m a crass person, it’s just that offstage I’m not that crazy a person.

A lot of people seem to focus on this image that’s projected of you being a heavy drinking singer-songwriter. Do you find that others impose that on you and that’s not who or what you are?
Some people do like to do that. But in all fairness, I’ve probably pushed that, too, at times. You know, you do interviews where you’re already drunk. I don’t know what to say about drugs and alcoholism. It’s the romanticism that I was raised on – like, talking about Bukowski earlier, the older friends that I had, even being Irish Catholic, some people like to laugh about it more than others. I think I used to laugh about it a lot more. Now, I just drink to get drunk. There’s that drunk showoff thing, “I was soooo wasted last night. This is how wasted I was…” “Yeah, well, I was this wasted last night.” It’s almost kind of mean, in a sense. But maybe that’s just how it was for me. I’ve just been trying to put it behind me.

You seem to be more focused on maturing recently.
I don’t know. It all depends; so much of what I say depends on what day it is. I’m really fickle like that. But if you’re asking if I care that they portray that attitude, I really don’t. If there is something that I really feel bad about, it’s that in The Good Life I portray the romanticism of alcoholism, and young people listen to it. But, again, I go back to the fact that I’m writing about things that are personal and subject matter that is maybe more mature, anyway. When I was a teenager, I could handle it. Any teenager who is listening to what I’m singing about is dealing with far worse shit than what I have to deal with.

Things have changed a lot since we were teenagers.
I probably sound like an old man who sings about this crazy drug called alcohol.

Everyone has their own issues to deal with, especially people in bands, in relation to the use of alcohol. It’s so prevalent and easy to access.
This job lends itself to drinking, that’s for sure... For the record, I talk about alcoholism as the worst-case scenario. I’m really not an alcoholic. I have a few friends that are. There’s always another side to it, where it’s really a problem. Most of us are just bored Nebraskans, or even Midwesterners, and that’s what you grow up doing.

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