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Cursive: Brutal Truths from the Ugly Organ

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It’s 8:30 p.m. and we’re still waiting for our 7:00 interview with Cursive’s Tim Kasher. I have my questions, painstakingly composed on the drive to Columbia and then rewritten (legibly) over a steaming latte at the Cherry Street Artisan when we got into town. It rained most of the drive up, a cold, chilling rain with even a bit of hail. It rained while we walked up and down 9th Street, distributing PlaybackSTL to the fine folk of Columbia. This is Jim’s first time in the town; he’s decided that he doesn’t like it because it rains too much.

We arrive at the Blue Note ten minutes before 7:00 to find all of the night’s bands mingling in the club, post-soundcheck. Kasher doesn’t seem to know anything about the interview, or else he’s forgotten, claiming to keep his schedule in his head. Not that it’s a problem, but it will have to be later, as the band is off to dinner. So we are off, too, to…well, drive around town aimlessly for an hour, killing time. It rains some more; we get lost, but not too badly. Then we’re back at the Blue Note, a little before the allotted hour, as we don’t want to be late. We wait in the lobby, where we can watch the door and avoid some of the noise of the opening band.

It is 8:45 when they return from dinner. Kasher is apologetic; they’d gone to Shakespeare’s Pizza, found it crowded, and so went somewhere else. “It ended up taking even longer than Shakespeare’s would have,” he says, apologizing again. “Let’s do this.” By now, the second of four bands is ready to take the stage; the bar is too loud for a taped interview. We head next door to Coffee Zone II, noisy in its own right, but a better spot for an interview than backstage at a rock concert. We begin.

Hot off the heels of their recent front-page article in The New York Times’ “Arts & Leisure” section, Cursive were completing the first leg of a six-week tour, with a week’s break in the middle. Columbia was the last night of the first three weeks; as Kasher said during the show, “We had thought it might be one show too many, but we’re getting through it.”

Cursive is one of those brilliant indie-emo bands out of Omaha, the current hotbed of indie rock and home of acclaimed Saddle Creek Records. Cursive is a quintet—in addition to Kasher on vocals, guitar, and organ, the band includes Matt Maginn on bass and vocals, Clint Schnase on drums, Ted Stevens on guitar and vocals, and Gretta Cohn on cello—but, really, it all boils down to frontman Kasher, the group’s primary lyricist and self-appointed teller of truths. Basically, he takes the most intimate, embarrassing aspects of his life—largely those involving matters of the heart (the “ugly organ,” as he calls it)—and, painfully, peels them apart. One can only hope the result is cathartic for him; for listeners, it’s both captivating and disturbing.

Although Cursive released two albums before Domestica (1997’s Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes [Crank!] and The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song in 1998 [Saddle Creek]), it was really this 2000 release that solidified their sound and began the growth of their underground following. After Storms, Kasher had moved to Portland, Oregon, effectively breaking up the band. Within a year, he was back in Omaha, a failed marriage providing creative fodder. With original guitarist Steve Pedersen away at law school, Kasher recruited fellow songwriter and longtime friend Ted Stevens for the group’s reincarnation. On Domestica, his songwriting turned personal; he had, after all, the eruption of a love gone wrong—and all its inherent swaths of destruction and still-simmering lava flows—from which to mine.

Maybe it all happened exactly as Kasher wrote it; maybe he captured all the emotions but changed all the events...except one. I want to believe, as Kasher sings on “The Casualty,” that the phone, thrown in anger, really did go through the wall. In any respect, just as you start to feel the pain and truly empathize with Kasher, he throws in a line to remind that is he wholly conscious of this act, this writing down of his life in order to sell albums: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear, I’m so transparent I disappear/these words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create/…/this is the latest from Saddle Creek” (“Sink to the Beat,” Burst and Bloom). It’s commerce, baby; nothing more.

Yet it is, much more. With Domestica, Kasher crossed a line into the realm of the personal—a move, he admits, was frightening but necessary in his growth as a writer. “For any writer, you need to build the courage to actually write personal; it’s the closest any that any of us can get to universal.”

Cursive has created some hard sounds at times, some very loud instrumentation and vocals, but it’s all part of the emotive quality of the music. “We really don’t like to consider ourselves so much of a hard rock band, but more of just mining away at the field of aggression and frustration; internally, I think, that is loud, and that’s kind of just where it ends up. But it was a great way for me to stay interested, to stay excited about music.”

For their next recording, an in-between-albums EP entitled Burst and Bloom, they introduced yet another oddity: a cellist. Oh, but if that wasn’t the wisest addition I’ve yet to hear in a band; Gretta Cohn’s stringwork adds an achingly melancholy contrast to the shattering guitars and Kasher’s wail. When I ask Kasher how he came up with the addition, he confessed it wasn’t initially his idea. “It was a suggestion I got from Todd [Baechle] of the Faint. He said, you know, a four-piece rock band is such a format, such a regular medium, and a new [instrument] would really help expand the sound.

“Once we got the idea, we started asking around. [Frequent Saddle Creek producer/contributor and owner of Presto Studios] Mike Mogis had kept [Gretta Cohn’s] number, because he’s an engineer and producer and he had remembered her as an excellent cellist that had opened up for Bright Eyes a couple of times. So we got in touch with her and she came out to a show, and then flew out and worked on Burst and Bloom. That was kind of a trial period, and everything went great, so she moved to Omaha.”

Burst and Bloom was mostly written by the time Cohn came on board, so she added cello parts where she thought they would fit. Creating The Ugly Organ was a different story, as Cohn was an integral part of composing the instrumentation. The difference is clear, as her cello lends a haunting maturity to the album that in unmatched in most indie rock records today.

That said, to keep in line with the trend thus far, the next Cursive album should hold some changes, right? “Every time I’ve tried to foresee it, I’ve always been wrong,” Kasher said. “We’ve just barely touched the surface on what we want to do next, [but] the dialogue that Ted and I have started…is that we would like to go further into something that people haven’t heard yet and that would take a repeat listen. The best compliments I have gotten from The Ugly Organ is…that it’s discomforting, because discomfort is a very real feeling. It’s like Requiem for a Dream; it’s nauseating to watch, but I think it’s a masterpiece; it makes you so uncomfortable. The Ugly Organ is a difficult subject matter that we don’t like to deal with. So, musically, we were just kind of considering getting further into that discomfort.”

Any discussion with Cursive must, ultimately, include a discussion of Saddle Creek and all the wonder they’re promoting out of Omaha. But just what is it about Omaha? “There’s been a lot of speculation,” Kasher admits. “I think it has a lot to do with [the fact that] when you’re raised in Omaha, you don’t expect anything. I think that you get to have that beautiful situation where you are writing because you just want to write something really good; you don’t really see a light at the end of the tunnel, you’re just trying to do it. I think kids that grow up in L.A. or Chicago can see how it can turn a profit; none of us could have seen that. We were our own fans, supporting each other. It’s really important that nothing was ever competitive; instead, it was raising the bar. We’re often saying that to each other, where it’s like, ’Wow, great record; now we have to do a record that’s as good as that.’”

It also helps that much of the current Omaha scene is composed of friends who have grown up together. “Ted [Stevens] and Conor [Oberst, of Bright Eyes] and I hang out; we’re very close friends, so we’re very comfortable talking about absolutely anything and everything. It’s easy for us to have a really open dialogue about what we want songs to be like. [With] every release, we kind of open the conversation up to each other and try to figure out which direction we should go.”

In listening to the progression of Cursive’s sound and the disquieting beauty of their current offering, it’s obvious the process has worked thus far. It helps that Kasher’s a thoughtful songwriter, someone who gives equal weight to both lyrics and music. To him, The Ugly Organ is a concept album, similar to a book of short stories or a collection of poetry—pieces tied together by a common theme. “Having everything be relevant is a conscious effort,” he says. “I think that the music industry has a bad name, rock ’n’ roll has a bad name; it’s not really taken seriously. To try to do something literary in music is [seen as] kind of dumb. I’ve always seen it as a shout out to all the other musicians: try to take your lyrics a little more seriously.”

Eventually, Kasher says, he’d like to take some time off from music to focus on his writing. “I’m trying to figure at what point I can slow down music so I could start writing a book of short stories. It’s really hard, because it’s this snowball effect, and it’s sometimes hard to escape from. I don’t want to escape too early, because you don’t want to lose the momentum…and I might be making a mistake if I don’t keep pursuing that.”

If there’s any justice in this convoluted world of airplay, charts, and concert sales, Kasher will find time for his fiction writing and Cursive will go on to enjoy even greater acclaim and recognition. Of course, life doesn’t always work out the way it should; musicians and writers with the most talent aren’t always the ones that find the greatest success. In addition to tremendous talent, though Cursive have two other points in their favor: they have a notable label behind them, and they are part of a larger scene. I can see it now: one day, there will be a movie about Omaha and all the Saddle Creek musicians. And who, I ask Tim Kasher, does he envision playing his role in the film? He laughs, considers the question. “I think I’d like it to be a woman. I think Maggie Gyllenhaal would be great.”
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