The Dividing Line
Jun 16, 2009
Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Web Exclusive
With Mama, I'm Swollen, Cursive has written the most polarizing album of their career. The band's sixth album overall follows the vicious, raving song cycle about religion and angst that was 2006's Happy Hollow, and its predecessor, the widely lauded masterpiece, 2003's The Ugly Organ. But unlike those two works, this album has drawn both praise and critical disdain. Despite featuring some of songwriter/vocalist Tim Kasher's most personal lyrics involving themes of growing older and confronting the realities of adulthood, it remains an album on which many fans and critics are split. Under the Radar caught up with Tim Kasher on day seven of what seems like a nonstop spring and summer tour to talk about fans, critics, Mama, and how to remain vibrant in an industry that forever compares artists with their most recognizable work.
So the album has been out for almost 2 months now. Have you been pleased with the response overall?
Tim Kasher: Yeah. So far, it's been great. I guess that's positive that it's been out for two months. You kind of wonder when it's going to die down. That's actually kind of encouraging to hear that it's been almost two months now and it's still going well.
I really enjoy the album but after it was released the band received some criticism. A couple outlets had some not so nice things to say about the album. [Pitchfork called it "predictable emo-punk." Spin said, "Most of the songs plod bloodlessly to an inevitable, pointless climax of noise, sour humor, and teen nihilism."] I wonder what your take is on such statements. Do you read your press? Does that sort of thing bother you?
Yeah. It's worrisome, you could say. But I kind of felt like, overall, the album just divided people. Certainly, one would be more comfortable if you just had an overall average of good reviews. But I kind of saw, for one critic's distain, another critic absolutely loved it. And that can be okay too. You know that you're not going to please everybody, and I guess I don't want to please everybody. Not that I would ever encourage bad reviews. Certainly not. But that's just bound to happen. We've really been blessed with getting pretty decent reviews for most of our career. I think some of the problem too, was that this is our sixth record. I think some people just are kind of sick of us. [Laughs] [They] are done doing favors or done patting us on the back, you know?
Do you feel there was there something about what you were going for with Mama that people just don't seem to get?
No. I don't know if I really feel that way. I honestly just feel that some people just don't like it. And that's really acceptable. I felt like, with some of the bad reviews I read, I felt that they sounded fair. It's just like, 'Okay, that is what I was aiming for, and you don't like it.' After all these years, you develop pretty thick skin. I just have to shrug that kind of stuff off.
Tell me about the process of recording this album. You guys all now live in separate parts of the country [vocals/guitars Tim Kasher in LA; bassist Matt Maginn in Columbia, MO; guitarist Ted Stevens in Omaha, NE.] Was this the first album recorded with the band members living all over?
What did that bring to the process, both positively and negatively, and how do you feel this affected the album you ultimately produced?
It wasn't too daunting, really, because the process didn't change. For the most part, either myself of Ted, we write on our own and we bring kind of a finished composition to practice. Then, as a band, we work on the arranging of it. This one essentially was the same. The subtler differences are that I was compiling songs—because we'd meet for about a week out of the month. When you're practicing three or four times a week, I'd be writing songs throughout the week and bringing them to practice the same week, so we'd inevitably be going through a lot more songs that we'd end up passing on. [The way we did it for this album], I would just compile the songs and I'd kind of sit on them myself for the month before taking them in, so I think I was able to sift through a lot of the junk, a lot of the crap, a lot easier, and just brought the stronger songs to the practice space to work on.
Is Cornbread Compton [who plays drums on Mama, I'm Swollen] an official member of the band now, because I understand he's not touring with you right?
It was something that, because a drummer is such an integral part of a band, we worked on the album with him, and certainly the invitation was open to him [to tour with us]. We would have liked to play with him for as long as he would want to, but there was always kind of an underlying problem. He's done a pretty good job in his career in commercial songwriting. That's not the right way to put it. Not commercial as in Top 40, but more in the advertising sense. So once the touring season expanded, he just kind of realized he wasn't going to be able to do both.
I want to ask about the theme of the album, and I guess this question is more generally about how you write. I wonder whether there is a specific instance or event that forms the genesis of the way the album's going to come together thematically?
I think that maybe sometimes there is. This album has kind of been pretty obscured in my head in as I keep getting feedback from outside listeners who explain their take on it. I've kind of been seeing it as placing all these puzzle pieces together and just thinking about the things I've been writing about, and this being my thirties and kind of feeling like it's necessary to take these next steps into adulthood or something. It's kind of like throwing another temper-tantrum in the sense of another rock album. I think that's why it doesn't surprise me when people don't always like what I write, because I find it difficult myself. Difficult in the sense that I say too much and throw these tantrums. That's kind of what rock and roll, at least in the way that we write it, that's what it's about.
But it sounds like you're saying that the albums don't revolve around a pre-set theme. It's just kind of how you're writing. And then, like you said, speaking with various people who've heard the album helps piece it together. Do you feel that the media or the fans put the "theme" of the album out there where it's not really like that in your head as you're going about writing it?
No, it's more that these conversations, like we're having now, kind of give me more clarity on what the album [is], or where I was writing from. I do sometimes write albums differently, and that's where Good Life's Album of the Year or Cursive's Happy Hollow [came from]. Those are albums where I think, from the start, I had a direction in which I was going. I think that albums like Mama, I'm Swollen and The Ugly Organ, I'm just kind of writing what's on my mind and then it just culminates into an over-arching theme.
Happy Hollow seemed to me to be a much more unrestrained album musically. Was there a conscious effort on your part to calm things in parts on this album or be more varied in texture or approach?
Yeah. Maybe the way I would put it is that I feel that this is the first album where I had a lot more of an interest in arranging it fully, arranging it to completion. So musically, the cacophony is more nestled into its right places, where maybe in the past it was kind of....The way I see it in my head is that in the past I don't think that we were writing to completion. We were just kind of letting it ride and just kind of bashing it out. I don't think that's wrong. I don't think there's really a right way to do it. This time around there was just more of a curiosity for me to kind of write everything out a little bit more.
May that have been a product the fact that you were all living in different places and you had the time to digest it as you were moving through it?
Perhaps, but I would offer that it's something that has been on my mind for a long time. I think it's something that I've recognized in other bands and kind of felt like I should start applying to our own music.
You are now more than five years removed from what is considered your breakout success—2003's The Ugly Organ. Do you feel that you are still having to live that album down in terms of the expectations it created for the band moving forward?
I don't know. I think that the idea of having to live it down, I don't think I'd want to live in that headspace, in that idea. I think it's kind of inspiring and encouraging to have a record that did well like that did. I think that any writer in any field, and certainly for us, we want to keep writing different records, and I would hate myself if I ever caught myself perhaps trying to write another Ugly Organ or something like that, but at the same time, with every record you put out, you kind of hope, 'Well, maybe this one will resonate in the same way that that did.' As its own album. As a different album. I think it's kind of a nice place to be, to know that we've created something like that, and if you can't do it again, well before you know it you're 70 years old anyway. It's nice to know that you wrote that once anyway. There's another aspect too, which is kind of back to what you were asking about, with critics and about that kind of more lukewarm embrace from the critical world. It's a reminder that the music industry is very difficult, and it's almost harder to survive after you have a successful album like that. But there are anomalies anywhere. I really respect bands like Spoon, who kind of had an ebb and flow to their success and now they're doing amazingly well. Or like Flaming Lips as well. But I think that those are exceptions to the rule.
So is it discouraging that in every review you read, there has to be a comparison?
No, I guess I don't find that discouraging. I guess I should say, I used to say that the most distain I had for The Ugly Organ was when we were in the middle of it, in the thick of it. I don't know why. It just kind of angered me. [Laughs] I just wanted to get away from it. But now that it has been five years....I pretty much look back fondly at everything we've done. I'm proud of everything we've written. So no, I wouldn't say that Ugly Organ, specifically, is discouraging. I do find it discouraging, back to what I was getting at earlier, that you're at your sixth album and you just have to be reviewed based off of your body of work. People don't often review it as just the album. It's almost impossible. You're being reviewed as Cursive and the sixth album, and also as the album itself. But you just can't separate them anymore, and I find that kind of discouraging.
I read recently that you've been doing some solo recording and writing some screenplays out in LA. Can you tell me about that?
I've been working pretty hard at trying to get one of the screenplays made. It's just me and a few people I'm working with who just keep plugging away. It's difficult, for myself anyway, to remain optimistic about it. I should say because it seems that every time I'm talking about it for an article, we're always pushing for next summer and next fall, and then it's the next spring and next summer. But at least there always is that. There always is this glimmer of hope. It's kind of the same story. We got awfully close to getting it made in the fall, and some of the backers kind of dropped out and now we're with different people and trying to schedule it again for some time in the next half year or so, around the touring schedule basically. It's positive but it's frustrating having to keep pushing it back.
[Kasher describes the screenplay, entitled Help Wanted Nights after The Good Life's 2007 album, as being "very loosely about a guy whose car breaks down in a small town so he kind of spends a week cavorting with some of the locals while his car is getting fixed. And the dark secrets of a small town are slowly revealed."]
And you've also been recording solo?
I haven't really been yet, but I've been writing for an album I don't really know. I just kind of have to get off my ass and figure out what I'm going to call it or what I'm doing with it. Or maybe I don't have to. It's just the ongoing practice of continuing to write, as a writer. I guess I do always have an interest in putting it out and getting that feedback that we're talking about.
Is it allowing you to explore some different things, apart from the band context?
I'm looking forward to arranging the songs. Looking forward to arranging them without feeling like there has to be bass, guitar, and drums on every song, which really isn't a bad thing as far as if you're writing for a band. That's what you're doing. But the point you're suggesting is, Yes, it is nice. It's freeing to feel that I can openly just pick the instrumentation and arrange it to my whim.