Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Amelia Kreminski
04/14/2009 | Death and Taxes | | Feature
Tim Kasher is a pretty relatable guy. He plays Metallica Guitar Hero and talks with a familiar and friendly lilt in his laidback voicemail message: "Hi, this is Tim, please leave a message..."

But after listening to the six melancholic, sometimes inky-black albums of his career as lead singer for Cursive, one would assume he's got the weight of the world pressed on his shoulders. The band's latest LP release, Mama, I'm Swollen, dropped March 10, and is no exception in Kasher's opus of solemn sounds and tristful texts.

Between the haunting, bittersweet electric guitar echoes and softly whispering cymbals of "Mama, I'm Satan," Kasher laments, "The darkness of mankind stirs in us all." His soft, anguished vocals sway like cattails in tepid swamp water through the minor-chord lullaby of "From the Hips." The album closes with a masterful creation, the six-and-a-half minute "What Have I Done," both uplifting and heart-wrenching with Kasher's gentle libretto silhouetted by a twisting melodic maze.

"The gods must be laughing down at me," he intones after the first couple minutes of the song, following the statement with three "ha's" that hang limply on sustained guitar hooks, as fragile and drooping as the antique beauty of dead flowers in a vase.

So what's on Tim Kasher's mind? What kind of ideas float through the songwriter from Omaha's head, filling his musical repertoire with such heavy-hearted albums? Death+Taxes called him up at his home in L.A. to find out. Find out more details on Cursive's new album, Kasher's screenwriting projects, why rock and roll is "youthful and obnoxious" (and why that's a good thing), and more about the ever-popular Metallica Guitar Hero after the jump.

Tell me about your new album. What themes are present throughout?

We didn't really set out with anything specific, but I guess it turned out with themes of fighting societal norms. Very loosely, I just wanted to write about this time in my life. [The ideas of] being in my early thirties and [being conscious of life] getting later and later. [The time] when people have to start making decisions about what they're doing with their lives and the reluctance to want to--the preference to make no decisions, I guess.

Do you think the attitude of needing change that is present in your album is the same attitude of needing change that is present in our current political atmosphere?

I think that it's too early to tell [if people in America don't want to change]. I think that when Obama's campaign for change officially came out everyone was, at least, for a moment, excited. But... in this country in particular, probably, a certain attitude probably prevails where it's like, Well, we don't really want to change. [Laughs] It's kind of like when we all get excited about exercising around the New Year but we don't really do it.

Where do the religious and political themes present in so many of your albums come from?

I suppose it's just kind of interests that come up. For Happy Hollow, we really didn't intend for it to be a religious record--it's just that every song kind of kept popping up. We were just trying to write something that was based on a small town, and it kind of became prevalent--religious themes. And, you know, the religious symbolism on this record doesn't seem like it really covers religion. It seems like it really covers ethics, which is kind of different. That's just stuff that we struggle with, I guess.

In the song "Mama, I'm Satan," you mention "the darkness of mankind." What does this mean to you? Also, do you think there is a brightness to mankind?

Yeah, I think there's a brightness. But the darkness of mankind is not really even just mankind--it's nature as well. It's that nature is just inherently...evil, for lack of a better word. Evil seems very satanic, and I don't think nature is necessarily that, but I think that--fear is built into nature, and that seems evil. And the food chain is evil--I mean evil's just not the right word, but at least, thematically, for writing lyrics, that's where I used darkness. Humans definitely take it a lot of steps further, [for instance, with something like] torture. Torture serves no purpose in nature.

In the song "What Have I Done" you say, "I've spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life." I found this idea extremely relatable--I feel like many of us fall into that trap. Why do you think this is? Is it a problem present only in an American culture, perhaps because we are more affluent?

I don't know. I'm not really sure if that's only American--my hunch would be that it's kind of human. But I bet in a lot of ways it is more American, because we're raised with the idea that we have something coming to us. But I think that a lot of what that line is about is our assumption that when we grow up, something kind of big is going to happen to us--we don't really take in the present very much because we're always waiting for something to happen.

Should we live more in the present?

Well, certainly. I don't know. It's probably different for different people. There's a certain selfishness to living in the present, but if you don't somehow take in the present then you're taking it for granted.

I watched an interview with Cursive online in which you called rock and roll "youthful and obnoxious." I was quite amused by this--what exactly do you mean by rock and roll being something that is "youthful and obnoxious"?

Well, it is, but I don't think that's such a bad thing. I mean, I'm an obnoxious person and I challenge myself to never drop that. You know, I think the less obnoxious I've become over the years, the more adult I've become, and I don't really have much curiosity about becoming an adult. So rock and roll and just playing shows, it's a good outlet for that. It's actually an amazing outlet. I would encourage everyone [laughs]--you know, I would encourage yourself, if you're not in a band, to get in one. There are a lot of benefits to yelling. I don't think I realize how good I have it sometimes, as bottled up as I think I can be sometimes. I get a chance to scream on stage. It's just kind of like you can rant and have a tantrum, and I think that's what I do, and it's totally obnoxious.

Do you feel like you should be doing something else? Do you think rock and roll is an industry of teens and twenty-somethings?

In the States, it is a young person's industry, which is completely unfortunate. In other countries, there aren't these societal lines for when you're supposed to stop listening to music or something like that. We're much more prone to be playing Switzerland and have 50-year-olds in the crowd. It took a while to get used to it, but now I love it--it makes complete sense.

But no, I don't think it's something I should stop doing, or anyone who's moving on in the decades or whatever. I mean I'm still really quite young, I just give myself a hard time for doing this for a long time. It does, in some ways, conflict with suburban life and domesticity, which is nice, because I don't have too much interest in those things. It does come into conflict with that as you get older and you try to maybe blend a little bit of both. But, you know, truck drivers probably have it worse off than musicians do. So it's not just that the musician's trade is the only one where you're out traveling all the time.

Have you ever considered doing something else, and quitting the musician's life altogether?

No. I think a long time ago I decided that I am a songwriter and that's just something that I need to keep doing, and I'd be doing myself a disservice if I stopped cataloging what I write. I think that would be the worst time in becoming an adult, really, if I somehow realized that I'm disinterested in songwriting. That being said, I can't assume, nor do I assume, that I'd be so privileged to have a live audience for a lifetime of songwriting, but I know that I will [keep writing]. In other words, if I make it seventy, I'll still be writing songs, I just might be writing for my family.

I read that you've been working on writing screenplays. How is that project going?

It's going well. I wrote a few of them, and I guess I've slowed down. I haven't started a fourth just yet, because I've been working harder on getting one of them made. Although I think the practice to continue writing them is excellent. I think what I said about songwriting I could say about writing in general--it's something that I'll continue doing throughout my life.

How are writing screenplays different from writing songs? Is this a different creative outlet?

Yeah, it is. It's a lot more focused, which is what I try to do with albums, some more so than others as far as trying to build them systematically. It takes a lot more discipline. Music [is] a hobby, which is really the way I think you should keep it. I don't like to consider it like work. Music writing--it's stupid to define it. It's just really enjoyable, you know? [Laughs] Really, it's just like playing with toys, and I think that there's a lot more discipline to writing long stories. So screenplays are--they're much easier just as far as jumping into a longer story form because it's so skeletal still. You only have to write like a hundred pages or so, so it's a good baby step into writing.

Do you think you'd ever write a novel?

I don't know. I really can't know what level of discipline I [could] achieve or if I'd ever have the time. That seems like a privilege in itself, just to have enough time and be financially secure enough to hole away and write an entire novel. Not that I wouldn't love to--I'm kind of just proud that I've pushed myself into screenwriting, and I hope I can keep pushing myself into more forms of writing.

So you said you're trying to get one of the screenplays produced. Is that going well?

Yeah, it is. I had some setbacks last fall. The company I was working with--it just didn't work out, but I'm working with some other people now, and it's just something that's low-budget. But it really has gone well. I've been pretty lucky so far, as far as getting people interested in it, and I'm working on getting it shot sometime this summer.

What is it about? Can you give me a summary?

It's called Help Wanted Nights, and it's about a guy whose car breaks down in a small town and he kind of gets involved with the town folk over the span of a week while his car's getting fixed. He kind of delves into the lives of these characters.

Do you think you write about small towns a lot because you're from Nebraska, a pretty rural state in general?

I find a lot of romanticism in small towns. I think that's something that might be unique to people who are raised in those kinds of areas. I think if I were raised in Connecticut I'd probably be writing about seaside experiences a lot more.

Besides your hometown and background, what else inspires your art? What music were you listening to when you wrote Mama, I'm Swollen? What are you listening to now?

I've been listening to a lot of harder, louder music lately. I think it's just a little thing I've been going through because I picked up Metallica Guitar Hero. So I kind of got into hard rock again, probably just for a brief stint.

Generally, what I'm listening to doesn't reflect on what the records sound like, and if I ever recognize that it does, then I'll stop listening to [the music it sounds like]. I try to be conscientious of when I'm becoming derivative with my songwriting and if I'm becoming too overtly influenced by something that I'm listening to at the time. But over the last year, as far as stuff that I'm trying to learn from, I think it's a lot of jazz, and just the other day I was listening to Amy Mann and Portishead.

Do you have writers or visual artists that inspire your music?

Yeah, that's really the stuff that inspires me a lot more. I guess I've been reading a lot of Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. That had kind of more noticeable influences on some of the tones of the album, kind of like the way we talked about the darkness of mankind--it's a lot of what Cormac McCarthy has gotten me interested in.

Your next tour will kick off on April 24 in St. Louis, and end May 9 in Chicago, but you just came home from a tour that included at stop at SxSW. How did the famous Austin music festival go for Cursive?

It really went pretty well. We did a lot of shows and we all were kind of unsure how we would feel about it, but my hunch was right--as long as you're down there you might as well be playing shows, because it kind of just gives you something to do. I get a little restless traveling and being in other cities if there's nothing to do. [Laughs] In other words, I'd rather be at home working on something instead of just sitting around. So I liked playing multiple shows a day, and I think it went pretty well. I'm not a SxSW hater--there's kind of a division amongst musicians of people who love and hate it. I think it's an OK time. My only frustration with it is the way it kind of mixes with spring break a little bit, which is maybe not the point of music appreciation.

Do you have any good tour stories from SxSW?

Probably not. [Laughs] It's like when someone's telling good jokes, and you can never remember your own. I can never remember any jokes.

Check out D+T's review of Mama, I'm Swollen here or in the March/April issue of the magazine, available in stores now.
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

LP / CD / MP3