Reviews

Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Lance Conzett
04/22/2009 | Belmont Vision | www.belmontvision.com | Live Show Preview
Cursive's music has always been about personal struggle—divorce, alcoholism, rejection and suburban mundanity have all found their way into the band's 14 year career, and that's just their songs. The band itself has weathered at least one break-up, numerous hiatuses, being absorbed into the emo fad, complete shifts in style and losing members like cellist Gretta Cohn and, most recently, original drummer Clint Schnase. Any other band might split up under that kind of pressure, but Cursive seems to feed off it.

"Mama, I'm Swollen," the band's sixth studio album, takes the complex musical experiments of 2003's "The Ugly Organ" and 2006's "Happy Hollow" to the next most logical step. The addition of woodwind instruments and strings on top of the last album's grand brass instrumentation makes for the band's most organic and, perhaps, un-Cursive-like album yet.

Guitarist Ted Stevens spoke with Belmont Vision about the band's evolution and digital music in between tour dates.

Belmont Vision: How was recording Mama, I'm Swollen different compared to Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ?

Ted Stevens: The writing process was very similar, except that we were all living in different cities. So we just practiced for longer days, but fewer. As far as recording goes, we worked with AJ Mogis who recorded the band's first two records, rather than Mike—his brother—who recorded the last few. I guess the recording process was pretty similar all around, but may be the mix down was specifically AJ and Cursive instead of either one singular or instead of Mike. I'd say that's a big difference, they have two totally different styles.

BV: It seems like the band goes through fairly significant stylistic changes with each record, is that just a byproduct of three years separating each album?

TS: Yeah. And I think that the band wants there to be some different in the records. Wants to mix it up and kind of entertain and challenge itself and try new things. I think the band kinda thrives on being creative or being able to mix it up a little bit, that exercises that will by differing the records.

BV: Do you think that kind of evolution is necessary in a band that's going into its 14th year?

TS: Yeah, I think it's necessary for us. If I was in a band that long, I could see that being a reason to stick around. That keeps it really interesting. But you can't speak for everybody. There are other bands that are just the same as it ever was and I love them, like Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo. I mean, they mix it up but not that much.

BV: It does seem like your peers at Saddle Creek have gone towards different genres, especially like Conor Oberst with his recent country output. But you still maintain the same kind of theme across the board. Do you think about trying to maintain continuity between the records or does it just kind of work out that way?

TS: Between the artists or between Cursive records?

BV: Between Cursive records.

TS: Yeah, you know, they're not sequels to the previous records and they're not part of some collective greater story or anything. But I think they flow. It makes sense to me when I look at the development of the records, what they're about and where they're going.

BV: Do you look at the old records often, in comparison to the new stuff?

TS: No, not until recently. We've changed our set-up for the live show and I've been forced to listen to a lot of the old stuff. So yeah, recently I've been playing those songs.

BV: It's interesting that you said "overarching story," that they don't have one that's continued through like it's a Rush album or something. But critics labeled Happy Hollow and The Ugly Organ as concept albums. Do you think it's important for bands to tell stories with their music?

TS: I think it's important for us. I don't need that from the music I listen to but sure, you know? I like classic rock and concept records. Yeah, I think Tim and I and maybe Matt as well like those kind of records and like the fact that Cursive records are kinda conceptual or thematic or whatever. I can tell you that we're aware of it and we keep trying to not do it [laughs] but it always comes right back to it. It seems to make sense when it comes back and those are the themes we're working with.

BV: Do you think it's more difficult to make those kinds of albums these days with digital music making it easier to consume artists by the song instead of by the album?

TS: Yeah, but you can't win them all. If "Dorothy at Forty" or if "Rise Up Rise Up" are the only songs that anyone's ever going to know off Happy Hollow, then those are pretty good representations. Maybe they'll listen to the whole record some other time at a friend's house. It's definitely changed how music is bought and sold. I don't really do it much, I'm more of an albums guy, but it's better than having never bought a song.

BV: You guys are embracing the digital thing though. Tell me about the reasoning behind the pricing on the new record, the digital part where it went up a buck a day.

TS: That went out to our mailing list and I guess some blogs picked it up, but there wasn't a whole lot of coverage on it. I think it gave people who were anxious or checking their junk mail to buy it at a really affordable rate. I guess the idea was to build some awareness for the record right before our release week when we were going to be really busy promoting, so I guess it was just an effort to raise awareness. It did that, but I think it also provided a cheap alternative to our immediate fan base.

BV: So the focus is still on the physical, you can buy it in the store copies, right?

TS: Yes. As far as I know. I mean, I don't know. We take them on the road and they don't sell as well anymore. We shipped [the CDs], we're still waiting on the LPs but I guess right now I guess the focus would be just raising awareness for the record however that can be.

BV: Do you think digital is going to replace the CD or the vinyl?

TS: I think vinyl is a little different. CDs, yeah, unfortunately they're not going to be available much longer. I don't know, I can't say. If the files are really good—and they've been really good lately—if they sound as good as the CD then I guess I'd like files. But if they don't, I want the CD. In most cases I want the CD for the artwork and all that. You know, I don't know. I guess I can't predict how quickly CDs will fall out of fashion or when most companies will stop producing them. But I kinda feel like they already are in the middle of that plan, unfortunately for record stores.

BV: Although, as the CD's been going down, it seems like vinyl has been making a pretty big resurgence.

TS: I'd like to believe that. I haven't looked at any stats, but that's encouraging.

BV: I mean, you guys are still putting out records and when you started, it was in a scene that was very much dependent on vinyl records, even when vinyl wasn't as popular. I think "Mama I'm Swollen" is coming out next month on vinyl?

TS: Yeah, there's only a few manufacturers left, so they tell you when your record's coming out [laughs] because they're so backed up. We're just grateful if it works out good, if it sounds good. Yeah, ours is May 19.

BV: After this tour, what's next for the band?

TS: More touring and a couple of vacations here and there. Tim's getting married in the Fall, this October, so I think we're going to work up until then and stay really active and keep playing shows and be available for whatever is asked of us. Then take a little break and hopefully come back and do a little touring again. Then, maybe we'll write another record.

Cursive will perform in Nashville on April 26 at Mercy Lounge with Philly experimental rockers Man Man. Tickets cost $16 in advance and $18 at the door.
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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