Reviews

Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Kyle Ryan
04/27/2009 | The Onion AV Club | www.avclub.com | Feature
If Cursive has one defining attribute, it's ambivalence. The long-running, Omaha-born band has had a mercurial history, breaking up at least once in the late '90s and taking a series of hiatuses after each album, beginning with 2003's The Ugly Organ. Frontman Tim Kasher has seemed only intermittently sold on the whole enterprise, frequently retreating to his side project, The Good Life, or other creative pursuits, like filmmaking. The apprehensiveness continues as Cursive turns 14 and releases its solid sixth album, Mama, I'm Swollen. The album is Kasher's most ruthless examination yet (which is saying something) of the Peter Pan syndrome inherent to life as a full-time musician—"a career in masturbation," he sings in "Mama, I'm Satan."

But that same song reveals that Cursive's chronic instability may be an illusion: "You stretch your peacock feathers / you're always on display / don't act so goddamned conflicted / you wouldn't have it any other way." Still, Swollen almost didn't happen, for real this time. While touring to support 2006's fantastic Happy Hollow, original drummer Clint Schase quit, leaving the other three members of Cursive wondering whether he had the right idea. Kasher, guitarist Ted Stevens, and bassist Matt Maginn decided to keep writing, without knowing if what resulted would be Cursive or some new project. In the end, they returned, with new drummer Cornbread Compton (Engine Down) in tow, and perhaps a measure of peace. On the day of Mama, I'm Swollen's release, Kasher spoke to The A.V. Club about Cursive's fractured history, getting over his bouts of maturity, and how making a film isn't the same as being in a band.

The A.V. Club: You talk about Peter Pan syndrome on this album, the feeling of perpetual adolescence. Is that something you've thought about a lot?

Tim Kasher: Yeah. I had to get over a hump. I don't know when it was, like five years ago, feeling like just doing rock 'n' roll—and that's really what Peter Pan-ism is—is obnoxious. It's totally obnoxious. What I do is obnoxious, and I recognize that. I consider myself an obnoxious person. And I think that's good. I think what I'm explaining is that I came to terms with that. I'm 34 now—I think when I was 30, I had a bout of maturity.

AVC: What did that entail?

TK: I started really railing against this obnoxious, loud music and thought that I really shouldn't be doing it anymore. But I tell ya, it's a hump, because it's something I got over. I think I'm just so privileged to be getting to do it, and just really lucky that I get to hold onto as much youth for as long as I can, 'cause I think in my mid-30s, I'm already hitting these creepy midlife-crisis feelings. Also, this comes into play a lot: I'm the youngest of six kids, and when you're that, you never really become an adult, and I'm so happy about that. At this age, I think, "Even if I end up becoming a dad or something down the road, I don't think I'm ever going to be an adult. I'll just be a kid raising a kid."

AVC: So how did you get over that hump? Just by realizing you were lucky to be doing this?

TK: Yeah, I think so. I recognize that publicly or in writing, people in your field of journalism are calling us out on why we go on hiatus after every record, which is completely fair because it really is ridiculous, but where that comes into play is, maybe the hump isn't over. Maybe you caught me at a really positive moment where the record's out today, and I'm really excited about it. But at the end of this touring cycle, maybe I'll be like, "God, I can't believe I'm such an obnoxious person, screaming on stage every night, demanding the people's attention." So it's probably something I'll always grapple with, but at least for this interview, I'm sticking with the fact that I shouldn't take it for granted. There are other benefits it allows me. I take my lyrics really seriously. I get to impart my thoughts to people, and I have a group of people, a collective of people, who pay attention to that. It's great to have that outlet.

AVC: So it's not necessarily just a career in masturbation, as the record says?
TK: It definitely is. I'll stand by that. It's definitely a career in self-indulgence.

AVC: But at the same time, have you ever thought about how you did give the straight life a go, and it didn't stick? Cursive broke up in the '90s because you married and moved to Oregon, but that didn't last.

TK: Yeah, those notions I guess are unsolved, but that's not me. Those notions are unsolved for everybody. I defy people who are married and have two children and they are confident that was the right decision. It doesn't mean that it's wrong—it's just that we can really never know.

AVC: You talked about people calling you out for going on hiatus all the time. But Clint leaving seemed like a real stumbling block.

TK: Yeah, it was a huge one. We had a discussion, "Is Clint right?" He made the decision and picked the time to be done with it. And [because he was] somebody we always played with, it made a lot of sense that maybe that's the time to hang it up. So we thought about it for a while. Thanks for reminding me about that, actually, because that made our last supposed hiatus a little more real.

AVC: So when you started writing the new record, it seems like you had a pretty open mind, like, "We're just going to start writing these songs, and if they're Cursive, they're Cursive, and if they aren't, they aren't." Is that how it worked out?

TK: Yeah, and that actually goes back to the whole conversation about Peter Pan syndrome and whatnot. The way this album came out was really reassuring to me to recognize that hard rock—as in loud music—just isn't something I listen to that much, so I often wondered why that's what I do. So it was reassuring that we had a very open mind about what kind of record we wanted to do, and this is what came out. It is both, I guess; it is kind of loud and soft. I feel comfortable that it is a very honest portrayal of what we wanted, or what I personally wanted to write next, but it didn't necessarily need to be a Cursive record. But it certainly feels and sounds like a Cursive record. So it makes me feel like a little more comforted that what I have done in the past isn't like some affectation, which I had to ask myself before too. Because it's like, "If you're a guy that doesn't listen to a lot of hard rock, why did you write it?" But mostly, I love human aggression. I like it in myself, I think. As far as something to get out, I believe that everybody has it in them, so I like to be an outlet.

AVC: How did writing work this time, with you living in L.A., and the other guys in Nebraska and Missouri?

TK: This is the first time doing it this way, and it seemed to work, so we would probably do it again. Instead of getting together three to four times a week, [where] I would have to be sure to have at least two songs prepared each week to show, now we just have to be condensed. So when we would meet up, I would have at least seven songs prepared, and I would do my best to send acoustic demos out to everybody beforehand, and I'd write out all the chords. It was kind of like a class. [Laughs.] Which was kind of a weird difference for us, but it felt similar. The only thing that wasn't the same was getting together and being able to hammer things out over and over again. The songs felt much more lively when we recorded them than in the past, where we would really beat songs down when we get into the studio.

AVC: Does working that way make you appreciate the time when you're together more than when you used to, or at least not take it for granted?

TK: Yeah, I really didn't think about that until you just said it. Absolutely, in the simplest way, it was a lot of fun and was something to look forward to. You are not living in the same town anymore, so when you get to meet up with your friends—again, that is just a very simple pleasure. When you all live in the same town, going to practice three or four times a week wasn't always what you felt like doing hungover. [Laughs.]

AVC: Recording went very quickly. You intended only to get the drums and bass complete during the first recording session, but ended up getting everything but vocals. Why did it go so easily this time?

TK: Well, the last two albums we have done, we felt like we were getting too long-winded in our production, especially with Happy Hollow, like "How can we get this to sound, how to perfect these songs?" After we did that, I think it was a nice learning process. The analogy that I have been using is, if you are fortunate to have the finances to make Titanic, the movie, because that's the movie you really want to make, that seems absolutely right, because we basically had the finances and the time, so we set out and made a highly produced album. We came back out of that thinking, "You know, we're just a live band," and wanted to make something that was closer to the way we started doing this.

AVC: You did your vocals at home, and it seems like it'd take real strength to know whether something is good enough or needs to be redone.

TK: I actually always do my own vocals, and over the years it has became a real problem, because I haven't had someone tell me it was done, and I just get weirdly obsessive-compulsive about it. So frankly, I look back at some of those records, in both bands, and hate some of the takes because I worked so hard on trying to perfect them. It's exposing myself on a whole other scale. [Laughs.] I listen to some of the tracks, and I think it sounds like shit, because there's so much… Technically, they're proficient, but they had the feeling zapped out of them, which is such a drag to me. I can't listen to some of them.

AVC: Like which ones?

TK: [Laughs.] The one that I just fucking hate—and I can say it just because fortunately it is done—is a song that has done really well for me, the "Album Of The Year" track, the opening track off [Album Of The Year, The Good Life's 2004 release]. It just drives me crazy, because it opens that record up, and I just think I had such better takes that I could have used, but instead used the one that I had when I was hitting all the notes. [Laughs.] It was one that was perfectly pitched, and I just can't stand it.

So we didn't end up having someone [record vocals] with me. I just did my best to stick to certain rules where I would only do four takes max of any song. I would go through them, and if there is a inclination of "You know what, this sounds kind of funny," I would be like, "You're just thinking way too much about this, and you're going to end up singing this 10 times more, and you are going to zap everything out of it again." So I totally will pitch that I love these vocals on this record—probably my favorite out of anything I have ever done. I think it's kind of a hump I guess I got over, and I just feel so much more comfortable with the fact that I am just not a professional singer. I am just a guy who sings.

AVC: Are you comfortable in general listening to old Cursive and Good Life records?

TK: [Pauses.] I'm not really sure. I think there is an equation that has something to do with it, and that you have to place time into it. I think that anything that is, maybe say six years or older, I feel comfortable listening to, because I can think that is long enough ago that maybe I was a different person. So when I hear the errors, the mistakes, or maybe just the poor takes, I am more okay with that. I would feel uncomfortable listening to the last Good Life album right now, or I don't like listening to Happy Hollow… For The Ugly Organ having done so well, I still don't feel comfortable with that, but I can still listen to Domestica. In fact, I recently started falling in love with The Storms Of Early Summer. It was a record that I always railed against, because I have always thought it was really derivative. Now it has been just so long ago, I just learned to have a whole new appreciation. And those, speaking of vocals, are just fucking terrible. [Laughs.] Probably the worst vocals I've ever done. It's kind of a running joke right now, but I am pitching to the band that we are going to re-record that album. [Laughs.]

AVC: What's the status of your film, Help Wanted Nights?

TK: I was really hoping that I was going to come out and do these interviews and tell everyone what the shooting date was and who was in it. [Laughs.] But the production company I was working with, when the big recession scare came, I was immediately wiped off. [Laughs.]

AVC: You're having the full Hollywood experience of coming so close and then having everything pulled out from under you.

TK: It's very frustrating. I keep wanting to backpedal and just get into short-story writing or something—just something where all I have to do is find someone with a press and just put it out by myself. For a whole career so far, we got to do everything ourselves and have been able to—and to go into a field where you have to be so dependent on so much money and so many other people, it's just driving me insane.

AVC: Have you started working on other scripts?

TK: Yeah. I mean, in the process of trying to get that one made, I wrote what I daydream would be the next movie. Although I think making the second movie is going to be even harder than making the first. Like some people think, "What if your first movie does really poorly?" It's going to be really hard to secure financing if your résumé is like "I made this incredibly shitty movie." [Laughs.] But yeah, I did write one in the meantime, and I'm starting yet another one, and yes, it is totally frustrating after years of writing things to try and get them to release them. It's sobering writing things and having them collect dust on the desk, you know? That's all right, though—it's all practice.

AVC: Hollywood is full of people who made shitty movies, and they still get work, right?

TK: [Laughs.] Yeah, you know, I can't know what will happen to me next, but don't be surprised if I am writing a book instead—at least I can secure the finances for that.
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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