Reviews

Mama, I'm Swollen

05/01/2009 | Indyweekblogs.com | www.indyweekblogs.com | Live Show Preview
Tim Kasher's been the creative mastermind behind Cursive for almost 15 years and six full-length albums. During that time, the band's sound's evolved from a bristling hard rock that owed a significant debt to Fugazi into something much more rich in dynamics and instrumentation. During that same period, Kasher also released five solo LPs, frequently using different players under the name The Good Life.

With Cursive's latest, Mama, I'm Swollen, the two projects seemed to have merged, judging from the often downbeat, more theatrical tone of the work. Perhaps that's to be expected, now that Cursive's members live in different towns. Kasher recently moved from his longtime home of Omaha, Neb., to Los Angeles to pursue a dream of becoming a screenwriter and perhaps find financing for a movie he's written. We caught up with him on the latest Cursive tour, as the band made its way from Nashville, Tenn., to Birmingham, Ala.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How is life in Los Angeles?
TIM KASHER: It's all right. I live in Santa Monica, kind of out at the beach. It's fairly idyllic for the time being.

You've obviously seen a lot of the country over the years, but it still seems like a fairly large decision to move to Los Angeles from Omaha.
I just try not to consider those things big decisions. We [Kasher & his fiancée] kind of moved out on a whim, and we'll probably move again on a few more whims before we settle down anywhere.

Do you have friends out there?
Not many. I know a lot of musicians out there, but it's a big city. I kind of just try to stay in my neighborhood because L.A. is really not a very good transportation city. It's really a major folly of that place, really. But I'm in a nice neighborhood on the beach, so I don't really leave much.

Have you taken advantage of the beach? It seems many natives kind of take it for granted.
Yeah, we only moved to Santa Monica a few months ago. We lived on the east side for a year and a half or so. But I went out surfing with a few friends the other day. I'm trying to figure that out. It's kind of fun. I haven't been out here long and I don't know how long I'm really going to stay out there. I'm trying to look at it as a kind of extended vacation.

Have you met many other screenwriters out there?
Yeah, kind of. It's interesting: As you can imagine, a lot of the people you meet are in the business in one way or another. They're either cinematographers or screenwriters or actors. Everybody's trying to get the same kind of work.

How has that experience been?
It's difficult because it's so expensive. I'd say I don't have a hard time convincing anybody who doesn't have to put money into it. They're all happy and like what I do and want to be a part of it. The hard part is getting people to put the money down for it.

The first thing I want to ask is what's the difference between The Good Life and Cursive these days?
For the time being, I've put The Good Life on hold. As a result of that, people have been questioning that these records have been starting to sound more like The Good Life. It's fairly intentional really. As the songwriter for both bands, I've been trying to put forth the best writing I can without having to restrict what the style or sound is.

Has the process changed? Was there a time when you would say, "This sounds like a The Good Life song. This sounds like a Cursive song."
I think one of the major differences is just trying to avoid the labels. Where in the past a song like "What Have I Done" that closes the record, certainly is based on more of a folk song, and would've worked on a The Good Life record fine. Again, that was kind of the point of it. We didn't want to feel confined with what makes a Cursive song.

Was the departure of cellist Greta Cohn in 2005 a big change for you guys?
Anytime a musician has left or arrived, it affects the music. You try to write in a different direction. Also, it's a much easier way to keep trying to put different records out. When you have different heads working on the arrangements, it certainly helps.

How much involvement does producer A.J. Mogis have in the arrangements, and how much input do other people have?
This record, we really went back to the way we maybe did the first three records, which was we really prepared almost everything in the practice space. Then we just went and re-recorded it. So we didn't really get produced in the studio. We did that in the practice space to the best of our abilities. It made for a much faster recording process, so A.J. engineered for the most part. He mixes it, too, so there's an amount of production, and that's where a lot of his tastes and qualities come into play.

When I last saw you live a couple years ago with Against Me! and Mastodon, you were a four piece at that point. It was much more of a straight-ahead rock sound. Yet on the albums, you fool with a reasonable amount of baroque-ness.
I think that when we play live, we're dealing with the entire catalog. That really dictates a lot of what the live show is going to be, and we've been pretty good at not shying away from the catalog. Certainly, when we go out with this record, like any record, we're most interested in people's take on the new records. At the same time, we recognize that part of going to the show for any of us and any bands we like, you want to take in all of the records. So, yeah, generally it's pretty hard rock because that's where we come from.

The last couple albums have been pretty rich in instrumentation, and the new one no doubt—woodwinds, brass, strings, even a gong. Can there be too much instrumentation? On Happy Hollow, some of those songs seemed a little too busy. The new one less so, but there's still quite a bit of jockeying with instruments.
I might agree with that in that we got into cacophony a little bit more on this record. So that made it difficult to mix at certain points because it's difficult to mix cacophony. But it's intentional. It's trying to record that kind of brutish confusion and chaos, I guess, that we were going for. But otherwise we did try to work on arranging a lot more. We tried to avoid stepping on each other musically, which is something we may have struggled with in the past. Actually, I see this record as kind of stripped down a little bit more overall. The extra instrumentation has its place, barring the few cacophonous moments at the end of some of the songs.

It certainly felt like things had more of a place than on Happy Hollow. How would you describe the transition from 2003's Ugly Organ to 2006's Happy Hollow as opposed to the transition from Happy Hollow to Mama, I'm Swollen?
From Ugly Organ to Happy Hollow, we were—I remember, at the time, we were railing so hard against what we had already done and wanted so badly to put something so completely different out on just about every level, musically and lyrically. Between Happy Hollow and Mama, I'm Swollen, it was a lot easier because now we didn't want to do a record like Happy Hollow, and that was really a comfortable place for us to be in. That was such a tangent really, it would almost be difficult to do another record like Happy Hollow. We were kind of in a comfort zone musically.

It seems since The Good Life's Lovers Need Lawyers in 2004, you've moved toward more story songs from what had been pegged as more confessional stuff. Was there a conscious decision such as, "I've gone as far as I can with this"?
I certainly thought about it—you know, self-reflexive wanderings. We hit it a little bit on this record, but I try to keep an eye on it because I tend to want to deconstruct more often. I think it has its time and place. So getting into storytelling, oftentimes, they're still autobiographical. I just keep trying to get better at the writing process.

One of the major thematic concerns of the new album seems to be the limits of rationality and intellectualism. You have the line about being happier uncivilized. What's the nature of your concern or argument?
I think it's just summed up in the simplest cliché of ignorance is bliss, and that's something I've always felt, especially on an album like this. I considered the title, Mama, I'm Swollen, to be swollen with too much thought. It leaves me personally with so much cynicism. I do wish in many ways that I could just drop off of it, but I don't think it's possible. Also, our animalistic urges: Why can't we live by much simpler means? Why have we created such complex social mores that I consider it absurd sometimes?

But then you look at the level of political discourse or lowest common denominator entertainment. Is there not a middle ground?
Right, I think the conclusion of the album is the way I see it. I often wait for other people to explain it to me so I can see how it's taken, and it kind of helps inform me. Sometimes it can kind of become abstracted for me. The conclusion: I see it as kind of forewarned that we can't escape, but there is a middle ground. You can try to fight against society and try to live outside of it, but it's difficult and is ultimately probably not going to work.

Thoughts about the regime change in America?
I think that liberally we need to—well the push of change is the main thing. I hope that as much gets changed as possible. Many of us have stuck it out for eight years, and I think Obama will … I have faith in him, not the blind faith that a lot of the planet seems to have. It is nice to feel that the U.S. has a real world leader, though, right now.

Has it renewed your faith in people?
It's renewed my faith in the United States. I don't know if I would go as far as "people" or humanity. It is interesting. I guess you can be worried that a lot of people were just voting against Bush. They weren't really voting for Obama. They were just voting against Bush because he had such a horrible regime. That's not very positive. Again, Obama's in office now, so hopefully they can get some positive work done.

You're into your mid-30s. Has your perspective changed on what you expect or get from music?
Yeah, I think even just the last year, I'm guilty of not really being a music listener as much as I could be. So I've been taking a lot more interest in the wide world of music outside of pop/rock—essentially indie rock. At home, I've been listening to a lot more jazz and now trying to figure out the world of contemporary classical music. I think it was something I should've done when I was 18. I took music for granted. I worked on my own stuff, but I didn't really branch out as often to see what everyone else was doing. And you should. Just like anything, I feel kind of like an idiot for not doing it. In college, I was always a firm believer that if you're going to be a writer, you have to read, so I've always kept up with that. I feel like I never had anyone telling me that if you're going to be a musician, you should listen to music.

While I agree, I guess I'm a little puzzled how jazz or classical would inform your music.
For one, I maybe find it more interesting. Even for as much hard rock as I have tended to write all these years, I don't really listen to much of it. I guess I don't really want to listen to music that's similar to what I do. That being said, I still appreciate pop and rock music, but I want to be informed by other styles. Mostly I've been appreciating listening to these other types of music because I'm trying to clear my head of the loops and the format of rock 'n' roll.

You offered the album online for a price that steadily increased as the official release date approached. How did the digital download gambit work for you guys?
It seemed like it worked very positively. It was the label's [Saddle Creek] concoction. We just wanted to have the record out to as many people as we could as early as possible. With the new record, we believed in the record. The flaw of working on this kind of smaller level of rock 'n' roll, it's really word-of-mouth that's really the best form of promotion.

Has your vision of doing music the rest of your life remained constant, and do you still get the same thrill as you did as a teen playing music in your basement?

Yeah. The writing process is still my favorite part. The great part about that is it's free. No one can take that away from me. We all kind of recognize how difficult holding onto a career can be, so that's something I've always been prepared for. At this point, it's just nice that the writing—this process that I love—still affords me the ability to do it full-time. A day will probably come that I won't be able to, but that doesn't mean I have to stop writing. I can always do that. It's proven easy enough to release a record now, even if you just release it online.
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

LP / CD / MP3