Mama, I'm Swollen
The artist in question is Tim Kasher, the primary force behind Cursive, a guy who's been making some of the most important records in the tiny, insular world of indie rock — and touring nationally and globally — since the late-'90s.
When critics heard "What Have I Done?" which caps the album in Cursive's usual heroic bombasts, they assumed Kasher was singing about himself, using lyrics like, "I spent the best years of my life / Waiting on the best years of my life / What have I done?"
It didn't end there. The song "Caveman," easily could be construed as someone defending his decision to turn his back on a life spent slaving for the stereotypical American Dream: "I'm no high society man / No suit and tie, no Dapper Dan / I'm no happy family man / I'm no husband, ain't no dad / I'm a goddamn caveman / This upward mobility is more than I can understand."
It's Kasher on Kasher, right?
Well, maybe. Probably. Then again, maybe not. The only way to find out was to ask Kasher.
Was Mama I'm Swollen his "I'm getting old" record?
"That wasn't the intention," Kasher said via cell phone en route to Manhattan Beach in his new hometown of Los Angeles, enjoying a day off between tours. "But after each record comes out, I gauge how people are seeing it, and it occurs to me that I think about (getting older) a lot more than I thought I did."
"Hopefully, it's just a phase. I wanted to write about my experiences now that I'm in my 30s, and what came out of that was me starting to feel the age coming on, at least the earliest stages. When you're in your 20s, there's still a feeling of invincibility that prevails."
I recalled reading an interview written during the album's initial press swell, where Kasher said he'd reached an age where every illness, every physical malady could be the beginning of the end. I told him how depressed it made me feel, and we both laughed.
"Well, when you're young and you get hurt, you figure you're going to get fixed," he added. "Now there's a realization that if something happens to me, it may be the first step to my demise."
But at the age of 34, isn't it a bit early to begin shoveling dirt on your own grave?
"I know I'm not that old yet," Kasher said, "but it's funny how everything is relative. If 30 seemed old when we were teenagers, 40 seemed like dinosaurs. Now I view people in their 40s as my contemporaries."
When you're young, he said, nobody wants to be "the old guy" at the party surrounded by teenagers.
"You don't want to look like that creep, but you kind of have to be (if you're involved) in music," Kasher said.
Perhaps some of the new album reflected guilt. I mean, here was Kasher, living the life of a rock star on and off the road for more than a decade, supporting the release of four full-length albums on Saddle Creek Records, starting with the landmark breakup album Domestica in the summer of 2000. And there were the five full-lengths he made with his "other band" The Good Life. Does he feel guilty about rejecting the traditional 9-to-5 gig with the wife and kids and mortgage?
"I wouldn't say it's guilt," Kasher said. "Guilt would be how touring incessantly can be misconstrued as a constant party, and that you're somehow hiding from the clock — which is a bad way of putting it — or shirking your responsibilities of maturity. I recognize some of that guilt, but that has nothing to do with the writing itself."
If there's guilt, he said, it comes from how people in his life have found themselves written into his songs — purposely or not.
"I have a decent amount of guilt from what I write about," Kasher said. "I choose to write from a fairly selfish standpoint and can't always protect people in my life. I could and I don't. I reserve the right to say everything isn't necessarily autobiographical, fiction or non-fiction, but inevitably there are people who become affected. I reserve the right to continue writing about what happens to me and is important to me. I guess I'm a believer in that, and that's where the selfishness comes into play."
Last April, shortly after Mama I'm Swollen was released, Kasher and his band, which includes Matt Maginn on bass, Ted Stevens on guitar and vocals and touring drummer Cully Symington (Cornbread Compton plays drums on the record) played a series of gigs at the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. The last performance was at Waterloo Park, located a few blocks north of historic 6th Street near the edge of the University of Texas campus.
Playing at the same time as Cursive on a small side stage was Abe Vigoda — not the actor, but the band named after the actor who, judging by their age, probably never heard of Phil Fish or Tessio. Before they lit into their set, the band's bass player thought he'd toss a few bombs.
"I used to listen to Cursive when I was in 9th grade," he told the small crowd, apparently distraught at the hundreds of people who preferred the entertainment on the big stage. "Don't get me wrong, Domestica was a great album, and I don't mean that factiously. But that was 9th grade."
Later that evening I mentioned the comments to Kasher over a beer, and he was playfully miffed. The episode, however, underscored the question of whether Cursive needs to continue to attract a teenage audience.
"There has always been such a young contingency at shows," Kasher said. "What's been affirming on the last tours — and in some ways discouraging — was recognizing the division of the older and the younger people in the crowd. The Ugly Organ and Domestica of course appeal to the older people, and Happy Hollow and Mama, I'm Swollen to the younger crowd. The older people don't know those new songs and the younger people don't know the old songs."
This was evident at a show Cursive played earlier this year in Missoula.
"I was getting a kick out of this 19-year-old who was right up front and was so fervent," Kasher said. "But when we started playing a Domestica song, he just kind of turned off. Afterward I grabbed a copy of Domestica and gave it to him, and said, 'Here's the old stuff.' In a way, it's affirming that young people are still being introduced to it now."
In an era when those same young people are more apt to illegally download an album than buy it from their local record store, Cursive's record sales remain modestly commendable. Mama, I'm Swollen sold 5,429 physical copies nationally its first week, good enough to nearly crack the Billboard Top-200 at No. 104. The sales number slid to around 2,700 the second week, dropping the album to No. 200.
"Our tours have been really good," Kasher said, but in regards to album sales, "it's not like it went gangbusters or anything like that, but that's neither here nor there. It's doing a great job of sustaining us to our next projects."
These days, instead of album sales, touring along with publishing income has been a core business staple for bands, but "for me, touring takes up a lot of time that I feel would be better spent working on the next thing."
"I'm at that door that I knew was coming up at some point — a wall or feeling where you ask what your longevity in the music industry is," he said. "I knew I'd have to face it eventually, and I'm kind of coming up to that now. I have to start over in a lot of ways in terms of how I have to fight because I want to keep it going."
The struggle has been altogether different for Kasher's other career — in film. He wrote a screenplay a few years ago called Help Wanted Nights, which became the impetus for The Good Life album of the same name. At the time of its release, there were murmurs that Kasher moved from Omaha to Los Angeles to be closer to the film industry, something he denies. Now, three years later, Help Wanted Nights, the film, could become celluloid reality.
"The movie is actually going well," he said. "The last time it fell flat was when we were scheduling for (shooting) last fall and I lost those producers in conjunction with the Wall Street drop and the recession scare. Since then, the project has picked up two more producers and continues to read very well with actors and producers. Everyone has a lot of interest."
Filming is now set to begin in January, Kasher said, and the schedule may be pushed up to this fall.
"It doesn't feel like we lost too much footing, actually," he said. "This is the best place (the film) has been during three years of trying to get it made. In industry terms, that's not long."
When it comes to the film industry, Kasher said he feels "the same earnestness that I felt in '99 that I did about music. In that sense, nothing's changed. I daydream about trying to get stuff out there."
And what about his life outside of music and film? In many ways Kasher is the same guy that I first interviewed more than 10 years ago.
"You have to consider that Cursive's been around for an awfully long time in rock 'n' roll years," he said. "We live and breathe it every day. I'm always aware of Cursive because it's what we do. It's part of who I am. It doesn't seem like so many eons have passed, but to a 19-year-old, it seems forever ago when he was 14 and was listening to Cursive.
"But when you gauge it all on who your friends were — then and now — not much has changed." ,
Cursive plays with Azure Ray and Flowers Forever, Friday, July 24, outside at The Slowdown, 729 No. 14th St. Doors open at 5 p.m. and show time is at 7 p.m. Admission is free for this 18+ show. For more information, call 345.7575 or visit theslowdown.com.
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