Reviews

Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Natalie David
08/19/2009 | Stereosubversion.com | www.stereosubversion.com | Feature
Cursive knows how to survive. Since forming in 1995, the Nebraska-based, post-hardcore group has gone through far more turmoil than the average rock band, enduring line up changes, breakups and the always ambiguous status of "indefinite hiatus." So, when founding drummer Clint Schnase parted ways with the band in 2007, though it shook the band to its core, the remaining members Tim Kasher, Matt Maginn and Ted Stevens found a way to keep the respected group afloat.

Ready to embark on a tour to support Cursive's first album sans Schnase, the soul-searching Mama, I'm Swollen, Stevens took some time to chat with SSv about the band's latest, when a band should retire its name, and about Cursive being a bunch of drunks (well, kind of).

SSv: The new album, Mama, I'm Swollen, it's a bit of a departure for the Cursive sound and it's been pretty well received. Was delving into making this record a scary thing to embark on?

Ted Stevens: No. You know, it was the opposite. I think when we were writing The Ugly Organ we were scared. This is really dark, dangerous material, and then it got really popular. As far as our records go, it was the best received record. And then Happy Hollow, I was really scared. It was like, 'Oh, god we're doing this departure from the creepy, scary sound, and then this one's, you know, similar and different.' And this time around everything just felt really normal. At first I thought maybe these songs were too pretty or too catchy. And it just kind of works itself out, but I was kind of worried that maybe this one was too tame, as opposed to the rest of our material. But it goes both ways.

SSv: From what I've read, this album was almost not even a Cursive record at all. So what happened to make you all decide that it would be a Cursive record after all?

Ted: Well, I mean, I replaced the original guitarist Steve, and that was after the band had made two records and then broke up for a few years. So when I joined the band with the original three members, it felt normal to keep the name and just move along with me as the replacement, and over the years, since then we've added people and lost those people. But as a band we didn't know how we would continue without Clint [Schnase].

When it came down to picking up the project and working on it, it seemed like kind of a stretch to change names and change band identities, you know, because well, Matt and Tim have been band members longer than they've been alive [Laughs], well, longer than they've not been band members, is what I meant to say. They've been through several lineup changes and it just made sense to carry on as Cursive. I think we'll keep carrying the name until we wear it out.

SSv: When is a band not the same band anymore?

Ted: Well, I think, that's a decision hopefully for the band, or whatever members are currently in each band. Actually I was reading something today and I've been listening to a lot of Queen because I don't know much about their history. I was on Wikipedia doing some quick research and they chose to play with Paul Rogers after Freddie's death. Almost a decade after his death. And they were really careful to say this is not Queen with Paul Rogers replacing Freddie, this is a new thing. This is Queen with Paul Rogers. And, maybe, there's some Queen fans out there who don't like Brian [May] and those original guys, but it's tough.

A band name is kind of like a tattoo in that your band is with you forever. You can try and break up that relationship but the tattoo is still there. And I think for some people it probably becomes a part of them so much that to let go of the band name and dissolve the band means an end to each band member's identity as a member of that band.

I don't know. I think it's okay. There are bands out there that I adore that stopped playing 20 years ago that have reformed and sure, there's not as many original members as I'd choose, or I would choose if I had a choice, but you kind of take what you can get. I would say, to answer your question, hopefully the band would stop using the name when it's no longer a live show worth seeing. When they start to stink. But I don't know.

SSv: Well, yeah, because is it about the music, or is it about who's actually playing it? From a fan's perspective that always changes, but I always wondered what it was like from somebody who's in a band.

Ted: Well, and it's tough for me to answer, too, because I'm not an original member. I feel like from a person who has that perspective, Tim is obviously the band leader and his lyrics and his songs have kind of earned the band the reputation that it has. And Matt has been the band's manager and has sort of been the foundation of the group for longer than the band's been around. So I guess, to answer your question shortly, I'd say as long as those two are in the band, we'll keep calling it Cursive. [Laughs] I was just lucky enough to be brought into the group and into the fold and be given the opportunity that I've had and I feel really fortunate.

And this band has obviously been on the verge of breaking up a few times and from our standpoint, and from our publicist's standpoint, it's like you know, you guys, even if that's what you're intending, you can't keep saying that. They're not going to believe you anymore. We can get pretty emotional and we get really tired at the end of the tour and we just want a break and, of course, the rumor mill is its own beast and we can't control that.

It's interesting to hear your perspective that this might not have been a Cursive record. But I think honestly, as soon as we started writing the songs we knew it was a Cursive record. It would've been a clean break right then or it would've gone the way it has gone, which is we retain the name. When you're looking back at the press and the publicity for this record, maybe it says that, and I'm not saying that that's a lie, but I guess I was pretty confident that as soon as we broke ground and started working on it, it would be a Cursive record.

After all it is Tim's project and there's been some comparisons to his stuff and whatnot for this record, but it's a Cursive record, I think. It's following on a theme that I think the band has been developing for almost a decade. And you know, I think a few years from now people will look back and they'll see our catalog and it'll wind up in the catalog just fine.

SSv: You refer to it as Tim's project, and I know everybody was kind of scattered about throughout the West and the Midwest, so how did the songwriting process work this time around. Was it just Tim's project, or was there some collaboration?

Ted: No, there was just as much collaboration, if not more, than all the previous records. The distance thing meant that we just had to be in the same place for some intensive rehearsal periods and that turned out to be really good for us. The distance meant that when we were in town together, that's what we were working on. We were taking trips just to write this record, and we had never done that before. It really forced us to get dead serious about the process and make the most of our time together instead of spending shitloads of money on a really high-end studio.

The studio we used is probably the best studio in the Midwest, you know what I mean? But bands waste a lot of money on studios with a name or with engineers who are overpriced and overpaid. And instead, this time around, I felt like, 'Guys, cut back the expense on the record and then put that into plane tickets and rehearsal space rentals.' And we were forced to kind of think about things from different perspectives, sure, because we're all over the place.

But when I say that this was Tim's project and Tim's record, I mean more so that the band is happy to have Tim as a leader and as a writer. And as a writer he really challenges the musicians who play with him because he's so prolific. He'll turn in 20 songs for a 10 song record, and that's difficult because you're hiring people to write parts for songs that you know are eventually going to get cut before the project is realized. But Tim is our lyricist and kind of the heart of the band, so I just want to give him credit where it's due.

But we were able just to pull it together just by emailing songs and discussions and charts and whatnot and hire a few people to kinda shepherd the record along and it worked out. We're pretty happy with it.

SSv: So ultimately was the distance a positive thing?

Ted: Well, I wouldn't say that. It was more of a non-issue or just less of an issue than I thought it would be, or that it was supposed to be. It does seem crazy, like, how can these people live in different cities and do this? But the band, we've been going for awhile and played so many shows together, that now we're just entering this new phase of our lives where it's like, how can we be in a band yet have individuals who are very satisfied with their lives and live where they want to and do what they want to do?

It's been a learning process, but I wouldn't say it was better or worse for the project. It just changed the dynamic in a small way, and more of a boring, kind of small business kind of way. [Laughs]. Not really in an artistic way.

SSv: And the album was co-produced with A.J. Mogis. So how was it working with him and did he bring in anything special to the recording of the album?

Ted: Yeah. Well, he was hired because he has really exceptional listening skills. He was trained. He's half-trained in music and he's completely trained in engineering. So that's a lot of know-how to bring to a project like this. And that's what we wanted, somebody who would sit in the captain's chair and make sure that everything sounded the way it should, and then offer his opinion here and there. He's not as hands-on on the production front as his brother Mike who is very hands-on and is the kind of producer who gets dirty, who gets in the mix. I love Mike's work and we've worked with him for the entire career as the band, but this time around we really wanted A.J.'s simple kind of strategy.

And A.J., I think one of the major differences in this record is instrumentation. There's hollow body guitars being played and there's a 12 string, and there's more acoustic guitar. Those kinds of instruments. A.J. just has a very bare bones approach and he's really good at getting a sound out of those instruments. But, then there's the organ. The Hammond B3 and some piano parts and organ parts, A.J. he's just really knowledgeable with those kinds of devices and the studio has a whole collection of them.

So we would ask him, do you want to hook up the organ? Could you make it sound incredible? And a half hour later he would have this set up that was out of this world. So, you know, he's pretty good at what he does, and I couldn't recommend him anymore. I feel really strongly about his skill set.

SSv: You mention the instrumentation, and one of the criticisms that I came across was that people are saying that you have become more of a studio band than a live band. So are there any challenges for taking these newer songs out on the road?

Ted: To me that criticism is just not really a fair criticism this time around. Maybe three years ago hearing Happy Hollow and the band out on the road for the first time trying to redo songs with that whole arrangement, there were some growing pains you know? [Laughs]. Much like me, when I entered the band, there's a period of trying to figure out how everyone's going to fit in, but this record I feel like was a live studio record. Sure, there's multi tracks. I'm not going to say that we all put on headphones and we all banged it out in four takes or whatever. There was a lot of work put into it on a studio level, but the music was written and meant to be performed as it was on the record, with five people, or five people with the aid of a sampler, or with a few tricks here and there, sure.

But I think this record, to me, feels more like a band in a room, which was kind of our goal going into it. And that goes into the production method of A.J. versus Mike and small, private studio versus big Hollywood franchised studio. We wanted to strip it down and make a record that when we went to play it live we had all the bare bones. All the elements are represented. Sure, there's a few things. There's overdubs, as we call them, that happen on any record.

Even the first two Cursive records, they were still multi tracked, but maybe those were the only two records that the band has ever made that had guitar, bass, vocals, drums only. We started adding more and more as we went on with it, but I think if you're finding that criticism up there, then that's probably more valid for last time around. And I still don't agree with that either. Because we have our moments. Like every band, we have a bad show here and there, and whatever. You just roll with it.

SSv: Well, when I listened to the record, it did sound to me like you would be able to take it on the road, but I figured I'd ask you about it anyway.

Ted: Those kinds of comments kind of make me feel like that person has had a bad experience at a show. [Laughs] and I've read some really nasty things like, "These guys are awesome, but they can't play live because they're a bunch of drunks." It's like, well, ok, first of all that's just mean. And second of all, that's not true. [Laughs]

But, you know, shit happens. Once every hundred shows maybe the band is kinda ehh, you know? And maybe the wrong angry kid in the front row gets mad about it, but I think in general, people who make comments about it, there's something else behind it. It's never just what it is. It's never just a band being fucking drunk. Alcohol is dangerous, but rock and roll has constantly you know, fueled itself on beer and bourbon and drugs. [Laughs]

As far as I'm concerned, taking a band that's drinking on stage, or meeting a musician that's on drugs, whatever, it's all like, yeah, that's been done. David Lee Roth kind of took that to the edge. But if The Replacements showed up in this day and age, they would still be heroes if they sounded the way they did in 1981, people would still love the shit out of 'em. And I'm sure if they were the same age, if they were 17, 18 years old they would be drinking a lot, just like they did back then and they'd earn that reputation.

But we do drink a lot. We just come from a city and like family and a community where it's acceptable to drink with your family and your friends and I'm sure, especially as you get older, it's frowned upon getting too drunk and getting sick or getting mean. But you know, as long as you're in this band and you can coexist with alcohol and not get mean or get dark, or sloppy or sick all the time, and if you just keep on top of it, then it's ok.

And it's entertainment. It's an entertainment business. And we've seen everything. As a music loving community we've seen everything and people like to drink and go to shows and have a good time and bartenders like selling drinks and getting tips, so it is another part of the business, too, I think. Sorry that wasn't one of your questions. That's just me responding.

SSv: Now, I know around when the album came out, you guys made your network television debut on Letterman, so what was that like?

Ted: That was thrilling to be brief, I guess. It was an incredible experience for us and we'll never have anything like that again. It took us a long time to get that little spot for that one song, and we made everyone happy. Everyone seems really positive about it. I think Tim had a really good performance, which is essential. He needs to have a really great show for us to come off good, so, I'm just really happy that we were allowed to do that and be a part of that world.

SSv: Well, for a last question, since 2000, you guys have been on a one album every three years track. Do you think there will be another Cursive album in 2012?

Ted: Hopefully sooner. I'd like to say that we can turn it around in a shorter time, but who knows? [Laughs] I really have no idea. Tim's getting married this fall and we're going to take a little break for him to celebrate his marriage and honeymoon. And then we're going to pick it up and basically just keep this record alive as long as possible. From the band standpoint you have to tour and make an effort out of it, but I felt that if we were to stop touring now and to go on hiatus until the next record that we would be doing a disservice to this record.

But at the same time, the more time we spend touring this, the more worn out we get and the less we probably want to write unless we have that little break. But I think something fun is going to happen soon. I think Tim is going to show up next week for tour and have a couple songs ready, and I think I might have a couple new songs ready by then, so the ball might start rolling sooner than it has in the past. But gosh, I'd hate to put a date on it. I'd say probably 2011, hopefully. [Laughs]
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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