Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Amber Valentine
09/10/2009 | | | Feature
For the past fourteen years, Omaha-based band Cursive has been one of the most innovative and clever bands on the music scene. First gaining note with the 2000 release of their third album, Domestica, Cursive has been tirelessly recording and touring in support of their atypical brand of rock, occasionally with a cellist or a horn section thrown into the mix to punctuate lead singer Tim Kasher's jaded and self-deprecating lyrics.

In March, the band released their seventh full length record, Mama, I'm Swollen, on Saddle Creek records and TRACER's Amber Valentine got to have a conversation with Kasher about his influences, his side project The Good Life, and the inspiration he finds in fairy tales. Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern.

TRACER: I've followed your career audibly through a lot of incarnations. You started off with more hardcore tendencies and then added the cello and horn sections, only to return to a more straightforward rock sound on Mama, I'm Swollen. Are the changes in your sound at all premeditated or do you just go album by album or even song by song?

Tim Kasher: Well, it's definitely album by album. Without sounding like it's the wrong way to answer it, it is kind of premeditated. By the time we had done Domestica, and for most of the people that follow us, that kind of seems like our first record but for us, it is our third record. After three records of doing that, it really felt like we just needed to change things up. That became something that we kind of got into that idea. Sadly, after we did Ugly Organ, the cello felt like something we had to change up. We didn't want to just be the typical four piece rock outfit, then we didn't just want to be the band with the cello. It's kind of hard when you're not really comfortable with fitting into these molds. It is kind of premeditated and it is kind of out of necessity too.

TRACER: One of the things I've always loved as a fan of music and as a writer myself is the way that you twist around fairy tales and literature to use it in your songs. The most obvious examples are going to be Pinnochio, which you've used a number of times, as well as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, which you used on your Happy Hollow album. I think the way you go about this is very fascinating. Could you tell me a little bit about your use of fairy tales in songs?

Tim: It starts fairly unintentionally. The best way to explain this is that they're fables. I kind of think of them as morality plays in a sense and that's attractive to me. That's kind of what I write, these tales on morality. The most ridiculous was that on the last record, we went back to Pinnochio again and that was completely unintentional. I completed that song and then it occurred to me... it hit me in my backyard, "Oh, crap, you just went back to Pinnochio again. You've already completely covered this." But it's a different part of the story which is kind of what's so great about Pinnochio is that it covers a lot. It covers lying, which is kind of what "Driftwood" is, but the whole Pleasure Island motif is a totally different part of the story so we said "Fuck it" and kept it. I considered calling it "Driftwood 2" or something so we wouldn't come off as so moronic for not recognizing the mistakes that we made.

TRACER: What other inspirations do you find in literature and film?

Tim: I really love film, probably the most of any medium, but I think that I get most of my inspiration from literature. Why I think that makes sense is because when you watch a film or listen to music, it's just at that time but with books, you live with that book and you kind of live in that book for a time period. I feel like that kind of inseminates itself into what I work on so I try to be picky about what I read. If I'm going to be influenced by it, I want to be positively influenced by it.

TRACER: The Good Life was initially started to showcase the work that you felt didn't fit in with Cursive's style.

Tim: One thing that's kind of a part of tradition, I think most local bands are like that, you have your group of friends and you play in multiple bands together and I just think it occurred to me that it would be okay to do that on a larger scale as well. That was one reason. The other reason is that I always doing a rock band, even before Cursive, and I was always doing the singer-songwriter stuff. So that's why I do it.

TRACER: Where do you stand with The Good Life now? Is it on hold?

Tim: Yeah, it is. We're all friends and we don't really see a reason to be done or anything. I do make that mistake so often, I say the bands I'm with are done and then we get back together again, but The Good Life is on hold and it might stay that way... but I'm sure we'll be playing more shows.

TRACER: On the subject of having multiple projects at once, with Cursive and The Good Life, you also do screenplays. I read that you completed a script based on Help Wanted Nights and that it's been optioned.

Tim: Technically, Help Wanted Nights, the album, kind of came after. I was working on a screen play called Help Wanted Nights and with the day dream of getting that film made, I wanted to do the soundtrack, so I started working on it and then I brought it to The Good Life and we did it. I didn't want to make the mistake of holding it, because the reality of making films is a long shot, so we released the soundtrack. I've been working with a couple producers and we are currently planning on shooting it in January. I'm really excited about it.

TRACER: I heard you moved from Omaha to L.A. recently. How's the transition been as an artist?

Tim: It's been great, it's been fun. I always assumed I was the type of person who was gonna move around. It's not that I don't love Omaha, it's just that I wanted to do other things and live in other places. I kind of ended up staying in Omaha longer than I planned because of the bands. When I turned 30, I realized I needed to start doing other things. That's when I started writing screenplays and moving around.

TRACER: That sort of touches on my next question. It must be weird, on a professional level, to be away from Omaha. It's either fact or very popular fiction that the Saddle Creek records people are a tight knit family, what with guesting on each other's albums and everything, so it must be strange to be removed from that.

Tim: It's really Conor (Oberst of Bright Eyes) who said it best, oddly enough in an interview I was reading, not just a conversation, but it's like all of us. You had your teen years and you had a wild time with your group of friends but it doesn't last forever. You have to move on, you can't recreate that. We're all still great friends but we're all moving on and doing different things. It's weird to be talking about this now because I've been living it for so long. In some interview eight years ago, it would have been a totally different conversation.

TRACER: Any music that deals with being a tortured writer and coming to grips with things like morality and relationships with other human beings is something I tend to gravitate towards. Do you mind talking about your creative process?

Tim: I don't mind writing about stuff like that. I think it's completely okay. I start by saying that because so many writers, generally, are so self-obsessed. It's like, "There's a writer in the woods." Why do think that is? It's because some goddamn writer is writing about themselves. But I'm okay with that. It's part of the job in a sense. As far as my writing process, I wish I wrote more. I write music all the time and I've written four screenplays, but I kind of wish I'd written six. It's probably the same way you feel, writing is my favorite thing.

TRACER: You've created several concept albums. There's Album of the Year, Ugly Organ, and Happy Hollow, which each explore one specific thought or idea. When you start to write songs for an album like that, do you have that idea in mind already or does it develop over time?

Tim: There's a few different ways they've come together. I can give you specifics. Album of the Year and Happy Hollow were very premeditated. From scratch, I set out to write twelve songs for twelve months of the year (for Album of the Year). Happy Hollow didn't start as such a God damn religious record, but that's just so much of who we are and where we come from. That was supposed to be just writing about a bunch of characters in a small town and it ultimately ended up that we just kept coming back to religion. That's what's going on in small towns. But Ugly Organ and Mama, I'm Swollen and Blackout, they're ones that we kind of faked. I just wrote them to write an album and about halfway through we kind of recognized where I was going with it and I would kind of finish those ideas. I think it's funny that Ugly Organ is the least conceptualized, but it's commonly what people think of as the most conceptualized.

TRACER: What bands inspired you to start making music?

Tim: I think Paul Simon is probably the main one. At the most early age, I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkle. Simon and Garfunkle is to me the way that Star Wars is to a film buff. I was at such a young age that I didn't understand. I still can't watch Star Wars and think, "That's such great lighting or such a great camera angle" because, to me, there's not a camera crew there. In my head, it's this real world. There's something otherworldly about Simon and Garfunkle to me, too. It's like music that always existed. I listened to a lot of British pop in my formative grade school years. I get dogged for Robert Smith all the time, but I grew up listening to The Cure and listening to The Smiths and English Beat and The Specials and all that. It just goes on from there.

TRACER: What about now?

Tim: I really love Portishead. I can't figure out how to become influenced by them, but I want to be. I know we really have no similarities but I wish that we did. I just think every record they've done becomes a part of my life, it's such a big deal to me. In a simpler, songwriter sense, I'm a big Aimee Mann fan. I don't even know if she's great or not, I just really love her.
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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