The Ugly Organ
On the road to tout their version of 'the Omaha sound'
Cursive, the most punk of all the bands out of Omaha's hot and hyped label Saddle Creek, has distinguished its sound enough to have a loyal following. Distinct from Bright Eyes, the Faint and Lullaby for the Working Class, Cursive's sound has a bit more anger fueling it. With their latest CD, The Ugly Organ, Tim Kasher, singer and lyricist for the majority of the stuff, backed by Matt Maginn, Ted Stevens and Clint Schnase are joined by cellist Gretta Cohn, who works to smooth out some of the rougher edges and lift the music into a more polished roughness, where precision and skill of the band is clearly demonstrated.
The Ugly Organ got a glowing four stars from Rolling Stone as well as a front page photo on bastion of all that is established -- The New York Times' Sunday Arts and Leisure section. In the backroom at the New York's Bowery Ballroom before a recent show (They're on tour with the Appleseed Cast and the Carsinogents through May 4.) we meet with Stevens and Cohn to talk about what it's like to be a band on the brink.
Prefix Magazine: We are catching you right at the start of the tour, when you are still all full of energy and optimism--
Cursive: Gretta Cohn: We are one week into the tour tonight. I call it a "seven-week total experience." Three weeks on the East Coast, three weeks on the west and one week off in the middle.
PM: You are the only girl in the band and the only non-Omaha person. How is it being the odd one --
C: Ted Stevens: The odd one. She's the odd one in many ways (laughs) -- it was open, I had to say it.
PM: I left it open, so I could get a good quote that I could take out of context. But really, Gretta. They did find you, and they scooped you up to be their cellist, taking you from New York to the middle of the country. How was that transition?
C: GC: Omaha is definitely different but I love it there. I envision myself moving back here eventually some day, but I'm not even there very much these days. I've always played in bands with all guys, so that part was easy. Like, always. I was trained classically, but the first rock and roll experience I had was in high school when I was asked to help with a Smashing Pumpkins cover that needed a cello for a "battle of the bands" kind of thing. On this tour with No Knife, there is a woman playing keyboards with one of the other bands; it's always a nice surprise when there is another woman. Some of my friends say: "I don't understand how do you do it."
TS: We're kinda feminine, right?
GC: I guess I just have the disposition for it. It's not like I'm always the sweetest person to be around on the tour.
PM: This is a moment with the release of The Ugly Organ, and things like this Times article, where you guys seem sort of poised to become really big. You saw the Times piece, didn't you?
C: TS: Not yet.
PM: I've got it here. (Hands it to Ted.)
C: TS: Holy shit!
PM: You want it?
C: TS: No. My mom's got one for me. We don't look mean enough. We look too happy.
PM: How have events in the outside world, and by that I mean the war, affected your tour so far?
C: GC: We were in Milwaukee the night that the bombing started. We were supposed to be playing a show, and it was shut down due to lack of permits for under-aged kids. We ended up going to the bar next door hanging out for eight hours, just watching the war on TV. When we did finally get up on stage, I think we played to a crowd of shell-shocked kids. It's upsetting to me, as if there is already a narrative and every single piece of it has already been determined. When I pick up the newspaper and I could just start weeping reading the headlines. I really want to be at home with my loved ones and surrounded by things that are familiar ... but this is what we are doing.
PM: They probably aren't going to hit Omaha first.
C: TS: We have underground missiles and stuff. GW flew to Omaha on 9/11 because of the underground bunkers. It's a command center. So it's possible they would hit us first.
PM: I guess that brings to me to another question that I have to ask, although I hate to do it because I'm sure everyone asks, so I'll get it out of the way now ... How come Omaha?
C: TS: It's in the water. The Omaha disposition causes bands.
PM: What is the Omaha sound?
C: TS: Rock and roll played with a Telecaster played with bad --slightly off key -- vocals and a lot of heart. That was the sound that I grew up with back in the day. I have an Omaha sound in my head and that includes the whole lo-fi circuit. We just kept doing it. There are three or houses in a row and every one of them had a band playing in the basement. I've known Tim and Conor (Oberst from Bright Eyes) for years. Everyone knows everyone else -- going all the way back to childhood. Saddle Creek came out of that - boyish, pop-oriented, music-oriented. We get a lot of shit for it too.
PM: What kind of shit?
C: TS: "Those guys can only write songs can only write songs about breaking up with girls."
PM: And your response ...
C: TS: It's not our fault they keep breaking up with us.
PM: Is that a prerequisite for being in the band, that you have to have experienced a horrible breakup? If it did work out, would there be any songs? The audience needs you to be in pain? It seems that the idea that the audience demands an ugly and sad story keeps cropping up in the lyrics in The Ugly Organ?
C: TS: I think Tim's kinda joking with that idea.
PM: Is it completely a joke? I would ask him directly if he hadn't gone off bowling.
C: TS: I think I can answer for him since I know the guy so well; he wants to be perceived as being totally tongue in cheek as well as dead serious at the same time. He likes that discomfort.
PM: So he can have both the romantics and the cynics as fans?
C: TS: I hope so.
PM: Does he ever have to choose between one way or the other?
C: TS: I don't know. What do you think Gretta?
GC: I don't like to speak for him.
PM: Tell me about how the fans act when they see you in concert.
C: TS: They usually just jump up into each or hold onto each other and they sing along a lot. One time people moshed to us.
PM: Is that weird that they know all the words?
C: GC: I think it makes it more exciting. It's pretty awesome. People are really exuberant about "The Martyr," I love when they yell out something to us.
TS: I see these kids waiting for the shows hours before the tickets go on sale, and I think, "What the hell are you doing? It's not going to sell out." The only thing they can be in it for is for that place in front row center. And, you know, I was always that kid. I'd get there hours ahead and just smoke cigarettes and wait, just to be at the front center. I was that kid who wants the most audio and visual experience that you can take in in one night. I saw great string of bands from the front center: Pixies, Violent Femmes, Replacements, Soul Asylum -- It must have made some sort of impression, because that's what I do every night.
PM: Is being on stage even better than the front row?
C: TS: Well, sometimes I get down into the front row now and go right in with the kids It's kind of a thrilling thing... sometimes Tim and I will both do it, and on one occasion Matt did it too. We go in and they make pockets for us and we're down there with them. It's great.
PM: Do you guys talk about becoming really big, going from Saddle Creek a major label?
C: TS: Some big labels have approached us. We have in the past kinda shirked that meeting or that situation. But we're not really ready to talk to anyone. We're really comfortable with Saddle Creek. We wouldn't mind getting really big, as long as we didn't lose control. It seems we figure we can take out that loan ourselves like rather than signing over our souls to some major label that's going to pretend to take care of us and get the money to do what we need that way, rather than selling our souls.
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