Reviews

The Ugly Organ

Author: Timothy Finn
10/02/2003 | Kansas City Star | www.kansascity.com | Feature
Every now and then, the big East Coast/West Coast media outlets like to patronize the middle of the country by poking a nose into its business and patting it on the head for trying to be relevant.

We know that's true because Time magazine nearly said so in March 2002 in "Cornfield Cool: The New Sound?" an article about Saddle Creek Records in Omaha, Neb.

"People who haunt New York City rock clubs love to cheer for bands from the places they scorn," Benjamin Nugent wrote. He then went on to describe a scene in one of those rock clubs where New Yorkers waiting to see Omaha's the Faint "were chanting `Ne-bras-ka! Ne-bras-ka' like mascots at the Cornhuskers' stadium -- and only half-kidding."

Nugent was only one of several big-city journalists who has booked a flight into Epley International Airport and then hopped a ride to the outskirts of downtown Omaha and the world headquarters of tiny Saddle Creek Records.

That same month, The New York Times sent music writer Kalefa Sanneh to Omaha to try to figure out why three of the hottest and most successful underground/independent bands in rock music -- the Faint, Bright Eyes and Cursive -- happened to arise from a city of 300,000 in a Great Plains state known primarily for corn and football.

The people who can answer that question -- the musicians, the promoters and the worker bees in the record business -- all agree on a few things:

What's happening in Omaha is pure happenstance. Saddle Creek has succeeded despite the city's static music scene. And nothing inspires commitment like longtime friendships.

Community standards

Tim Kasher was born in Omaha, and off and on for the last nine years he's been the frontman for the band Cursive. In March, Cursive released "The Ugly Organ," its third full-length album on Saddle Creek.

According to the label, more than 40,000 copies of the album have been sold since its release six months ago. That's a modest number in an industry where the top-sellers break 200,000 copies the first week of sales, but it's mighty impressive, considering Cursive's circumstances.

For one, the band creates the kind of music that even its label admits is hard to warm up to. Most reviews of a Cursive album bring up hardcore bands like Jawbox or Fugazi or adjectives like "chaotic, frenzied, anthemic, aggressive, progressive."

A sound like that rarely translates into music that gets on the radio, which is why Cursive has spent most of 2003 in a van. Whether you're from Omaha or Orlando, if you want to sell records without radio airplay, you have to tour.

On Tuesday, Cursive had its first day off in 20 days. By the time November ends, the band will have covered most of the country and spent two weeks in Japan. For Kasher, that's a small sacrifice, given the alternative ways to make a living.

"It's just really nice to be fortunate enough to do this as our own business," he told The Star recently. "It's always great to be doing what you love."

Kasher, 28, has been doing that since he was a boy, except for 1998, the year he folded Cursive and moved to Portland, Ore., hoping to stanch a case of burnout. He was back home within a year.

"I'd reached a point where I'd gotten fed up," Kasher said, "but a group of friends wouldn't let me do that."

His reference to friendships gets to the heart of why his band is alive and facing its best days and why Saddle Creek has put together one of the most diverse rosters in music.

"It's all about the community," Kasher said. "The support and inspiration from within the music community has been vital. If one of us made an album's worth of songs, we'd all pass it around and everyone would love it so much it naturally raised the bar for the next person.

"It wasn't competition; it was an acknowledgment of a standard, and we'd all write to that standard."

But even local, part-time musicians are typically proud and thin-skinned. What kept everyone's ego in check? It helped that some of these guys have known each other since they were in diapers.

Getting along swimmingly

Beth Jenkins, Tim Kasher's sister, was 10 years old the day her brother was born. She remembers that Tim was born within weeks of Matt Maginn, Cursive's bassist, and that the two boys were each other's first best friend. In fact, the two took swimming lessons together from Rick Jenkins, Beth's husband.

"Tim and Matt go that far back," said Beth Jenkins, who runs a small business with her husband in Shawnee. "They've always been best buddies. Growing up, they were always together."

One of their boyhood friends was Matt Oberst, whose younger brother, Conor (aka Bright Eyes), is the biggest star on Saddle Creek. As Sanneh rightfully pointed out in the Times article, "Most of the musicians go back a long way. Many attended Creighton Preparatory School together, and they all seem to know each other's families."

Even more important, they see one another as friends and peers, not competitors.

"Everyone supports everyone else," said Jason Kulbel, one of five people on the staff of Saddle Creek Records. "Whether it comes to writing songs, or playing in each other's bands, or taking each other on tour. It has always been that way, especially among the label's core bands. They play for each other, and when they go out on the road, they talk each other up."

"They have all been so true and loyal and devoted to their music," Beth Jenkins said. "I think it's because they've been hanging out together so long."

Location, location, Nebraska

In the Times article, Sanneh speculated that Omaha's success was partly due to its location: "It helps that the city is centrally located, which makes it a convenient stop for touring bands."

Except Omaha is not a music town. Ask Marc Leibowitz, 29, an Omaha native who realized how dead his hometown was when he went off to college at the University of Texas in Austin. He moved back in 1997 figuring he could fill a void and make a living promoting rock shows in his hometown. It hasn't been easy.

"When I moved back here, there were no indie bands coming through at all," said Leibowitz, who runs One Percent Promotions. "We just weren't consistently getting bands on Sub Pop or Merge or Matador or Drag City or anything like that. For the most part there wasn't a viable scene. Why? There was one club (the Ranch Bowl), and it was sort of a metal bar."

One Percent's first show was Ani DiFranco at Sokol Auditorium, which has become the epicenter of the city's music scene. The show sold out in advance, giving the company with enough money to invest in other shows.

Concurrently Saddle Creek bands like the Faint and Bright Eyes are making noise in the underground scenes elsewhere around the country, especially in California.

What happened next exemplifies how a city's "scene" can nourish and fertilize itself: As One Percent brought in more national tours, it hired as opening acts the Saddle Creek bands, which had been largely ignored in Omaha.

At the same time, as the reputations of Cursive and Bright Eyes and the Faint began to flourish, more national acts were interested in stopping in Omaha. They didn't always see what they were expecting.

"Because of Saddle Creek's success, I think a lot of bands come here and expect to see a huge, thriving scene," Kulbel said. "I think many of them are a little disappointed. Three years ago, there wasn't anything. Now it's a lot better."

"Every one of our shows is a risk," Leibowitz said. "I'd say three-fourths of them kick ass, but we never know. The Saddle Creek bands do great now -- we got 1,400 for the Faint and more than 1,000 for Cursive. But the hard-core audience is still only about 300."

Saddling up

Since he left Columbia Records and started his own business in Overland Park -- Joe's Music Management, Marketing & Promotions -- Joe Schuld has worked with dozens of other record labels, big and small. He hasn't seen many like Saddle Creek.

"What has happened there is something you can't force and something that can't happen overnight," he said. "It has happened because the music is credible, because the label has patience, and because there's this great community of artists working together."

Saddle Creek has hired Schuld to do the unlikely: Persuade some of the more alternative commercial radio stations to put Cursive in rotation. (He's banking on "The Recluse" from "The Ugly Organ.")

Whether or not he succeeds, Schuld is convinced that the future looks bright for the bands and for Saddle Creek, which has been run for the last five of its 10 years by Robb Nansel.

"It reminds me of the old Asylum Records back in the 1970s," Schuld said, "when you had like-minded artists like Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles." And later on, artists like Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and, for two albums, Bob Dylan.

Saddle Creek now has 11 acts on its roster, and it continues to peruse the horizons for additions. One of its newest and more successful acts is Rilo Kiley, a Los Angeles band that moved to Omaha after it signed, enriching the music scene's deep, rich talent pool.

"We've had a lot of discussions about it," Kasher said. "How is it possible that there are so many great songwriters in this area? It's almost getting stupid. Are we biased because it's all local? I don't think so.

"There are a lot of great bands in Omaha still under the radar, bands who have no connection to Saddle Creek. I think it's because the standards here have been set really high, and a lot of smart, creative people are meeting them."

That's not what the trend spotters on the coasts want to write. So let them think it's something else. Something in the water. Or the cornfields.

THE SHOW

Cursive performs Saturday night at the Bottleneck, 737 New Hampshire in Lawrence. The Blood Brothers open. Tickets to the all-ages show cost $10. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call (785) 842-5483.
The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

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