Novena on a Nocturn
The Good Life's Novena on a Nocturn had scored surprisingly heavy rotation on the office CD player since we received it, so we were eager to talk to frontman Tim Kasher and see how he'd come to create a record so far removed from the hard, harsh sounds of Cursive. We were looking forward to the band's mid-December performance in Chicago, despite the threat of increasingly lousy weather.
On the day of the show, things were bad. Very bad. Several inches of snow fell on streets still blocked by the previous week's early snowfall. The highways were nothing but slow-moving roads to stop-and-start madness, so we opted to reach the venue by a series of trains and taxi cabs, giving the whole event a distinctly epic feel. In the back of our minds, we half expected to find the show canceled due to transportation difficulties...but luckily, this was not the case. Leaving all traces of snow and cold outside, we sat down with Tim Kasher and got the goods on the Good Life.
Splendid: Since we're in the middle of a blizzard right now -- and I mention this for the people reading this, not because you might not have noticed -- how was your drive in? Did you make it in before the snow?
Tim Kasher: Actually, we did. We've been here since Sunday morning. It was our only day off yesterday, and it was great. We're only eight hours away from here, so we have a lot of friends here. We just had a blast. Actually, half of us started drinking Jim Beam in the car on the way here, at like 1:00 in the afternoon --
Splendid: (into mic, jokingly) Kids, remember, don't do that.
Tim Kasher: (laughing) But it was fun, 'cos it was just relaxing. We didn't have a show, didn't have to unload anything. We just drank all day.
Splendid: It's a bad time of year to be on the road.
Tim Kasher: We were really concerned about December, and we're going out again next month. It's really scary -- I don't "condone" it, I guess. We felt like we had to promote right now, because Novena on a Nocturn came out in October and I didn't feel like we had a choice. Our booking agent actually set up a really nice tour, but everyone says it's difficult, and December tours don't usually work out.
Splendid: Well, it's tough to put out a record at the end of the year and have it stay "alive" for any length of time.
Tim Kasher: I was really insistent about it. It was something I'd been working on for a while, and I just had to get it out, y'know?
Splendid: You don't see many bands trying to tour at this time of year.
Tim Kasher: Yeah, that's just it. But everything has worked fine. There's the whole kids getting out of college and going home thing, or just having other things on their mind, like shopping...
Splendid: Now, the Good Life has been described as your outlet for your "coffeehouse" music. Tell me a little bit about how that all came together. From a thematic or sonic point, they don't really fit in with Cursive's harder-edged material.
Tim Kasher: When I started writing songs as a young lad... I've always written in plenty of different styles, and this is a style that I've been doing for twelve years, I suppose. I always saw it as something that was hard to pursue. It seemed like a big rock band was really where my heart and soul was, but this was always stuff that I did, and I'd play it somewhere and friends would tape it and pass it around and be like, "Cool. Who cares?" But I always had it in mind that I'll become "old" one day, and I'll take it more seriously. Maybe something about turning twenty-six, or twenty-five...
Actually, it's not even that. It's not that I feel like I'm old and that it's time to do it. It's just that I've been out of college for a few years now, and I feel like Cursive doesn't take up all that much time. I could be going out twice as much, and I'm writing these songs, so I should release 'em. So I do.
Splendid: It seems like these are much more complicated arrangements than Cursive's music.
Tim Kasher: I think compositionally it's a lot simpler, but Cursive works more toward all that drive, so that maybe the melodies don't stick out as much -- almost like they're not supposed to be there, it's not that idea. But when you're working with just an acoustic guitar, with just one melody and vocal, there's all kinds of lush arrangement you can do over that and that's what we do (with the Good Life).
Splendid: I was quite surprised by The Good Life -- I didn't know you from anything but Cursive, so I didn't expect Novena on a Nocturn to be so...well, pretty.
Tim Kasher: I expect there will be love and hate -- I think there'll be plenty of Cursive kids who'll be let down, and there'll be people who don't like Cursive who'll pick up on the Good Life. I'm really mostly interested in those people. I mean, I do it! I like hard music and soft music, and I like to write both styles of music. I'm mostly interested in those fans who can see the crossover of songwriting and not discriminate against certain styles.
Splendid: Do you think there's that much discrimination? Little camps of "hard music kids" and "soft music kids"?
Tim Kasher: I don't. I actually think that hardcore kids are much less discriminating. Maybe that's just because I've been doing Cursive for so long. We were talking about this the other day. It's much easier to find a hardcore kid who has Earth Crisis and Ida in his collection, whereas someone who likes Ida probably doesn't have Earth Crisis. Somebody who loves softer music can't stand hardcore. I think there's much more discrimination on the other side.
Splendid: You can turn the intensity down, but you can't turn it up?
Tim Kasher: Yeah.
Splendid: Novena on a Nocturn seems to have a lot of very unusual reference points. For instance, I was surprised how much you sound like the Cure, which I suspect wasn't intentional.
Tim Kasher: It was completely unintentional. I'll be honest and say that I completely grew up on the Cure, and I guess I'm just wearing my influences on my sleeve. Now that we're actually playing shows, I've been coming across this for the entire tour -- the whole Robert Smith thing. So now I'm starting to listen to it as we're playing, and I'm thinking "Wow...am I? Is that what I'm doing?" Because it doesn't seem like that at all to me. I think that songwriters always see it differently. I don't care, because I think that Robert Smith is great, and the Cure and the Smiths are great too -- it's everything I grew up with, and I guess I can't escape it.
Splendid: I don't think it's a bad sound to modernize at all, if that's what you do, intentionally or not.
Tim Kasher: I think I'm not aware of how much keyboard we actually use, so it kind of gets into that whole lush Cure sound that I didn't really realize we were doing. I think it's a big compliment, too, to be honest with you. I feel like maybe we came up with something better than I even thought it was.
Splendid: Cursive's Domestica and The Good Life's Novena on a Nocturn are both rather mournful, sad records -- Novena on a Nocturn less so. And yet you don't strike me as a mournful guy at all. How much of that is just character voices? Obviously, Domestica ties into your own divorce, but where does the personal stuff end?
Tim Kasher: I don't like to mope around at all. I tend to keep a lot of things inside. I'm actually a very happy person -- I'm happy with my position in life. This is my favorite style of music -- it always has been, although I didn't always write it. I wrote for years and years as a teenager, and I looked back, and I kept hating what I'd written after six months. I'd break up the band, and I'd do something different. Finally, I decided to go through all my old stuff and pick out the songs that I liked. And I picked 'em out, and the really mournful, sad songs were the only ones that had any staying power for me. So I said, "Just write those. Don't write the other stuff anymore." Obviously I don't want to pigeonhole myself into one emotion, but it's really my favorite kind of music, so I guess that's what I like to write the most.
Splendid: Perhaps there's more emotional range to sorrow than there is to happiness?
Tim Kasher: I don't know. I think it's the songs that people feel the most from -- when people go through their favorite songs, most of them are pretty sad. I think that's kind of a testament to the emotion. To go back to "Am I Happy or Sad", well, I write about it all the times where things aren't working out.
Splendid: Speaking of having more to say, I've noticed that your lyrics are a lot more erudite and intelligent than a lot of other people's stuff. Does that make them more difficult to translate from written statements? Is it hard to find a rhythm?
Tim Kasher: I don't think so. I think that's just me making fun of myself. That's just where I get kind of sassy on stage, y'know? Then it almost does feel like a play, or a melodrama.
Splendid: What I'm getting at is that you might read somebody's poetry, or Shakespeare, or something like that, and you might not understand how it fits into a logical meter. Then you hear the writer read it, and you think, "Oh, that's how it's meant to be done."
Tim Kasher: I've had people comment about it -- the way I'll so grossly chop up accentuations in words, because I'm writing something that's much more voice narrative, but trying to put it into a melody that I've already written. "Na´ve" was a word that drove people crazy on Domestica, because I accent the "Nai" instead of the "ive". I don't really think it sounds weird at all. I'm fine with it bugging people.
Splendid: Yeah, it's just one of those things where if you read the lyrics first, before hearing the music...
Tim Kasher: You can't find a meter in it.
Splendid: Yeah. When other people perform your lyrics, do you have trouble conveying how they're meant to flow?
Tim Kasher: Well, Ted (Stevens) from Cursive wasn't very happy about some of the things that he's said. He writes his own lyrics in parts too, but there are some songs where I've already written it all out, and he thinks it's a little silly. He doesn't think the words are silly, but... I had him say "depressed on your nipple" or something like that. "Depressed on your bosom". He felt really weird saying that. "Tears roll off your nipple," that's it.
Splendid: Yeah, I can see that.
Tim Kasher: It all sounds pretty geeky, talking about it.
Splendid: Well, you just have to put it in the right context, I'm sure.
Tim Kasher: Yeah.
Splendid: I think you manage to escape the e-word tag by virtue of your lyrics, too.
Tim Kasher: I don't think I do escape it. I think I've been pretty pigeonholed. But that whole scene is dying out a bit. I was always confident that I knew what I was doing. I thought fine, it's going to come and go and I'm going to keep doing the same thing. I don't even care.
Splendid: As with any musical trend, the best acts will outlive it.
Tim Kasher: I've gotten crass with people before and been like, "Simon and Garfunkel -- they were emo? Or not? No, they weren't emo? Yeah they were. Or did emo just start now?" Obviously there's a certain sound that was grossly mass-duplicated...
Splendid: So what's the future for the Good Life? It's an ongoing concern, I gather, and not just a one-off.
Tim Kasher: Oh yeah. We're loving doing it, we're optimistic about it. I don't think you even used the words "side project". And fair enough -- that's what most people see it as. But I'm really trying to push the whole concept that it's two bands. I do two bands, and they're sufficiently different styles that I don't think Good Life material would've sounded good on a Cursive record. This way I get to go out on tour twice as much, and do what I enjoy doing twice as much. It just leaves me with a really busy schedule, and I love it.
Splendid: It's just two different creative outlets.
Tim Kasher: Yeah. Which is really, really important. Like, our Saddle Creek (Records) friends...like Ted, when he was in Lullaby for the Working Class, he'd always done hard bands, and Conor (Oberst) has always done hard bands (until Bright Eyes). I know Conor sometimes wants to seek out hard music again.
Splendid: Is Conor touring with you?
Tim Kasher: Yeah. We picked him up in Athens, GA. He was supposed to go on the whole tour, but it just ended up being a real nightmare. I was telling our press people at Better Looking records that I really don't want to push it as "Look who's here! Conor's with the Good Life!" It got so confusing that a couple of places thought that Conor wrote half of the Good Life, or was one half of the Good Life... So we're really trying to push ourselves as a band. We do have Bright Eyes members in the band, but it's so irrelevant. It doesn't matter... So every place we'd show up, people would ask "Where's Conor?"
Splendid: People still seem to think that you can't be in more than one active band at a time.
Tim Kasher: I stopped reading reviews of The Good Life. People tell me they're good, but I insist that they're terrible. I swear I've read really bad reviews, and they're driving me crazy.
Tim Kasher: I don't know. People keep telling me they've been good, but I swear I could find the bad ones for you. They're difficult reviews because the people already know who I am, so they're basing the reviews on the fact that this isn't Cursive, or "Tim thinks he's the shit so he thinks he can do a side project". And y'know...fuck you. I don't think that way. Cursive doesn't sell many records. The Good Life doesn't sell many records. I'm just having a good time. There's no message that I'm trying to put out by saying that I'm doing another band.
Splendid: I don't see why you can't have as many bands as you can handle.
Tim Kasher: Yeah. I'm actually gonna try to start playing drums with another band. And it's gonna be tough, but hope fully we can get out and tour with that, too.
Splendid: One final question. The cover art for Novena on a Nocturn is great -- one of my favorite album covers of the year. I actually thought, "Boy, if I saw that in a gallery, I'd buy it."
Tim Kasher: Thanks. That was done by a friend of mine, who'll be here tonight. I'm actually in the process of framing it, and I'm going to hang it in my room.
Splendid: So forgive me for perhaps not reading the lyrics closely enough, but how does the title tie into the art?
Tim Kasher: This is just my pretension...I named it Novena on a Nocturn and I always hoped people would look it up, but it seems like they don't really care.
Splendid: Virgin Mary sitting on the moon?
Tim Kasher: Well, a Novena is a Christian term for nine days of solemn prayer, or mournful prayer, some crap like that -- I shouldn't say crap.
Splendid: And there are nine songs, so...
Tim Kasher: Yeah. And on a Nocturn -- over one night. I actually didn't intend this, but it really ended up being more fascinating than I thought. I looked up "novena", obviously, and I wasn't going to look up "nocturn", because I knew it meant night. But then just for the hell of it I decided to. And by definition, it's night or a musical composition about a solitary man over one evening. And I was like, "Jesus, that's really cool." It was kind of tidy the way that fit together. I mostly liked the way it rolled off the tongue.
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