Saddle Creek | Tim Kasher | Reviews


The Game of Monogamy

Author: Matt Conner
10/29/2010 | | | Feature
Tim Kasher has proven over and over — whether with long-standing, influential Omaha group Cursive or side-project turned decade-spanning band The Good Life — he belongs in the long line of indie rock's most literary, musical minds. Alongside the John Darnielle's, David Bazan's, and even Jeff Mangum's of the world, I see in Kasher's writing the same dedication to spinning vivid narratives full of lyrical immersion.

In the case of Kasher's recently released debut solo album (the first without a moniker) The Game of Monogamy, lyrical narratives seem to be of even greater importance than standard pop cadences. Still, the more I listen to the broad range of emotions regarding marriage/commitment captured throughout the record — fear, anger, cynicism, and even benevolent sentiment — the more I respect the sophistication of Kasher's pop and how he avoids completely discarding the genre.

While most Cursive fans shouldn't be too surprised by Kasher's embrace of increasingly lavish arrangements for the songs on Monogamy — the last few Cursive albums have hinted at greater instrumental experimentation — I needed to know what pointed Kasher in this unapologetically grandiose direction. Thankfully, Kasher was more than happy to discuss not only musical inspirations, but favorite literature, his own screenplay writing, bff Conor Oberst, and David Bowie's reach for the stars. Due to a brief schedule misunderstanding, however, Kasher needed to leave Chi-town before chatting:

SSv: So, you were driving to or from Chicago?

Tim Kasher: Yeah, I just left Chicago.

SSv: Did you play a show there recently?

Tim: I didn't. Well, I did about two weeks ago. Actually just had a week off. We just did two weeks on the North East and dropped off the band members that I'm playing with. They're Chicago musicians.

SSv: Oh, cool.

Tim: Yeah, just dropped them off.

SSv: I wanted to talk about the newest record Game of Monogamy. Listening through the songs — and, particularly "Cold Love" — I found the theme of sex becoming a meaningless routine in a relationship to be prominent. "Cold Love" as well as several others reminded me of this poem called "Mock Orange" by Louise Glück. Ever heard of it?

Tim: No, I haven't.

SSv: It's a favorite of mine — it's really well-done. It's sort of about this relationship where sex has become a meaningless ritual when the act, for the speaker, was supposed to symbolize the unity between the partners.

Tim: Oh?

SSv: She compares it to this flower — which is called the mock-orange, I guess — and it has the scent of an orange tree but is, obviously, not an orange tree at all. It's just a flower. But, anyhow, do you feel a particular attraction or draw to deal with those kinds of relationships? Specifically, on this album, is there any kind of concept behind it?

Tim: That song or the album?

SSv: I guess the album as a whole.

Tim: It always [depends]. I have a hunch that in any relationship — like that song "Cold Love" — it's difficult to deal with somebody for a long time. It's really typical that it happens that that kind of relationship ends up having to be about other things other than sex. It's difficult because we're also still sexually-driven people. It makes monogamy kind of a conundrum, I guess. And the album as a whole, what are the top two of our lives? We're supposed to have a career and love. They're the two things that we seek out. They're kind of a big deal, y'know? [Laughs] Having that weight. I call it a "game" because I think it is.

SSv: Yeah. In some ways, the record kind of reminded me of one of my favorite albums by the Mountain Goats — you've heard John Darnielle's stuff?

Tim: Yeah. Uh-huh.

SSv: There's a great record called Tallahassee that deals with this destructive relationship. There's some stuff on it that reminds me of some lyrics you write, in particular. That's another thing a lot of people are drawn to, as listeners — as a writer, do you have any lyrical heroes that you aspire to?

Tim: Ah, I do! I'll have to check that record out. I like Mountain Goats a lot.

SSv: It's a good one.

Tim: Lyrically, I respect any lyricist who's able to think and tell stories and keep a good pace. I've always thought Elvis Costello was good at that. But, lyrically, I think I get more interested and more inspired by writers of literature, I'd say.

SSv: Anyone particular?

Tim: I've kind of been taking a break from the "men's club of the old Jewish East Coast writers" like Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike. They're all kind of fraught with misogyny. I do recognize the influence on this album and kind of the last Cursive album as well, to a degree anyway. But I really kind of delved into those writers for a while there.

SSv: I have to check more Updike out. The stuff I've been reading lately has been Foster Wallace and some Jonathan Franzen. There's this book called The Corrections that deals with this weird family unit. I see traces in your work that remind me of the way marriage is depicted. The song "There Must Be Something I've Lost" has a line about wanting to believe in a "suburban heaven" like wanting to believe in God — that comparison. Is suburbia one of the main targets you're seeking to analysis or at least discuss? The emptiness of what that American Dream really consists of?

Tim: Yeah, and I do think that the suburbs can be a little bit tiresome of a topic. But it does very much apply to the monogamous relationship — what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to select a mate for life and the suburbs do play a large role in that. I'm reading Revolutionary Road right now and I just think it's phenomenal. That's very much the suburbs, absolutely.

SSv: Did you see the movie?

Tim: I did. I didn't really love the movie but I hadn't had a chance to read the book yet. I think the book's where it's at. I'm at least halfway through it. I actually was thinking of Franzen — I'm really looking forward to reading Freedom as well. Same content.

SSv: Yeah! That does look really good. I was about to check that out. I have so much stuff I've been trying to catch up on. The book I'm trying to read is Infinite Jest by Foster Wallace and it's kind of a daunting task but it's really good so far.

Tim: Yeah, I'm never gonna try reading that. [Laughs].

SSv: [Laughs]

Tim: I did just read some of his essays. I read Consider the Lobster and that was a lot of fun.

SSv: Cool. I'm just starting to get into his stuff. Apparently, they have that movie based on some of his short stories Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I didn't care for the movie too much but I've heard the actual stories are pretty cool.

Tim: Yeah.

SSv: That's the way it goes sometimes. But getting back to the record, the arrangements are pretty lavish, in particular. When you were writing it, did you envision classical-esque and diverse instrumentation like the harps, strings, horns, mandolins, etc.? Was that in mind when you were working on the songs.

Tim: Yeah, for most of it. I was simultaneously trying to keep up that internal dialogue, or monologue, of how to treat some of these songs. The song "Monogamy" was one of the earlier songs written and I did kind of a full demo of that. The soap-operatic strings and whatnot of that song set a lot of the tone for how we approached the record.

SSv: I noticed that in the last couple Cursive albums the band has experimented with different kinds of instrumentation and stuff. Has that transferred over into what you've been writing lately? Or is it just what you saw fit for the songs?

Tim: I was really looking forward to doing kind of these larger arrangements for this record because it was my first chance in a long time where I didn't really have a band proper. I was just able to make any decision I wanted to, musically. So, based on interest, I guess I kind of wanted to have the more traditional rock and roll instruments take kind of a back-seat when possible. But, y'know, it's still nice to have a nice drum beat. It's still pop music, y'know?

SSv: Yeah, I think there's a nice diversity on it, for sure. I remember reading something about how you were thinking about David Bowie a little bit when you were writing. Maybe he would have done a similar arrangement because he would often write his songs on acoustic guitar and wanted to get outside of that. I guess everyone's sort of influenced by certain artists, but had he, in particular, done something for you in the past?

Tim: I wouldn't really say influence so much as just inspiration. I was kind of researching him at the time while I was working on this album. I was writing fairly small and morose, quiet little folk songs. Listening to David Bowie helped wake me up to, well, you can do whatever you want.

I mean, you're doing a solo record. You can go in absolutely any direction. But then, I was inspired by David Bowie who really reached for the stars when he was doing it. And he actually did start with more of that folk, beatnik kind of genre and then just went wild. I didn't do anything remotely like that but, like I say, I was just kind of inspired by his pomp and his more bombastic approach to albums.

SSv: I finally got all his albums on my iPod and I still haven't gotten even close to working all the way through where I know them okay. The one that I've been really digging is Hunky Dory but that's the one everyone says, "You need to check out." So, I've kind of been doing some research, myself.

Tim: Yeah, there's a ton of his records I don't have either.

SSv: It's a lot of stuff, for sure. I was one of the ones where my first impression of him was through Labyrinth. I was of that generation.

Tim: [Laughs]

SSv: Since you mentioned the freedom of a solo album — I know you have the other side-project The Good Life — has that become more of a band, for you, than a side-project? This being your first solo thing, is that how you look at it?

Tim: Yeah, I mean, mostly I saw all of these monikers as just the next record. Each one I do, I do it 100 percent. But none of them are really side-projects, they're just the next name I'm working under. But yeah, The Good Life did become a band. So, I went under my own name just to get a chance to work on it on my own and take a different approach to it.

SSv: One of the reasons I ask is because I know you've moved a lot over the years — living in Omaha, then Portland, then LA, and now you're in Montana, is that correct?

Tim: I was, I lived in Montana over the last year. I did actually just move back to Omaha to start this next tour up though.

SSv: Do you think that affects your writing at all? Some people talk about how different locations affect how they write. Most of this record was written in Montana?

Tim: Yeah, about half of it, I think.

SSv: Could you have written this record in any other place?

Tim: It definitely has to influence you wherever your environment [is]. Mostly, I've been moving around though to try and take in as many experiences as I can. Those experiences inevitably end up in your writing. So, in that sense, yeah. I don't really know how my environment influences writing but, surely, it does.

SSv: The record's out on Saddle Creek which you've had a big history with and I know you and Conor Oberst are pretty good friends. Have you guys kept in contact over the years? Is that a friendship that's lasted?

Tim: Yeah. We're in touch. We're very good friends.

SSv: Do you have any foreseeable plans of doing something together at all? Collaborating?

Tim: Hopefully, we'll keep living. Hopefully our lives will be long. I have a lot of good musician friends and I do think about things like that. It's a good reason just to get together.

SSv: In the past, you've toured with really diverse groups and I know you're touring with Minus the Bear. Do you know those guys at all? Any history with them?

Tim: Yeah, I know them really well. I've done a lot of touring with them. They've really become good friends over the years. Erin Tate, the drummer, plays the drums on this record.

SSv: Oh, cool. I didn't know that. He's a great drummer.

Tim: Yeah.

SSv: All of those guys in that band are pretty ridiculous musicians.

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

SSv: Someone mentioned to me that, as well as music, you do screenplay writing. Are you working on anything at the moment? Still something you do?

Tim: Yeah, I'm still writing. It's been difficult trying to get them produced, but I've still been writing them as long as I can. Just finished one a few months ago and I have another one I'm starting up this fall. I'm really just trying to stay work[ing] at it. I just keep trying to keep pushing on with it. When I started writing, about five years ago, I told myself it usually takes a life-time or never to get anything produced. But I really love writing and it's a tough business. I'm just kind of glad to be paying off dues.

SSv: At least, in your songs I've heard, it seems there's a pretty consistent narrative throughout one song or two songs. Is the screenplay writing just an extension of that aspect of your writing? Composing a narrative?

Tim: Yeah, a narrative, very much so. Before I started writing kind of long form stories, I was pretty frustrated that I couldn't get everything out that I wanted to say. Just in songs and albums. So it's really nice to be able to have that separated. To have albums just be more focused on "yeah, just trying to write a good album," make sure the music is strong. Good lyrical content — I used to get really bent out of shape about not being able to say more, to get it out the way I want to. But I've really come to terms with that especially because I have screenplays to do that now.

SSv: When writing, are you the kind of person that constantly revises over and over typical of a person who writes poetry? They say revision is 99 percent of the process for that kind of stuff. Is that how you approach your music writing?

Tim: I just — and this is kind of a bad way to work — kind of have the problem of I simultaneously write and edit. But no, I don't do tons of revision. Mostly, I apply that approach. I have friends who do that and lay it all out and then spend months reworking it. Certainly, I do that but, again, I spend more time on the first drafts of things.

SSv: That's cool. I mean, if you look at the Don't Look Back documentary on Dylan, he just churns it out and, sometimes, doesn't even look at it again. Everyone's different, I guess.

Tim: Yeah.
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